My constituency has 23 mosques and 25,000 Muslims. It is in places like Blackburn that a new European Islam will emergeby Jack Straw / October 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2002 issue of Prospect Magazine
So much has been written about Islamic fundamentalism since 11th September that we might think this was a concept unknown in any other religion. This is not the case. The concept began its semantic career at the start of the 20th century, applied to the defence of Protestant orthodoxy against Darwinism. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines it as “the strict maintenance of traditional orthodox religious beliefs” and the literal acceptance of holy creeds. In the US, especially in the deep south, fundamentalists have continued to revile Darwinism and, many would argue, exercise an increasingly conservative influence on politics. In some states, fundamentalists have succeeded in promoting creationism in schools. Within Judaism too we are familiar with the growth of ultra-orthodox groups, some of which refuse to recognise Israel. Another more dominant trend has supported the increase of settlements on the West Bank, refusing any compromise with Palestinians on the grounds that all the Biblical land of Israel had been given to them by God. But it is a phenomenon not confined to monotheistic religions. Within Buddhism, the most pacifist of religions, fundamentalists have sometimes hijacked the religion. Many of the Japanese militarists of the 1930s were Buddhists. More recently, Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka took up arms against Tamil separatists, complicating the civil war that has divided the island since 1983. Sikh fundamentalists in India seized the Golden Temple of Amritsar and, when Indira Gandhi sent in the army, they murdered her in revenge. In 1992, Hindu fundamentalists demolished the Babri Masjid mosque at Ayodhya, setting off communal rioting that led to thousands of deaths. India is still living with the consequences. Recently there has been horrific violence in Gujarat, strongly condemned by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, which was fuelled by fundamentalism. The term fundamentalism also now encompasses beliefs that are not explicitly religious. Joschka Fischer struggles with a wing of his German Green party who have adopted the term “fundis” to define their position. And for a long time we had Labour fundamentalists who wanted no changes in our constitution even if it meant losing one election after another. In 1993, I wrote a pamphlet advocating the repeal of Clause Four which caused great offence among our own fundamentalists. Toryism has its fundamentalists, determined to see Britain leave the EU. But it is religious fundamentalism which is obviously of greatest interest in international politics at present. The strength of that fundamentalism has differed from time to time and from faith to faith. Fundamentalist movements have been involved in violence, but that has certainly not always been the case. Fundamentalism is often a threat to democracy. But it can also be tamed and absorbed by democracy. In India and in Sri Lanka, the strength of their democracies, even at times of acute civil conflict, has helped constrain religious extremism. It is striking that in Muslim countries which are democracies, like Turkey and Malaysia, fundamentalism has had only a limited political impact. Too often in the Muslim world, however, democracy has not sunk roots and fundamentalism has spread. This is odd, because in many ways Islam has been an egalitarian and progressive force. The Prophet himself ran the early Muslim community according to shura, or consultation. Initially, Islam was far ahead of western societies in giving rights, such as the right of divorce, to women. Many strains of Islam have always rejected a religious hierarchy, stressing instead the direct relationship between the individual and God. There is nothing intrinsic in Islam which makes it antithetical to democracy; historically, it has often valued pluralism and religious freedom. And Islam has been able to spread to the west precisely because of our religious tolerance. All the more reason why all of us, Muslim and non-Muslim, should be so resistant to those who wish to deny others their beliefs. This is not to say that I do not see any role for religion in politics. Christian socialism has long been one of the lifelines of the Labour party, which we have described affectionately as a broad “church.” In the rest of Europe, there is hardly a country without a Christian Democratic party. Religion and democracy can exist side by side, as countries as different as the Republic of Ireland and Japan demonstrate. We in western countries sometimes attribute our political tolerance to secularism, contrasting this with the apparently dominant role of religion in Islamic countries. Here again, we would benefit from a closer look at the reality. Western laws and systems of thought have deep roots in Judaeo-Christian tradition. Though our societies are sometimes described as post-Christian, that is not the same as non-Christian. England still has an established church, of which the Queen is the head. When I was home secretary, one of my tasks was the swearing in of new bishops in the Church of England. Even in the US, where secularism itself is held to be sacred in the public education system, every dollar bill still bears the words “In God We Trust,” and church attendance is high. But if the west is not as secular as we often assume, nor is the Islamic world inimical to the values we think of as “secular,” “democratic,” or “western.” In time, as democracy spreads in the Arab world as it has in eastern Europe, Latin America and east Asia, I look forward to the formation of Islamic Democratic parties similar to their Christian Democrat counterparts in Europe. Such parties already exist in infant form in several middle eastern countries. Through bodies like the