As fearless Egyptian ex-Muslim activist and writer Nawal El Saadawi told The Guardian last October of the spectacular “refusal to criticise religion”, “this is not liberalism, this is censorship”.
More and more the fear of being labelled Islamophobic has begun to censor the discourse in the UK around terrorism and Islam, or more broadly violence, repression and Islam. In a particularly scathing article for The Spectator earlier this month, Nick Cohen identified the rise of this trend in universities: “the idea of a university as a free space rather than a safe space is vanishing.” And the student interviews he cites rather resonate given the following article was refused publication by UCL’s biggest student magazine due to its potential to offend. Of course there is a dominant misconception about and distrust of the Muslim faith in this country, and a propensity to perceive the barbaric terrorist attacks around the world as acts perpetrated by Muslims because they are Muslim.
But it remains a fact in the context of religion that terrorism, along with violence against women and other human rights violations, seem to proliferate most frequently in Islam. Why does this happen?
These are of course all caused by a combination of geopolitical factors, among them economic depravity, low or non-existent social mobility, and chronic unemployment, especially for those with degrees in engineering. Religion is not a direct cause of ideological and resource-driven conflict but a “terrific force multiplier”, as Christopher Hitchens argued. And in fact, radical Islamism is more often than not an extreme right-wing ideology in religious garb.
Consider for instance the similarities between the American Tea Party and the Taliban: ideological purity, the view that compromise is a weakness, a fundamentalist belief in scriptural literalism, severe xenophobia, severe misogyny, the need to control women’s bodies, the denial of science, a rejection of pluralism, a hostile fear of progress, a demonisation of education, tribal mentality, intolerance of dissent, and a pathological hatred of the US government.
However, there is undoubtedly a question around the correlation of such violence with Islam, with Islamic countries, and with the refugees fleeing Islamic countries.
One could argue the answer lies in the Qu’ran itself and in the manner with which it is presented, particularly by online radicalisation programmes, not as a compilation of moralising stories that allows for the possibility of the free-will defence, but as a code of law to be enforced by the government that plays on our deepest fears, vulnerabilities and dreams. The blind hope for a utopian world that places us and our beliefs at its centre.
“We are all atheists about most of the Gods that humanity has ever believed in, some of us just go one God further,” said Richard Dawkins. And with just one sentence, he perfectly encapsulated the paradox of faith; simply put, that each religion is a claimant on absolute truth, authority and morality, and so either only one of them is right, or none of them are. And given there has been no empirical evidence to prove the former theory in over two hundred thousand years of human existence, I would argue in favour of the latter.
Let us begin with the most sordid aspect of theology. In December 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written, of which Article 19 is arguably the most important. Without it, all the others are obliterated: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.”
Carved, however, into the scripture of every religion on the planet is the refutation of this most fundamental of human rights. And it is this intolerance that has formed and fuelled the pyre upon which the world burns.
One need only look to the Bible, which preaches: “He that keepeth his mouth keepeth his life: but he that openeth wide his lips shall have destruction” (Proverbs 13:3). And the Qur’an only echoes this sentiment: “Those who insult God and His Messenger will be rejected by God in this world and the next – He has prepared a humiliating torment for them” (Qur’an 33:57). Have you ever read anything so outrageously manipulative? These lines follow the account of the Battle of the Trench in 627CE, when Muhammad massacred nine hundred men of the Jewish Qurayzah tribe, before enslaving the women and children, confiscating all their property, and taking yet another wife. Not only is the fear of God described as the beginning of all knowledge, but also blasphemy is punishable by death. It just defies reason, it just defies it. As Salman Rushdie put it:
“What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”
It is important to clarify that the following is not an attack on the peaceful practicing Muslims of moderate Islam, but rather a critique of religion as a whole, of theology itself, and a quixotically impassioned defence of free speech. If I had been writing in the 1930’s the emphasis of this article would have been on the Roman Catholic Church, whose open alliance with anti-Semitism and fascism made it the most dangerous religion in the world and inflicted damage that our culture will most likely never recover from. Today, however, in light of the religious fractures in the societies of the Middle East, the rise of Daesh and indeed global jihadism, as well as the refugee crisis across Europe, my attention lies with the Abrahamic religion articulated by the Qur’an.
