In the wake of 9/11 and the rhetoric that accompanied the United States’ “War on Terror”, the west’s public eye has been focused on the apparently alien customs of Muslims. For much of its history, Earth’s second largest faith has had a destiny as intertwined with the western hemisphere’s as Judeo-Christian traditions, shown by the preservation of ancient texts by Near Eastern peoples during the Islamic Golden Age and the rich cultural influences the former caliphates have had on territories as diverse as Spain and the Balkans, so what the oft-quoted phrase “clash of civilisations” refers to is one side of a two-part narrative.
Considering the place of Islam’s moral and legal code, sharia, in current society both inside and outside of the industrialised world, also requires the acknowledgment of Islamic adherents’ denominational and non-denominational differences – to counteract an inherent bias against those devout Muslims whose intercultural and secular religious practice doesn’t prevent them also embracing cultures less defined by Christianity or other religions than Enlightenment values like toleration and liberty.
Interculturalism, what the philosopher Martha Nussbaum described as “the recognition of common human needs across cultures and of dissonance and critical dialogue within cultures”, is central to understanding the debate around Islamic law and the backlash both it and its subject provokes. Intercultural societies would have in a sense adopted a perfected multiculturalism, or ‘multiculturalism plus’, which sidesteps simultaneously the problems of monoculturalism or crude multiculturalism. Malformed, primitive, or improperly implemented multiculturalism virtually always leads to islanded communities in a sea of mutual ignorance, misinformation, and distrust and yet people of a cosmopolitan and tolerant outlook are still often cautious to denounce it as we’ve seen the excesses of its predecessor.
Advocacy of sharia, understood as a far right political movement, resembles the traditional Christian right wing of Europe with its intolerance and support for discriminatory and authoritarian laws. Sharia confounds liberals and leftists of a more shallow thinking variety because those attached to multiculturalism want to allow the full freedom of minority groups, and justly so. But, not all accept that a member of a minority rather than the majority can be so bold as to try and abuse their freedom by aggressively imposing themselves and acting superior when doing so would be clearly against their self-interest.
Naturally, there are many possible explanations for why more conservative parts of religious minorities would actively pursue an exclusivist or theocratic legal system, beyond just what they perceive as piety, but one that’s favoured is the lack of consistent messaging by contemporary society. Or, purely stated, we’re finally reaping the fruit of our incoherent approach to this issue.
Post-modernists and the relativists have perpetually argued, almost right from the start of mass global immigration, that identity politics make it impossible to understand other cultures; and if, in the Islamic world, what happens to be vogue is religious extremism, Islamist theocracy, or violent Jihadism then the only appropriate analogy to be made is between that and movements like feminism in the west. When defenders of human rights point out the difference, they’re berated and told that human rights are in fact not characterised by universality and are simply the result of our own cultural biases.
The answer to the post-modernists and pro-Islamist left is not to rewind the clocks by returning to monoculturalism, or the bigotry and far right politics that often accompanies it, but to appeal to other people on the same side of the political spectrum. Remind those who truly love human fulfilment that not only the majority but minorities have to respect others’ inalienable rights, and whether someone comes from the orthodoxy or not has no effect on how harshly we should criticise them if their customs’ contradict this. It is not noble, idealistic, or conducive to peace to give an inch, to tolerate on any level, the activities of groups like the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa. MUJAO subjected the inhabitants of one of Mali’s major cities, Gao, to hand amputations in the city square (that they themselves filmed and was later mirrored in Vice’s “Under Sharia Law”) and brutal whippings for just smoking cigarettes.
Militancy aside, the western-backed Saudi Arabian government sentenced atheist blogger Raif Badawi to 7 years in jail and 600 lashes, and the precedent his case reaffirms is even more worrying in light of the country’s surprisingly high number of atheists (5% according to a recent WIN/Gallop international poll featured in the Washington Post). Salafism and other extreme Islamic denominations adopt conservative or reactionary attitudes, and in order to prevent the collapse of the social order their unflinching authority is built upon, decide to label enlightened outlooks like democracy “heretical”, “colonial”, or “imperialistic”.
Lessons from poorer and more unstable nations where something as powerful as religion, whose ideas should be about the sacred as is manifested in love and peace, is used to tear civilisation asunder is a stark warning to each of us. A lack of education, or the brutal environment provided by centuries of sectarianism and socio-political rivalries, can pervert almost any society regardless of its former cultural attributes.
