Once Upon a Time in the West (Midlands)

by Adil Zeshan (Oct. 2007)

ENGLAND. THE YEAR, 2007.

My name is Adil. I have been born and raised among dutiful and obedient Muslims, and I aim to misbehave.

Already I have fallen from grace. I am no longer one of them, a reason sufficient for their delicately-placed wrath to have me consigned, in this world and the next, to the most grievous of penalties; for what else should the reward be for those who behave like me, they would say if they knew, but disgrace in this life? So no matter where I go in the realms of Islam, I am a hidden traitor to my people, a renegade without honour to be executed. And for them to know of my apostasy is to know of their fear.

Still, I will not bow to their etiquette of madness. Now and again I silently walk among the Muslim flock, to observe their incessant bleating and guilty straying, and see how readily they run to the call of their watchful masters, appointees of God who oversee the enjoining of what is good and the forbidding of what is not. And they remind the herd that He is not unmindful of what they do.

Neither am I.

 

IT IS RAINING. Deep among leaf-green locales and high-rise suburbia, the Muslim flock is on the move. As the ear-splitting wail of the call to Friday prayers wafts through the doors of the central mosque, groups of men walk up the steps and into its entrance. As they remove and shelve their footwear in the foyer, their bland shalwar kameezes, stained skullcaps, and fistfuls of scraggly facial-hair growth mingle with "bomber" jackets, "condom" hats, and goatee beards. But their women, all of whom are safely tucked into hijabs and niqabs, move along to the mosque’s side entrance, inconspicuous as it is embarrassing.

The car park nearby is, as is usually the case, a scene of confusion. The non-Muslim policeman on duty is feeling the pressure. Muslims in this community, it appears, do not know how to park their cars, or at least, not around each other. Out of necessity, the ground of the car park itself is not a flat, smooth tarmac: it consists entirely of small, but sizeable, jagged rocks designed to preemptively puncture the ambitions of opportunists who care to exhibit the marvels of their machines. For the more likely that young, fertile, non-Muslim women live and reside in a mosque’s vicinity, the greater are the efforts invested into displaying male plumage.

Some males are aware that sabotaging this righteous day in the service of reproductive pursuits is not conducive to the holiest state of mind. As their souped-up, low-slung cars cruise into this arena that is a car park under heavy siege, they are steadfast in their observance of the holy law and so stop pumping out hip-hop and bhangra. And when the inhabitants of these vehicles finally emerge, together they look like an odd lot. Most conform to the usual urban "rude-boy" stereotype, given how obvious their efforts are in trying to appear "accidentally" attractive; the rest look as if they have just returned from a pilgrimage to Mecca: moustaches are trimmed, beards are not, and the trousers of their long, white jilbabs are jacked above the ankles.

It has long been thus: welcome to this outpost of Islamic civilisation, a colony where the stridency of the faithful collides with vogues that were once confined to the underclasses of non-Muslim British society. Muhammad is not just the newest, and the final, of God's prophets; Muhammad is the newest, and the final, bling-bling superstar. Since the Rushdie Affair, and more recently the Cartoon jihad, even the most irreligious, street-savvy Muslim rude-boy has come to know of the new universal limits: nobody disses Mo, the Final Gangster of all time and a Mercy to all the worlds. Mad haram, yo!

Such is the strong etiquette of the Muslim who deprives himself of all high culture, and even has only a very nominal sense of his own religious background. If you drew Muhammad sporting gold jewellery, a tailor-made condom hat, a goatee, wraparound orange shades, and tell him to strike a pose, this singularly-lapsed follower of Islam will not be amused. He will not share a giggle at how "hard" the prophet is. And, to paraphrase from the movie Pulp Fiction, he and his chums will go jahiliyya on your ass. Mo's turf is the entire planet, and his homeboys, who range from imams to the most ridiculous of their underclass congregants, are busy trying to strut their stuff on it.

And many are succeeding.