The greatest problem lies in the fact that the single proven cure for poverty is explicitly forbidden by the teachings of Islam. This cure is of course the empowerment of women, universally acknowledged as the one surefire means with which to alleviate suffering. But unsurprisingly the Qur’an advocates for exactly the opposite. Just look at the laws spelled out in the Al-Nisa’ section, in which a woman’s inheritance is decreed as exactly half that of a man’s: “God commands you that a son should have the equivalent share of two daughters” (Qur’an 4:11). Indeed, the whole chapter is filled with toxic rhetoric about temptation, ownership and abuse. It is written by men, for men, and women are spoken of like property with an intellectual and emotional capacity only just above that of livestock: “If you fear high-handedness from your wives, remind them of the teachings of God, then ignore them when you go to bed, then hit them” (Qur’an 4:34).
Defendants of Sharia law are quick to argue that the Qur’an preaches nothing but equality, justice, chastity and mercy, but please notice when you peruse its pages that all of those fine qualities are entirely dependent on absolute obedience to both men and to God. They completely exclude unbelievers, war captives and sex-slaves.
You are also still considered chaste if you are unmarried and only have sex with your slaves. So essentially if you are female, atheist, and believe in absolute equality in all areas of life, then rape, enslavement, abuse and murder are all fine in Allah’s book: “You are forbidden to take as wives […] women already married, other than your slaves. God has ordained all this for you. Other women are lawful to you, so long as you seek them in marriage […] If you wish to enjoy women, give them their bride-gift – this is obligatory – though if you should choose mutually, after fulfilling this obligation, to do otherwise, you will not be blamed” (Qur’an 4:24). It would be blindingly naïve to claim that this is anything other than a blatant sanction of rape. Look to the Sahih Hadiths of Abu Dawud, Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim (chapter 29 in particular) for confirmation.
It is a worldview founded on these very principles that is now being brought to Europe by the refugees fleeing Daesh and Assad. One cannot possibly deny this when met with stories like that of the Syrian refugee who, as payment for his family being trafficked to Europe by people smugglers, allowed and took part in the daily gang rape of his wife.
And such a mentality does not magically stop when they reach their destination. Last year a 20-year-old woman was unearthed from a grave in the small German town of Dessau who had been stabbed to death by her father and brothers after being raped by three men – her mother had demanded the killing to restore the family’s honour.
This all articulates a growing problem that remains unaddressed by governments and media alike due to the cowardly fear of being accused of racism and Islamophobia: in essence, the treatment of women by Muslim men. It is an issue that has been met with spectacular silence in recent times, most inexplicably by feminists themselves. Times columnist Melanie Phillips put it bluntly earlier this year: “Of course Muslim men don’t all behave towards women with such violence and contempt, but it is worse than idle to pretend there is no cultural factor fuelling such sexual pathologies.”
The sheer extent of this silence was demonstrated by the violent New Year’s Eve sexual attacks across German cities, with dozens being carried out in Cologne in particular, by North African and Arab men. The initial analysis laid fault with uneven sex ratios attributing the rise in sexual violence to the fact that more than two thirds of refugees reaching Greece and Southern Italy are male. Indeed, Sweden’s sex ratio of 16-17 year olds one year into the crisis now favours males more heavily than China’s, despite the latter’s decades of selective abortion. Sweden is also now the rape capital of Europe, with an incidence of rape ten times that of the other European states (The Times).
The deduction that some have made from this, that sexual crime abounds where there are too many young males, is supported by the 1995 study carried out by German social scientist Gunnar Heinsohn, who found that 60 out of 67 countries in which people aged 15-29 made up more than 30% of the population were racked by civil war or mass killings. He concluded that violence from El Salvador to Palestine was linked most closely not to poverty or religion but to a failure to provide a critical mass of young men with employment.
