I do not understand what has happened. Millions of Muslims- particularly in the west- have become inward looking and closed off as the world becomes more open and connected than ever before in history. Our Prophet said: ‘God has not created anything better than reason, anything more perfect that reason’. Yet what do we see? Reason overtaken by killing rage and the crushing of the most fundamental human desires- freedom.
My book Refusing the Veil was published just before Christmas. It criticises the practice and its revival and confronts the spread of Saudi backed Islam across the world. Some female Muslim acquaintances invited me to a small gathering to discuss the book. These were reasonable, educated women. Here are some of the comments made:
‘Why did you have to write this, who gave you permission?’
‘Even to think these thoughts is wrong, you go and publish them? If you were in a Muslim country you would be in jail.’
‘If your mother was alive she would have slapped you for writing this’ When I replied that she refused the veil when she was 22, the woman came back: ‘ Then I feel sorry for you. She was the sinner and she made you one too’.
‘OK I have not read the book because it will dirty my pure thoughts, but if you are a Muslim, you follow Islamic rules without question. Are you even a Muslim?’ The fact that I am married to an Englishman only makes me more suspect and sinful.
Only two out of fourteen women defended my right to write the book. But then said they could never challenge Islamic practices so openly. To many such believers my mind is too free. ( How can a mind be too free?) Not all Muslims think like this- I have had warm responses too, but not publicly. They are too scared to speak up in the present climate.
This retreat from light to darkness is a modern development and a very disturbing one. I love my faith and fear for its future and the minds of millions of followers. I ceaselessly fight against racial and religious discrimination and western foreign policies which cause so much damage in the Middle East. But I am also grateful that I live in a place where I can speak freely, vote in fair elections and make the most of my life. The mayor of Rotterdam, of Moroccan background reflected the frustration of integrated Muslims when he said on Tuesday ‘ Pack your bags and f*** off home’.
Unelected Muslim leaders condemn terrorism well enough, but I do not hear them saying out loud and clear, that we have inherited freedoms that must not be taken away by men of violence.
Countless Muslims living in Islamic states would die for the life we western Muslims have. In Pakistan, Afghanistan, most central Asian states, Egypt, Syria, Algeria, Libya, even ‘liberated’ Iraq, people know they must not say what they think about their rulers or their Imams, not even to neighbours or friends. The only choice is to conform and live, keep your boiling thoughts locked in your own head. When in 2010, the Arab Spring unexpectedly arrived, Muslims rejoiced as they tasted freedom for the first time ever. I was in the Middle East in the most optimistic months. Spring turned to winter and even harsher restrictions were imposed everywhere. Now disappointed and frightened Muslims try to flee every day, to get to places where they can earn a living, be safe, most of all be themselves. Those people on boats who turn up on Europe’s shores want what the brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly, had before they blasted it all away. And what do these terrorists or followers of terrorists do? Go off to join Isis, to live under its ruthless rules, as Coulibaly’s wife, Hayat Boumedienne has just done. Last week in Saudi Arabia Raif Badawi, a young Muslim who set up a free speech website was flogged fifty times. He awaits 950 more lashes and nine years in jail.
The past has a lot to teach us Muslims. Between the 8th and 16th Centuries, science and philosophy flourished across the Muslim world. Our first English scientists paid homage to the Arab thinkers, their evidence based work and questioning minds. That was when we were civilized.
During colonialism Muslim nations struggled against European rule, but were smart enough not to throw out the baby with the bath water. Though denied freedom of expression and democratic votes by the rulers, they wanted and valued those rights. Liberationists did not think those were ‘corrupt’ western values. Some of them were inspired by great European thinkers. For example, in 1899, Qasim Amin, an Egyptian, wrote The Liberation of Women. His arguments are similar to those of John Stuart Mill – that for society to progress, females had to have freedom and equality.
At the moment their countries became independent, elected leaders proclaimed freedom and democracy. ( Though soon afterwards, most of the nations turned into repressive autocracies)
Even in the home, humble people were passionate about freedom, political and personal. My mother’s generation, for example, would not let daughters into the kitchen before they had finished school: ‘ You must free your mind. We were told to cook, clean, marry and have children. Same life for all of us. But we mothers want something different for our daughters- to become independent, educated.’ Loving liberalism went hand in hand with deep faith and a moral life.
Freedom is a heavy responsibility. It cannot be limitless as many westerners have claimed this week. Public discourse is expected to be within bounds of decency and respect; language matters and the wrong word can incite high emotion. With internet mobs, this can get ugly fast. State power in Europe and north America overrides the citizen’s right to know or speak. Then there are all those ways in which free speech is monitored and regulated- laws in particular. Even in the 21st Century anti-Semites cannot sound off in our media and threats of libel action can stop the most assiduous investigations. Over the last two decades our free society has fallen into a damaging licentiousness. These things are never simply black and white or about them and us.
But without freedom and autonomy, humans become mental slaves. On Muslim websites adult Muslims today ask bearded old men if they can travel on busses or clap their hands or have birthday cakes for their children. Imams order mums to over the hair of young girls. White women converts tell me they are happier living within with rules, when decisions are made for them. And every day, free will is denounced as a sin. Conservative Muslims have no choices and don’t want them.
Last year I met and talked to a Somali man who had started to get in with al Qaeda types. He is wiser now but told me he was brought up in an unhappy home where the father was cruel and children had to do as told. They got him a wife he couldn’t relate to. He knew nothing about sex. He had never developed his own personality: ‘ I just had to do as they say, my father, the uncles, the Imam. In school they ask me what I think. I don’t know how to think. I was angry all the time, burning like a fire. I was born in a free country but they kept me a prisoner. My son will be more free. But I hope he has a better life’. I hope he does too. And that his father can keep him from radical Islam.
A version of this appeared in the Daily Mail, 14/1/2015