After Asad Shah’s murder solidarity must extend to reformist Muslims

By Rasool Bibi

The brutal murder of Asad Shah of Shawlands, Glasgow, on Good Friday has shocked us all.  All those who knew him or even encountered him in his shop talk of a peaceful, loving man.  Even those who did not know him, having read the tributes, feel deep sorrow and a loss.

Hours before the terrifying attack that led to his death, Mr Shah had gone on Facebook to wish his “beloved Christian nation” a “Happy Easter”. Mr Shah had been repeatedly stabbed and stamped on, an indicator of hate-fuelled rage harboured by the monster who killed him.  Police have indicated the attack was religiously motivated and the suspect is Muslim.

We were all shocked, yet not all of us were surprised. This is because Mr Shah was an Ahmadi Muslim belonging to a sect of Islam founded in India in 1889.  Their motto is “Love for All, Hatred for None”. In recent times of growing Islamic extremism and terrorism, horrifying attacks upon attacks, and the resulting rise in anti-Muslim hatred, the Ahmadis have done more to counter the negative portrayal of Muslim and generate positive PR for Muslims than most through their charitable work in communities up and down the country and their peaceful message.

However, rather than be happy that this peace-loving community lives under and carries the banner of Islam, Ahmadi Muslims are rejected by mainstream sects of Islam. In Pakistan, Ahmadis are not allowed to call themselves Muslim; they face systematic and institutional persecution. Preachers and imams label them blasphemers and apostates — two charges that justify death in the eyes of extremists.

For years now, liberal, progressive and reformist Muslim and ex-Muslim activists have pointed to orthodox Islam’s position on apostasy and blasphemy as highly problematic and a key driver of intolerance and Islamic extremism in Muslim communities. Being threatened with violence, marginalised, ostracised and harassed by other Muslims for taking a different stance to them on theological or religious matters, they foresaw the link and where it would eventually lead to. There are preachers in the UK who have been touring universities, speaking in mosques and addressing religious events where they have propagated and endorsed this position.

Most mainstream and popular Muslim commentators, preachers, activists and speakers — when challenged on this — have continually denied that such views pose a danger to our society. “It doesn’t apply,” they say. “Death of apostasy, for blasphemy, isn’t a relevant discussion for the UK,” they protest. “It only applies in an ‘ideal’ Islamic State,” they insist. “Death penalty for apostasy or blasphemy is simply akin to having laws against treason,” goes the excuse. “It’s a normative Islamic position and you are Islamophobic for challenging it,” they cry. Couple this with what many Muslims will freely claim is a normative position that Ahmadi Muslims are not Muslims but blasphemers, and you have a recipe for extreme hate, intolerance and persecution of the minority sect. The treatment of Ahmadis in Pakistan clearly demonstrates this.

Yet, we have still tolerated the same rhetoric against Ahmadi Muslims in the UK.  For example, even the Muslim Council of Britain — in its own words  “the largest national representative of British Muslim associations, mosques and schools” — rather than challenging the festering prejudice against the Ahmadi community from within Muslim communities, instead legitimises it, having actively excluded them from being invited to sign their “Intra-faith Unity”  statement .

When an Ahmadi Mosque was given planning permission in Scunthorpe in February this year, Muslims joined the far-right in protest against it.  Journalist Sunny Hundal posted a video of the protest on his Facebook page, only to receive more anti-Ahmadi comments from Muslims.  So the message that the MCB claims to represent mainstream Muslims is clear, is it not?

Muslim organisations so keen to shout Islamophobia from the rooftops and highlight persecutions of Muslims at any given opportunity — such as the MCB, MEND or CAGE, or the jokers at MPACUK — were very silent on the issue. Actually, in all fairness, MPACUK were very vocal on the issue, before they realised the victim was Ahmadi and the alleged murderer was Muslim. The other organisations claiming to fight Islamophobia, with the exception of Tell Mama, have had nothing to say on the matter, presumably because the victim is not a Muslim in their eyes.

Sectarian hate or intra-Muslim hate — call it what you will —  is rising in the UK. It is not just towards the Ahmadis. Sunni and Shia divisions are bubbling to the fore too, and all of it comes down to one thing: one type of Muslim, rejecting another Muslim as non-Muslim because their beliefs or interpretations of Islamic scriptures differs from theirs.

Liberal, progressive and reformist Muslims predicted where this would lead to in the context of “normative Islam”. Yet attempts to discredit us have come from all other sects of Muslims. You only need to look at Twitter mentions of prolific Muslims reformists to see the violent threats, harassment, slut-shaming, and personal insults —  simply because of differing opinions on religious and theological matters. Even some Ahmadi Muslims, despite experiencing similar treatment, have also joined attempts to discredit progressive voices by misrepresenting their arguments to make them even more loathed.

When Asra Nomani and Hala Arafa of The Muslim Reform Movement published their Washington Post article calling for interfaith solidarity with Muslim women by not wearing the hijab, highlighting the lack of true choice and how the hijab and the honour principle behind it is used to control Muslim women, Ahmadi Muslims joined in to accuse The Muslim Reform movement of “demonising Muslim women” online and on Twitter.

Some apparently liberal Muslims are also guilty of this. Take Nafeez Ahmed as an example. He experienced firsthand the vitriol and abuse and knows what it is like to be hounded for his work in taking on extremism with the now defunct Muslim Youth Hotline. Yet, this has not stopped Nafeez from going after Maajid Nawaaz and the counter-extremism think tank Quilliam Foundation in the same way. I suppose the idea is if you go after someone more hated than you, then perhaps you will win back some support.

Mohammed Shafiq — chief executive of the Ramadhan Foundation and a former member of the Liberal Democrat party — once incited death threats against Maajid Nawaaz by branding him a “Gustakh-e-Rasool” (Defamer of the Prophet), though he later went on to apologise for his behaviour.

Last week, he found himself in an intimidating confrontation at a mosque in Birmingham for not showing unconditional support for Mumtaz Qadri, the man who shot dead the former Governor of Punjan Salman Taseer for speaking out in favour of reforming Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. This is despite Shafiq’s support for blasphemy laws.

Pakistani singer-turned-evangelist Junaid Jamshed is another example of this. After making a career accusing others of blasphemy, he had to flee Pakistan accused of the same. Upon his return this week, he was attacked by a mob. The monster they have been feeding is now so big, it is out of even their control.

In the wake of Asad Shah’s murder, there have rightly been calls for solidarity with Ahmadi Muslims. I really could not agree more. But the solidarity needs to reach further, to anyone and everyone who wants to explore an alternative interpretation or approach to Islam to address the problem of Islamic and Islamist extremism — even if that approach offends.

Those that are raising the issue of apostasy and blasphemy taboos  at the heart of orthodox Islam and within Islamic scripture, calling for them to be reformed, are doing it for us all. Some Muslims will argue against literal interpretations or for contextualisation to the violence. Other Muslims may even assert that certain verses no longer applies, that the Qur’an is not infallible or divine and so these verses need to be discarded altogether. We need to create a space for both approaches, and accept both can be valid without calling into question someone’s “muslimness”.

Only when people are less concerned with defending their idea of “True Islam” and focus on addressing the harm, chaos and bloodshed the very concept of “True Islam” has led to, will the murder of people such as Asad Shah stop.

anon profileRasool Bibi  writes about her experiences living in a “mainstream” Muslim Community in the West Midlands, UK.  She is what is considered immodest, modern and shameless by her elders and a “coconut” by her neighbours and peer group.  Informing on the natives who make life hell for Muslims who don’t fit the mould.


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