In the aftermath of the Manchester bombing, tensions are quite understandably running high. The terror threat level has been raised to critical and the army are now a visible presence on some streets. Manchester is in mourning and my own town of Royton, in Oldham, has felt the full shock as two mothers from the local area were killed in the attack. You can read my comments on how we might respond to the atrocity here.
When nerves are so fraught, it is easy to allow reactionary and ill-considered emotions to overtake. In my original post, I was taken to task by one commenter for daring to report that some Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims – regular students to our weekly English Classes – condemned the bombing with reference to a Qur’anic verse. I was labelled ‘disgusting’ and accused of ‘misleading’ readers because I didn’t put the text quoted into what my interlocutor deemed the appropriate context.
In truth, the point I was making was a simple one: not all Muslims are jihadists. I made no comment on the verse they quoted nor on the hermeneutics they employed. I simply reported that this was how they justified their position. They viewed the perpetrator as an aberration and could not accept he was motivated by the same principles of Islam that they followed. This was not an attempt at airbrushing Islam on my part, it had the more humble goal of simply not tarring every Muslim with the same brush. I wanted to allow them to speak for themselves as to why – as far as they were concerned – the Manchester bomber was not acting according to their understanding of Islam.
Clearly I do not subscribe to Islam. I do not believe Mohammad is a prophet sent from God nor do I believe the Qur’an is inspired of God. My Muslim friends are entirely aware of this because we speak about it often. I have no desire to defend Islam and I have no particular vested interest in permitting my Muslim friends to escape the harder parts of their text. But that was neither within the scope of my previous article nor the point I was intending to make.
However they explain their particular beliefs, however they conclude the Manchester bombing was a gross act of evil, is a matter for them. That they do not share the views of jihadis and that they view the Manchester bombing as an act of gross evil is the point that matters. Whatever approach they take to the interpretation of the Qur’an and however they intellectually satisfy themselves that their beliefs concord with their sacred text, the fact that they do so is what fundamentally matters in respect to society.
The fact is that the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the UK do not believe in violent jihad. It doesn’t matter if we, reading the Qur’an, believe it clearly teaches violent jihad. What matters is that those who follow it, interpret it in such a way that it doesn’t lead to violence. The truth is that most do not read the Qur’an in the same way as those who would blow up children at a concert. We need enough balance to be clear that most Muslims do not support violent jihad.
At the same time, however, let us not be so foolish as to say things like ‘Islam has nothing to do with it’. Clearly the actions of those engaged in violent jihad are drawn from the Qur’an. They justify their actions using their sacred texts. We cannot pretend those doing these things aren’t Muslims. There is a brand of Salafi-Wahabbi Islam that actively encourages such behaviour.
Likewise, arguments that ‘these things also happen in Christianity’ simply don’t stack up. Yes, you may find individuals claiming to be Christians doing heinous things. What you won’t find, however, is whole denominations within Christendom – such as Catholics, Pentecostals or Baptists – suggesting such things are fine and giving theological justification to the behaviour. The same cannot be said for Islam.
It is important to recognise that most Muslims do not subscribe to the violent forms of Salafi-Wahabbism that tends to lead to such heinous evil. But just as the vast majority of Christians are paedobaptist, they cannot insist that Baptists aren’t real Christians because we don’t baptise babies. Just because we don’t agree with the theology and practice of some within our camp, doesn’t mean we can deny they belong under the same banner. We can no more say Salafi-Wahabbi jihadists aren’t Muslim than we can say Pentecostals or Anglicans aren’t Christian. This ideology is drawn from the Qur’anic text. It is a theologically considered and, to some degree, consistent position. We may not like it, we may recognise it is not a majority view within Islam, we may even reject it as a distortion of the text, but let us not say ‘Islam has nothing to do with it’ or ‘these are not true Muslims’. That just doesn’t wash.
This is, therefore, a plea for balance in our discussion. Let us not suggest all Muslims are the same; they clearly are not. Let us not suggest all Muslims are terrorists; they certainly are not. Let us not insist that those Muslims who decry terrorism in the name of Islam somehow support the kind of atrocity we saw in Manchester; they do not. Most Muslims genuinely believe that theirs is a religion of peace and they live their lives in a manner consistent with that view. How they justify that position when faced with the Qur’an is not the issue; that they justify the position when faced with the Qur’an is the issue.
At the same time, let us not pretend that Islam is somehow utterly uninvolved with these atrocities. Clearly Islam has something to do with it. Even though the majority of Muslims reject such readings of the Qur’an, some clearly take the violence as literally intended and as applicable for today in the modern West. We do not need to hold all Muslims to account, or to pretend that all Muslims are the same, to be able to recognise that Islam – at least in some measure – does have something to do with these attacks. After all, we’re not seeing swathes of Jews, Buddhist or Christians doing it, are we?