 

AS I WALK into the prayer hall of the mosque, all the signs and symptoms of this being a House of Allah are clear and present: the carpets are arranged in the direction of Mecca, stacks of Korans line the shelves, prayer beads dangle from cupboard handles, and an imam is addressing his congregation with a typical sermon, a tedious khutbah admonishing all and steadfastly calling them to the way of God. Although the mosque is built to house a few thousand people, it is overcrowded.

I am an atheist. But having once belonged to the ranks of believers, I have always understood that heartfelt prayer is to a man's turbulent mind what water is to a flame. For some people, prayer encourages inner tranquillity and peace, and subdues the seething waves of neglect and anger, the fiery discontent that simmers away in their hearts. Such serenity is an end in itself for some faiths. Not so for Islam: congregational prayer has always been preferred over individual worship; prayer is just one step on the pathway to mobilising human action within a community. The mosque is more than just a Muslim church; it is like the equivalent of the old Roman forums.

As such, there is little in the way of serenity to be found in mosques, for the congregant’s mind is given over to more worldly concerns. After the prayers, and once the imam's appeal to God to aid the Muslim "resistance" in Palestine, Iraq, Chechnya, Afghanistan and so on, ad nauseum, is finally over, I walk over to near where a discussion in Urdu is taking place among some men, including the imam. They are talking about how the police apparently like causing their community trouble.

Not so long ago, the area nearby the central mosque was swamped with media reporters and photographers, after terror arrests had been made of some Muslim men living in the vicinity, men who were thought to have been plotting to kidnap a British Muslim soldier and behead him as punishment for aiding the "dirty kuffar". The embarrassment of the community and its leaders was palpable. The chairman of the mosque tried to take the mature line during the whole fray and declared that the raids were obviously part of a government conspiracy to make upstanding, well-respected, and peace-loving Muslims look bad. And the media, which was promptly dubbed by the community as an arm of an anti-Islamic war machine, searched in vain for reasonable concerns coming from within about radical Muslims.

The media did encounter some interesting things, however. One was a sign of the importance attached to good manners by Muslims in the community, as seen in one press photo: a few women, one of whom is pushing her child's buggy, are walking down the street. All are clad in dark niqabs. One of these upstanding, peace-loving Muslim women, who has spectacles jutting out in front of the slit that allows her eyes to peek through, proceeds to salute the flood of press and photographers by sticking two fingers up at them.

 

I WANT TO ask the imam of this mosque something. I get my chance when the discussion group finally disperses and he steps away towards the doors.

"Assalaamu Alaikum", I say. I smile and hold out my hand.

"Wa-alaikum salaam" he replies. He shakes my hand, but only by tentatively gripping my fingers, not the palm. Arrogant sod.

"I'm sorry to bother you, but I'd like your advice on a couple of things, if that's okay."

He is not looking at me. He seems rather distracted by the shape of the door he was just heading towards.

"Please be quick. I am in rush."

Okay. I begin with a random question.

"My professor says that natural selection is the only process that generates life on this earth. What does Islam have to say about this?"

He is now staring at me. "Evolution?” he asks. I nod.

"Yaar, it is not allowed. All mad dreams." He waves his hand dismissively.

Sure.

"Okay, I'll look into that. The other thing is that Hizb-ut-Tahrir has been telling me to join their group to implement the caliphate. They say it's obligatory for me as a Muslim to join and help them to work towards this. What do I do? Are they right?

"Aray yaar, these kids. Small groups. No knowledge. Nothing."

"So what should I say to them?"

"Ignore. Ignore".

"But why are they wrong?"

He is tiring of this conversation. "They are not knowing".

"They don't know what?"

"Uff, do not ask me such things". And he walks off, with nary a salaam in the wind.

