Bismillah. Some thoughts:
1) Editorial balance
The programme was understandable perhaps, given the anxiety about Islam in UK society. But for editorial balance, maybe the BBC should also investigate other faith schools and communities, e.g.:
a) Judaism. The most senior Rabbi (Sephardi) of the Shas movement in Israel appears to have revolting, bigoted views: for example, recently wishing plague and death on all Palestinians (retracted later after an international outcry, it seems) and declaring that Goyim (Gentiles) exist only to serve Jews. (Both stories are from the Jerusalem Post.) The Shas is part of the Israeli coalition government. Just as we in the UK are right to question the impact of overseas-based Islamist (political Islam) groups such as AQ, HT, JI & MB in Britain, we should also be worried about the influence of Shas’ leading rabbi amongst British Jews. We assume and hope that such influence is minimal.
Further, the ideology of right-wing Israeli settlers needs to be explored and challenged, along with its connections in the UK. Some of these settlers appear to be violently extremist and racist, wishing to live “a pure way of life according to the Torah” in such a way that they must live in Jewish-only neighbourhoods and settlements, i.e. making peaceful coexistence with Palestinian, mainly-Muslim but also Christian, neighbours extremely difficult. The settlements are a major obstacle to ME peace as is well-known, and it’s about time that settler ideology and its UK links was examined more closely. See Robi Damelin, a brave Israeli woman, challenging some of these Jewish extremists in the remarkable film Encounter Point that also features Ali Abu Awwad, an equally-courageous Palestinian man. (Watch the trailer on the film’s website, and excerpts here.)
Oh, and a US-based rabbi and Tea Party activist (enough said) spoke recently at an EDL rally in London.
b) Christianity. Children attending fundamentalist churches in the UK have been spotted wearing T-shirts glorifying Terry Jones, the infamous US pastor. Not good.
c) Hinduism. The problem of Hindu extremism is well-known in India, with the Gujarat massacres (2002) a recent example. Some Hindu extremists are even known to argue that their worship of Shiva, their god of destruction, entails using nuclear weapons on their enemies, such as Pakistan. Again, Hindu and Sikh communities in the UK are known to reflect subcontinental problems here, just like Muslims of South Asian origin.
It’s fair to say that over the last decade, Muslims have been at the forefront of tackling the extremism within. We have been setting an example in that regard, and would encourage friends of other faiths to follow suit.
2) On fundamentalism
I was surprised some years ago to find Sheikhs such as Hamza Yusuf and Abdal Hakim Murad talking about “Muslim fundamentalists.” The Prince of Wales also talked about fundamentalism at the opening ceremony of the Tent at St. Ethelburga’s in London. After years of reflection, I realised that I had been a fundamentalist for most of my life and that Muslim discourse is often dominated by fundamentalism. (Hey, YM even used to have T-shirts saying, “YM – Putting the Fun back into Fundamentalism” :-)) I came up with my “definition” of fundamentalism that was quoted by the Daily Telegraph last year (31 Dec 2009) and by Panorama: “reading scriptures out of context,” i.e. out of their historical and normative-faith context. Note that this applies to all faiths, not just Islam, as shown by the examples given above.
3) On the term kafir (pl. kuffar), meaning non-believer
The Panorama quote said it all. I also took part in a 1-hour discussion with Prof. Tariq Ramadan and others on Press TV last year. As I said there, and to Panorama (not shown), many Muslims don’t realise how offensive the term “Kafir” can be to Westerners: many are immediately reminded of the white racists of apartheid-era South Africa who used the Afrikaans term “Caffer” for coloured people, and “Caffer” seems to have been borrowed from the Arabic.
By the way, the Jewish community has exactly the same issue with the Hebrew word Goy (pl. Goyim) meaning Gentile or non-Jew. Just over 20 years ago, I was part of a group of 4-5 young activists led by Abu Muntasir who tried to attend an Israel Expo at Alexandra Palace in between our Sunday circles at various London venues. We were dressed in Arab robes and turbans and were correctly prevented by security from entering the Expo, on the grounds that our presence would have probably provoked serious disorder. We had a polite chat with the security and police about the matter, but a group of Jewish youths chanted “Goyim, Goyim” at us. Who taught them that?