So this is the conclusion we are left with. Sexual violence proliferates where young men have nothing to do. Though there is an element of truth to this, unemployment indeed breeds crime, it is both unfair to men and staggeringly naïve in its denial that religion is not the most important factor.
There is a demonstrable silence around criticising Islam; not jihadism, which is almost universally condemned, but the theology itself that Muslims follow. Of course we must separate followers from what they are following, and indeed the claims that terrorists represent Islam are met with outrage, but this does not negate the fact that its followers would not exist to the same extent without the theology itself. And, like it or not, anyone who advocates and quite literally broadcasts an interpretation of it contributes to its perception.
Part of the problem is because “Islam” itself is an umbrella term for such a fractured array of groups, countries, and belief systems. So much of the animosity erupting into violence in the Middle East is due to the hatred between Sunnis and Shiites that has spawned conflicts from Iraq, Egypt, Afghanistan and Pakistan to Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. Indeed, the only time the ancient schism seems to come remotely close to unity is in its deep distrust of Zionism. And the battle lines are as nuanced as ever.
Perhaps most recently demonstrative of the deep internal conflict Islam faces has been the rapid breakdown of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Triggered by the execution of Shia Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on 2nd January, a vocal activist for free elections, Shia rights, and “the roar of the word” over violence, it has once more brought the appalling human rights violations of Saudi Arabia to the world stage. Their most unforgivable crime? Silence.
Consider Ashraf Fayadh, a Saudi Arabian artist and poet of Palestinian origin. His career has included art exhibitions across Europe and the Levant, including an active role in the British-Arabian arts organisation Edge of Arabia. Last November he was sentenced to death for apostasy. Originating in his arrest after a trivial argument with a fellow artist at a football game in 2013, this barbaric sentence claims to be based upon his promotion of atheism in his 2008 book of poems Instruction Within, while his supporters suspect it is actually a response to his posting of a video showing a man being publicly lashed by the religious police in Abha. Either way, this is just one of many examples of the total disregard for international law practiced by the Islamic kingdom. And what’s worse, it goes unchallenged by governments worldwide due to the sole reason that the totalitarian dictatorship in question controls the world’s second largest oil reserves.
Indeed, it is a country defined today by flogging, crucifixions, beheadings, amputations as a means of torture, a total lack of freedom of speech, and worst of all, a treatment of women akin to that of medieval slaves. But this fundamental belief in women’s status as an inferior species is not just contained to the cesspool of Saudi Arabia. Nor is their xenophobia and chronic conservatism, characteristics so dominant in Islamic governments.
It seems inexplicable, for instance, from a moral standpoint, that the likes of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, or the United Arab Emirates, oil-rich and able to help, have refrained from sending aid or offering shelter to the millions of refugees fleeing Iraq and Syria in the same way Israel did for the persecuted Jews in Ethiopia throughout the 1980s and 90s. Prime Minister Menachem Begin initiated the mass exodus in 1977 as well as sending in El Al 747s to literally fly as many people as possible back to Israel the following decade in daringly covert government-led airlifts. Though they then failed spectacularly to humanely integrate the Ethiopian Jews into Israeli society, at least the effort was made in the first place.
For a religion that so prides itself on its values of fellowship, community, and brotherhood, Islam is staggeringly devoid of any of this unifying sentiment, and the answer lies perhaps in the factions that have corroded it from within, to say nothing of the extremist groups that have destroyed any political and social equilibrium there may have been. And of course, these divisions were exacerbated by the savage Catholic Crusades of the Middle Ages and rampant European imperialism that sowed the seeds of resentment against the “West”. Indeed, “because they hate the West” is such a frequent cop-out for the explanation of terrorism, an easy, ignorant answer that enforces this “us” and “them” rhetoric. Because of course when you start talking about the arming of rebel groups, the funding of insurgencies, the meddling, oil interests, imperialism, the Crusades… quite simply the further back you go, the further back you need to go.
