Mainstream Muslims resent that the Islamic State claims exclusive access to the truth about their religion, and in solidarity with their revulsion, many non-Muslims have averted their eyes and wilfully ignored the particulars of the Islamic State’s religious claims. This studied ignorance has been a costly mistake. Our enemy has invited us to know more about it, and we have been so repulsed that we have declined the offer.

Graeme Wood

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State

On August 31st, having been convicted by an Old Bailey Jury on July 18th of offences contrary to the Terrorism Act 2006, Naa’imur Zakariyah Rahman was sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum term of 30 years. In November 2017, having sought assistance from individuals who transpired to be covert operatives, Rahman had obtained what he believed to be a viable suicide vest comparable to that used by Salman Abedi at the Manchester Arena bombing of May 2017. He intended to access Downing Street and detonate the device with the primary objective of killing the Prime Minister, and told officers during an interview at the police station: “I was planning to die.” Closing his sentencing remarks, Justice Haddon-Cave offered Rahman and the court a lesson in theology, arguing that he had violated not only the law, but “the Qur’an and Islam by [his] actions.” In a style that has come to be expected from this judge in such matters, he told Rahman:

You will have plenty of time to study the Qur’an in prison in the years to come. You should understand that the Qur’an is a book of peace; Islam is a religion of peace. The Qur’an upholds the sanctity of life. The Qur’an and Islam forbid anything extreme, including extremism in religion. Islam forbids breaking the ‘law of the land’ where one is living or is a guest. Islam forbids terrorism (hiraba).

Haddon-Cave made further claims as to the Quranic prohibition against “perpetrating terror” before citing in evidence the case of Shakeel Begg v. BBC [2016] EWHC 2688 [87]-[131], over which he himself presided in the Queen’s Bench division of the High Court. This essay will address the Justice’s assertions about the Quran and Islam, and the potential impropriety of our judiciary engaging itself in matters of theology, scriptural interpretation and ideological exemption.

The case of Begg came about in the claimant’s suit for libel damages with respect to an edition of the BBC’s  Sunday Politics show, in which Andrew Neil said of the East London Mosque: “It’s also the venue for a number of extremist speakers and speakers who espouse extremist positions. This year Shakeel Begg, he spoke there and hailed jihad as ‘the greatest of deeds’.” Though the BBC’s defence won on the basis that the comments used were “substantially true in their meanings”, the claimant’s speeches and statements, invoking “a wide range of Islamic theological and ideological topics and themes” had been submitted in evidence, and as such, Haddon-Cave took the opportunity to impart his understanding of Islam, the Quran and some pertinent concepts.

Beneath a subtitle making the same assertion, the judgement reads: “It is common ground that Islam is a religion of peace. The Qur’an is a book of peace.” This claim ought to be a falsifiable one, and accordingly, its proponent should set out what evidence would undermine it sufficiently to render it untenable. Any failure to propose or acknowledge such criteria (as is frustratingly common in discussions on the plausibility of the supernatural) is deserving of Wolfgang Pauli’s most derisory of put-downs in that the claim is so poor that it “isn’t even wrong.” It is also perfectly easy to imagine what a truly peaceful religion and its book would look and read like. The book would contain no verses advocating violence, there would be no need to resort to interpretation to lift a peaceful message from it, and its adherents would never invoke the religion as justification for their violent actions.

The judge then makes a frequently-advanced argument, positing that “Islam means ‘submission to the will of God/Allah’, i.e. at peace with God”, and this is a clear distortion in equivalence between the meanings of the words “submission” and “peace”, not least because the former denotes a process (the incentives for which are very relevant) and the latter denotes a circumstance. The Quran is strewn with plainly-stated threats for the unbeliever, almost invariably via hellfire. The process of submission, as with that before any other totalitarian tyrant, is thus one of sacrificing one’s liberty out of fear. To consider such coercion via threats of infinite violence for finite transgressions—a failure to believe claims with insufficient evidence, no more—equivalent to peace, takes a degree of intellectual contortion.

This point warrants further emphasis without relegation to a footnote. “Fire” is mentioned in the Quran on no less than 151 occasions, with all but a handful of those constituting an explicit threat of torture in the hereafter. Among these are the following: “But as for those who disbelieve and reject Our signs—these are the inmates of the Fire—wherein they will remain forever.” (2:39); “The inmates of the Fire will call on the inhabitants of the Garden, “Pour some water over us, or some of what Allah has provided for you.” They will say, “Allah has forbidden them for the disbelievers.” (7:50); and “’… And whoever wills—let him disbelieve’. We have prepared for the unjust a Fire, whose curtains will hem them in. And when they cry for relief, they will be relieved with water like molten brass, which scalds the faces. What a miserable drink, and what a terrible place.” (18:29). What a miserable notion of peace.