4) Advice to the Saudis
Please learn more about the Ahl al-Kitab and stop writing nonsense in your school textbooks. So, for example, please stop distorting the Qur’anic criticism of Bani Israil (Children of Israel or Israelites) into your vilification of all Jews. So, for example, “list the reprehensible qualities of the Jews” should read, “list the reprehensible qualities of the Israelites” (in the Qur’anic account). You could also teach in that section that the Qur’anic account echoes the Ahl al-Kitab sources themselves (the Old and New Testaments), where the faults of the Israelites are exposed by Isaiah, Jesus and other prophets, peace be upon them. Of course, the Qur’an also praises the merits of the Israelites, such as the large number of Prophets that were chosen from them. More below on the specific Qur’anic criticism of Judaism & Christianity.
5) A major error by Panorama
It is unfortunate that you relied on your undercover Saudi, whose English was clearly poor, for translation of a complex passage written in neo-classical Arabic, about 23 min into the programme. He totally mistranslated it as “Jews look like monkeys and pigs” which became headline news around the world. The failure to check his translation with experts is an error of judgment on your part, which perhaps merits an apology and/or a correction from the BBC, due to the highly-inflammatory nature of the mistranslation. What do you think the reaction would have been, had you broadcast a mistranslation of a Hebrew text used in Jewish schools to say that “all non-Jews are dogs” or such like? The only mitigating factor in this case is that the correct translation of the Arabic text is not pretty, although it is nowhere near as bad as the mistranslation broadcast to millions of viewers.
The two paragraphs are almost entirely visible in the Panorama close-up, and my translation of the relevant parts is as follows:
The Jews were given knowledge of the Book of God (The Torah and Gospel) … yet they believed in falsehood such as the worshipping of idols, fortune-telling, magic, following Satan, opposing the Truth out of envy and transgression. In this there is condemnation of them and a warning for us, not to do as they did.
… [In reference to Qur’an, 5:60] God Most Glorified says to His Prophet: shall I inform you of those who will attain the worst reward with God on the Day of Resurrection? They are the Jews, whom God has cursed and will never be pleased with them. Those who violated the Sabbath amongst them were punished by being transformed into apes and pigs.
In both paragraphs, “Jews” should read “Israelites,” as discussed above. The word “Jews” does not occur at all in the relevant Qur’anic passages, but the Saudis have used it instead of “Israelites” due to their ignorance about the Ahl al-Kitab. The “worshipping of idols” is a reference to the golden calf, another story that is found in all Abrahamic sources. The Ashab al-Sabt (lit., “People of the Sabbath”) is a famous Qur’anic term for those who violated the Sabbath in the well-known story (Qur’an 2:65, 4:47, 4:154, 7:163-6).
Once one is well-grounded in the Qur’anic discourse, it is relatively easy to present these Qur’anic stories in an authentic and balanced way. By the grace of God, I was able to present the easily-misunderstood “apes and pigs” Qur’anic story on the Guardian Comment Is Free online forum earlier this year, where I wrote the following:
As an example, take the story about an Israelite fishing village tested by its local fish only coming near on the Sabbath (2:65, 5:60, 7:163-167). Some of the villagers fished indirectly on the Sabbath and thus mocked the law by sticking to its letter whilst violating its spirit. They were punished by “becoming apes and pigs”. The traditional commentary is that they were literally transformed into lower animals. However, Asad follows the rationalist commentators and has them becoming like apes and pigs, i.e. losing their intellectual capacities and becoming dominated by greed.
The above was written on an overwhelmingly leftist, anti-religious, secularist forum but not a single one of the commenters, who are usually harsh and aggressive, could even claim that this was objectionable, xenophobic or anti-Semitic.
6) On the Qur’anic criticism of Jews and Christians
Yes, there is plenty of this. The Qur’an and the Prophet (peace be upon him), echoing Isaiah, Christ and other prophets (peace be upon them) set out to critique the errors of Judaism and Christianity, seen as having departed from the true path of submission to God. A major aim of this critique is to regain the balance between the Mosaic Law and the Christian Spirit, between the outer and inner aspects of faith, i.e. between exoterism and esoterism.
