Shaykh David Rosser-Owen, also known as Shaykh Daoud, is the caretaker Amir (leader) of the Association of British Muslims (ABM or AOBM), that claims to be “the oldest such organisation”, created in 1889. Born in Swansea in South Wales, he considered himself “a fairly devout and practicing Christian” of the Presbyterian Church, until his conversion to Islam. He is now a khalifa of the Naqshbandi, a major spiritual order of Sufism. His personal journey is described here. He gave me this interview for an article centred on freedom of expression and religion. (Read more…)
The Koran, the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament have been used, from time to time, as “war manuals”. Let us take, for instance, the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the murder of a Jordanian pilot by the so-called “Islamic State” (ISIS/Daesh). While the brutal death of the Hashemite officer generated an overwhelming condemnation by Muslim leaders, the assault on the French newspaper was somehow justified on the allegation that all depictions of Prophet Muhammad are a “blasphemy”. How do you assess both cases?
The displeasure about the cartoon lampooning of the Prophet was felt among all Muslim communities, and even among many non-Muslims, it being seen as taking excessive liberties with the right to freedom of expression in a distasteful way.
Strictly speaking, there is no concept of blasphemy as understood in Christianity in Islam. The existence of a Blasphemy Law in Pakistan is a legacy of British rule in India where it was added to the Indian Penal Code as an instrument for the police to use to avoid or control inter-communal rioting.
It is also a point of debate whether graphic representations of the Prophet are permitted or not. Suffice it to say that probably a majority of the world’s Muslim populations believes that it is not permitted, which fuelled the response to the Danish cartoons as well as the Charlie Hebdo ones.
That both the marginal circulation French magazine and the major Danish daily Jyllands-Posten clearly went out of their ways to be provocative should not have produced the responses that they did.
It should be a matter of conscience, and particularly journalistic professionalism, in western countries that freedom of expression should not be turned into freedom to incite hatred. We should be conscious that it was just over a generation ago that the German language newspapers Völkischer Beobachter and Der Sturmer published similar hatemongering cartoons.
However, it ought to be noteworthy that the excessive protests and violent demonstrations about either did not take place among Muslims in western countries, but in Pakistan, India, Indonesia, and Egypt. The most recent demonstration here was a peaceful gathering of some 100,000 (according to the Metropolitan Police) mainly British Pakistanis outside Downing Street this past week-end.
Most UK Muslims, as with most French Muslims, were appalled by the murders of the Charlie Hebdo staff, and it should be said that the community leaders in both countries denounced the atrocity and expressed their condolences to the families of the murdered staff.
This does not mean, of course, that they were not upset by the scurrilous nature of the cartoons, but that they do not believe that objecting to such things justifies murder, or even bodily assault. There is, even so, a widespread feeling that the Charlie Hebdo magazine had exceeded the bounds of acceptability.
The murder of First Lt (posthumously promoted to Captain) Muath el-Kasasbeh is a different matter. Warfare under Islamic Law is conducted under strict legal constraints – something that most Muslims are aware of, even if they are unclear about the details.
Among the things that they will almost universally know is that it is not legitimate to kill (or injure) children, women, the old, the sick and infirm, or priests, monks, nuns, or rabbis.
They also know that to kill someone by fire is forbidden and considered an act of rebellion against God. Muslims are fundamentally opposed to cremation of the dead even. So the action of ISIS/Da’esh was viewed with a special kind of revulsion and horror.
It may be a sad comment on the world we live in that, possibly because of TV or films, people seem to accept death or injury by firearms as almost normal, yet to burn someone alive is a horror.
Some Muslims blame everyone and everything (colonialism, social discrimination, racial profiling, the “war on terror”…) for their problems, but is this the way forward? One analyst, Anas Abas said: “If past grievances and atrocities are considered to be reasons [for the attack in Paris] then by this logic all Indians living in the UK would be retaliating to avenge the suffering their ancestors faced during British Colonialism.” And professor Muqtedar Khan noticed a contradiction: “While some Muslims criticize the West for its interventionist policies they also complain that the West has not intervened to remove Bashar al-Assad from power.” What’s your assessment?
We all have a tendency to blame someone or something else rather than face up to our own responsibilities and to look for ways in which we ourselves can improve our lot.
Muslims are no different. And the post-colonial mentality does tend to place blame on the colonial power uncritically. It makes reform of the communities difficult, especially when there is a large element of truth in the effects of the present rounds of interference in the countries of origin of many of the immigrant Muslims.
For example, many British Pakistanis are at most three generations away from Pakistan. That means that their grandparents’ kinsmen may still be living there, and so the migrant generations are treated to first-hand accounts of drone strikes, and so on.
Following Professor Pitirim Sorokin’s sociological treatment of eastern European migrants in Chicago in the mid-20th Century, we can say that it will take at least four or five generations before these British Pakistanis feel themselves to be more British than Pakistani.
That being said, a report published by the Demos think-tank a couple of years’ ago demonstrated that by and large British Muslims exhibited a stronger loyalty and patriotism to the UK than many “native” Britons.
The solution to the problem, it strikes me, is a generational one as identified by Sorokin. Already many of the newer imams and community leaders are better educated (including in Islamic sciences) than the earlier ones, and increasing numbers of mosques are delivering the sermon of the Friday Prayers in English.
Most younger Muslims in the UK have only the vaguest notion of the history of British India, for example, and so those post-colonialist ideas that might have given substance to Anas Abas’s comment are fading.
And those who do study British India soon learn that things under the British were not that bad, and that the Indian princes who were built up as demigods in the popular narratives of their grandparents’ generation were frequently exceedingly barbaric.