Haddon-Cave, of course, makes no mention of such verses in his remarks. He continues in claiming that “A large part of the Qur’an is directed at humankind in general, without any distinction being made between believer or non-believer”, before submitting verse 49:13 to demonstrate this point: “O mankind! Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that you may know one another. The noblest of you, in the sight of Allah, is the best in conduct. Allah is Knower, Aware.” Evidently, as well as the aforementioned threats of hellfire for the unbelievers, verse 60:10 was overlooked: “O you who believe! When believing women come to you emigrating, test them. Allah is aware of their faith. And if you find them to be faithful, do not send them back to the unbelievers. They are not lawful for them.” As was 60:13: “O you who believe! Do not befriend people with whom Allah has become angry, and have despaired of the Hereafter, as the faithless have despaired of the occupants of the graves.” The Quran’s entire premise is an intrinsically divisive one, separating the faithful from the faithless and droning ad nauseam about their respective destinies.

It is a point of curiosity that in evidence for his claim that “Extremism in religion is forbidden in Islam”, the judge cites “The great 14th Century Damascene scholar” (as he calls him), ibn Taymiyya, who “said that extremism in religion means deviating from a ‘Middle Path’ between two extremes.” Given that Haddon-Cave also waxes lyrical about the importance of the Quran being “read with a full understanding of the relevant historical context”, and his point that Salafism “often tends to scriptural literalism shorn of the necessary contextual reasoning”, it is somewhat odd that he chose Taymiyya as an appropriate source to make his point on extremism. Ibn Taymiyya is widely regarded as a major influence in the emergence of Salafism, holding that the first generations of Muslims understood Islam best, and he was imprisoned on several occasions throughout his life precisely for his literalism. Graeme Wood writes the following in The Way of the Strangers:

If there is a single intellectual father of the idea of casual takfir—a practice that the Islamic State has taken to extremes an defended at length [involving the declaration that self-identifying Muslims are apostates for their alleged deviance from a literal reading of the scripture]—he is Taqi al Din ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328), a favourite scholar not only of the Islamic State, but also of Al Qaida and the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia. The attraction Ibn Taymiyyah’s thought would hold for a violent and puritanical movement is plain to see, although rampant takfirism is just one interpretation of his work.

Ibn Taymiyyah’s first appearance in the public record involved the case of a Christian man, Assaf al Nasrani, who had been accused of blasphemy for insulting Muhammad. Ibn Taymiyyah titled his first major work “The Sharp [Sword] Drawn Against the Reviler of the Prophet,” and came out firmly on the side of the sword. Among other reasons for cheering on the man’s execution, Ibn Taymiyyah adduced the fact that Muhammad was dead and so could not be asked for forgiveness.

On the general point of whether Islam is a religion of peace, it is telling that Haddon-Cave had to concede that there was no consensus among experts as to the nature of armed jihad:

Professor Gleave stated that the majority of Sunni and Shia’ jurists were of the view that the Qur’an licences both legitimate offensive and defensive jihads. Dr Wilkinson stated that the Qur’anic warrant for armed jihad is always as armed defence of Islam and Muslim life from prior aggression and that this is the overwhelmingly majority scholarly view in both Sunni and Shia’ Islam. They agreed that what constitutes ‘defence’ and ‘offence’ in the context of armed jihad is sometimes contested in Muslim circles.

The overarching point that to some extent is overlooked, however, is the question as to what constitutes the “prior aggression” justifying the “defensive” jihad. The prior aggressions are not explicitly defined within the Quran. They are mentioned in terms of “violating their oaths”, “exiling the Messenger” and “[initiating] hostilities against you” (9:13). Sura 8 (“The Spoils) is particularly instructive on this point. The justifying transgression is mere unbelief: “Your lord inspired the angels: ‘I am with you, so support those who believe. I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. So strike above the necks, and strike off every fingertip of theirs.’” (8:12) Also: “Say to those who disbelieve: if they desist, their past will be forgiven. But if they persist—the practice of the ancients has past away. Fight them until there is no more persecution, and religion becomes exclusively for Allah. But if they desist—Allah is Seeing of what they do.” (8:38-9).