And yes, the opening chapter of the Qur’an (al-Fatiha) mentions “those who receive anger” and “those who go astray.” To refer these two terms to the Jews and Christians respectively is well-known in Qur’anic commentary, and is transmitted from many of the Followers, Companions and even the Prophet himself (peace be upon him). But the Prophet (pbuh) famously also prophesied that Muslims would follow Jews and Christians in their mistakes, every step of the way. Therefore, to quote such verses and commentary in a xenophobic way, in our times, is arrogant and pathetic, and forgets the warning to us, not to repeat the mistakes of others. In fact, it should be noted that all the Qur’anic criticism of the Ahl al-Kitab (“People of Scripture”) applies also to Muslims, who are Ahl al-Qur’an or People of the Qur’an, which is also Scripture, of course.
The great Qur’an-commentators understood this well: Imam al-Alusi, when discussing verses mentioning Jews and Christians, usually if not always, gives the deepest or innermost meaning as “exoterists” (ahl al-zahir) and “esoterists” (ahl al-batin), respectively, including those amongst the Muslims. In other words, religion must not be reduced to hollow, soulless and pedantic legalism, ritualism and literalism, nor must it become a vague “spirituality” without practical form and social order. These verses must therefore be read as internal criticism of Muslims as well as external criticism of religious mistakes in general, and this has always been the enlightened Islamic way. Balancing the inner and outer aspects of faith is the supreme achievement of the great men and women of God, such as Noah, Abraham, Moses, Mary, Jesus Christ and Muhammad, peace be upon them all.
7) Advice to those exposed on British TV as preachers of hate (or HaTe)
This includes Riyad-ul-Haq, Murtaza Khan and others. Please read the points above on understanding scripture, and take them to heart. I have more years and experience than you in such matters, especially inter-faith discussions and Scriptural Reasoning. I have met some of you since the media first described you as “hate-preachers”, and trust that you have retracted your comments, learnt from your mistakes and moved on. What you should do is issue public statements, e.g. via your websites, blogs, organisations, press releases etc., stating that you regret and retract any offensive comments made in the past. There is no humiliation or loss of face in admitting one’s mistakes, and we have the example of Prophet Moses in this regard. When the Pharaoh reminded him of his accidental killing of an Egyptian, Prophet Moses replied, “I did that then, when I was amongst those away from the path.” (Surah al-Qasas, of course)
I have been through this process. Soon after 9/11 and the subsequent, illegal NATO invasion of Afghanistan, I wrote a strident article, “Recapturing Islam from the Pacifists.” I retracted the extremist and offensive parts of that later (and repeat the retraction here, since the occasional hostile people still mention the article), most notably when I chaired the RMW event in London after 7/7 where Shaykhs Hamza Yusuf and Abu Muntasir were the guest speakers. Detailed interviews with journalists such as Paul Cruickshank and Johann Hari also helped to clarify publicly the fact that I had moved on. (Sheikhs HY and AM had already made their own public retractions after 9/11 and 7/7).
Unfortunately, there are also hate-preachers who appear not to have retracted their offensive views and/or comments. To those who defend such people by saying that they are religious and good people, consider this: many people who support the BNP, EDL and other dubious organisations are otherwise decent, family-oriented, hardworking people. However, they may have some racist, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic views which they sometimes state in public. There are other people who pray and fast, are otherwise decent, family-oriented and hardworking people who have xenophobic (anti-“kuffar”) views, including towards Jews, Hindus, etc., which they sometimes state in public. What is the difference, if any, between the two cases?
8. Contact the BBC
If you’d like to have your say, do contact the BBC. The Complaints page is here, see also their short response about the above programme. Or you may wish to write to John Ware (Reporter) or Mark Alden (Assistant Producer). BBC email addresses are well-known to be of the format: email@example.com
May God grant us the courage to engage in difficult dialogue and deal with thorny issues with objectivity, truth and fairness in these troubled times.
London, 1st December 2010