Our ignorance of Islam aids the extremists

The West's ignorance of Islam is palpable. I willingly confess that it applied to me until I had increasing contact with Muslim constituents in Armley and Kirkstall. Now, working regularly in Muslim countries, I find it important to recognise the huge differences between Yemen and Uzbekistan, or between Bangladesh and Turkey, all of them Muslim countries. There is no single uniform version of Islam, and in our worries and concerns about combatting terrorism we need to be very clear about the motivation of Al-Qaida and not fall into the trap of suspecting that all Muslims are its supporters, let alone potential recruits.

It is not religion or faith itself that brings problems but fundamentalism in all its forms. By fundamentalism I mean a belief that the state and the political process should be governed according to theological rules. Whether the Hindu BJP in India, southern Protestants in the USA, Jewish fundamentalism in Israel or Islamicists in Algeria, such beliefs, mediated through fallible human beings, do not ultimately rest on the backing of reason and logic and are unable to gain the willing consent of the wider electorate. The inevitable consequence is a recourse to repression and force.

Consent is essential to the survival of democracy and can only be sustained within a civil society based on rational debate and democratic decision making. Paradoxically, it is also in the interest of religion that the state itself should be secular: beliefs enforced by law will not be rooted in hearts and minds. That widespread nominal attachment to the Church of England that is part of the malaise of the Christian church in Britain is in part a consequence of the existence of a "state religion" and the plethora of church schools. "I was born in England, therefore I am a Christian", is as irrational as saying "I was born in a stable, therefore I am a horse."

Officially Islam teaches that it is a total and complete way of life and does not separate religion from politics. This leads to the attempts to impose Islamic, or Sharia, law where there is a Muslim majority. With its intolerable penalties, which place it outside international norms of human rights, Sharia is clearly unacceptable. But western lifestyles and the policies of many western governments continue to play into the hands of Islamic religious authorities who would otherwise have far less resonance amongst Muslim youth.

To many Muslims - and others - the image of western, capitalist society, often also identified as "Christian", is deeply unattractive. Its obsession with sex, with banal but embarrassing sexual innuendo increasingly pervasive on radio and television at all hours; the proliferation of foul language, now commonplace in public places; its affection for alcohol and the bizarre acceptance of being regularly drunk as a normal and even "good" aim; and the freedom to marry "for love" which produces two out every five marriages ending in divorce, are all noted. The moral decline of western civilisation is a recruiting sergeant for radical Islam and explains why a number of suicide bombers and Al-Qaida activists are British citizens.

The role of government in all this is vital. The Israeli government's deliberate assassination earlier this week of the spiritual leader of Hamas is sheer madness. It is neither morally nor legally justifiable, but, even if it were, it is stupid. The subsequent Israeli government statement, that it will wipe out the entire Hamas leadership, shows how little it understands political reality. The more Palestinian leaders it kills the more others will arise to take their places. Hamas is a product of the Israeli policy of ever encroaching occupation and communal punishment. When I was in Palestine in 1988, at the beginning of the first intifada, there was no Hamas in the West Bank and only a handful in Gaza. Every Israeli action thereafter has provoked Palestinian extremism and brought forth a response as appalling as it is unacceptable and which has proved lethal to Israelis and Palestinians alike. And no country with any influence on Israel has done anything to prevent it happening. It is no wonder that Al-Qaida has an easy empathy with those who look for a way to fight back.

Take also the example of Iran. This large Muslim country of over seventy million people was proclaimed an Islamic republic in April 1979 following the exile of the Shah and the return of the Ayatollah Khomeini from exile. Ten years later, after 300,000 deaths in the war with Iraq, the moderates began to emerge, first with Rafsanjani in 1989 and then, in 1997, with the election of Mohammed Khatami as President. Khatami began to modernise Iran and, particularly after the election of many reformers to the Iranian Assembly in 2000, he was able to continue his progressive reforms. It was always a struggle with Ayatollah Khamenei and the twelve man Council of Guardians who possess a formal veto, but surely he could expect the support of western governments for his efforts. Far from it - in February 2002 Iran was named by President Bush as part of the "axis of evil". Small wonder that earlier this year the Ayatollahs got away with barring most progressive candidates from standing in the elections. Another chance for progressive Islam lost.

Islam has almost as many denominations as Christianity and it has many groups wholly opposed to the fundamentalists, including the "No-to-Political Islam" organisation formed by highly regarded Muslim academics. If Britain wants to defeat terrorism it must ally with progressive Islam and cease to aid the extremists. Ignorance of the issues involved is far from bliss, it is lethal.

24 March 2004