Faith and conflict

Published : Feb 23, 2007 00:00 IST

An Islamist Jihad member at a news conference in Gaza on January 29 claiming responsibility for a suicide bombing in the Red Sea resort of Eilat, Israel. Egyptian Islamic scholar Yusuf Al Qaradawi's public statements can be construed as justifying suicide bombing against any stronger, unjust state by a weaker minority.-REUTERS/MOHAMMED SALEM

An Islamist Jihad member at a news conference in Gaza on January 29 claiming responsibility for a suicide bombing in the Red Sea resort of Eilat, Israel. Egyptian Islamic scholar Yusuf Al Qaradawi's public statements can be construed as justifying suicide bombing against any stronger, unjust state by a weaker minority.-REUTERS/MOHAMMED SALEM

An Irish imam's statements on Islamic fundamentalism unleash a storm of controversy among Muslims in that country.

MUSLIM populations in the West, particularly in Europe, have of late become a battleground for reformist and traditionalist currents within Islam. These ideological labels, while being admittedly simplistic, illustrate the efforts of European Muslim communities to wrangle with the challenge of separating the political and personal aspects of faith and religious identity amid a larger culture which generally perceives them as unwelcome and inassimilable.

British Muslims, Danish Muslims and French Muslims have all been implicated in this increasingly heated debate between an increasingly right-leaning, anti-immigration Europe and its increasingly ghettoised and economically disenfranchised Muslim communities.

In August 2006, Irish Muslims were drawn into the fray when one of their notable imams, Dr. Shaheed Satardien, declared in an interview to Sunday Tribune that Ireland was fast becoming a "fundamentalist haven" and that "an ocean of extremism" was spreading among Muslims throughout Ireland.

The statement came in the wake of the arrest in Ireland of an Algerian Muslim, Abbas Boutrab, who was found downloading information on how to blow up a passenger jet.

In the interview, Satardien went on to say that "Irish Muslim leaders are failing our young people who are embracing fundamentalism". Satardien lamented that young Muslims were "being torn between two cultures; drawing them into support for terrorism, anti-Semitism and a hatred of Western democracy".

The imam's statements unleashed a storm of controversy among Irish Muslims. Like their counterparts in Britain, Ireland's Muslim community, economically depressed relative to the white Irish population, perceives itself as increasingly unwanted and its faith as unnecessarily maligned and prejudicially castigated under the guise of anti-terrorism measures.

Not surprisingly, rival imams came out with public statements condemning Satardien's comments as provoking religious hatred against Muslims and he received a volley of death threats. Satardien's statements came on the heels of a controversy among Irish imams about who would lead the several-thousand-strong Muslim community that hails from countries as diverse as Sudan, China, Pakistan and Indonesia.

Initially, Satardien, himself an immigrant from South Africa, had suggested the establishment of an organisation called the "Supreme Council of Ireland". This was contested by more conservative members of the community, and inter-religious politicking led to the sidelining of Satardien in favour of a more orthodox group of Islamic scholars. A rival organisation, the Irish Council of Imams, was set up and Imam Satardien was largely marginalised from the Irish Muslim religious establishment.

The ideological implications of sidelining Satardien's brand of moderate Islam may well be tragic for Irish Muslims in particular and European Muslims in general. An anti-apartheid activist from South Africa, Satardien has experienced personally the ravaging effects of Islamic extremism. His brother Ebrahim Satardien was killed by an extremist "Qibla" faction of the South African vigilante group Pagar. Facing threats to his own life, Satardien asked for asylum in Ireland and moved to the country four years ago. Since then, he has been active in inter-faith ventures, organising conferences that promote the rejection of violence and the promotion of inter-faith understanding.

Satardien blames his falling out with the main mosque in Clonkeaugh, Ireland, on the influence of the Egyptian scholar Sheikh Yusuf Al Qaradawi, whose organisation, the European Council on Fatwa and Research, is headquartered there. Sheikh Qaradawi, who interestingly also defines his version of Islam as "moderate", is notorious in the West for his support to Palestinian suicide operations and his scathing denunciation of homosexuality as "abominable". The author of several books, including The Lawful and Prohibited in Islam and Islam: The Future Civilization, Qaradawi enjoys a wide following across the Muslim world owing in part to his show "Ash-Sharia Wal Hayat", which is aired on Al-Jazeera.

If Satardien's rhetoric is focussed on consensus-building and reform within Islamic communities, Qaradawi's focus is centred on maintaining a distinct identity for Muslim communities living in the West.

While compromising on certain issues (Qaradawi, unlike some of his even more conservative counterparts, does consider music and dancing permissible and allows the use of photographs), much of his rhetoric is abrasive and even incendiary.

In one fatwa referring to whether Muslim males may marry non-Muslim women, Qaradawi lays out a series of conditions. He finally questions whether there is a single honourable, chaste woman left in these countries. "Don't they reprimand a girl who is still a virgin at the age of 14? They say: How can this be? She becomes undesirable. Where are her boyfriends?"

