Kim Hill this morning had an interesting interview with Tim Winter, a.k.a. Shaikh Abdal-Hakim Murad, an erudite and articulate English convert to Islam. I didn’t hear the entire interview but his basic thrust seemed to be that Islam is greatly misunderstood in the West – hardly a new line, but quite persuasive when it’s argued as cogently as it was on this occasion. He said moderate, mainstream Islam is far removed from, and undeservedly tainted by, the extreme, militant political expressions of the faith as epitomised by organisations like Al Qaeda.
Taking the Taleban as an example, Winter likened them to tribal village hillbillies with little grasp – and a very warped grasp at that – of orthodox Islamic teaching. He also made the point that most Muslim immigration to Britain, which has become a wellspring of Islamic extremism, was from illiterate Pashtun villages in the more backward regions of Pakistan, where the version of Islam practised is (I’m paraphrasing here) a primitive local perversion of what credible Muslim scholars teach.
The problem is, as he pointed out, that the version of Islam we are confronted with in the media each day is the militant, extreme one that wants to exterminate all infidels. This has distorted our understanding of Islamic teaching and led to the fearful, anti-Islamic sentiment exemplified by opposition to the proposed Muslim cultural centre in downtown New York (not to mention European proposals to ban minarets, which ironically call into question our commitment to freedom of religion).
Even as I’m writing this I can hear people saying, “Yeah, yeah – we’ve heard all this before from apologists for Islamic extremism”. But at the very least, we have to acknowledge that Islam, like Christianity (Judaism too, for that matter), is not monolithic. Just as Christianity encompasses all manner of good and bad followers, from loony right-wing fundamentalists to neo-Marxists (both bad, in my view – the good Christians are somewhere in between), so the expressions of Islam range from the fanatical oppression of the Taleban and grotesque fringe groups like Somalia’s al Shabaab (reported today as having executed two illiterate teenage girls by firing squad for “spying”) to the civil, conciliatory variant personified by Hill’s guest this morning – and by some of the New Zealand Muslims whose reasoned and moderate letters I occasionally see in the papers.