On the Westminster Attack

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By Shaikh Muhammad Nizami

London is a particularly special city, and yes I admit I am biased, being a Londoner I am amongst its residents which include people from hundreds of cultures and languages, and various faiths. We Londoners are routinely criticised for being insular, for treating the city as if it were a country in its own right. I suppose that on some level, at least one that evokes a sense of affinity, I cannot argue with that. But I maintain that it is one of the greatest examples of a plural city where residents largely appreciate one another. In the increasingly hostile world we live in, it is a beacon of hope for how things can be when decent and diverse people come together.

There is a religiosity about the city, as you walk through the City of London you might hear the bells of St Paul’s ring out, or slightly further down the road the call to prayer can be heard through the streets around Whitechapel mosque. Walk through parliament and you find references to the one true God everywhere. This city, made up of various faiths (and non-faith), invokes old Jerusalem; beyond the holy sites, how might it be so very different? In this melting pot, and in a world veering to provincialism and Islamophobia, this city chose a Muslim mayor. History bears witness to the intolerance and persecution suffered by a variety of peoples, and when we look back to famed examples of tolerance and harmony, such as Muslim Andalusia or Grenada, London seems like a modern manifestation. The harmonious existence of diverse faiths remains inspiring – a mythologised reading of Muslim Spain can certainly depict an absolutely perfect picture which rationally will never be the case; there is always the occasional disquiet that inevitably comes with a diverse group of people navigating their way through their differences, but this is a strength, not a weakness. As a broad evaluation, to judge a few niggles here and there, which they certainly are in light of the history of human civilisations, as evidence of significant tribulations, is quite misplaced.

Yet to some extent, the tiring and uninspiring conversations have already begun, as if there is a yearning for inconsequential controversy. On one side of the spectrum, the typical politics of bigotry and nastiness has emerged from the likes of Nigel Farage, Katie Hopkins and Tommy Robinson, but on the other there is the assumption by a few that most Brits are of these sorts, rejecting the demand for condemnation as if anyone has actually demanded it. Preoccupied with things that aren’t actually happening, some have missed the laudable approach taken by the Prime Minister and other British leaders, all of whom have taken the path of restraint, balance, nuance, and solidarity. With the rise of the far-right and white supremacists, it can be very easy to fall into divisive political rhetoric, so their sentiments should be commended and sought to be built upon. The self-fulfilling prophecy is an effect in which behaviour, influenced by expectations, causes those expectations to come true. By lauding the authorities for statements that reject divisiveness and illegitimate blame, and subsequently expressing our expectations that this approach of dealing with British Muslims continue, we might set in motion a productive and positive future. The alternative to this, and the way it will likely be perceived, is that the authorities demonstrate temperance and empathy with the Muslim community being the target of the far-right and it is disgracefully snubbed.

As Muslims, we have all stood against the senseless killing and in solidarity with the victims and their families, just as we do with those across the world, and organisations that emerge from the community have been swift in offering their sympathies and condolences to those affected. Having said this, it is important to note that I write this for a Muslim audience. In the past, particularly post 9/11, there had been some vagueness in the appropriate positions a believer might take in both dealing with such events, and how to look upon the perpetrators of such crimes, where they might be Muslims. Of course, we all know intuitively what to think and do, so my point here isn’t to cast an eye of suspicion or even marginally suggest extremist sympathies, but some remain unaware of the particular theological basis for what they intuitively know. Thus I hope to expound on a few points, both directly concerning this, or peripheral elements that are important considerations. This is not controversial; it goes back to fundamentally understanding the shariah and what it demands of believers.

Firstly, ISIL views the vast majority of Muslims as adversaries, and likewise, we are theologically compelled to view them the same. If it is correct that they present as the khawarij, then it follows that we are to fight and resist them. The Prophet said, ‘and fight them wherever you come across them, for in fighting them there is reward for overcoming them, on the Day of Judgement.’[1] Furthermore, extremists (in the theological sense) are not to be taken as part of the British Muslim community: we are theologically compelled to disassociate from them. By this I don’t mean takfir, or excommunication, that is a separate theological issue, but in the sense that the Prophet said: ‘whoever raises a sword against us is not from us’[2] and ‘whoever cheats us is not from us’.[3] ‘Not from us’ is a social and political rejection of those who seek to harm society as well as bring the faith into disrepute – thus we will continue to reject them until they recant, show remorse, and change their ways, or alternatively, until they are completely subdued and overcome. Emphasising the idea that they should be totally rejected, the exemplar Ahmad b. Hanbal said about the khawarij: ‘Do not sell food or clothes to them, and do not buy from them.’ He also said, ‘The khawarij are renegades, an evil people.’[4]

