It is troubling that the first non-Christian to address the Church of England synod can be linked to extreme Islamist networks. By inviting Fuad Nahdi, the Church is lending credence to the notion that only radical Islamism can represent British Islam. What hope, then, for those genuine moderates within Britain’s Muslim community?
So writes Sam Westrop for the Gatestone Institute, in a rather smeary piece entitled ‘The Church of England Chooses Extremist Islam‘, in which he twists together a few frayed threads of tenuous association to weave a desperate anti-Anglican fiction of “Church conspires with Islamists just like it always has” kind of narrative. You know, the sort where the sapless Church of England caves in to corruption, compromises with iniquity, dances with demons and cavorts with the Devil. The social objective is a brave new world of undiscerning inclusion; the method is imaginative interfaith dialogue where Christian orthodoxy is safely caged away in episcopal notions of diligence and adequacy. This is sludge-dredging masquerading as theo-political scholarship, all swallowed hook, line and sinker by Donna Rachel Edmunds for the frenzied Breitbart UK, without so much a theological reflection or rational rumination. As sure as tweet follows blog, it is now doing the rounds in email boxes and social media feeds around the world to the manifest glee of the apocalyptic fellowship of the teleological clash of civilisations.
If those “counter-extremism campaigners” (which?) who have “expressed disappointment” (how?) had bothered to do their homework instead of treating this sort of alarmist bilge as gospel, they would have discovered that Fuad Nahdi is not an “activist” for anything other than peaceful subsistence and liberal accommodation. He cultivates a landscape of understanding and sharing; not a satanic design of globalised conflict. To say that he has “connections with extremist groups” without clarifying the precise nature of those connections is to convey a misleading sense that Synod has invited a heinous Islamist among them to propagandise and lecture about Mohammed’s religious moderation, thereby abdicating the Church’s responsibility for the care and cure of souls. This is stagnant preaching to a lifeless congregation.
Setting aside the fact that Jesus had “connections” with prostitutes, tax collectors, religious zealots and one or two occupying Romans; and that British prime ministers and foreign secretaries have routinely made “connections” with a few murderous autocrats and “extremist groups” in their time; and that the Supreme Governor of the Church of England herself has shaken hands with Martin McGuinness, dined with dictators and bestowed honours upon nihilist thugs like Nicolae Ceausescu and Robert Mugabe inter alia, it is clear that if we are to coexist with Muslims at home and understand the religious inspiration of extremism at home and abroad, we must apprehend and challenge extremist ideology from within. It is not for the Church of England to define the tenets of ‘moderate’ Islam: it is for Muslim scholars to formulate their own 95 Theses and pin them to the principal gateway to Mecca.
Fuad Nahdi is an academic ally in this process of reformation: his mould-breaking Radical Middle Way (RMW) does indeed have “a long history of working with activists and groups tied to the Muslim Brotherhood” (which is, as Westrop observes, “at heart, a terrorist organization”) because “working with” includes notions of historical correction, religious enlightenment and diplomatic struggle. Was Senator George Mitchell “working with” the IRA in the late 1990s? Was the IRA not “at heart, a terrorist organization”? Was this “working with” not morally justifiable in pursuit of the Good Friday Agreement that led to lasting peace?
The problem with a phrase like “working with” in the context of terrorism is that it denotes complicity and conveys a sense of collaboration. That was plainly Westrop’s intention here: to tarnish Fuad Nahdi by association, trawling the internet to bolster a prejudice. Of course, you can list organisations like the Federation of Student Islamic Societies and the Young Muslim Organization – groups “heavily influenced by the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group… which is committed to establishing Islamic rule under sharia law”. But Fuad Nahdi has also been working with Toby Howarth, recently appointed Bishop of Bradford.
How troubling is that?
To share a platform with certain unsavoury persons is, of course, to invite criticism. But the Queen routinely dines with them. And so did Jesus. Didn’t Tony Blair shake hands and dine with Colonel Gaddafi? Didn’t Donald Rumsfeld do the same with Saddam Hussein? Didn’t Margaret Thatcher natter away with Augusto Pinochet? Didn’t the Queen lavishly entertain President Bashar al-Assad? Isn’t all this just realpolitik?
It must be observed that, by sharing a platform with a bunch of reprobate Anglican kuffar, Fuad Nahdi risks damaging his own academic reputation and religious standing among some of those with whom he aspires to work. You can take the view that interfaith dialogue has its limits (or, as Westrop appears to suggest, that it shouldn’t happen at all), but in the pursuit of peace and reconciliation such risks have to be taken. You might abhor the thought of breakfasting with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, but more than a few people (including many Christians) felt exactly the same way about the prospect of dining with Ian Paisley. In the end, McGuinness and Paisley were not only power-sharing in government, they were “working with” each other and chuckling along the way. It is axiomatic in politics that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter: and so, in religion, one man’s bigot is another man’s prophet.
That is not to say that Fuad Nahdi is a prophet (indeed, the notion would offend: for him, Mohammed was the last; the ‘Seal’). But the Archbishop of Canterbury’s commitment to reconciliation in some of the most difficult places in the Anglican Communion will inevitably involve conversations and engagement with some very dodgy and even dangerous people. He has met one or two, and stared down the barrel of a gun. You don’t get to choose with whom you speak when negotiating for peace or advocating the rights of persecuted minorities.