Haddon-Cave concedes that “It is not necessary finally to determine this theological issue for the purposes of this judgment”, but nevertheless decides to opine: “it is clear in my view, that the Qur’an permits only defensive jihad.” The examination of Islam to meet the requirements of the judgment is to some extent justified in order to define “extremism” and judge whether Begg’s claim was sound. The judge’s declaration at this point, however, is to my mind, nothing short of gratuitous.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, deviating from his general prudence and foresight, posted one of his more poorly considered tweets last month, alluding to a recent story about a United States “Space Force”, writing: “I’m okay with a US Space Force. But what we need most is a Truth Force—one that defends against all enemies of accurate information, both foreign & domestic.” I dislike this not only because it forces me into cliché, having no option but to invoke George Orwell and Nineteen Eighty-Four’s “Ministry of Truth”, but there is something rather creepy in more general terms about any branch of government making declarations on theological matters. I disagree with Haddon-Cave’s declarations that Islam and the Quran are a religion and book of peace respectively, and I have considered at length whether my uneasiness is borne purely of this factual disagreement. There is in fact more, and I take issue with the idea of the judicial branch of government involving itself in such matters and making declarations of truth, from a position of such authority, on issues theological, political or ideological. Thus, had the judge instead declared that the Quran was not a book of peace, I would hold the same position regarding the existence of the declaration and its source, my factual agreement with it notwithstanding.

Cherry-picking verses from religious scripture is a phenomenon many of us who engage in this discussion are well-accustomed to dealing with, both on Twitter and on the street at the proselytisers’ stalls. It has no place coming from a court’s bench. Consider the tragic case of Alfie Evans (Alder Hey Hospital v Evans [2018] EWHC 308 (Fam)), the judgment of which was explained beautifully by Barrister Matthew Scott. Justice Hayden said:

I am very much aware that both parents are Roman Catholics, brought up in that tradition. They do not present themselves as devout or observant but it is obvious to me that their faith plays a part in their life and sustains them both at this very difficult time. In his closing remarks F said that Alfie is “our child and a child of God”. It is important that these beliefs are considered within the broad gamut of relevant factors to which I have alluded and which collectively illuminate where Alfie’s best interests lie.

It was neither necessary nor appropriate—either in considering the parents’ beliefs or Pope Francis’ open letter calling for “greater wisdom in striking a balance between medical efforts to prolong life and the responsible decision to withhold treatment when death becomes inevitable”—to take to the Bible and conduct a scriptural examination to determine whether those beliefs were in keeping with Roman Catholicism. Similarly, in the Northern Ireland (“gay cake”) appeal case of Lee v McArthur & Ors [2016] NICA 29 it was sufficient to accept one of the appellant’s declarations of her faith (“As part of my Christian faith I believe that the only divinely ordained sexual relationship is that between a man and a woman within the bonds of matrimony”) without having to pass judgment on whether these beliefs were in keeping with the religion, and certainly without excising Leviticus in some tortured reading of the Bible to claim that the religion is an inherently pro-homosexual one.

Returning to the sentencing remarks in the case of Rahman, absent any justification in exploring Islam and the Quran for the purpose of defining “extremism” as per the libel case, Justice Haddon-Cave’s admonishment to “study the Qur’an in prison in the years to come” and “understand that the Qur’an is a book of peace; Islam is a religion of peace” was equally-gratuitous. It is sufficient that Rahman’s crime breached the law without commenting on whether it also breached some (often perverse) notion of cosmic morality. I implore everyone to read the Quran and judge for themselves how peaceful a book it is, and also to consider what a lifetime spent reading nothing else with as much energy and believing it to be the literal word of the creator of the universe (as all Muslims profess) leads to.

Elsewhere in the Rahman judgment, Justice Haddon-Cave gave a clear demonstration of his eye for logic, spotting the reductio ad absurdum in the defence counsel’s submission that Rahman’s crime should be judged as one of a lower culpability, due to the fact that there was no explosive and he could thus have killed nobody. The judgment reads:

It is the harm intended by the offender that is relevant, i.e. the level of harm that the defendant intended to cause judged from his perspective as to what he knew or believed at the time. If Mr Bajwa QC’s narrow construction is correct, it would logically disentitle the courts from imposing appropriate sentences in cases where covert operations by the security services interdict terrorist operations before harm was caused (which, by definition, is every s.5 case). This cannot be correct and, in my view, was plainly not the intention of the authors of the Guideline.

It is a shame that the logical implications as to the state-exoneration of an ideology evidently does not appear so clearly.

It takes a degree of contortion to construe the Quran as a whole as a peaceful book, and a degree further to lift peaceful meanings from the ubiquitous verses, which are, on their face, violent and gleefully so. The Islamic State and its followers rely on no such contortion, and have the advantage of not resorting to applying convoluted meanings to what is held to be—lest we forget—the perfect word of God himself. The claim that the Quran is a peaceful book is wrong, but coming from Haddon-Cave’s position it is also pernicious. It hinders a warranted examination of what the jihadists are constantly telling us, and leaves us ill-prepared to deal with the wider implications of sincerely-held religious convictions about this world and the nature of what constitutes a transgression according to the book. It is the business of no branch of government to make declarations on the theological legitimacy of a scriptural reading, and just as I would argue for a secularism holding that religion should stay out of the state’s business, I submit that the inverse is no less true.

 


 

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