It's time to save our Islamic faith

By Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Muslim author and broadcaster

Daily Telegraph,15/12/2001

I AM a British Asian, born and brought up in Uganda; a terribly flawed but practising Shia Muslim, with one son from a previous marriage and now married to an Englishman with an eight year-old mixed-race daughter.

I don't wear hijab (my mother and grandmother never did, either) but I do fast, pray and give to charity, thus fulfilling my obligations to the basic pillars of Islam. I was brought up to respect all faiths and the human rights of individuals.

In the merciless eyes of the faith police that we now have within Muslim communities, this set of beliefs makes me a kaffir, an infidel, an enemy of "true" Muslims. So they write to me and to each other about how I should be punished, intimidated, even killed. Poison is thrown at my children. I have had to become seriously attentive to security measures, and other liberal Muslims have been similarly targeted.

The latest foul campaign accuses me of having a Jewish husband. Actually, he is Christian, but if I had fallen in love with a Jew I would have still have married him. That is how it has always been within our community.

When we gather every summer in Earls Court for our annual feast, thousands of non-Muslim husbands and wives are welcomed as fellow citizens of this, our adopted country. There are millions of other Muslims around the world who are the same, at ease with their faith and with people outside it.

Since September 11, these moderate Muslims have woken up to the urgent need to reclaim their faith from fanatics. The inferno that has swept through the world has become a call to the peaceful faithful to come out and rescue Islam from the totalitarian theocracy which is in the process of crushing the progressive thought which Muslims used to take for granted.

Few people know that, in Pakistan in the past six years, 2,000 Shia Muslims have been murdered by hardline Sunnis. Ninety of these were doctors killed for treating patients from both groups. Sufis were imprisoned and tortured by the Taliban and this persecution is getting worse around the world.

The extremist religious ideology has been exported by, among others, the clerics of Saudi Arabia, who have the means to buy influence. This ruthless, expansionist Islam is killing all joy and tolerance, which must be why more Muslim children run away from home in this country than those of any other Asian group.

Worse, it is destroying a central tenet of our faith: that each individual has a direct relationship with Allah, unmediated by any other human being - not even the self-employed mullahs who have proliferated all over the place.

Many of us are now calling for a reformation within Islam. We want to address the massive failures of Islamic states to live up to human rights and democratic principles, including the unforgivable oppression of women and girls.

Muslims have never been monolithic. The Koran itself has always been interpreted because there are so many levels of meaning and because Islam has reached so many different cultures and been absorbed by them.

Throughout history, Koranic principles have been re-shaped and endlessly debated. Few young British women who wear hijab proudly would be prepared to be the "wifelet" of a polygamous man, and fewer still would support the stoning of women for adultery. Modernity has shifted their basic values too much. Then there is the question of education. How did Islam, which was driven by the pursuit of knowledge, become so submerged in frightful ignorance? From the eighth to the 15th centuries, thousands of hand-written books were produced. Islamic societies were eager to learn about the Greek, Indian and Chinese civilisations. They made paper, wrote poetry about God and passion between the sexes, built enormous public libraries, and established al-Azhar in Cairo, the world's first university. They had scientists, sociologists, matchless architects and mathematicians.

Today, in our northern towns, parents are told by imams that books are evil and that too much education will make their children "Western". The reformation would have to confront this descent into the dark ages and rekindle respect for education.

I hope enlightened Muslims will succeed in their aspirations. But, even as I write this, I feel a cold fear that the forces of darkness will not let this happen, and that they will find ways of silencing for ever all those who oppose them.