More Questions about Islam

Patrick Sookhdeo speaks to Diane Benge


Patrick, you talk of a major change in the way the Western world has come to perceive Islam since the events of September 11th. What has changed?

In order for an anti-terrorist coalition to be mounted, and also to cope with the fears that are now present within Western societies, Western government, together with the church and the media, have now agreed a policy of redeeming Islam - that is: to argue that Islam is essentially peaceful and tolerant.

And you would say that is not the case?

I would argue that all religions have a dark side to them. Christianity has had a sordid past. We have had to come to terms with that past. In the past we have killed people in the name of religion - we now recognise that that is wrong: that our New Testament enjoins upon us the need for compassion and love and that there can be no violence in religion.

Islam has one part of it dealing with violence, just as Christianity and other religions have. The dilemma is that they refuse to accept that in the past and currently Islam has done horrific things, and that what has been done in the name of Islam was not just an aberration, but rather, central to the religion itself. Therefore, when Western leaders, together with the media and the church, have said that Islam is essentially tolerance and peace, that is only one side of the truth.

Is there no part of the Qur'an which modifies these violent texts in the way that we would say our New Testament modifies the Old Testament?

In fact the reverse is true. Suppose in our Bible the New Testament came first and the Old Testament came later, that would be the position in the Qur'an. All the peaceful passages that are enjoined on Muslims occur in the chapters written at Mecca. They are tolerant toward Jews and Christians. But when Muhammad gets to Medina and sets up his city/religious state, the tone towards other groups changes rapidly. The statements about slaying the pagans and killing the Jews and others occur there.

Now in Islamic interpretation, all passages that are revealed later take precedence over those revealed earlier. This is known as the 'law of abrogation'. It means therefore that those passages that enjoin violence are actually the ones which are now acceptable.

What caused this change?

One needs to realise that at Mecca Muhammad is a despised prophet, he needs the help of all communities. But when he gets to Medina, he is now in the position of being a ruler, a legislator, a general. He has to further the Islamic community. For those who did not accept the new community - such as the Jews and Christians - it became highly dangerous, to the point of death.

Is it true that in Muslim countries Muslims who have converted to Christianity are not able to worship openly?

In Muslim countries where converts occur we need to remember the law of apostasy. In Saria, all four schools of Sunni law and Shi'i law teach that any adult male Muslim who rejects Islam, or becomes a Christian, commits the crime of high treason and that carries the death penalty. Some countries practise it - Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar, Sudan - but where countries do not practise it it is often practised by the communities and families.

In most countries if the death penalty is not applied endemic discrimination and persecution and marginalisation occurs. There is no freedom within Islam. It does not confer all the civic liberties either on converts, or on historic Christian communities in their midst.

Why is that?

Islam developed in areas that were principally Christian. So there were large numbers of Christians existing as conquered people. Islam created the system of 'Dhimmi'. The Dhimmi system meant that Jews and Christians (and another group called the Zoroastrians) had to be protected. They paid poll tax - a special tax - which gave them protection. As protected subjects they did not have full civic rights, they existed as second-class minorities within the Islamic fold.

Why does Islam see itself as superior to Christianity?

Because theologically it regards itself as the final revelation of God. It says Jews and Christians have corrupted their Scriptures - deviated from the pathway of God - and now God has sent his final prophet, Muhammad, and therefore authentic religion is Islam. It is therefore superior.

But secondly, you need to understand Islam from the basis of power. There is a view known as 'Religious Territoriality'. It once affected Judaism. It affected Christianity - in the Mediaeval period for example, the post-Constantinian period. It links religion with land. It is the position in India today, increasingly.

In Islam you cannot separate out the faith community - that is the religious community - from their identity in the land. For power is essential to Islam - not just religious power, but secular power. Furthermore, because Islam does not separate the sacred from the secular, it means that societal issues are deemed to be one and the same thing as religious issues.

George W Bush and Tony Blair have declared war on the terrorists. In what way is Islam linked to the terrorist attacks?

I think both Mr Bush and Mr Blair have made a major mistake - perhaps it's not a mistake, maybe it is more the need for a PR exercise - and that is to separate out Bin Laden from the rest of Islam. The argument runs that Bin Laden and those who committed the awful crimes at the World Trade Centre are not authentic Muslims. Rather they are extremists.

Initially they were defined as Islamic extremists, but as time has gone by, Bush and Blair and others are arguing that they are not even Islamic, because Islam does not countenance the murder of innocent women and children (which is not true by the way). But having separated out the radicals as being Islamic extremists, they have now removed the term 'Islamic', so Bin Laden and his crew are now seen to be extremists outside of the Islamic pale.