And yet, even the brief states of equilibrium in the Middle East and North Africa were maintained through oppressive dictatorships that operated under models of stringent control. Despite suffocating levels of repression, extensive infringements of rights and freedoms, sectarian discrimination, corruption, and appalling and medieval attitudes towards women, they did, for the most part, have a warped kind of stability.
From Gaddafi to Saddam Hussein, it took the shoddy dynamite of Western intervention to bring them crashing down, thereby tearing open catastrophic power vacuums that have led to today’s chaos. And what has it really achieved? Tens of thousands of people have died at the hands of Daesh, and women’s rights have been set back centuries.
Whether these regimes should have been left to transition to democracies in their own time through an osmosis of enlightened ideals is a question we will never know the answer to. Even that sounds like a thoroughly Eurocentric and elitist sentence. The world has become an increasingly more secular and tolerant place, but when a country has been forced to change through foreign intervention and invasion, the result has been something no one would have thought possible: regression.
Indeed, the whole concept of a nation has its origins in imperialist Europe, deriving from Latin “natio” for “people” or “tribe”, though its literal meaning is, rather significantly, “birth”, forcing us to challenge the nature of our nationalities and the ultimately arbitrary boundaries decided by chance and circumstance over the years. Boundaries, after all, are utterly human constructs. Israeli political scientist Azar Gat argues that Ancient Egypt was the world’s “first national state”, but after millennia of evolution, and in the wake of the shattering forces of imperialism, statecraft seems to have sown only seeds of violence.
This brings us to a developing school of thought, governance in areas of limited statehood, and the fundamental question of whether “Arab state” is simply an oxymoron. Where such states do appear to retain a semblance of stability, their skeletons are composed not of mechanisms of democracy, pluralism and tolerance but stringent economic and social control, enforced with a divine mandate.
No rational person could disagree that Islamic-ruled countries like Saudi Arabia are truly terrifying places. “The spiritual savage caged within my skeleton,” wrote Elinor Wylie in her 1921 poem Full Moon, articulating the force of her rage in a world of moral corruption where she felt utterly suppressed by the sheer level of materialism and conformity. This is the kind of rage I feel when thinking about the horrors that women face in Islamic countries on a daily basis: the expectation of total subordination to men, the constant threat of physical violence, the utter objectification, and above all the ingrained cultural belief that they are inferior beings, that this is just how life works, Allah’s bidding, what they deserve. Call me ignorant, an outsider, lofty and moralising, I don’t care.
And yet Saudi Arabia, due to reasons entirely to do with economics, has remained free of that sententious Western dynamite. If it wasn’t so rich in oil, if we didn’t rely on its cooperation to such an extent, would we have at some point cried “WMD” and removed the Saud dynasty? One can imagine a parallel universe out there where exactly this happened, and where yet another jihadist group rose from the ashes of the dismantled kingdom to declare war on the world.
Is this then what we face when it comes to Islamic countries?
There is of course a place for Muslims in secular democracies where religious tolerance is unimpeachable law. And of course refugees should be unconditionally welcome. But the New Year attacks in Germany, the child sex-trafficking horrors in Rotherham, the shocking leap of rape incidents in Sweden, none of them were due to gender ratios, to one-dimensional economic facts. It is not that there were more young men, but that there were more young Muslim men. This is a contrarian view indeed, one that is almost impossible to posit without being ferociously condemned as backward, racist and Islamophobic, especially when such a standpoint was so toxified by the BNP and European neo-Nazis.
But there is a silenced truth that I would dare to voice.
We cannot expect a peaceful and progressive marriage of cultures and religions when the countries these abusive men in particular are coming from operate on the fundamental belief that women are inferior. Just take a look at those passages from the Qur’an and consider them in conjunction with the fact that Islam is followed by 90% of the population of Syria, 74% of those being Sunni Muslims whose society still closely adheres to four different schools of Islamic law (statistics from the U.S State Department).