 

THE BELIEVERS ARE now feeling suitably chastised and worked up in equal measure, and they file out of the mosque. Yet there are some for whom the opportunity to chastise has only just begun. As worshippers leave the mosque, they are handed leaflets by Hizb-ut-Tahrir, leaflets that usually rail against an ongoing war against, apparently, Islam, as well as this and that obstacle to the implementation of the mighty khilafah, a universal Islamic state that is said to be the necessary solution given the group's lengthy diagnosis of the ills availing the Muslim world. Usually young, in their 20s and 30s, the supporters of the group are a waste of a generation. They mark out their territory in front of the mosque with a stall selling books and magazines, and their junior supporters, typically smartly suited and booted, coolly patrol the vicinity in search of unsuspecting Muslims who have not yet realised the potentials of their faith. The flyers and leaflets they hand out freely are all paid out of their pockets.

I walk over to the stall, where a few people are already talking animatedly. Or rather, the designated person looking after the stall is gesticulating energetically. He is not pleased. Your Muslim brothers and sisters are being massacred around the world by the West, he says. But there is a hint of embarrassment in the questioner's face at being subjected to such an unexpected display of emotion. No matter how privately posed a question on world affairs may be, it is a religious obligation for the Hizb-ut-Tahrir speaker to spread word of the injustices perpetrated against Muslims far and wide. Any conversation is explored for opportunities for howling oratory. But what is also clear from this spectacle is that senior members of the group are carefully observing the member's performance from the sidelines. And he knows it.

After a while, the man with the question purchases some literature and moves on. I pretend to be looking at a book entitled "The Economic System of Islam". The guy in charge of the stall now turns his attention to me. He seems quite aware that I was in earshot of his little rehearsed monologue.

"Assalaamu Alaikum, brother", he says.

"Wa-alaikum salaam", I reply.

He says nothing, but keeps looking at me expectantly.

"So", I say, smiling.

"Brother, have you been given one of these leaflets?" He holds out one for me to take. I already have one. His English accent is slurred, although he is clearly more articulate than the imam. I have had many run-ins with suburban mujahideen such as these elsewhere, and I know their type well.

"Actually, no", I lie. "So, what's a khilafah? What does it look like?".

He is pleased at the question, but before answering he quickly glances around to gauge earshot potential. He already knows his seniors are listening.

"Brother, the Islamic khilafah is the Islamic State. It was destroyed in 1924, and ruling by Islam in the state and society ceased", he says emphasising the last word. "Ruling by Islam ceased when the khilafah was destroyed by corrupt rulers who were agents of the kuffar [infidels]".

And so it begins.

"Brother, the implementing of the khilafah is a great obligation upon each and every Muslim. It is haram [forbidden] to remain for more than three days without a pledge to a khaleefah being on your neck. It is haram to rule by anything other than Islam and to stay silent about the implementation of kufr laws over us".

His voice is carrying across the courtyard and he promptly shifts to third-person.

"Due to this, Muslims all over the world are sinful in the sight of Allah and they will all receive punishment except those who involve themselves in establishing the khilafah and restore the ruling by that which Allah has revealed. The sin will not be lifted from their necks until the khilafah is established, and whosoever dies without a bay'ah [oath of allegiance to a would-be khaleefah] on his neck will die the death of jahiliyyah [ignorance]."

As Americans are fond of saying: like, whoa.

"So, it is obligatory for every Muslim to help establish the khilafah?", I ask.

"Yes, brother". He looks at me pointedly. "The daleel [evidence] is laid out in the Koran and the Sunnah, and any Muslim who refuses to help establish the khilafah has committed a clear act of kufr and this takes them outside the fold of Islam".

His mention of apostasy is pregnant with implications of sudden death. And by this time, more of his colleagues are gathering around to listen to this exchange.

"So, you're basically saying: it's obligatory for every Muslim to be subject to all the laws and customs of Islam but the only way for this to come about is by establishing the khilafah, right?"

"Brother, it's not me who is saying this". He holds up a Koran. "Rather, this is God's command to each of us as laid out in the Koran and Sunnah. To be ruled by Islam is an obligation upon our necks. Establishing the khilafah is the only method for establishing Islam over our heads. Only in the presence of the khilafah can the laws of Islam exist and in its absence they are suspended. Brother, there is a very important, well-known Shari'ah principle that says: that which is necessary to achieve an obligation is itself an obligation".