That is highly questionable. I would argue that the nature of violence exists within Islam. Bin Laden and his people come out of an Islamic tradition - they see themselves as authentically Muslim - where Jihad is a cardinal principle to fight the unbelievers. Furthermore, they have had tremendous backing from Muslim governments and Muslims worldwide - in particular the Saudis - and the Wahhabi tradition dominates in the minds of both Bin Laden and the Taliban. Furthermore I would argue that many in the Muslim world - perhaps the majority - regard Bin Laden as their hero, and certainly they do not regard him as a non-Muslim.

So I think the West has made a strategic mistake in the way it has sought to redefine Islam. Furthermore the West may say "we are not at war with Islam", but the Muslim world regard themselves as at war with the West, and see the West as being at war with them.

Why does the Muslim world see itself as being at war with the West?

They see a history of violence: their interpretation of the crusades (which I do not accept); their interpretation of colonialism - which again, comes from their own perspective; their understanding of globalisation - which they see as neo-colonialism; what they see as the West's support for Israel against their own people the Palestinians.

They see Western interests supporting what they say are autocratic Islamic dictators; there is the issue of India and Kashmir; there is a multiplicity of issues. But they see themselves at the receiving end of Western interests - and that the West has declared war on them in terms of ideas, in terms of the penetration and the secularisation of their culture, as well as the support of dictators who suppress Islamic people.

You said earlier that for many Muslims Bin Laden is a hero. And yet on our television screens we see a lot of ordinary Muslims saying "we hate what has happened and we'll have nothing to do with this".

I think the Muslims are in a schizophrenic mode at this time. When the first reports came out of the bombing, I would have argued that the majority would have been pleased. When the scale of it emerged - and the number of civilian deaths - there was huge embarrassment coupled with, I think, authentic pain at what had happened.

The Muslim mind is now having to balance those two positions - and it occurs increasingly in some of their theological positions - because many are saying: this is a vindication of God, God was supreme in all of this, in the way the twin towers collapsed. Privately what they say is different from what they say publicly. There is a lot of denial taking place. In the Muslim world the authentic position is occurring on the street, but for Western consumption it is having to be shaped, to fit into Western policy.

Muslim views are having to be shaped so that to Western eyes they appear reasonable. Is that what you are saying?

This is exactly it. And nowhere is this more true than in the constant repetition of statements like "Islam is peaceful"; "Islam is tolerant"; "Islam does not allow for the killing of women and children". And the constant statement: "if one person dies, the whole of humanity dies" - that is a classic Qur'anic argument they are dragging out, but that is utter myth in terms of both the history of Islam in relation to violence, and current practice in terms of violence.

If I may illustrate: in Indonesia we have had over ten thousand Christians massacred. We have had over eight thousand Christians forcibly converted; several thousand forcibly circumcised; yet there is silence in the Muslim world. And Lascar Jihad, whose leader had been with Bin Laden in Afghanistan and part of whose funding comes from Bin Laden and Saudi, have practised those killings.

Why has not the Muslim world come out and condemned it? Why have they not said: since women and children are being killed by the Lascar Jihad in Indonesia, the attackers are not authentic Muslims? In Israel we've had a string of suicide bombers killing innocent Jewish women and children, yet there has been no condemnation in the Muslim world concerning those suicide bombers.

What of the future then, Patrick: if Muslims believe that the West is at war with all of them - that this is a religious war - while the West is saying that all they want is Bin Laden?

The Islamic world is in a precarious position. Any of their leaders supporting the anti-terrorist coalition are doing so without the full support of their people. If the war goes badly, we could see severe problems within the Islamic world as Muslim peoples rise up against their leaders. Furthermore one can see severe problems concerning Westerners, Western interests and anything related to the West in a Muslim context.

There is also the problem of the church. The church is perceived as pro-Western and there are those who are saying there will be a major church-burning effort. We have already had that these past few weeks: we have had several hundred Christians killed in Cairo; we have had five hundred killed in Nigeria; churches have been burned in Kenya. This is going to increase. So if the problems are not settled soon in Afghanistan then I see major issues arising.

I personally believe that the West, for whatever reason, has chosen a policy which could lead them into greater conflict. Simply defining this as a conflict against Bin Laden is not going to be sufficient, because even if we deal with Bin Laden, we will not be dealing with the multiplicity of terrorist networks at work in the world. And more than that, we now have Islamic communities in the West which still have a theology of power, and violence is a part of that.

