Monday, 22 November 2010

PANORAMA: a response

“British Schools: Islamic Rules” ran the title of this week’s Panorama on BBC1. It dealt with what it considered questionable material being taught in British schools.

There are several point of response, or themes of objection, that I have with the documentary. I highlight them in the hope that others will be able to see the questionable ground upon which the Panorama documentary was based.


Othering is a process by which one identity is secured in opposition, and often in conflict, with another. In this case, it is the clear distinction between British and Islamic.

For many, myself included, there is little conflict between the two. Like millions of Muslims in the UK, I am confident in my British nationality and the Islamic principles and teachings I live my life by – and in fact I find many areas of commonality.

Yet the show with its title (British Schools: Islamic Rules) directly proposed an antithesis between that which is British, and that which is Islamic. This was a theme that reoccurred through out the show.

The presenter criticises some of the schools for teaching anti-Western views (essentially a construction of opposition between Islam and ‘the West’), when the show itself is guilty of doing exactly the same in its title and narrative.


Religious extremism and religious conservatism are two very distinct notions, and must never be conflated if a mature and informed discussion on religion is to take place.

Yet Panorama is sloppy in distinguishing between the two. An example found in the show is of the religious opinion it cites which disfavours music. Yes, this is a position expounded by many scholars within Islam, though not all, and is well within the mainstream of Islamic religious opinion. Does this lead to extremism, or fundamentalism, or indeed anything of concern? Of course not, and importantly, Islam is not the only faith tradition with varying opinions on the role of music.

Again, this amateurism can be found in discussions of ‘medieval Islam’ and the way that Muslims use the word ‘kuffar’ (it can be used in a derogatory sense, but also in a technical sense, as scholars of jurisprudence are prone to doing).


It is very difficult to examine the material presented in the documentary regarding anti-Semitism. I watched the documentary with a notepad in hand, but all the issues raised were vague, brief and generalised.

Where there is hate and prejudice being taught in Islamic schools, communities must contest this. But as I can’t bring a specific example from the documentary to discuss, I will simply outline what Islam teaches about Judaism, and the equality of humanity in general.

The Prophet Muhammad left no room for doubt about the nature of mankind when he stated in the Farewell Sermon, an important summa theologica of Islam, that: -

“All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor a black has any superiority over white; except by piety and good action”

Jews, along with Christians and Mandaeans are counted amongst the ‘People of the Book’, and honoured title within the Quran used for the Abrahamic traditions.

The Constitution of Madinah, a social contract drafted and signed by the Prophet Muhammad, states in strong terms that between Muslims and Jews ‘there shall be sincere friendship, exchange of good counsel, fair conduct and no betrayal'.

Islam does not view the ‘Children of Israel’ in history as a differing religious tradition. Rather the story of the Children of Israel is the story of faith amongst humanity in the Quran. And so there are stories of piety and morality, of sin and forgiveness and indeed of sin and condemnation. These are for instruction and reflection of present day believers –Quranic references to Children of Israel should be understood in this context.


I refuse to accept the now token disclaimer offered by journalists and presenters who say “not all Muslims are like this, but” and then spend the whole show demonising and misrepresenting Muslims.

Despite almost all the schools mentioned by the documentary receiving ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ classifications by Ofsted (a very rare grade), the show then went on listing tenuous claims of ‘extremism’.

Often this is done by quoting speakers out of context, with some ominous music playing. This is a common technique, and one which wilfully misrepresents the speakers and the content of their message, and as mentioned, conflates extremism and religious conservatism.

If the issue of Muslim faith schools, and the content of their syllabus, is to be examined, it should be done thoroughly, with adequate time and an objective analysis.

This short documentary, with sloppy terminology, lack of understanding, vague accusations, sensationalism and generalisations of a two million strong Muslim community is anything but the right way to do it.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Religion needs a Stephen Hawking

Too many people just don’t get religion. The media, politicians, authors, entertainers, policy makers and so on are all too often guilty of understanding religion in a childish, simplistic and grossly inaccurate way.

A public perception of God paints him as a man in the sky with a beard, a booming voice of condemnation, a jealous and petty punisher of humankind or on the opposite end, a good but ultimately benign force in the universe.

Among too many politicians and policy makers, religion is seen as a nice little quirk. Somewhat like the cultural traditions of some distant exotic land - interesting, amusing, but not really something to be taken too seriously.

In a documentary some time ago, Richard Dawkins asked - “how can God speak to a billion people at the same?” The question is frankly bizarre for a theist since it betrays a deep, deep misunderstanding of to whom the word God is referring. It is common to hear people, in a matter-of-fact fashion, that all religions believe all other religious followers are going to hell, another statement that is factually untrue and even notionally incorrect. And the British Humanist Association recently launched a campaign aimed at stopping self-identified Christians as listing themselves as ‘Christian’ since they failed to live up to the BHA’s perception of what a Christian should.

All of these show a society that in moving away from religion, has forgotten what it was in the first place.

So where does Stephen Hawking come in to it? Well, Stephen Hawking is perhaps most known by the laymen for authoring ‘A Brief History of Time’. The book successfully condensed some of the most advanced and complex scientific theories of the modern era into an easy to read paperback for popular consumption. He has since published similar books, such as The Grand Theory (which famously claimed God was ‘unnecessary’.)

Just like Stephen Hawking, religion needs authors who can convey the subtleties of religion to a wider non-specialist audience. Currently, the only author I am familiar with who successfully fills this niche is Karen Armstrong, yet more are needed.

Books on Christian theology are dense and unapproachable, the traditional Islamic texts are either written for a Muslim audience, or when written for a wider-audience, preachy and at times, patronising (notable exceptions are the biographies of the Prophet Muhammad produced by Lings and Salahi). How many people truly understand what ‘Hinduism’ is about beyond Diwali and sacred cows? How many non-religious people could accurately describe an Abrahamic conception of God?

And so much more importantly – is there enough understanding of the role religion plays in society today? The way it influences the human individual and then the individual in a group?

I strongly feel there isn’t.

Writers like Karen Armstrong are needed not to proselytise, but to build bridges and to cement understanding an increasingly diverse society that risks falling apart as drifts ever close to individualism and isolationism.

So religion needs a Stephen Hawking… or two.