Much of this explains why many of the Hizb-ut-Tahrir members I have met think themselves superior to those Muslims who are considerably more religious than themselves. If you happen to believe that you are already working towards the greatest obligation, that of establishing the khilafah, then all the other religious stuff can just, well, take a number and get in line.

"Isn't that principle illogical, though?", I reply. "That's like saying: It's obligatory to free slaves, so it's therefore obligatory to keep slaves so we can free them".

The area goes quiet. The man behind the stall is unsure of how to respond.

"Who's talking about slaves here, brother?"

Is this the best response he can come up with?

"What is your name?" comes a voice from behind him. A fat man with spectacles steps forward.

"How is that relevant?"

"Because you do not have knowledge. You clearly need to gain knowledge. If you are going to ask such questions, you should discuss these matters in greater detail with us - in private".

It seems I have touched upon a criticism that his colleagues were not trained to publicly respond to.

"Actually, you haven't answered my question", I reply.

"God's logic is not the same as your logic. These things cannot be understood unless one has understand the proofs as laid out in the Koran and Sunnah, and this means learning the process of extracting them, by first having knowledge of how one may reason about the manaat [reality] of the text".

He seems touchy.

"What's the difference between your version of Islam and this mosque's?", I ask.

"There are no versions of Islam. There is only one Islam, the one laid down by God through His Prophet.” He adds, “And you have not answered my question – who are you?”

 

IN THE WESTERN rediscovery of Islam since September 11, 2001, the moderate Muslim has come to represent the holy grail of the press, political and academic elite; the starry-eyed vision of this much sought-after, albeit illusory, prize has been the primary assumption in the engagement of the Islamic world, including both Muslim-majority nations and their emerging outposts in the heart of the West. Islam is due for its reformation, I am told by many non-Muslims who mistake political multiculturalism for its cosmopolitan expression, and unwittingly place greater pride in being thought of as thinkers than being thinkers themselves. Perhaps that explains their personal sense of urgency. To be the first to be present and hold out the interview mike at the deliverance of a faith reforged, ready to do battle with the Islam of old is a deeply exciting and captivating idea.

It is also a fantasy, a dangerous one at that. The political multiculturalism pervading so much of Western civilisation has increasingly led to the unfortunate practice of Islam as the only marker in which any Muslim, regardless of whether he is lapsed or not, may be identified as a member of a society that has selectively relieved him of the responsibilities that arise from being a common citizen. The multicultural outlook is a pernicious one, simultaneously handicapping those desirous of breaking free from the uncivil clutches of Islam while empowering those who wield it as it was designed to be. It affirms the aspirations of Islamic reformers that are counter to the wishful thinking of my fellow non-Muslim friends. The exasperated infidel who keeps glancing at his watch, tapping his foot, and waiting for a reformed, humane Islam to emerge any time now, for no other reason other than because it would be terribly convenient, is actually not early but late to the party. The Muslim reformers have already left, and their names include, from a choice of many: Al-Ghazali, Ibn Taymiyyah, Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab at-Tamimi, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Hassan al-Banna, Abul Ala Maududi, Sayyid Qutb, and more recently, bin Laden and his fellow Wahhabi and Deobandi friends.

Islam is an old religion. It relies on an actionable basis of fixed law whereby each group of people, including Muslim or infidel, has their respective quarter within which it is allowed to move but not beyond, with Muslim males being allocated the most spacious of circles in which to exercise their supremacy. Given the faith’s long history of legal argumentation, it is impossible to come across a new argument for increasing freedom that has not been deployed before and not thrown out by Islam. The aforementioned Muslim luminaries have seen to that. Indeed, they are regarded as luminaries precisely because their Islam was more consistent than any vacuous notions of modernity they might have held. They are true Islamic reformers in that they purified Islam by exhuming it of all corruption until nothing except the Islamic canon, the Qur’an and the Sunnah, held total sway. The political multicultural programme of modern Western civilisation simply gives a new generation of reformers greater political power to crush dissenting voices and thus a wider cultural space for not depoliticising the faith but the precise opposite.