We live in a fragile world. Nuclear weapons are allegedly being tested and developed in North Korea, Putin’s Russia looms like a spectre behind seemingly all worldwide conflicts, a violent culture of crime rages almost unopposed among the gangs of Latin America, political relations balance on a knife-edge between the likes of Taiwan, Tibet and China, child trafficking, poverty and civil war still reign across vast swathes of Africa, and fascist factions are rising in the political wings from France to the US.
But the one conflict that dominates parliamentary debates and headlines worldwide, the single most controversial topic of discussion, is the conflict with radical Islam, one that has been so polarised by the refugee crisis. It seems like there have only been one of two fates for Islamic countries in recent times, either a collapsed regime that has bred medieval extremism, or a stable yet toxic state where peaceful human rights activists are flogged and beheaded and women are not even free to drive a car.
Part of me thinks that a country bound by one religion is simply not one with a model conducive to equal rights, and that we should never have interfered in the first place with regimes founded on their ancient principles. But then again it is these very regimes that seem to lead inevitably to human rights violations. And where Article 19 in particular is broken, we have a moral imperative to help, which I say subjectively of course given there is no such thing as objective morality. But to me “help” means emergency aid, humanitarian missions, political and economic sanctions, loans for medicine and infrastructure, and open doors to fleeing citizens, not ill-informed military campaigns.
Bombing Iraq and Syria is like bombing a prison filled with thousands of innocent men, women, and children to kill a handful of guards. How will Daesh ever be defeated then, you ask. The answer to that is that there is no answer.
The UN’s ‘Blue Berets’ are free to offer military support to the nation in question’s armies while individual Western countries should be sending in food and medical aid in modern-day Operation Manna-style operations (when the RAF dropped food supplies on the starving Dutch in 1945), as well as focusing on improving their own security and intelligence procedures to prevent terrorist attacks through cross-border police collaboration, intelligence sharing, Anonymous-style hacking, and a crackdown on social media and radicalisation websites inciting racial hatred and jihadism.
But that’s it.
By all means help refugees, we’re human, they’re human, but don’t be scared to break political correctness and blame Islam for any violence that may take root as a result. It is a religion that is an amalgamation of many different interpretations given the sheer number of sects that exist within it. Not only are these sects failing to co-exist in peace, they all seem to claim absolute authority over the others, from the Shi’ites, to the Sunnis, to the Salafis, to the Sufis, to the Ibadis, to the Ahmadis, and so on. This does not mean blaming individual Muslims who live and work beside us, who befriend and marry us as we do them. Indeed, rhetoric like “us” and “them” itself is half the problem in our bigoted little worlds.
But Islam on the whole is a religion that still has to evolve to accommodate basic human equalities that have only been realised by the males of our species in the last few decades, in particular those around women’s and LGBTQ+ rights.
And so that should be our ultimatum to faith: evolution or extinction. This is not a demand of peaceful moderate Muslims, but one of the very theology of Islam itself. Its followers either have to admit that a two thousand year old code of law should be subject to the natural amendments that time and reason bring, or it should be binned altogether.
Islam is not alone in this of course. It is a tenet of all monotheistic religions that they hold a monopoly on morality and basic decency, and it is a delusion that is doing far more harm than good, resulting in the justification of truly immoral crimes. But the Qu’ran is less a collection of myths and legends than it is a rulebook, the words of the Prophet that should be taken as unimpeachable instruction, disobedience of which means eternal damnation.
This is what is so terrifying about Sharia law. While most Christian-dominant countries clearly have either an official or unofficial separation between church and state in place, Islamic governments base their laws on the Qur’an, thereby making atheism illegal. This is why the US, still 80% Christian, is able to be so liberal, because the Bible is perhaps, crucially, second in importance to that one document so fundamental to the identity of the American citizen: the Constitution.
But that’s no excuse for the misogynistic homophobes of the Republican Party and the 50% of the electorate who don’t bother to vote. Funnily enough these tend to be the most religious people.
And so once again I can only echo Hitch. Those of faith must realise that “human decency is not derived from religion, it precedes it.”