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How to save Islam from the Islamists

It's time for Muslims to take a stand. Egypt may be showing the way

17 January 2015

9:00 AM

17 January 2015

9:00 AM

The terror attack in Paris last week represents Islamism’s most explicit declaration of war on free society. Non-Muslims were slaughtered in a non-Muslim country to avenge a so-called crime against a blasphemy law that is not even Islamic — but merely Islamist. If there’s any blasphemy here, it’s that of Islamism itself against my religion, Islam.

At last, on New Year’s Day, the president of Egypt, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, did what no other leader of the Muslim world has done to date: he named Islam’s real enemy. In a gathering of religious clerics at Cairo’s ancient Al Azhar University, he called for the rescue of Islam from ‘ideology’. His speech was given little coverage in the western press, but it is worth repeating at some length.

‘We are in need of a religious revolution,’ he said. ‘You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world, I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move because the Islamic world is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost. And it is being lost by our own hands.’ It is inconceivable, he said, that ‘this thinking — and I am not saying religion — should cause the entire Islamic world to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world.’ The remedy, said al-Sisi, was for Islam to recognise and talk about its mutant strain. ‘Religious discourse is the greatest battle and challenge facing the Egyptian people,’ he said. ‘We need a modern, comprehensive understanding of the religion of Islam,’ rather than ‘relying on a discourse that has not changed for 800 years’.

Sisi’s speech is significant because the Islamic world has precious little record of leaders discussing Muslims’ collective responsibility for the toxic ideologies within our midst. President Sisi’s candour has shone light upon the most critical issue of our time: the urgent need for the Muslim world to denounce Islamism as the imposter and explain the real meaning of the Quran.

I’m a British Muslim who has lived in Saudi Arabia and worked as a doctor in Pakistan — and I have seen how any discussion about Islam is increasingly dangerous in these places. In nations gripped by Islamist ideology, it’s deemed ‘Islamophobic’ to be critical of Islam in any way. Even in the West, critical discussion is becoming difficult. The United Nations has passed several resolutions giving Islamophobia the status of a crime under international law.

So it’s not enough simply to say, as so many did last week, that the Islamists will never win. In several important arenas, they are winning already. Their idea of blasphemy is particularly potent: Shahbaz Bhatti, a Pakistani government minister, was executed by Muslim ‘defenders of the faith’ after his brave criticism of Pakistan’s inhumane (and explicitly Islamist) blasphemy laws. The governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was assassinated on the same grounds. The French journalists were killed to establish a de facto blasphemy law in Europe by sending out a message: if you publish certain cartoons, you put your life — and that of your staff — at risk.

The jihadists’ other objective, of course, is to speak for the Muslim world and advance the idea of a clash of civilisations. This is going fairly well, if opinion polls are to be believed — more or less half of those in Britain, Spain, France and the United States say they believe that Islam is not compatible with the West. And this is why Muslims cannot rely on presidents and prime ministers to denounce terrorism — the public will be persuaded not by what political leaders say, but what we Muslims say.


To assert that this Islamism is un-Islamic is not a kneejerk response to its atrocities but the only conclusion that can be drawn after serious consideration of its principles. The Damascene Muslim scholar, Bassam Tibi, identifies six tenets of Islamism. The first is seeking a new world order through a new dictatorial global ‘caliphate’. (It matters little that the word ‘dawla’ — Islam as state — appears nowhere in the 80,000-word document that we accept as the revealed Quran.) Next is the establishment of Islamism within democracies — Islamists are keen to stand for election, but once they get into power they want to shut the democratic gate behind them.

The third principle is positioning Jews as Islam’s chief enemy, thereby making anti-Semitism central (as Hamas’s founding charter attests). Then comes the perversion of classical jihad into terrorist jihadism — with which the world has become all too familiar.

The fifth tenet is sharia law — not sharia as described by the Quran, but a concocted version used to impose a form of totalitarian rule which is without historical precedent. As we see, particularly in Iran and Pakistan, mercy has no place within Islamists’ version of sharia.