What of this prized notion of the moderate Muslim, then? The ‘moderate Muslim’ designation occurs when the observer mistakes his ignorance for insight. In fact, what appears to be a moderate Muslim is actually a lapsed Muslim, insofar as he is failed in knowledge or practice. At a minimum, being a lapsed Muslim is being cognizant of one’s identity as a nominal Muslim, while passively accepting that those who are superior in their observance know whereof they speak and are thus not to be seriously challenged. Unless a Muslim can justify his lapsed observance of his faith on the basis of Islam itself, he will be unable to face off against the hard theology of his observant counterparts. For example, wherever self-styled moderates have made significant strides in gaining political power in a complicit self-styled multicultural society, they have been reluctant to take on Hizb-ut-Tahrir. When it comes to sophisticated theocracy, Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s command of the Islamic evidence easily chases off any rival. And they revel in this fact. In fending off Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s deep incursions into the Muslim community, some moderate Muslims have no choice but to pull rank by virtue of being older than such whippersnappers. This tactic has had little effect on a generation of Muslim youths who regard their own status as being determined solely by their knowledge and practice of Islam.

Islamic teachings stipulate that if a Muslim ever happens to find himself in a position of power, no matter where he is, then there is a clear religious obligation upon him to implement the laws of Islam. Both Hizb-ut-Tahrir and their lapsed Muslim counterparts share this understanding. The principal difference is that the moderates believe, on the one hand, that the establishment of Islamic Shari'ah is conditional, whereby it is only obligatory when a Muslim is already in power; if there is no Muslim in power, then it is not religiously obligatory to get one into power, even though it is encouraged to do so. Hizb-ut-Tahrir, on the other hand, invokes a special Shari’ah principle to infer that that there are no strings attached in the pursuit of power: the reign of Islam is religiously obligatory, and whatever leads to such a state also becomes automatically obligatory. Moderates and militants differ in degree, not in kind; one is not the solution to the other. Both are deeply antisemitic, anti-female, homophobic, anti-freedom and need combating strenuously.

As with any cult, a Muslim group depends on maintaining an exquisite level of tension with wider society: by restraining, and thus increasing the opportunity costs of engaging in, non-group activities, the net benefits of group membership are enhanced through greater commitment and participation. Usually, in a society that is blasé about Islam’s content, this tension is generated from within the group, through public markers indicating commitment, including hijabs, niqabs, jilbabs, shalwar kameezes and untrimmed beards. However, both within and among Western societies where many pockets of Muslims exist, there is variation in the presence of such public markers among Muslims, with some choosing to forego them altogether. However, this does not actually demonstrate that such people have chosen to reduce their corresponding level of tension with non-Muslims, but rather their belief that the level of tension is already being maintained from without, by a society that has been given over to increased scrutiny of Islam. A profound risk is that non-Muslims will mistake a lack of such public markers as a signal of increased integration, when in fact commitment to Islam and a strong sense of Muslim identity remains entirely intact. For example, the proportion of Hizb-ut-Tahrir supporters who adopted the ‘suited-and-booted’ approach increased as British society became more critically aware of Islam in wake of 9/11 and especially 7/7. As with the new generation of Islamic creationists stemming from Turkey, a country that has seen decades of emphatically intolerant policies towards its religious establishments, their dapper outfits and debonair manners have not replaced their cloaked murderous Islamic ambitions.