The comment such as made by Dr Muqtedar Khan can be offset by quite a widespread view that Bashar al-Assad is not the ‘bad guy’ here – in a way this image is benefitting from the utter chaos of Iraq and Libya after their dictators (Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi) were removed by western intervention – so quite a lot of the UK’s Muslims feel that regime change in Syria will produce just the same chaos there.
The Muslim Brotherhood does not have much support among the UK’s Muslim Communities, and I think that any such perceived support elsewhere is exaggerated.
Most of the migrant Muslims in the UK, Europe, North America, or Australia and New Zealand actually either belong to one or other Sufi order or come originally from villages where the local culture is steeped in Sufism, such as is typical in Morocco or Algeria. And so there is a natural disconnect from the activities of Muslim radical organisations like the Brotherhood.
The Arab World, I think, suffered more than many areas of the Muslim World from the policies of the colonial powers (particularly France and Italy) and the successor regimes that were left behind and which have perpetuated themselves.
For example, in Egypt Field Marshal Sisi is only the fourth ruler (ignoring the brief presidency of Morsi) since the removal of King Fuad II (who ruled for just over a year) in July 1953.
During that time the governments have repressed the ulema along with dissidents like the Muslim Brotherhood, and infrequently have also arrested the sufi sheiks. This has made the re-establishment of a vibrant ulema difficult. Analogous patterns can be seen elsewhere.
Associated with this has been the spread, facilitated by its oil wealth, of Saudi sponsored Wahhabism, which is an extreme deviant heresy from Islam that most scholars reject any claims for it to be viewed as “Sunni”.
This has led to the almost clandestine growth and spread of the Sufi Orders. This pattern can be seen in Turkey, where now the influence of these orders has meant that all political parties, for example, have to incorporate an “Islamic agenda” as a part of their programmes.
This path is being followed in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Jordan. Lebanon and Syria are somewhat different in that they have large Shia populations (and Lebanon a large Christian one), but what can be seen there is a collusion between sufi sheikhs and shia clergy to guide their followers.
It may be instructive that several of these sheikhs, and some others, have drawn analogies with the period of the Mongol Invasions when civil society in the Middle East broke down. This was interestingly the time when the sufi orders themselves emerged as uprooted peoples coalesced around the zawiyah (chapel) of a sheikh.
That this is being cited may be an indicator of how people are seeing their current situation. These shaikhs tend to be quite “liberal”, “progressive”, and “forward looking” – and example would be the late Shaykh Nazim al-Haqqani or his successor Shaykh Muhammad or Shaykh Gibril Haddad (in the USA) of the Naqshbandi Order, or even Fethullah Gülen.
Probably, what the Arab World needs most is a period of stability. In such an environment, these shaykhs will deliver the consensual reform path even utilising the traditional methods of scholarship as they provide quite a flexible methodology and the traditional sources of knowledge offer considerable scope.
In some majority-Muslim states, Shia are persecuted by Sunni and vice-versa. Women and gays are denied basic rights. On the other hand, in some Muslim communities in Europe, I’ve got the feeling that an increasing number of believers are defending that sharia must have precedence over the secular laws of their host countries…
…I think, probably, the short answer is “education”. And also education in what Islam really teaches. Governments have a huge role in this, too.
They can stop the casual demonization of Islam and Muslims – they should continually recall where the similar demonization of Jews led in western Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.
They can also stop the missionizing by the Saudis: it is their Wahhabism that is spreading the rejection of authority and the rise of extremism.
The tragedy of the Sunni-Shia communities in Iraq is directly the responsibility of the USA and the NATO powers, because under the previous regimes (from King Faisal to Saddam Hussein) Sunni and Shia got on well enough and frequently intermarried.
Pakistan is a special case, and there the problem is the far too strong an influence of the ill-educated mullahs (in Islam as in other things) and the weakness of governments to bring them to heel.
Again, although it is a big problem there, the solution may well be education – there is, for example, no effective universal state secondary school system for boys let alone girls.
“Secularism” as expressed in Germany, the UK, Canada, USA etc, although different from each other, is a different matter from the militant anti-religiousness of France, for example. Nevertheless, Muslim migrant communities have adjusted to the realities of life in those countries. Problems arise, frequently, through ignorance – of all parties.
“Sharia” is one of the cases in point. To the average Muslim, it incorporates (for comparison) everything that a Catholic would understand from the Catechism to the Canon Law of the Church, but for the most part in their daily lives it is simply the mundane matters of prayer, fasting, marriage, birth, death, inheritance.
Few would consider – except in the most academic of ways – issues of governance, trade, laws of interstate relations, criminal law and punishment and most would consider these redundant in the modern world.
So, when several years ago, the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph published the result of a survey it had conducted under the sensational headline the Forty percent of Britain’s Muslims want Sharia.
This is still cited. What the paper didn’t do was to make clear to the respondents what they understood by ‘sharia’ and discover what the respondents understood by ‘sharia’ in their daily lives. It needs to be stated that there are no states in the world that apply Sharia/Islamic Law other than Malaysia which applies the Civil Code.
What is applied by Saudi Arabia, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan is rejected by reputable scholars as constituting a recognizable form of Islamic Law.
It may well be an encouraging point for the future, but many Muslim communities in the Muslim World look to the Muslim Communities settled in “the West” to help in the lifting of them from out of the rather depressed state they find themselves in. And I believe education, and visits (even on holiday), will form a major part of that interaction.
Parts of this interview, via email and edited for clarification, were included in an article published in the Portuguese magazine “Além-Mar”, March 2015 edition