Faith and secularism – the new cold war

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SHAFAQNA – Shaykh Ahmed Hanif is a Canadian now residing in the UK. He attended York University, and Mac Master University. While at University, he was involved in the black power struggles in the 1970’s and the anti racism and apartheid struggles of the 1980’s. He accepted Islam in 1982 and subsequently left Canada to pursue Islamic Studies at one of the traditional seats of higher learning in the Holy City of Qom in the Islamic Republic of Iran. 

Muslims in Britain are on the frontline of a new cold war between faith based and secular mindsets. Most of the currently available socio-economic statistics highlighting the situation of Muslims in the West also indicates that they are now faced with trends that could seriously threaten their very survival in Europe. How they respond to these existential threats will profoundly affect and perhaps even determine the destiny of future generations in a huge way.

So how well are the Muslim communities equipped to engage in this war which some say is evidenced in the rising challenges they face on poverty, discrimination, ill health, unemployment and much more. Are they even aware of the political economic social and religious predicament affecting their lives in Britain; and are they equipped to tackle the disturbing rise in hatred against them?

Shaykh Ahmed Hanif, from the Islamic Centre of England, thinks they are not. He points to islamophobia as an example of one of the key threats they face which has not been confronted adequately. He says the islamophobia phenomena is, however, a symptom of a deeper underlying root cause which ‘arises by virtue of a broader secular stereotype and prejudice against religion as a source of ideas’. In his opinion ‘Islam is an in your face religion which insists on both an outward and inward expression and one which has laws, rules and preferences about how to create a community.’ This he asserts poses a very direct challenge to the forces of secularism in the West.

Secularists would disagree of course arguing that in fact they continue to uphold freedom of religious expression but also prevent the return of religious abuses synonymous with the practises of the Church in the European medieval era. Shaykh Haneef says that this is not the case and that ‘whilst secularism may once have aimed to protect religion, the fact is that now secularism itself has become an ideology which dictates that religion has no place in science or governance or contemporary philosophy’ and that in reality ‘secularism is no longer there to protect religion’ but is now its chief protagonist.

The Muslim communities arrival in the West in significant numbers, the Rushdie Affair, 9/11, Al Qaeda and ISIS have all contributed to the accelerated revival of a heightened cold war between secularism and religion across Europe. A cold war which is now being exacerbated by the steady rise of right wing nationalism and economic decline.

Muslim communities in Britain are ill prepared and not ready to engage in this war. Their disunity, lack of centralized leadership, intra-denominational strife, are just some causes of the Muslim infrastructural fragility in Britain according to Shaykh Hanif. He argues that ‘if you want to ward off a disease you need to focus on your body’ first indicating the Muslim community leaderships need to urgently review their priorities, capacity and  capability in order ‘to sort themselves out before engaging with’ external foes.

He believes his own religious denomination, the Ithna’ashari Shia, are actually engaged ‘ in fighting to maintain their ethnic and religious cultural identities as well as a battle to maintain a vibrant Shia knowledge.’ In his opinion ‘they don’t yet feel sufficiently integrated in Western society to say they are ready to contribute in this or that way’ to the culture of Britain either.’

He sees the Shia community is in evolution, and that it has become more ‘British’ but also believes that they and Britain’s wider Muslim communities ‘can themselves determine the nature of their Britishness’ as opposed to being assimilated into a manufactured state-engineered British Muslim identity.

Shaykh Hanif also hasn’t yet seen the emergence of a centralized leadership or scholarship that the community can fully trust, and he argues for more dialogue and community consensus on how the future of Britain’s Muslims should be shaped. The youth he says can be a major beneficiary of such processes.

Shaykh Ahmed Hanif points to the fact that ‘90% of the Ulama and scholars who currently lead the Muslim communities are not rooted in Britain or its culture and cannot even talk the language of their environment’ In his opinion it is not possible for such leadership to guide the Muslim youth effectively on how to navigate the many challenges thrown up by neo-liberal hyper-materialist culture’. He urges that academics professionals and experts from all backgrounds ‘need to step up to the plate and become leaders’ rather than dwelling in the fetishist expectation that only the Ulama should lead communities in the field of political, cultural and social development. He concluded by saying that ‘we need people who can synthesize their practical experience, knowledge and specialization to combine these with those people who have the contextualising, integrating and delivery capability at grass roots level.’ To win this particular ‘cold war’ it seems Muslims need to firstly wake up to its existence and then to organize themselves to begin rising to the challenge it poses to their existence in the West. A prospect that seems highly unlikely at present.

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