The more militant a group is in its expression and prosecution of its Islamic ambitions, the greater are their efforts to publicly delegitimise those who are less so, rather than vice-versa. Hizb-ut-Tahrir markets itself as being heavily divergent from self-styled moderates, and constantly brings attention to what it sees as tremendous doctrinal errors in the moderate position. This expression can be very militant. Iqbal Sacranie, the former secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain and a fine example of multiculturalism’s pathetic legacy (he was knighted for services to the Muslim community), was publicly slapped and humiliated by the Saviour Sect, a carbon-copy of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, during an MCB conference where he and his colleagues were denounced for apostasy. The leader of the Saviour Sect also publicly rebuked the chairman of another extreme group, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, MPACUK, on television as a ‘bootlicker’ and ‘apostate’. In another case, Hizb-ut-Tahrir supporters apparently attacked the only slightly-less notorious George Galloway, who is a Muslim in all but name, during his constituency campaign, labelling him as a ‘false prophet’ and threatened that he would be executed for his ‘apostasy’. It is a sign of superior confidence in their knowledge of Islam that militant groups like Hizb-ut-Tahrir can comfortably go around condemning strident Muslims as apostates based on their behaviour, while the latter balk at tagging the former as anything but ‘loud’ and ‘in the minority’. Nonetheless, while there is little of actual substance between the militants and moderates, given the main difference is over a question of whether a certain principle is to be expressed conditionally or not, most Muslims have bought into Hizb-ut-Tahrir's line that the differences to, and errors in, the moderates are huge.

Moderate imams and their colleagues therefore face a dilemma. On the one hand, they refuse to take on the ideology of openly supremacist Muslims for fear of looking incompetent to Muslims at large; on the other hand, by refusing to police the radicals the imams look incompetent to non-Muslims at large. The truth is that they are incompetent on both counts; supremacist Muslims and the not-as-radical imams are not so terribly far apart in their aspirations. One seeks to advance its cultural supremacy in a clear-cut way by installing a universal Islamic state, and the other seeks to spread it diffusely, with weakest areas being targeted first. Differences between the two are mostly down to questions over methodology. The solution adopted in the face of the dilemma is thus: Most Muslim leaders and communities attempt to alleviate their public incompetence by shifting the burden of action onto non-Muslims, claiming that unless they start acting responsibly by stopping their "belligerence" towards Muslims, then "small groups with little knowledge" will flourish and be attracted towards ‘extreme’ ideas. Indeed, the chairman of the mosque described previously has updated this argument of late: the most openly supremacist of these groups, which range from Hizb-ut-Tahrir to al-Qaeda, are all government conspiracies.

 

NOW I FEEL somewhat less comfortable than when I first entered the mosque's vicinity. There are plenty of people milling around me, but there is also this group of unimpressed-looking men asking me who I am and what I am up to. The fat Hizb-ut-Tahrir man with spectacles is trying his best to be intimidating, but he seems unsure as to whether I'm buying it. I'm not.

"Let me ask you, what if it turns out to be true that those who were arrested last month actually were planning to murder that British Muslim soldier?", I ask.

"Astaghfirullah. Let me ask you, you call that kafir a Muslim? Let me ask you, where is the evidence that these well-respected, peace-loving community members have done wrong? Show me! People are supposed to be innocent until proved guilty, yet the kuffar accuse Muslims of being guilty through trial by media. The kuffar accuse us advocating a police state, yet try to silence Muslims so they can justify their foreign policy! Why? So they can get on with the butchering of Islam and abuses of Muslims across the world!" He jabs his finger violently in my direction. "You need to smell the coffee! Tell me, where do you stand? Do you support the harm done against this Muslim community?"

"I think you're hysterical", I say.

"Hysterical? Hysterical? What about our Muslim sisters and children in Chechnya, Iraq, Afghanistan? Tell me, do they have no right to be hysterical about their situation? Do you expect us all to just sit back and enjoy seeing our Muslim sisters being ripped of their honour at the dirty hands of the kuffar? Especially when an apostate aids the kuffar in abusing their dignity and livelihoods? Do you expect us to stay silent and instead dance to Bush and Blair's tune? Tell me!"

"You're misguided, aren't you?"

"This is a Muslim area. Get out", says one of his comrades.

"Actually, sunshine, this is my country."

Several guys are facing me and some edge closer. Still, there are many people in the vicinity.

"You would contemplate attacking me? For what? What do you think you can get away with in broad daylight?” I ask.

"I do not suffer apostates", the fat man says.

"You want to take over this country? Over my dead body".

He stares at me directly. His look is almost apologetic.

"Yes, exactly. That is the material point".

And they chuckle.

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