In his searing study of the subject, the British lawyer Sadakat Kadri makes the critical observation that ‘pitiless punishment’, while lacking in Islam itself, has found a comfortable home in much of the Islamist world. Judges have been ‘required to punish but forbidden to forgive’, meaning stonings, amputations and floggings. Medieval barbarity has become a modern-day reality across much of the modern Muslim world — except that such punishment was unusual even in medieval times. Kadri notes that in five centuries of documented Ottoman legal history, there is only one record of a stoning to death.

When they are not exacting pitiless punishment, Islamists are busy with the sixth tenet: their concept of purity and authenticity. Any challenge to Islamism is, to them, de facto evidence of an un-Islamic behaviour. As Professor Tibi puts it, this is what makes Islamism ‘a totalitarian ideology poised to create a totalitarian state’ on a par with Nazism and Leninism. ‘Given that Muslims constitute more than a quarter of humanity,’ he concludes, the tension ‘between civil Islam and Islamist totalitarianism matters to everyone’.

This tension has been building for years. It has broken out into war in Pakistan, as I saw for myself while travelling with the rangers of the Frontier Corps in Waziristan. I saw Pakistani Muslims — civilians and military — de-radicalise and rehabilitate former child jihadists who had been indoctrinated with Taleban ideology. Pakistani soldiers had no trouble understanding the concept of a jihadist or accepting that the Taleban’s creed is a heresy of our great faith. I saw children greet the military convoy, knowing who had pushed back their Islamist oppressors.

Last month’s massacre of 132 children in Peshwar was a shocking reminder to the Muslim world that Islamism is not just directed at westerners. It’s also a reminder of why the animus against Islamism is rising — holding out the prospect of real reform. The Muslim Brotherhood’s hold on Egypt did not last long, and the rise of Isis in Syria and Iraq is giving the whole region a growing sense of what unbridled Islamism actually looks like. Crucially, the jihadis are losing the argument. Ten years ago, a Pew poll found that 41 per cent of Pakistani Muslims said that suicide bombings were sometimes justified. Now, it’s down to 3 per cent.

This is what President Sisi was getting at: this is the moment for the Islamic world to expose Islamism — but loosening its hold upon our faith falls upon those Muslims who value pluralism and pursue a civilised, enlightened Islam. The reformation many are calling for isn’t needed of Islam, but rather of Muslims — and specifically of Muslim leadership.

Similarly, western powers can no longer overlook the very major distinctions between authentic Islam and the jihadist imposter. Failing to call Islamism by its name (a failure of which Barack Obama is, alas, guilty) guarantees defeat. The idea of a war between general Islam and the West is exactly the outcome Islamists seek. Failing to name Islamism out of political correctness, fear or stupidity is the ultimate Islamophobic act. What is seen, often sincerely, as a desire not to offend has only allowed Islamists to thrive within our democracies as they plot their extinction.

So we must name the beast, and do so with conviction. This is not just about weeding out a jihadi menace from Birmingham schools, but about giving millions of Muslims the chance for a peaceful coexistence with the rest of humanity. And it’s about persuading non-Muslims that the Islamists are wrong — that such coexistence is possible.

Muslims are reminded by the Quran that to each people is sent ‘a Law’ and ‘a Way’ and that Muslims should not judge people of other faiths in the light of their own. Instead, the People of the Book must judge themselves by their own revealed texts (‘unto you your religion, and unto me my religion’) as we worship the same God. The Quran teaches that Moses and Aaron are to be revered for their courage in the face of merciless rule. The Torah and the Gospel are to be honoured.

And it is a biblical exhortation — let there be light! — that sums up what President Sisi was saying in Cairo, and what many Muslim reformers are saying now. From the Pakistani badlands to the banlieues of Paris, notice must be served to the Islamists: Muslims — that is to say, real Muslims — are coming for you.

Qanta Ahmed is a British Muslim based in New York, and the author of In the Land of Invisible Women, about her experiences working as a doctor in Saudi Arabia.

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