On 14 August, a man drove into cyclists and pedestrians outside the Houses of Parliament, in what is being treated as a terror attack.
In 2017, there were two similar attacks in the nation’s capital, which killed 13 innocent people and the Manchester Arena bombing which left 22 dead. There can be no doubt in the minds of right-thinking people that these were nothing more than cruel, senseless and baseless acts designed to inflict pain and suffering.
As a British Muslim, it breaks my heart to witness these depraved actions being carried out in the name of a perverse and selective interpretation of Islam. According to a survey commissioned by Islamic Relief in 2015, 12% of people associated terrorism with the word “Muslim”. In the wake of attacks since then, it would hardly be surprising if that figure has grown. And yet, the very term “Islamic terror” is an oxymoron.
“Terrorism” is a relative neologism; “Islam”, a word incidentally derived from the Arabic for “peace” and “submission to God”, is very clear about the sanctity of life. In fact, such is the value of a single human life in Islam, that the Qur’an equates the taking of one life with killing all of humanity. So, how on earth, whatever their creed, colour, race, religion, gender or sexuality, could the murder of innocent civilians in acts of terror, be justified by Islam? Simply, it can’t.
Terrorists are wrong about Islam. The Qur’an does not justify unwarranted acts of violence or aggressive war. It does not advocate compulsion in religion or forced conversion; it demands tolerance, integration, the promotion of justice and opposition to oppression. So why then, do a relatively small group of Muslims around the world continue to carry out evil atrocities against innocent people? The short answer is ignorance.
The vast majority of Muslim people, especially those living in the West, who are afforded opportunity and education, are sufficiently clued-in to the teachings of Islam to be able to identify the kind of disinformation and “fake news” propagated by terror organisations like ISIS. Sadly, the majority of those who are successfully radicalised, tend to come from communities where unemployment and depravation are the norm and extremist recruiters exploit their naivety by deliberately misquoting and manipulating religious texts to justify their barbaric intentions.
Of course, it’s very easy to write an article or blog and throw around such glib hypotheses as “we need to do more” or “education is the key”. But the million dollar question is how? Although we already know that terrorism is not a true representation of Islam and that the vast majority of Muslims living in the West do so peacefully and in the spirit of western ideals, many others do not. And, at risk of sounding like a religious passage, terrorism begets Islamophobia and Islamophobia begets terrorism – a vicious and destructive cycle.
Astonishingly, 90% of referrals to the UK Government’s Prevent strategy lead to no further action, the reason for this can only be that referrals are made either too flippantly or with insufficient knowledge. We’ve all read the tabloid stories about Muslims being removed from planes after “suspiciously” speaking their native language, and indeed the latest furore about the dress adopted by many Muslim women. The reality is that too many of us, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, simply don’t know how to recognise extremism – the difference between radical and often cultural practises and those of everyday, moderate British Muslims. For every one of these incorrect referrals, an innocent person is investigated by the state to which many of them belong.
It’s not sustainable, it’s not fair and it perpetuates tensions. By letting terrorists define Islam we allow them to win twice, physically and societally. It is vital, in order to quell both Islamophobia and the anti-western tides, that Muslims and non-Muslims are taught the difference between radical and moderate Islam. By explaining how moderate Islam is compatible with British values (and it is!), it will help reduce Islamophobia and create a greater sense of belonging for Muslims in Britain, and debunk some of the common myths about Islam – on gender rights, female genital mutilation, so-called “honour-based” violence, and so on.
So, glib it may be, but actually, the answer to reclaiming Islam has to be education across the board, from schools and universities, to the probation service and police force. We, the Muslim community, have a duty to ensure that opportunities for radicalisation do not exist; that our brothers and sisters around the world are equipped with the knowledge and understanding they need to challenge those who seek to pervert the true meaning of Islam and spread hate. And to ensure too, that non-Muslims, our fellow, Western citizens, know what we’re about and have the tools they need to recognise fanaticism and put a stop to the cycle of Islamophobia – societal unease – radicalisation, for good.