Are you implying that there is a sense in which Islamic communities in the West wish to take control in the West?

Yes I am. Islam is based on power. It does not separate the sacred from the secular, and it has never really had an understanding of being a minority. It must exist within a majority context.

The issue for the West is 'how will Islam express itself?' Will it accept that it is a minority? Will it embrace the traditions of the country in which it finds itself and be loyal to it absolutely (whilst of course, keeping aspects of its own religion and culture)?

Or will it, in order to retain control of all religion and culture, set up alternative communities, which then want power for themselves in each geographical area, as well as wanting to be protected further afield by the law. I think this is the tension.

No doubt you are following the position in Australia where there have been about twelve churches burned. I gather four mosques have also been burned. The question increasingly is how Muslims in the West see the countries that they live in. What are their loyalty systems?

When they are a tiny minority, their response to their countries is 'we are loyal to you'. But as that minority increases and gains strength and self confidence, so it begins to change its allegiance. You can't just see it on the basis of what it is today, you have to think of what it will be five years from now.

And then you have to look at who is feeding that community: what are the ideological and theological and religious influences that come from the Middle East, from Pakistan, from other countries? Where do the mullahs stand? What is their training and what are their influences? You've got to look at a number of factors.

So what should our response be?

I think that as Christians we have to retain what I would call a society built on Judeo-Christian values. Modernity is not all bad, it allows for pluralism to occur. I believe that we should be arguing for the continuing development of a plural society. We need to say to Muslim communities: "we cannot give way to your demands". In Britain they are now asking for legal protection for their religion and their culture. We have to say no to that, they have to accept a common citizenship based upon individual equality, and not community-religious equality.

You have said that Bush and Blair have taken the wrong approach. What approach would you have taken, had you been in their position?

I think it is essential to deal with terrorism, but we need to recognise that the Muslim radicals have been setting up their bases in the West for many years and we have singularly failed to deal with them because we did not take them seriously. We have to address that. Secondly we've got to address the mainstream Muslim communities. Many of them are becoming conservative and radical and we have to say to them: "you're going to have to choose where your loyalties lie".

We then have to look at the Muslim countries - many have been supporting these terrorists, yet we in the West have friendly relations with them. They are playing a double game. We need to say: "you cannot be friends with us and at the same time be acting against our interests". And then we have got to look at the issues of Bin Laden as well as the Taliban and deal with those.

We have got to see all these things as a totality. Simply to isolate Bin Laden and believe that once we have dealt with him we have dealt with the problem is naive.

But there is another issue. It is not just the media and government that have been singing the tune of the innate tolerance in Islam. It is also church leaders. Many Christian leaders in the Muslim world believe that they have been betrayed by churches in the West. The same church leaders who are saying "we have to protect Islam" and talk of how peaceful it is, have not extended any protection, or any sympathy, for their brothers and sisters who have suffered - and are continuing to suffer - in the Muslim world.

Furthermore, if the argument is accepted that Islam is tolerant and doesn't persecute anyone, then what is going to happen after Bin Laden is defeated? Persecuted Christians in Muslim countries will be at the mercy of a Muslim world which declares: "but we are tolerant".

And nowhere is this more clearly seen than in Sudan recently where the US government has just changed its policy. It has now formally embraced the Khartoum government. Meanwhile, the Khartoum government has been dropping bombs on Christians. They have just killed over a dozen innocent Christian children. The West, including the Western church, is now preoccupied with itself and with its own societies. It is concerned to be politically correct and not to allow its societies to be threatened. It has little concern for Christian minorities in the Muslim world.

Christian leaders in the Muslim world cannot understand why they are being sacrificed by Western church leaders, as well as by their political leaders and their media.


Patrick Sookhdeo is the International Director of the Barnabas Fund and the Institute for the Study of Islam and Christianity. He holds a PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University and was awarded a Doctor of Divinity by Western Seminary, Portland, Oregon for his work in the field of pluralism. He has written and lectures widely in the field of other faiths. Both Patrick and his wife Rosemary hold dual New Zealand and British citizenship.

The Barnabas Fund seeks to support suffering Christian minorities by making known their need to other Christians, facilitating prayer on their behalf, and channelling funds to small-scale projects run by national Christians in the countries concerned. It has supported projects in 39 different countries. The Institute for the Study of Islam and Christianity does research on the status of the church in the Muslim world.

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