Concerned British Muslims, mostly of South Asian origin, want to open their religion to critical enquiry and debate

“Let's be honest. There's a clear link with Islam.”

This was heading of a Times opinion piece on the controversial case of a group of Muslim men jailed last week for sexually abusing young and vulnerable white girls. The writer, David Aaronovitch — a social liberal and ex-communist to boot — suggested that Islam was inherently misogynist: a culture that treated its women as “red meat.” But here's the irony: it was a Muslim Chief Crown Prosecutor who paved the way for their conviction by insisting on reopening the case after it had been closed. This, of course, in no way diminishes the shame that the Muslim community ought to feel over the criminality of these men, but where Mr. Aaronovitch appeared to go off at a tangent was in linking a vile criminal act with a specific community and culture. After all, nobody (and rightly so) has blamed Christianity for the conduct of hundreds of priests found involved in child abuse scandals around the world.

So, what is it that allows such glib assumptions about Islam?

Echoing a perception

To be fair, The Times writer was simply echoing a widely-held perception of Islam: inherently violent and intolerant. The idea of Islam as a set of strict taboos and pieties in which everything is a “given” and there is no room for ifs and buts — let alone serious critical thinking — has become deeply embedded in the public mind.

It is easy to blame it on anti-Muslim prejudice and accuse critics of Islamophobia. But the truth is that a great deal of public misreading of Islam is down to Muslims themselves. From the neighbourhood maulvi dispensing forbidding fatwas on everything in sight, to hard-line scholars with their self-serving interpretation of Islamic scriptures, they all have contributed to the notion of a good Muslim that is akin to Tennyson's caricature of British soldiers who led the catastrophic Charge of the Light Brigade: theirs is “not to make reply,…not to reason why… but to do and die” in the name of supposedly divine injunctions.

But now a group of concerned British Muslims, mostly from South Asia, has set out to put this idea of Islam on its head by stimulating debate around the very issues that “good” Muslims are forbidden to explore. Importantly, the men and women behind this initiative are no airy-fairy left-wing liberals — a label routinely hurled at Muslims seen to be “out of line” — but practising believers with deeply held Islamic beliefs. These are very much the voices from “within” and many sufficiently well-versed in theology to be able to back their argument with chapter and verse from Islamic texts.

The Critical Muslim, a new international quarterly from the London-based Muslim Institute, is as much an attempt to intellectually reclaim Islam from fundamentalists and reshape it for a modern age as it is a response to those who believe that there is no such thing as a moderate Muslim or moderate Muslim viewpoint. It promises to provide a “Muslim perspective on the great debates of contemporary times” through “open and critical engagement in the best tradition of Muslim intellectual inquiry.” Ziauddin Sardar, Professor of Law and Society, Middlesex University, and a co-Editor of Critical Muslim, believes that there is an urgent need for Muslims, particularly in India and Pakistan, to think critically.

“Lack of critical thought, over centuries, has allowed extremism and obscurantism to become intrinsic in our societies. Without criticism, and an openness to embrace the wider world, Islam and Muslims are reduced to ciphers — incapable of generating new and original ideas, solving the pressing problems of our societies, and making their mark on the world,” he says.

The theme of the latest issue is The Idea of Islam which, the contributors argue, needs to be revisited with a bold re-reading of the more contentious interpretations of Islamic scriptures currently presented as something divine that cannot be questioned. Islam, they lament, has been reduced to a series of “no-go” areas which, let alone Muslims, even non-Muslims are prohibited from exploring.

Held captive

“The idea of Islam is incarcerated, not in one, but many prisons,” argues Mr. Sardar. And the biggest of these “prisons,” according to him, is Shariah or Islamic Law which has been used to justify “almost any injustice on God's bountiful earth,” including xenophobia, misogyny and homophobia.

Samia Rahman, a writer and daughter of Pakistani immigrants, writes about misogyny in Islam — how an all-male cast of clerics and scholars have selectively plucked out bits from Islamic texts to justify the inferior status accorded to women in patriarchal Muslim societies. The idea that Islam does not give women the same rights as men has become so institutionalised, she points out, that even young and educated women born and brought up in the liberal West have come to believe it — much like victims of the so-called Stockholm Syndrome where the hostage starts to identify with the captor.

“Most of this misogyny is justified on the basis of the Qur'an and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad…The question is how to pull Islam out of the quagmire of misogynist practice and interpretation and revive its pro-woman ethos,” she writes.

Other issues that the journal debates include the notion of jihad in Islam, questions about Muslim orthodoxy, the idea of Muslim cosmopolitanism that many believe doesn't exist, and the “state of enmity” between Muslims and Jews despite being the “closest of cousins.” And if you thought jazz was an all-American thing, read Andy Simons who insists that jazz is just as Muslim as it is American.

The upshot of the Critical Muslim debate is that what Islam needs is a renaissance to recast it for a modern age.

“It is time to leave the prisons of shariah…break free from the traditionalist thought and bury the notion of the ‘Islamic state' ….,” says Mr. Sardar.

Whether or not it happens, at least a debate has started and it would be interesting to see where it goes from here. The next issue is on Pakistan. Will moderate Pakistanis join the debate?