One of the most frequent criticisms of Islam is that it institutes no distinction between the secular and the sacred. “State and religion should never be mixed,” Muslims are often reprimanded. “You need only look at the Arab region, with its miserable breed of religion-manipulating despots to see that.”
So, when you hear that Hazel Blears is creating a made-to-measure committee of Islamic theologians, a sort of church for Muslims, the irony becomes too striking for words. The bizarre proposal seems to be based on the flawed argument that Islamic theology is at the root of Britain’s terrorism problem. It is enough to manipulate it through a manufactured religious centre for the problem to be eradicated. In other words, the mess Blair and Brown have created in politics can be cleared through theology.
The government’s thirst for control seems unquenchable. Every aspect of our lives has now been subjected to its surveillance. And if you happen to be Muslim, this extends to theology as well. The government will think for you and interpret your faith for you through its council of cardinals. This security paranoid giant will police your conscience and sit in judgment on your beliefs and practices. The worldly and otherworldly are to be placed under its thumb. If you dare object, the price is high: denunciation as a heretic – or “extremist”, in the government’s vocabulary – and banishment from the communion of the good moderate faithful.
The question to ask is: when all the noise has died down, what will this initiative have achieved? The answer is very little. The likelihood is that Blears’ committee of theologians will fare no better than Ruth Kelly’s Muslim Action Committee, Sufi Council, or any of the other government-created paper bodies. The terrorists and would-be terrorists won’t look to the government’s scholars for fatwas, and ordinary Muslims are unlikely to give them much attention. It may help Blears, who insists on poking her nose in all things Islamic, to learn this old Islamic piece of wisdom: “If you see the scholar frequent the sultan, then point your finger at him and beware.”
Islam may not have an ecclesiastical institution that monopolises religious interpretation, but it sets rigorous requirements for the acquisition of the title of “alim” or “learned scholar”. At the forefront of these is autonomy from the ruling authorities and their agendas. The scholar is the voice and conscience of believers, not rulers and ministers.
Blears would do well to ponder the fate of religious ministries, government fatwa councils and muftis in the Muslim world. In the eyes of Muslims, they are part of the state apparatus, and thus devoid of moral authority or religious legitimacy. Their imams and muftis are state officials in religious clothing. They receive their salaries, like their sermons and edicts, from the government. This, in a nutshell, is the crisis of the Islamic religious establishment.
Terrorism is, in many respects, an effect of this reality. With the erosion of the traditional learning institutions generated by the process of modernisation and the emergence of the official scholar, radical groups became their own source of interpretation. They scavenge scripture for texts that validate their political positions. If they are to be confronted, it is not through government-picked and sponsored figures, committees and councils. Only the model of the honest, proficient and independent scholar can challenge them.
The communities’ secretary seems to be pursuing an increasingly hawkish policy towards the Muslim minority. A few days ago, she gave a provocative and rather bizarre speech fittingly delivered from the rightwing thinktank Policy Exchange, which was last year discredited by the BBC’s Newsnight for its fabricated mosque report. Blears announced a long list of conditions which Muslim organisations must meet if they are to enjoy government recognition, or “legitimisation”.
Hearing Blears demand the recognition of Israel, it was difficult to tell whether one was listening to a foreign, or communities’ secretary, and whether those she had been targeting were diplomats and foreign ministers, or communities and British citizens. And when she echoed former Policy Exchange chairman Charles Moore’s criticisms of the IslamExpo, recently held in Olympia, for giving floor space to the “genocidal” government of Iran – one of 15 Muslim countries represented at the event – one couldn’t help wondering if her government had just cut off diplomatic ties with Tehran, and closed its embassy in London.
Brown’s government, like its predecessor, seems unable to relinquish the old approach to communities based on the systems and methods of the colonial era. Minorities are to be managed through many sticks, a few carrots, and a handful of engineered political and religious representatives. These are the modern-day versions of the local intermediaries on whom colonial administrations relied in the control of indigenous populations. The rule is simple. To win recognition, you must lose any independence. You must turn into the government’s eyes, ears and arms in your community, nothing more.
First Published in The Guardian, Friday 25 July 2008