Which way for Islam?

I was listening to Nick Ferrari (LBC Radio) the other morning – the morning it was reported that a Fatwa had been issued against Nilofar Bakhtiar, the Pakistan tourism minister. She had been doing a parachute jump to raise money for charity for the victims of the Pakistan earthquake. On landing, she hugged her male instructor who had done the jump with her. The published photograph of this offended a group of clerics who demanded she be sacked for immoral behaviour and issued the Fatwa. She offered to resign – criticising the lack of support from fellow ministers – but (at time of writing) her resignation has been rejected by the Prime Minister, who now says she has the government’s backing.

The question Ferrari was posing was – how does Islam sit with the modern world? A member of the Muslim Council of Great Britain came on air and made some good points. He thought the criticisms of the minister were ridiculous – and pointed out that “Muslims” aren’t all one group who think alike, and indeed the Muslim population in Britain is on the whole more moderate and modern.

He also pointed out all nations have ‘out of the ordinary’ members of society such as (to take a Christian example) Jehovah’s Witnesses – who won’t allow a blood transfusion even if it means dying.

So – just as it would be wrong to extrapolate from their views to those of other Christians on the role of modern medicine and modern science, we should be careful about labelling all Muslims with the views of a small group too.

But there is a difference – and that is that extreme Muslims often also argue that their views should be imposed on everyone else too. Are those extreme Muslims numerous or few in number? How representative are the severe voices of more general feeling? Those are the doubts (and yes – even fears) that many non-Muslims have when confronted with such views.

In my own experience, those severe voices are in the very small minority amongst the Muslim population in the UK. But also, many non-Muslims know very few, if any, Muslims – and so when their attention is caught by the more extreme views (and aren’t they always the most attention grabbing?), fear comes in. Both sides of the equation – Muslim and non-Muslim – have a responsibility to break down those barriers of ignorance and fear.

For the Muslim population – that does mean accepting that living in this country means taking part at times in the whole community, and not just becoming a community apart that only interacts with itself (and I would apply just the same standard to – e.g. – English expats living in Spain). And it does also mean having a better acceptance of the standards and realities in the rest of the community.

I have one, instructive, experience of my own in this regard. When I conduct my surgeries (where people come to meet me to raise issues), I have one of my assistants with me to take notes. It so happens this is usually a man. More often than not, when an older Muslim gentleman comes to see me, he will address his remarks to my male assistant. And no matter how many times I say to him that I am the Member of Parliament and that the man is my assistant – he will almost automatically immediately return to addressing his remarks to my assistant.

So: the question mark is which path will Islam take ultimately? Will tradition or modernisation be the way forward?

(c) Lynne Featherstone, 2007

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