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Shambolic BBC Debate on British Islam

The problem with the rejectionist proposition is that they wish to throw out the baby with the bath water. You cannot cherry pick aspects of Islam. It appeared during the debate that they were interested only in embracing those aspects of Islam that suits them and rejecting those they disagreed with.

A non-Muslim friend of mine texted me on Sunday morning with the following: "Interesting that you're not on Nicky Campbell's show this morning. Lots of people. Lots of differing opinions. Was interesting for the first half an hour and then descended into chaos and I switched it off."

I decided to check the debate on the iPlayer. After watching it I am so glad I didn't take part. It was not a debate but a shameful fracas between many Muslims. I had been invited to take part on the BBC Sunday Morning Live debate entitled "The British Islam" but due to prior engagements I declined the offer.

There was a lot of heat in that shambolic debate but very little light for the viewers at home. Many of our non-Muslim friends who switched on to the show to learn what British Islam would or could look like were left aghast by the sheer belligerence of the participants. The Muslim experts gathered from a wide variety of life were only engaged in deconstructing each other's arguments and not providing the imperative answer to the question posed: "Is there, could there or should there be a British Islam?" If yes, what would it look like, and if not what form of Islam would British Muslims be practicing?

Upon watching the debate one could place the Muslim experts into three distinct camps: revisionist, traditionalist and rejectionist.

The British Islam "debate" was dominated by the rejectionists. Their main proposal was that the traditional reading of Islam must be rejected and a more secular version be adopted by all Muslims. They were proposing that Islam must be rewritten and altered. That Islam must drop its objection to homosexuality as it violated the modern notion of equality and human rights, that it must reject Hadith (the written traditions of the blessed Prophet) as it was the main obstacle towards secularization of Islam and that Muslims must accept that religion is a private matter and should only be confined to people's personal and private choices. In other words Islam - or any other religion - should never have any space in the public domain.

The problem with the rejectionist proposition is that they wish to throw out the baby with the bath water. You cannot cherry pick aspects of Islam. It appeared during the debate that they were interested only in embracing those aspects of Islam that suits them and rejecting those they disagreed with. I am afraid the Quran is emphatic about acceptance of all aspects of Islam. The Islamic equation is all or nothing. Either you are a Muslim or you are not.

Let me cite two specific verses to illustrate what the Quran actually says:

1. "Do you, then, believe in some parts of the divine writ and deny the truth of other parts? What, then, could be the reward of those among you who do such things but ignominy in the life of this world and, on the Day of Resurrection, commitment to most grievous suffering? For God is not unmindful of what you do." (Quran Chapter 2: verse 85)

2. "O you who have attained to faith! Surrender yourselves wholly unto God, and follow not Satan's footsteps, for, verily, he is your open foe." (Quran 2:208)

The vast majority of Muslims from all walks of life would immediately find the rejectionist assertion of Islam totally devoid of any authenticity, credibility and truth. They may believe in this model - and they are entitled to their views - but that is not an Islamic model under any authentic interpretation, and Muslims would never accept this. Secularisation of Islam, while it may sound enlightening and romantic to some people, would be the death knell of Islam as a religion of absolutely clear creed, worship, morality and practices.

The traditionalists in the debate kept reacting to the accusations levied against them by the rejectionists. They spent a lot of time explaining their own position and failing to articulate their understanding of the traditional vision of Islam. Their modus operandi during the entire debate was to defend Islam. They came across as the victims, not the visionaries. Traditional Islam was clearly marked by the woman wearing a niqab and the imam wearing Pakistani cultural clothes. This produced an immediate cultural and visual alienation between the British non-Muslim viewers and the traditionalists. It was hardly a recipe for providing the vision that was going to captivate the hearts and minds of the masses. British Islam was served a severe blow.

There was a lot of confusion too. It was interesting that one of the proponents of secular Islam was addressing the Imam in the traditional address as "Imam Saab" which is more akin to the way Imams are addressed in the sub-continent by the masses showing their religious reverence and undertone. As a secular person who was promoting secular Islam, surely she should have secularised even the way an Imam is addressed. There lies the real problem in that debate: confusion compounded by ignorance and ego.

The revisionists didn't even get a chance to appear on the screen. Maybe they were not invited or were not given an opportunity to speak or were simply drowned out by the dogfight between rejectionists and traditionalists. I was very disappointed at the Muslim participants for being so unenlightening and promoting such a tunnel vision for Islam in the UK. My wife remarked that the real winner in the debate was Nicky Campbell, because he was able to facilitate the debate without it descending into a fistfight. I thought Nicky appeared more Islamic than most Muslims there!

There is a whole science in Islamic tradition called "ethics of disagreement", which requires respect, honour, tolerance, humility and acceptance. The most important principle of this science is accepting the possibility that I may be wrong and the other person may be right. I believe the Muslim experts who were invited to this programme miserably failed to follow some of the cardinal principles of ethics of disagreement. It is important to note that ethics of disagreement is embedded in British values and British Muslims must embrace them.

The question about British mosques was discussed rather frivolously. British mosques can be with or without minarets just like British churches can be with or without steeples; they do not have sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion or gender exclusion orders; it is open to all people who are willing to respect it as a place of worship. Mosque is not a private property of any individual and it is called the house of God, therefore anyone who entres the mosque becomes a guest of God. This should be a contentious issue for British Islam at all.

The question about British Islam dominates much of the current discourse and it needs a robust response. It needs an articulated vision that would be inclusive of the currents realities and context of the world around us while remaining true to the original teachings of Islam. I do not subscribe to the narrow prism of the traditionalist depiction of Islam confined to a set of dogmas and outward displays; at the same time I wholeheartedly refute the rejectionist agenda for Islam, which is all about bending the rules and not mending their erroneous ways.

I subscribe to Islam that I find in the readings of the Quran and the life of the blessed Prophet, which includes a very simple yet most profound philosophy of life. This vision of Islam is universal - whether you live in Sydney or California, Iceland or South Africa, your Islam will always remain the same.

Islam is about managing two relationships. One is our relationship with the creator of the universe: God as One, Absolute, does not have parents or children and there is nothing like God. The other is our relationship with each other. It proposes a lifestyle and interpersonal relationship that is based on balance, justice, excellence, compassion, forgiveness, love and tolerance. It places moral responsibility on each and every human being that they should stand against all sorts of evil including shamelessness, lewdness, malevolence, criminality and transgression. Islam encourages people to be conscious of their presence and purpose in life; it reminds them of their duties, rouses them to be conscientious in every aspect of life, to remain responsible for their actions and propounds the certainty of the life of the hereafter.

Islam proposes a higher purpose in life, not mere material pursuits. British Islam, just like Islam in any other country, would encourage the same. It would inspire people to enjoy the freedom that life offers, to create a society based on rule of law, to work towards democratic governance, equitable distribution of wealth, care for the vulnerable and universal social responsibilities. This vision of Islam is applicable wherever you live. You can be Australian, American, British, French, Dutch or any other nationality. Your Islam and your local identity should not clash. There is no conflict between your local roots and universal Islamic values.

The bottom line is this: if you want to call yourself a Muslim there are rules you have to accept and abide by. If you do not want to be a Muslim then you are free to be that, as stated in the Quran: "let there be no coercion in religion". So if somebody wishes to be a Muslim consciously, why force him or her to change? Any attempt to change the essence of Islam will be counter productive and will never win the support of the majority of Muslims.

I see no problem with British Islam. The Question we should be discussing is this: since Islam is very comfortable in Britain, are the British comfortable with Islam?