Failing states like Somalia or Yemen were once prosperous as nearly all unfortunate places were at some point or another, so the only question one must ask is why does history tread the path it does. What, or who, is responsible for change we see around us. The answer for the Horn of Africa is blatant; land to its south is ruled by the doctrines of Jihadi extremists such as Al-Shabaab and their ilk, who are key players alongside warlords and shady governments with not so divine pretentions. Israel meanwhile is a full-blown ethno-religious apartheid state that has a non-white, non-Jewish underclass living at the whim of oppressors who remind us constantly that many faiths are open to the abuse of tyrants, even those you’d expect to know better after millennia of persecution can be guilty of turning their deity on others.
Nearly every canonical religious text can be used to excuse injustice but they can also be used to do the opposite, as the Quran like all holy books is full of contradictions, including moral ones. What makes a person choose to value the good rather than the evil before them, is a universally attainable awareness of what it means to truly experience or not experience human flourishing. Rather than ignore darkness, thoughtful citizens who give the agents of malicious forces like the total establishment of theocracy a free pass have to judge those who do wrong in foreign cultures as harshly as in their own.
The arbitrary and abusive power exercised over women in Europe’s sharia courts is a perfect example of something that should get liberal-minded people’s blood boiling, but instead it slips past the usual opponents of totalitarianism relatively unnoticed. An undercover recording by Panorama showed an Islamic judge in East London telling a woman who was being beaten by her husband to ask him if it was because of her cooking, or “is it because I see my friends”, and this is by no means an isolated incident considering the main function of the sharia court in question had been to resolve marital disputes.
Sexual violence is not a light matter and a blight upon society whose victims, only the self-professed ones, include 1 in 5 women between the ages of 15 and 60 according to a report released by the Ministry of Justice in January. The report also revealed that 400,000 were assaulted and 85,000 raped each year since 2009, and it is figures like these that make one realise the urgency of addressing all of its sources as swiftly as possible.
Thankfully in the UK, as the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice Helen Grant clarified, the verdicts of sharia courts have no actual legal weight, but this is not to say they are inconsequential considering the immense cultural and personal clout they have in areas where their decisions are seen as being inspired by God’s word and ignoring them can lead to severe ostracisation. Vigilante extremism is also a problem when we have gangs of men in organisations like Muslims Against Crusades cloaking themselves in the garb of “holy policemen”, before patrolling certain parts of our larger cities, like Walthamstow in London, and essentially telling people in possession of alcoholic beverages or other haram objects that they’re breaking the law.
The EU’s largest member state however has gone down a very dark road with commissioned Islamic “peace judges”, partially due to the post-war influx of immigrants that led to proportionally the largest Muslim minority in Europe after France, and an atmosphere of post-war guilt induced by the disastrous German adoption of fascism before WW2. When in March 2007 Judge Christa Datz-Winter, of Frankfurt’s family court, was faced with a woman of Moroccan origin asking for a divorce from a husband who had threatened to kill her, she didn’t grant it as was requested. Instead, Datz-Winter decided to quote Quranic scripture from the 34th ayat of the 4th sura and cited “both the husband’s right to use corporal punishment against a disobedient wife and the establishment of the husband’s superiority over the wife”.
In the Summer of 2010 Angela Merkel saw fit to reiterate the centrality of the German constitutionalism after anti-secular developments in her country, by saying, “we obviously have Muslims in Germany”. But, “it is important in regard to Islam that the values represented by Islam must correspond with our constitution. What applies here is the constitution, not sharia”.
Any observer of European sharia courts, or Islamic theocracies abroad, who had the interest of both Muslims and wider communities at heart would see them for what they are, namely oppression of the most vulnerable members of humanity on a second front. Fresh immigrants and minorities often experience alienation more frequently than the rest of society, or at worst a continual xenophobic hostility, so allowing an additional subjection to barbarism from within their own communities only multiplies their hardship.
On top of the pressure applied by theocratic laws or new lands to minorities, it might be women, families, or others who’ve already have the odds stacked against them by out-dated and repressive traditional power structures usually endorsed by the same people who advocate for either sharia in singularity, or in parallel to the only law that should exist and is pursued by those who chase the dream of a new, better home: one that respects universal equality and enshrines it in our collective purpose and identity.
Theocratic subjugation abroad is no less a source of concern, radical Islamists like Al-Nusra in Syria, or transnational religious militants in Africa, wage wars whose only relation to holiness is that in opposition to them. To exploit and then exacerbate poverty and suffering in the most fragile parts of the world, and then appeal to a disillusioned proletariat seeking liberation from a miserable life home-grown dictators or foreign-supported puppets have imposed, is easy when one offers simply uncompromising devotion to the opium of the people.
Treading in God’s path, even when it involves walking over the hopes and desires of fellow human beings, may seem to be the only way out of perdition in this life and the next, but for those who make that mistake what awaits in the place of paradise is merely the next circle of hell.