Northern Light

False Parallels

Karen Armstrong, British author of several books about Islam, fundamentalism and the life of the prophet Mohammed, former nun and self-described “freelance monotheist”, warns us against intolerance towards Islam and the Muslim world. Writing in The Guardian, she asserts that if the West were only more respectful of Islam, extremism might then fade away.

“Our inability to tolerate Islam not only contradicts our Western values; it could also become a major security risk,” she writes.

As evidence for her claim Armstrong cites Jyllands-Posten’s cartoons of the prophet Mohammed as well as petitions from UK Christian and Jewish communities to prevent construction of a large mosque in Abbey Mills, East London, whose doors would open to worshippers in time for the 2012 Olympics.

Either Armstrong is ill informed or she is deliberately excluding facts that contradict her narrative. Let’s first look at the mosque. In fact there is also a Muslim petition against the mega mosque project, and a Muslim member of the London Assembly has expressed doubts about it, if the financing, as suggested, comes from Saudi Arabia with its extremist Wahhabi version of Islam. Meanwhile in a further twist a nearby international Christian Centre, Europe’s biggest evangelical church, is being pulled down to make way for the Olympics.

According to the Times of London, Dr. Irfan al-Alawi, Europe director of the Centre for Islamic Pluralism, is “extremely concerned” about the spread of Tablighi Jamaat, the sect behind the mosque project.

“Tablighi are not moderate Muslims, they are a separatist movement. If this mosque were to go ahead it will be strictly run by the Tablighis; there will be no room for moderates,” he said in November last year.

Muslim community leader Asif Shakoor expressed equal unease about the project. He said that the Muslim petition was a response to a feeling that the voices of most Muslims in the area were not being heard. Some 3,000 Muslims signed the petition.

In February The Daily Telegraph reported that the government intends to block the building of the $600 million mega mosque that would hold between 12,000 and 70,000 worshippers, making it the biggest religious site in the UK. The largest Christian church in the country, Liverpool’s Anglican cathedral, holds 3,000.

Backers of the mosque want it to serve as a reception centre for athletes and fans from the Islamic countries during the 2012 Olympics.

A government source told the Telegraph that “there were fears that the giant mosque could damage community relations in the area.”

But who is Tablighi Jamaat, the Islamic sect behind the mosque?

It is a Deobandi Muslim organization with close links to the Wahhabi form of Islam in power in Saudi Arabia, and the driving force of the jihadist ideology shared by many terrorists. It is believed that Tablighi Jamaat gets funding through Saudi front organizations such as the World Muslim League, which back in 1978 subsidized the building of the Tablighi mosque in Dewsbury, which has become the European headquarters of the movement.

Tablighi neither has a formal organizational structure nor publishes details about the scope of its activities, its membership, or its finances. Because of the movement’s secrecy, scholars often have to rely on information from Tablighi supporters. It was founded in India in 1927. Tablighi doesn’t consider individual states to be legitimate. According to the French Tablighi expert Marc Gaborieau, its ultimate goal is a “planned conquest of the world”.

French intelligence reports describe Tablighi as the “antechamber of fundamentalism”, and two of the 7/7 bombers attended Tablighi mosques. So did John Walker Lindh, the American who joined the Taleban in Afghanistan, and the Oregon cell that conspired to bomb a synagogue and sought links to Al-Qaida. Other indicted terrorists, such as “shoe bomber” Richard Reid, “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla, and Lyman Harris, who sought to bomb the Brooklyn Bridge, were all members of Tablighi Jamaat at one time or another.

Alex Alexiev, vice president for research at the Center for Security Policy, concludes in an analysis of Tablighi in 2005:

“The estimated 15,000 Tablighi missionaries reportedly active in the United States present a serious national security problem. At best, they and their proxy groups form a powerful proselytizing movement that preaches extremism and disdain for religious tolerance, democracy, and separation of church and state. At worst, they represent an Islamist fifth column that aids and abets terrorism. Contrary to their benign treatment by scholars and academics, Tablighi Jamaat has more to do with political sedition than with religion.”

It seems to me that Armstrong would make a better case if she turned to the fundraising Saudis and asked them for a bit of reciprocity saying: It is difficult to argue for the building of a mosque here as long as you are not allowing the building of churches or any other sites of worship in your country, and as long as you will not even permit Christians to carry a Bible or let your guest workers practice their religion freely.

Next let’s look at the cartoon crisis. Armstrong draws an analogy between what she describes as “double standards” on both sides:

“For Muslims to protest against the Danish cartoonist’s depiction of the prophet as a terrorist, while carrying placards that threatened another 7/7 atrocity in London, represented a nihilistic failure of integrity. But equally the cartoonists and their publishers, who seemed impervious to Muslim sensibilities, failed to live up to their own liberal values, since the principle of free speech implies respect for the opinions of others.”

Here Armstrong makes two key errors. First, she alleges equivalence between making a cartoon and issuing death threats. As far as I know none of the cartoonists or editors including myself have threatened anyone or incited to violence. In fact we have court verdicts in Denmark and France confirming this, while three people have been convicted in the UK for soliciting murder during protests over the publication of the cartoons.

Second, Armstrong states that the principle of free speech implies respect for the opinions of others. That’s not the case. The principle of free speech implies that you tolerate opinions differing from your own, and tolerance is demanded not of the one who speaks but of the one who listens – or views a cartoon. The publisher and the cartoonists fully complied with fundamental liberal values. Unfortunately, some Muslims didn’t. As George Orwell put it in his proposed preface to Animal Farm:

“If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”