Looking back

A couple of weeks ago, “Tommy Robinson”, fresh from leaving behind leadership English Defence, had an unscheduled discussion on BBC Three Counties Radio when he popped in to defend his name. His conversation with Abdul Qadeer Baksh, Iman and President of Luton Islamic Centre, involved Qadeer apparently claiming that in the ideal world gay people would be punished, and some executed. I joined that discussion as it continued on twitter, but withdrew pretty quickly as the 140 character constraints of twitter (minus the characters involved in copying several people in on a conversation) do not allow one to say things that need careful phrasing and clarity. I have however been accused of defending Islamists and being a homophobe, hence this post.

A debate on twitter between four or five people is perhaps the proverbial storm in a teacup, and in itself hardly makes for a crisis in interfaith understanding, but since it follows the lines of other conversations I’ve had in recent weeks, I think it’s worth some time. Moreover, as “Tommy” seems to want to talk to Muslims, I hope he will also listen to other Christians, and learn from the conversations we have with Muslims. These are not about compromise, but seek cooperation in what we hold in common, understanding over what divides us, and above all friendship in spite of difference. And it is important to add that as missionary faiths it is certainly my hope that our message may bring change to the other, and I know my Muslim friends share a reciprocal hope. When we keep those cards on the table life is a lot easier.

I have come to respect Qadeer for all the work he has done de-radicalising extremists for many years now, and in challenging the violent Jihad supporting extremists of al-Muhajiroun (aka Muslims against the Crusades, etc), and we have worked together to challenge all extremes in Luton. He and I have had several long conversations over the years, including several on the media, and while I don’t claim to represent him, and as a committed Christian don’t share his Muslim faith, I feel I understand his thinking.

In summary, in the process of a conversation that sought to clarify “Tommy’s” new position, Tommy turned the focus on Qadeer by asking his views on Shariah law, and it’s treatment of gays. Qadeer said that in an ideal Islamic state, though not a western secular society, gays would be punished. He was however very clear he had no desire to see Shariah law imposed on Great Britain. Pressed by Tommy on what his ideal for Britain would be he said he wanted peace, tranquillity, happiness, all religions getting on together. If Shariah was to come it would only do so by the people choosing it. Not by force, war, killing, harming people. In an ideal Shariah society rules don’t have to be implemented.

Nearly three weeks on, let’s look again at that. Does that mean Qadeer hates gays, or is a homophobe? Maybe controversially, I want to suggest it doesn’t. Does he disagree personally and as a conservative Muslim leader with homosexual practice? Yes, clearly he does. To understand this, and to have the conversation that Tommy wants to have with Muslims, I suggest that he needs to understand how a Muslim thinks. I fact I suggest it’s understanding we all need if we are to have an intelligent conversation about the place of not just Islam but any faith in our society. And I include Christianity in that.

Let me be clear here. I reject all that leads to fear and hatred. For several years I have consistently stood against the rise of hatred in our town and nation. The growing number of physical attacks on Muslims and mosques are the tip of the iceberg; below the surface they are backed by a huge volume of verbal and online attacks on Muslims. The speeches, placards, chants and songs at EDL demonstrations, and the unregulated posting on their social media pages have been a significant part of that rampant slandering of Muslims and Islam. I continue to hope Tommy has left that behind, and others will follow him. The hatred and fear that comes from the extremists of al-Muhajiroun, MAC etc. who were part of spurring the EDL into existence are equally to be condemned. It would be strange then if I didnt equally condemn the hatred of homosexuals. Homophobia is wrong. And it is wrong for gay people to live in fear in our society.

How then can I suggest Qadeer, despite the apparent clarity of his religious beliefs, is not a homophobe? Again I do not seek to represent him, or those who hold a similar view, but as a Christian whose approach to faith has ways of thinking that are parallel to his I can understand something of the way he thinks. Christian belief and theology has similar structures to Islam as well as much in common with it, and so similar approaches to interpretation (liberal, contextual, conservative, literal, etc) have developed. And very importantly the application of what we believe to how we live in relation to society has expressed itself in similar ways.

While hatred is totally wrong, and is condemned by Christianity and Islam alike, we need to understand how religious belief, and especially the clear statements in the “Big Books” of our respective faiths, inform our personal morality and our social agenda. I am shifting the subject here away from Islam, because I face a similar challenge as a Christian, as do all faiths. The Bible, and in particular the Hebrew Scriptures we share with the Jews (the Old Testament), contain clear statements that seem to condemn homosexual practice. Moreover Christians have had a history of intolerance of gay people. I am ashamed of that history. I want to live now as a good citizen in a free society seeking fairness, tolerance and a freedom from fear of repression for all. Yet, as a Christian I cannot in good faith just throw out Biblical passages I do not like, and nor should I expect a Muslim to do the same. I must at least have an understanding of that passage and how it was to be interpreted; and an understanding on how it is to be applied. If as a result of that understanding I can live alongside my gay neighbour peacefully and tolerantly I want to suggest I do not rate as a homophobe. And nor should my Muslim neighbour be called a homophobe. Life and a commitment to the welfare of this world in our pluralistic society requires people of good will to work together. And that sums it up for me. Qadeer is a person of good will, seeks the best for society, and I believe he deserves better than to be dismissed as a homophobe.

There will of course be those who take the same scriptures and blatantly adopt hateful language, and intolerant policy. We have them in the church, and they exist in Islam. I want to say that is hate speech and hate policy, it is homophobia, and it deserves to be condemned as such. But again, that is not where I see Qadeer.

So what is this ideal society, and how does Muslim law, the Shariah, relate to it? I want again to start with the Christian parallel. As a Christian I seek to live by the laws that God gave, and which are laid out in the Hebrew books of the law. Their summary is in the Ten Commandments, and they are developed extensively, and together make up a law code that was given to the Jewish people as they were on the exodus journey that would conclude in establishment of a new nation. Jesus Christ summed up that law in two parts, a call to love God with all ones being, and to love neighbour as self (and he extended the view of neighbour to include everyone). But importantly he said we were not “under” that law, but endorsed the understanding of the Hebrew prophets that there would come a day when the law would be written in our hearts rather than just on tablets of stone, and that the Spirit of God would help us in that. In other words most importantly as Christians we live by God’s law because we have committed ourselves to God and submitted to his ways, and it is our desire to live that way.

Christians have through history debated how the law is most perfectly lived out, in each person’s heart and choice, or through becoming the law of the land. The British experience was that the first led to the second. Christian mission to the British Isles by Roman and Celtic churches starting around AD450 led to such changes in individual lives and culture that it resulted in England uniting under a law derived closely from Biblical law during the rule of Alfred the Great in the late 800’s. Much could be said about this, but we can say that Biblical law did not come by the sword in the British Isles. There were sadly places in Europe where compulsion through the sword led to the imposition of Christianity, and the abuse of power by a Christian state led to many things being done in the name of Christianity that had nothing to do with true faith. The carrying of the sword to Muslim lands in the name of Christ during the crusades represented perhaps the worst of that compulsion.

My understanding as I talk to Muslims is that they have a very similar understanding to myself as a Christian in how they think about Shariah. As the ideal law of Allah it represents his best for their lives, and guides their life. They submit to it gladly and indeed love it. It is not primarily a matter of agreement, but of faithful submission. A Muslim is one who is submitted to the law of God. There is no compulsion in religion, and they should not compel any to submit or comply.

That is what I hear Qadeer saying very clearly in his statements as he talk to Tommy. Like me he seeks to be a good member of our society, and works to overcome intolerance and hatred.