Dialogue or destruction

October 26, 2001

Muslim academic Zaki Badawi hopes that the events of September 11 will encourage the US to address the issues that inspired such atrocities. Anne Sebba reports.

America must see that to stop the war in Afghanistan now would not be a defeat. We need to help America get over this feeling," said Zaki Badawi, principal of the Muslim College in London, in an address to students at Cambridge University last week.

"America has every right to be angry, but being pushed because of anger means it is not being a good judge. One of the prophets declared anger was from the devil and should never guide the people who lead us."

Badawi compared the severity of the US attack with the boxer Mike Tyson taking on a child of three. "Before this, the Taliban was not the most popular regime in most of the world, but now people are saying, 'Poor things, being subjected to such an attack,' because it will result in the starvation of 4 million people. That is why the Muslim world is unhappy and most Christians and much of the Jewish community are uncomfortable, too," Badawi said.

"The whole world economy depends on America. Therefore we need to bolster and help America recover its sense of purpose and commitment."

Badawi, who was born in Egypt, draws from a wide range of international experience in making these comments. He was a professor of Islamic studies at Ahmadu Bellow University in Nigeria and then at the Hajj Research Centre, King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah before coming to London in 1976, where he has been director of the Islamic Cultural Centre and the Regent's Park Mosque. As well as teaching law and theology at the Muslim College, he is chairman of the Imams and Mosques Council of the UK and the Shariah Council of the UK.

The invitation to Cambridge came from the Centre for Jewish-Christian Relations (CJCR) in association with the Cambridge Theological Foundation. Badawi had spent the morning before his lecture in discussions with the principals of the Theological Federation about the way interfaith issues will impact on campus life for staff and students in the wake of September 11. He is also addressing conferences at Lisbon and Oslo universities on related subjects.

Badawi is well aware of the potentially serious implications for Muslim students at British universities, but thinks that so far the relationship between Muslim and non-Muslim students does not seem to have been too badly affected. "The important thing is to show that extremism is not part of Islam. The Taliban is not true Islam," he says. "It is like saying that Ian Paisley is representative of all Christians."

An urbane man with a warm sense of humour, Badawi describes himself as "mainstream" and is particularly outspoken about the role of women in Muslim life. "I know some radical students do not approve of my views," he says. "But I do not say a woman does not have to wear a headscarf. What I maintain is that she can if she wants, but it is a matter of freedom not obligation."

He says there is general misunderstanding about the Taliban: much of what it propounds is cultural and has no foundation in Islam. "The Taliban represent the culture of rural village life in Afghanistan. They are the product of schools on the borders, poorly educated and with no knowledge about geography, history and many other subjects. Islam in general is not against modernity. There is some opposition to the television, telephone and radio, largely in Saudi Arabia, but mostly Muslim regimes want to modernise their countries. It is only the Taliban, an ignorant extreme group, that does not. The world should know that Islam enshrines and respects knowledge and invites human beings to learn and develop. There is a verse in the Koran that says that the knowledgeable cannot be equal to the ignorant, that is very important and basic to Islam."

Badawi believes that the decline of Islam as a world force set in after the 15th century when theologians took over society. "It is a puzzle why our society declined while the West developed. The decline can be traced to the time when Muslim society fell under the sway of theologians who were like thought police. I object to theologians deciding on what you should think. Once you are told what to think you do not develop."

An example of this attitude was a 15th-century book that Badawi calls an anti-knowledge declaration. "The idea behind it was that our aim in life was to be saved for the day of judgement and therefore any activity that diverted from that end should be prohibited. The book declared that it was not necessary to learn mathematics beyond the ability to divide an inheritance, not necessary to learn geography other than the route to Mecca, not necessary to learn astronomy other than the phases of the moon. This attitude pervaded Europe and the Muslim world and to an extent we are still at the tail end of it."

He insists some good things have resulted from the tragedy of September 11, such as the rush to understand more about Islam. Edward Kessler, director and founder of the CJCR, raised a laugh at the lecture when he told how a colleague had been to the library to take out a book titled Muslim Perceptions and found no one had borrowed it before. All that has changed.

"The Koran has become a bestseller, which is important to correct long-standing misunderstandings," Badawi says. For example, the word jihad, hijacked by Muslim fanatics, has done much to make those in the West associate Islam with violence. "Jihad means striving, not fighting, and you can strive to do anything better. It is mentioned in the Koran only occasionally in the context of war, yet it has become synonymous with war.

"Another positive result is that America has joined the world and recognises that she is not invulnerable. Now the whole world will start addressing the real issues that make people undertake such cruel actions."

According to Badawi, the reason groups such as Al Quaeda are able to recruit such strong support among the young is mainly because so many of them feel dehumanised in their own countries, especially in Saudia Arabia. "Often the government treats its subjects like pigs. They completely lack dignity, yet they see enormous corruption at the top, are very resentful and feel that America is the one country that is propping up a corrupt system. In addition, they feel bitter about the Palestinians, especially when they see films of the way Palestinian children and villages are attacked, and the US is blamed for this."

Badawi admits that the Middle East is only one aspect feeding the resentment against America, but believes it is crucial to tackling the sources of terrorism.

In this atmosphere, greater interfaith dialogue is a priority. "Dialogue does not mean denying your own beliefs but respecting each others. The best way young people can respect each other's religion is to go into their place of worship and clean and paint them and accept them as a places of worship." His advice to undergraduates is to beware of extremist Islamist societies. "But since they are at university they should learn to be critical and evaluate every piece of information they are given."

At the Muslim College, where he teaches a masters course to 40 students, mostly from overseas, he encourages a thorough grounding in other religions, but rather than teach this himself, he invites rabbis and priests to talk about their religions. He is keen to train more imams in Britain as leaders of the country's 1,000 Mosques. There is no other way. If you continue to import people from elsewhere you will continue to get a false impression of Islam because they come with their own cultural baggage and sell it as Islam. Yet many of these cultural aspects are really objectionable."

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