Secondly, we must theologically affirm that any British Muslim that violently attacks his or her own country and countrymen has acted despicably and treacherously, and God does not guide the schemes of the treacherous, as the Prophet Joseph put it.[5] In no way has God legitimised killing and mayhem for those suffering political grievances. In fact, in various chapters of the Quran, Allah lays down some explicit duties and responsibilities that believers have to wider non-Muslim society, as well as issuing enlightening guidance on how to positively engage and productively participate. Those who might share or empathise with extremist views, usually those of a criminal past radicalised online by ISIS, warrant being labelled as treacherous, wicked and unscrupulous, and confronted with a robust denunciation. Where we might be immediately confronted by those who encouragingly speak of attacks (which I admit extremely rarely happens), such people must be reported immediately. There is no space for fraternal empathy, ethnic affinity, or doubt – in the shariah it is a moral responsibility to prevent harm, and there is no greater evil and harm than illegitimate killing. However, I also caution turning academic discussions on jihad or political theory into a witch hunt against innocent and unsuspecting Muslims.

Thirdly, believers are commanded by God to ‘enjoin good and forbid evil’[6] which means that it is a religious obligation that we condemn, amongst various forms of evil, those who claim God in their vile and depraved actions. There shouldn’t be any reservation in doing so. In our context, there are two different scenarios regarding condemnation. The first involves a public platform where a belligerent interviewer demands a condemnation so as to implicitly suggest the possibility that the one being interviewed might condone the action. Here of course, the interviewer should be put straight rather than pandered to, but the average Muslim will unlikely face such a predicament. The second, and rather more the focus of this article, is where we directly censure those who might support or commit such actions, and claim that it reflects God’s commands. To condemn means to censure, and God commands:

Yet when they do something disgraceful, they say, ‘We found our forefathers doing this,’ and, ‘God has commanded us to do this.’ Say: ‘God does not command disgraceful deeds. How can you say about God things that you do not know?[7]

In the verse, the Prophet is ordered to respond and censure such people. And where the Prophet might have been asked by others about the evil doers who claim to act on God’s behalf, it was his responsibility to make God’s command to condemn perfectly clear. Some disparage the idea of such a clarification, claiming that the clarifier is an apologist. Such sentiment is childish and unintelligent. Firstly, one cannot logically be an apologist when merely speaking the truth about God and censuring evildoers – to be an apologist is to offer an argument in defence of something controversial, and censure is not a defence but a proactive response. Secondly, even if we view the censure as an indirect defence of the truth (as the verse above suggests), then essentially we are apologists for God and the truth, which a believer can’t exactly criticise.

Thirdly, while I’m sure they have no intention to come across like apologists, to pick this particular occasion for a tirade about Muslims lamentably dying abroad, or the tragedies of Syria and Iraq, causes a person to seem like one to wider society, by presenting an alternate conversation is a way that seems like diversionary-like tactics. Whether it is a tactic or isn’t becomes unimportant, that point is that this is how society will view it. It also seemingly bolsters the claims of the far-right who attempt to ‘otherise’ Muslims and portray them as detached from their own people, uncaring of their plight. We should not be caught up in tangential issues when addressing what has happened. It must be tackled robustly, and rejected outright. We cannot accommodate any attempt to sideline the current incident so as to gloss over the type of ideology that sanctions murder, leads to it, or even tangentially legitimises the acts themselves. Of course, all lives across the world are important but it doesn’t necessitate that when we speak on one issue that we must simultaneously speak of everything else on the wider topic. In fact, when people make this point criticising the failure to mention Syria in the same breath, they themselves contradictorily fail to mention everything else when discussing Syria. For those in London, the Westminster incident is currently most relevant given proximity and context, a principle the shariah repeatedly affirms (and one I hope to address elsewhere).

Lastly, there have been a number of text messages in circulation amongst Muslims, authored by various groups, that somehow manage to bring up some counter-extremism strategies employed by the government (which I acknowledge prove problematic and counter-productive), and seem to gleefully anticipate a crackdown on Muslims using the occasion to promote their brand of a political religious identity. Not only is it highly inappropriate but it must be highlighted that such groups revel in spreading misery, dejection and fear; they actually need to because it is the only context in which they become relevant. It is only at times of conflict and fear that they pipe up, peace and harmony undermine their recruitment drive since their entire narrative is built on grievance-based mentality. By alarming the Muslim community, they seek to lift the mantle of leadership (through shallow rhetoric) and claim to be its champions so that their wider agenda is tacitly accepted. However, such groups have never been mainstream nor have they achieved much for Muslims; the above tends to be their strategy merely to garner support for a narrative that is neither particularly religious nor productive. I would advise being vigilant of such mischief and paying particular attention to the youth who are more likely to get caught up with grievance-based rhetoric and empty sloganeering.

We ask God to guide us to what is good, productive and decent, and to save us from misguidance, corruption and fear.

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[1] Muslim, related by Ali b. Abi Talib
[2] al-Bukhari and Muslim.
[3] ibid
[4] al-Khallal. al-Sunnah.
[5] See Quran 12:52
[6] Quran 3:104
[7] Quran 7:28

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