This week I will be in Belfast, acting as defence witness in the case of Pastor James McConnell, the Evangelical minister who is being prosecuted for preaching that “Islam is heathen, Islam is Satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell”. While these are sentiments with which, as a Muslim academic and clergyman, I’m hardly going to agree, nevertheless I believe it is the very freedom of speech of Christians and Muslims to disagree and critique religious ideas that is on trial here - wherein lies the moral imperative to take a stand.
One of my closest friends from Oxford (being his best man was my surpassing honour) is an Irishman who is a brilliant multilinguist and scholar of medieval Arabic poetry. He remarked with amusement that my witness statement for the Ulster pastor had cited the pregnantly ambivalent Irish saying, “Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine”, namely that as Protestants, Catholics, Muslims and Jews, we all live in one other’s shadow in this land and are bidden thereby to embrace the ambiguities that this generates for our common life together.
In my teaching for the counter-terrorism programmes of the Westminster Institute and Marshall Center, a recurring theme is the dictum of the Egyptian Islamist group, al-Jama’ah al-Islamiyah, that proclaims “al-fikr kufr”, namely that “freethinking is heresy”. This precept is exquisitely executed by Daesh (Islamic State) banning coloured pencils in Iraq and Syria, and trashing priceless antiquities.
Centuries-old Islamic art crafted in a fine filigree that is borne out of piety and adoration of God, comes face to face with the bulldozers of the Islamists, whose iconoclasm extends to destroying the very God-given creativity of the human mind.
My colleague, the Bosnian Islamic scholar, Professor Rusmir Mahmutcehajic, laments how the petrodollar-funded juggernaut of Wahhabism has desecrated the most historic sites in sacred Makkah, turned the grave of the Prophet’s mother into a public lavatory, and sabotaged the diverse and iridescent ecology of local Balkan Islam, Malian Islam, Indonesian Islam.
The prince of classical Arab poets, Al-Mutanabbi, famously warns us, “If you see the bared teeth of the beast, think not that the beast is smiling”. The monetised interfaith public relations industry has in certain cases become an arena of just such crocodile grins, where religious politicians ensure that speaking of prophetic hard truths about religious oppression is ever subordinate to the dictats of politically correct diplomacy.
The fact is when the Irish or British governments fail to uphold free speech in the face of religious lobbying, to recognise that the house of Islam is a place of diverse voices in disagreement, and instead following a colonialist pattern of putting all Muslims in a box and saying, “Take me to your leader”, it will always be the loudest and most unscrupulous politicians who will ascend to that seat of self-appointed spokesmanship.
It will always be the pleas of domestically-incarcerated Muslim women and dissenting Muslim academics which go unheard. It will always be the state Established Church and other religious power which out of political utility collaborates with this Islamist oppression of the vulnerable, just as the English bishops have been inadequate in their advocating for non-white, non-wealthy, non-Western persecuted Christians in the Muslim world.
It has, and always will be thus, until society comes to the understanding that God’s truth and true spirituality actually resides most fully in the weakest, the most marginal among us, and those people who are hurting precisely because of religion.
Muslims, like everyone else, are people of multiple belongings and loyalties. I’m a member of an ancient family, an Arsenal/Celtic supporter, a member of my local boxing club and, proudest of all, a member of my local branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann.
Islamic Scripture upholds as paramount the primary duty to one’s dhu al-qurba or “possessors of near relation”, being one’s elderly parents, my boyhood English and Irish and Scots-American brothers, neighbours, academic colleagues, mates on the Irish trad scene.
Among the people I respect most is the modestly-spoken and hugely talented accordion player, Gary Connolly, who once said to me, “You’ll never find friends like musician friends. Wherever in the world you go, you just have this bond - this bond because of the passion you share”. After Paris, if ever there was a wisdom to live by, it is this.
Sheikh Dr Muhammad Al-Hussaini is Senior Fellow in Islamic Studies at the Westminster Institute (Twitter: @MYAlHussaini)