‘Do you condemn (BAD THING)? How can you justify (TERRIBLE EVENT) / support (BAD MAN)? Do you support (SIMPLISTIC EXPLANATION)? When did you stop beating your wife?’
Loaded and leading questions are a staple of political discussion, and our new social media-driven age has only made it worse. This is particularly bad when people’s mental or media-derived image of the world begins to diverge from reality – which, we’ve found, can sometimes be the case for British Muslims. Talking with some of our supporters, we’ve found that certain questions recur again and again – but that they often say more about the people asking them than the information you might get from them …
Here are some of the questions that are particularly common – and some of our personal answers …
1) Do you think that terrorism by Al Qaeda is right or wrong?
‘Mass murder’ – good, or bad? What sort of answers are expected from this question? Are they expecting people to say ‘yes, I totally love violent indiscriminate terrorism’? To sit on the fence – ‘I kinda dislike mass-bombings, but not that much?’ This question is usually asked for its rhetorical impact, by heavily implying that you might actually secretly be a terrorist sympathizer, and it’s usually only ever deployed against minority groups – you seldom hear people ask if all young white men are all Breiviks or Lapshyns in the making.
It also conveniently ignores the fact that, at the moment, the victims of Al Qaeda’s (and other related groups’) terrorism are far more likely to be Muslim (and usually Middle Eastern/South Asian) than British non-Muslims, rolling all Muslims into one enormous homogenous mass, and lazily seeing them as equally supportive of, and even enthusiastic, about extreme political violence. The current conflict in Iraq and Syria, between ISIS and the Kurds is beginning to underline how ‘Islamist violence’ isn’t some simple Islam vs. the rest conflict, but is instead part of a broader tapestry of violence, identity, and competing interests. It’s possible to understand and approach – but that’s unlikely for people who just want to weaponise it as a ‘gotcha’ for Muslims.
2) Do you accept that FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) and the burqa are wrong?
The burqa debate is a hardy perennial in British (and broader European politics); despite having a small impact in the UK (we don’t even know how many people wear the burqa, although sources indicate it’s probably not many), but the debate between men who want to control what a group of women wear and a group of men and women who want to control what the same group of women wear continues apace. It’s a thorny issue of consent, culture, and autonomy – but again, it’s reduced to a way to prod Muslims.
Female genital mutilation crosses faith boundaries, and is practiced on a cultural rather than religious basis – but this doesn’t matter for a bigot who sees violence against women not as a widespread, serious concern, but as ammunition to pelt at Muslims going abut their daily business. It’s fairly saddening, really – it’d be great if these people cared about Muslim women’s liberation when it came to workplace and economic oppression, or stood alongside victims of street harassment, but it seems that a lot of the time (by no means all of it, though, to be fair) their feminism lasts as long as it overlaps with the latest Muslim-related issue.
3) Aren’t most Muslims looking to implement Sharia Law?
This seems like a pretty major job. You hold down a job, you try to look after your family, relationships with a partner, relationships with fantastically demanding parents (and parents in law, don’t forget them!), 5 prayers a day if you’re observant, and looking after young children. Instituting major constitutional and legal change, through an extremely stealthy means, seems to be a bit tough on top of all of that.
It’s definitely true that there are some people who would prefer to see a Sharia-based legal system, just as there are people who’d want to implement Objectivist, libertarian, or Maoist-Third-Worldist worldviews in the UK; some people go further, using Sharia ‘courts’ to arbitrate their affairs. But that’s a long way from massive, sweeping legal changes just round the corner – for better or for worse, Britain has a (small c) conservative political culture and establishment, where changes are slow. In the mean time, a good, clear-eyed, honest debate is much more preferable than panic that you’ll wake up tomorrow and London will have been mysterious transmuted into Tehran.
4) Don’t Muslims want to take over England?
Ah yes – the infiltration of a country by a sneaky, malevolent, undermining force, who want to destroy the indigenous way of life, and turn everyone into a group of zombie-eyed robots who all think and believe exactly the same way. Dodgily-cited You tube videos about ‘Muslim demographics’ notwithstanding, Muslims make up 4.4% of the population of the UK (although, outside London, people tend to think it’s a lot more; it’d be a strange kind of takeover indeed.)
Besides, anyone who’s spent a little time with actual, real life Muslims will know that the idea of ‘Muslims’ doing anything en masse, or as part of a huge ‘Muslim bloc’, is faintly ridiculous. Even casually putting aside the rather huge cultural, religious, and social differences among different denominations in Britain’s diverse Muslim population – an impressive feat! – put two Muslims together in a room, and you’ll get 30 different opinions. We’d suggest that it’d be a great idea to help get this person some Muslim people to talk to who could thoroughly disabuse them of the idea that all British Muslims think and act as one – but it might end up being something of a drag …
5) But don’t you want Jihad and want to convert people?
If you judge ‘jihad’ by the people clamouring most loudly about it – Abu Hamza, the fake Sheikh, and the ‘Tottenham Ayatollah’, Omar Bakri Mohammed (currently in residence in Lebanon), to say nothing for the 7/7 and 9/11 killers, then yes, it doesn’t seem like a very good idea. Even putting aside theological niceties like jihad being a fairly complex set of concepts (with self-improvement and struggle against one’s basic impulses being a major part of this), few Muslims are going to have a simple militaristic view of what jihad means; to say that, upon conversion or coming of age, Muslims suddenly become murderous automata, displays a pretty deep-seated prejudice and willingness to think the absolute worst of people.
On the conversion front – well, damn, you got it there. As a missionary religion (along with Christianity, Buddhism, and Hare Krishna), Islam does hold that it’s got a unique insight on the world, and would love for people to share that insight. It would be slightly weird if it was keen on hiding its light under a bushel (to steal another religion’s phrase). But ultimately, though the hard core of missionary types (Christian and Muslim) may be occupying stalls on high streets every weekend, the majority of Muslims will probably be more concerned with gathering deals in Aldis or Waitrose than gathering souls. In the end, we say, let’s let the market decide – let those who want to observe their religion through proselytism do so, and let those who want to live it more quietly in their own life do so too. Anyone want a free copy of ‘The Watch Tower’, by the way?