British Council and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, we must do more to help them. The EU too needs to be more engaged in this work. In a recent article (Prospect, February) the Pakistani scientist Pervez Amir Ali Hoodbhoy observed that not a single Muslim nationalist leader of the 20th century was a fundamentalist. Many of these figures, like Egypt’s Nasser or Indonesia’s Sukarno, were anti-western but they were not fundamentalists. For much of the Islamic world, fundamentalism is a relatively new phenomenon. Its roots are complex. Alienation, the failure to deliver a settlement in Palestine, the decline of secular education and the failure of Muslim countries to take advantage of globalisation all play a role. In those many countries in the west where Muslims now live-in France, Germany, the US and Britain itself, Muslims must accommodate themselves to the cut and thrust of democratic life. For nearly a quarter of a century I have represented a constituency with one of the largest Muslim populations in Britain. There are 23 mosques and 25,000 of my constituents who profess the Muslim faith. Before the Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus of the 20th century, Blackburn-like other industrial towns-gave a home to Irish, Poles and Ukranians as well as Jews from eastern Europe. The arrival of successive waves of migrants has helped make Britain the multicultural society which it is today. I support the establishment of state- funded faith schools for Muslim communities alongside Church of England, Catholic and Jewish schools. We have done much else to help the Muslim community. Uniquely, Britain is, for example, the only non-Islamic country to send consular staff to Mecca during the traditional annual pilgrimage (Hajj). Britain has been quicker than France or Germany to come to terms with the large numbers of Muslims who are now our citizens. In Germany, for example, no more than 10 per cent of Muslims are entitled to vote. By contrast, virtually all our Muslim citizens have the right to vote. In France, traditionally the emphasis has been on assimilation rather than integration. And neither France nor Germany have a body similar to Britain’s Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) established in 1976 by a previous Labour government. But building a single, united but diverse society out of the many distinct communities which exist in our towns and cities, cannot mean that we turn a blind eye to practices which are unacceptable-whether these be forced marriages or apathy in the face of evidence of serious terrorist culpability. The values which lie at the foundations of British society-human rights, the rule of law, tolerance and democracy-are compatible with every faith. Any kind of fundamentalism which eschews those core principles is not acceptable. And the Muslim community does need to do more to isolate the extremists within its ranks and denounce the worst aspects of fundamentalism overseas. Equally, the Muslim community internationally needs to do far more to welcome other faiths in its midst, in line with earlier traditions of Islamic tolerance. As the scholar Bernard Lewis has pointed out, Islam in the 19th century sheltered Jewish and Christian dissidents. In more recent times, the flow of dissidents has been too much in the other direction. What we know as “the Islamic world” is far from being a single cultural idea. Many countries, from Morocco in the west to Indonesia in the east, have Muslim majorities. Islam plays different roles in these societies, and there are many doctrinal differences within Islam. This diversity is reflected in the distinct Muslim communities in Britain. Although I am mindful of that pluralism within British Islam, we should all be concerned that a fundamentalist mindset does appear to have taken hold of a part, albeit small, of the Muslim community-an outlook that resists compromise because it is rooted in a Manichean division of the world between good and evil, us and them. I welcome what leaders of the Muslim community have done to combat this and look forward to them doing more. The fundamentalism problem within our Muslim community needs placing in context. As a Guardian/ICM poll in June this year found, there is a strong belief among British Muslims (41 per cent of those polled) that it needs to do more to integrate itself into mainstream culture. This evidence of a desire to integrate is underlined by the finding that some 65 per cent of those polled say that they approve of David Blunkett’s plans for English language and citizenship tests for recently arrived immigrants. Only 29 per cent said they opposed such tests. That poll, and a series of articles commissioned by the Guardian, revealed a diverse Islamic community coming to terms with an unprecedented level of scrutiny after 11th September, and seeking to define itself under pressure, often against a background of violence and poverty. At the same time, too many within the younger generation appear to show an unwillingness to integrate into mainstream British society. Together with Muslim leaders, we must do more to counter the influence of fundamentalists over disenchanted Muslim youth. Democrats can never accept that religious injunctions take precedence over temporal laws. As British Muslims-and their European counterparts-become more and more integrated into the fabric of our democracies, we may over time see the emergence of a distinctly European Islam, just as, for example, Bosnia’s Muslim population has always had its own distinct traditions. Not for nothing was Sarajevo known, until the 1990s, as a city of great tolerance where the majority of the Muslim population lived alongside Catholics, Jews and Orthodox Christians. Many of the city’s Jewish population were the descendants of Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. Not only is that city a model for British Muslims, its promotion of tolerance and respect is a model for all Europeans.