Indeed, the Sheikh's website is peppered generously with such misguided generalisations about the depravity of Western culture, their ultimate message being that while it may be permissible for a Muslim to live in Western lands, it is best to distinguish and distance oneself as much as possible from the sinful temptations of the depraved Western society.

Even a cursory analysis of Qaradawi and Satardien's stated ideological positions reveals very different orientations towards Western culture. Satardien's views seem to suggest an approach focussed on mutual understanding that prioritises internal reform over castigating the state. One very visible manifestation of the differences between the two is the statements they issued in the wake of the Danish cartoon scandal.

Imam Satardien's statement reads: "The attack on the Prophet of Islam is condemned in its totality and the violence that ensued is also condemned. The mockery of the holocaust is equally condemned. We call on Muslims to end the violence immediately. We are hurt but we are not angry because the Prophet (pbuh) instructed us to control our anger. The strongest person is the one who can control his anger, the Prophet is reported to have said." Qaradawi, on the other hand, said that it was the duty of every Muslim to protest in an "international day of anger" and for a boycott of all Western-made goods, saying: "We must tell the Europeans... we can live without you but you cannot live without us... we can buy from China, Japan, Thailand and Malaysia."

Also different is Satardien's position regarding the influence of foreign conflicts on the political identity of young Irish Muslims. In the now notorious interview, Satardien even went so far as to suggest state controls on the foreign travel of young Irish Muslims whom he sees as becoming radicalised during trips abroad. He lamented openly the influence of conflicts such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the political identity of young Irish Muslims; he suggests that the manipulation of the conflict by religious leaders in Ireland makes young Muslim youth radicalised and ostensibly drawn to a more fundamentalist version of Islam.

Satardien thus sees little value in drawing young Muslim youth towards identifying themselves with a conflict that does not resonate in their own political context, which may even be furthering a segregationist and suspicious orientation toward European society as a whole.

In contrast, Qaradawi's construction of Muslim political identity draws heavily upon the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a point of orientation that defines ideological positions. In one interview to BBC's Newsnight, Qaradawi responded to a question about suicide bombers thus: "I consider this type of operation as an evidence of God's justice." He added: "Allah Almighty is just; through his infinite wisdom he gave the weak a weapon that the strong do not have - that is their ability to turn their bodies into bombs as Palestinians do."

Qaradawi's statements present a complex and problematic amalgamation of political action and religious sanction. Interpreted closely, they can be understood as a statement of solidarity with the Palestinian cause, which is not uncommon among Muslims around the world. However, interpreted loosely, it can also be construed as justifying suicide bombing against any stronger, unjust state by a weaker minority.

In this respect, Satardien's differences from the Arab-dominated mosque hierarchy in Ireland also represent another schism that is an omnipresent but rarely vocalised tension among diaspora Muslims in Europe. These Muslims, estranged from the cultural affirmations of their homeland, and raised to construe everything Arab as automatically "authentically Islamic", often feel pressured to distance themselves from their non-Arab cultural traditions, which are seen as impure and unauthentic.

Satardien's open opposition of the Arab-dominated hierarchy of the Irish mosque establishment is one illustration of this dynamic. In keeping with his aversion to the dominance of Arab immigrants and the equating of all things Arab with all things Islamic, Satardien's discomfort with the centrality of the Arab-Israeli conflict as a central denominator of European Muslim identity points to the danger of importing concepts of heroism and justice from vastly different political contexts and constructing an Irish Muslim identity as necessarily besieged and an image of the Irish state as unarguably inimical to Muslim interests.

Sheikh Yousuf Qaradawi and Imam Shaheed Satardien represent two divergent orientations towards Muslim political identity in the Western context. Satardien prioritises the need for internal reform within the community and is vocal about the presence of extremism despite the potential that his criticisms may be appropriated by xenophobic and anti-Islamic interests. Given the social and political challenges facing Irish Muslims, Satardien is more concerned about solidifying Irish Muslim identity as strongly rooted in the politics of the Irish nation rather than risk it being overshadowed by pan-Islamic concerns.

Qaradawi, on the other hand, sees Irish-Muslim or European Muslim identity as simply a subset of a larger transnational Islamic identity; one defined and governed by political ideologies that are transnational and demarcated by strict boundaries from Western ideology and culture. Ultimately, however, the direction of Irish Islam in particular and Western Islam in general depends not singularly on the ideological predilections of the individual Western Muslim and his proclivities toward integration or segregation.

Equally crucial is the potential of Europe to revamp its commitment toward multiculturalism and integration such that it means more than relegating immigrant Muslims to economically depressed ghettoes and goes beyond rationalising xenophobia disguised as culturally necessary segregation. Ultimately, the cost of living together and defeating extremism falls both on the minority, which must acknowledge the need to clean the house, and the majority, which can no longer ignore the reality of a vastly changed religious and social demographics.

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