But Fuad Nahdi is neither dodgy nor dangerous. If your read Westrop’s piece (or the mis/disinformation shamelessly regurgitated on Breitbart UK) not only is there no reasoned exposition of what they mean by “working with”, but paragraph after paragraph is replete with smeary innuendo. Short of hard facts (and perhaps mindful of the defamatory tort of libel), we read that “counter-terrorism expert Shiraz Maher” (that’s impressive) “revealed that RMW appeared to be supporting a campaign run by the global Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir”. Only appeared to be supporting? And then comes the associational list of Hizb ut-Tahrir’s sharia objectives – reeled off as though Fuad Nahdi himself supports armed jihad, condones the killing of Jewish women, children and elderly, and agrees that human rights are the “trumpets of the Kuffar”.
While we’re talking about filling in the gaps, you’ll read other names who, severally, support Hamas; advocate for the right of men to beat their wives; promote fundamentalist Islam; or spoke at some dinner or other in 2001 attended by an al-Qaeda operative.
Oh, and we’re told that Nahdi published a youth magazine back in 1992 which “promoted Jamaat-e-Islami ideology” (we’re not told what, precisely), and that one of his colleagues, Fareena Alam, became “involved with RMW while simultaneously working for Press TV, the Iranian regime’s propaganda outlet” (we’re not told exactly how or to what extent she was “involved”).
If you really want to excavate the annals of tenuous past associations or exhume the bones of misspent youth, it’s worth
googling the pictures of Ed Balls dressed as a Nazi at Oxford discovering what Nahdi told the Guardian back in 2001 (the year when, according to Westrop, he was dining with al-Qaeda). In a piece entitled ‘If you hate the West, emigrate to a Muslim country‘, he heaps praise upon Hamza Yusuf, who was then deemed to be the West’s most influential Islamic scholar (to the extent of advising the White House). Nahdi says:
He confronts what it is to be young, British and Muslim. He shows there is life beyond beards, scarves and halal meat. He inspires confidence that you can build Islam in the west from all the local ingredients. You do not have to include political or theological burdens from traditional parts of the Muslim world.
What’s that you say? That’s not Fuad Nahdi’s personal belief? It just him talking about an eminently enlightened Muslim scholar who has addressed the House of Lords? It is Nahdi praising an imam who has upset many Muslim radicals? It is Nahdi agreeing with a charismatic and popular speaker who openly declares his belief that Islam is in a mess?
But this about condemnation and defamation by association, isn’t it? If Westrop is so keen to smear Fuad Nahdi by banding him together with those who generate violence, intolerance and hatred 10 or 20 years ago, why is there no contemporary parity of acknowledgment for his conflicting deference to and respect for the likes of Hamza Yusuf? Why is there no reference to his consistent and unequivocal condemnation of Islamic extremism from Nuneaton to Nairobi?
Or is that inconvenient to the narrative?
What we do get is an oblique reference to the fact that way back in 1997 Nahdi wrote an obituary for the Guardian of an Islamic scholar, Sayed Mutawalli ad-Darsh, who was once a contributor to Nahdi’s publication. We read: “Nahdi described ad-Darsh as ‘respectable, approachable and sensitive’ — he was the peoples’ Imam.” And then we are told: “The ‘people’s Imam’, however, called for the killing of homosexuals and adulterers, and expressed justification for suicide bombings. He also denied that there was such a thing as rape within marriage, because, he ruled, a wife may not refuse her husband sex.”
Setting aside the absence of a chronology and any appreciation of cultural-moral diversity (marital rape is a relatively recent legal development even in the enlightened UK), obituaries, like funeral orations, tend to be hagiographical: one does not usually speak ill of the dead, unless you’re a Socialist and the deceased was named Thatcher. But, again, it is muck-raking from almost 20 years ago, and most thoughtful people move on in their spiritual walk, sometimes with shame, and often with regret. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and friendships mourned can even induce Protestants to attend a Requiem Mass. There is simply no appreciation or understanding at all that anything Fuad Nahdi might have done, said or believed decades ago is what Fuad Nahdi might do, say or believe now.
But even if there were any substance to Westrop’s allegations, why should it stop the Church of England from engagement? Politicians in Northern Ireland might have had genuine and morally justifiable reasons to abstain from engagement with certain organisations and certain people. But the Church’s vocation is to talk and listen to all, even in the most difficult circumstances which others may find utterly unacceptable. Befriending sinners is our business – it is our mission. The Church needs to recognise this reality and pray for all those involved. Making the bubble reputation a preeminent consideration risks the collapse of dialogue and the failure of reconciliation. Our ministry has to be nuanced if it has to have any real impact in the complexities of the violence convulsing our world.
So, to talk of the Church of England as having invited a speaker “with extremist connections” is not helpful to the mission at hand, especially when those connections are somewhat airy. But it is not particularly surprising when it comes from missiological ignorance born of pastoral prejudice. Anyone who refers to the “interfaith dialogue industry” with disdain clearly has no understanding of Christian mission, no grasp of applied theology and no patience for political diplomacy. Interfaith dialogue is not an industry; it is intrinsic to peaceful coexistence and inseparable from the notion of loving one’s neighbour. If we do not or cannot talk to people of other faiths and beliefs in their own languages, using their own cultural idioms, respecting their idiosyncrasies and understanding their sensitivities, how do we begin to inculturate or transform?
“By inviting Fuad Nahdi, the Church is lending credence to the notion that only radical Islamism can represent British Islam,” Westrop insists. And he appropriates one Sheikh Muhammad Al-Hussaini to support his view of Anglican “collusion”, “double discourse” and “hypocrisy”; of “showcasing” a “Lambeth Palace-sponsored political spectacle” which is “deliberately legitimizing extremist ideology”. The allegation is essentially that of turning a blind eye “to the suffering of those non-white and non-Western Christian people who have so badly been let down by the liberal Western Church of England”.
Funny how Sheikh Mohammed is described as an “interfaith advocate”, without Westrop deriding the task or pooh-poohing the vocation. Perhaps it’s only Anglican interfaith dialogue that is an “industry”?