At the Heart of What Matters
It is ironic that just as I read that the Islamic Society of Northern America (ISNA) is meeting former US president Jimmy Carter to discuss social justice, I also read of the Council of Glasgow Imams and its decision to enter the politics of gay marriage.
ISNA is looking outward, and the imams’ council is looking backward. Muslims in Scotland are not being represented by the imams’ council, a body made up primarily of imams from the Indian sub-continent, many of whom do not speak English and do not relate to the lives of most young Muslims.
Gay marriage is a subject that continues to be discussed in the US media during the Republican presidential campaign. Long recognised by most people to be a civil rights issue in response to discrimination against the minority of gay people, it is accepted that theologians in most monotheistic religions believe that marriage can only be between a man and a woman – a position they are all fully entitled to hold, without pressure to change.
Politically, however, the concept of civil unions as a civil right to be determined by civil law, not religion, is becoming more acceptable by the majority of educated liberals in most countries. This is why it is so disappointing to read of the Glasgow imams’ council deciding to enter the world of politics by telling their congregations not to vote for a candidate who may support gay marriage.
This conflation of Church and state is being played out in the US currently by conservative, fundamentalist elements and should have no place in politics.
The governments in the US, the UK and Scotland do not have the power or the intention to force anyone to perform a same-sex marriage and churches and mosques are completely free to carry on solemnising wedding ceremonies as they please.
It is nonsense to suggest that legislation is an attack on Islam, or indeed any religion. The imams should recognise that along with the Catholic Church and the Church of Scotland, they have the right to disagree.
Civil contracts recognising a union of two people in the eyes of the law should not be seen as an attack on the religious sensibilities of church or mosque. Whether called civil unions, marriages or contracts, they should not be an issue and when performed by a judge or a mayor in a city hall they are a legal contract quite separate from a religious ceremony.
Imams certainly have their right to express their religious opinions on the matter, but trying to force their religious views to influence the laws of the land is a throwback to the past.
Britain has evolved through a long and painful history of Catholic against Protestant, with bloody wars and centuries of unrest until religion and the state finally established their respective, respectful distance.
Young Muslims today are politically aware; they respect the rights of minorities – in Palestine, for example – and appreciate the values of justice and tolerance that underpin all the great world religions. Muslims in Scotland, as in the rest of the western countries where Muslims have settled, are facing much more important challenges than the issue of gay marriage.
Islamophobia, the growing Muslim prison population, the alarming rise in drug use among Muslims and the breakdown in families caused by divorce is causing deep anxiety in the Muslim communities across the UK.
Outdated teaching in mosques is seen to be leading to a dramatic rise in the prison population of a generation of young men feeling disconnected from their religion, according to Ahtsham Ali, an adviser to the UK Prison Service. He says that the rise in the Muslim prison population by 50 per cent over five years is a sign that mosques should move with the times to prevent young Muslims from becoming disillusioned and alienated from their culture and religion. Overseas clerics all too often fail to engage with young British Muslims, and this is part of the reason for a breakdown in relating the teachings of Islam to problems in society like drug abuse, forced marriages and broken families.
The Muslim prison population in the UK has reached 10,600 in 2012, according to reported figures, and accounts for 12.6 per cent of all prisoners, a huge over-representation considering that just 3 per cent of the population is Muslim.
The tragedy is that Muslim prisoners are still being treated as if they are potential terrorists in spite of the fact that fewer than 1 per cent are in prison on terrorism-related charges. The dedicated work of a growing network of Muslim chaplains is leading to more recognition by prison authorities that Muslims are not a homogenous group and that while some of them hold radical and extremist views, they are in the minority.
The Glasgow imams should also recognise that Scottish Muslims are fairly well educated and enlightened as, for example, forced marriage is already a criminal offence in Scotland. The Home Office is looking into making it a criminal rather than a civil charge throughout the UK as the forced marriage protection order is failing to provide an effective protection for the approximately 400 young girls known to be coerced into arranged marriages in 2011.
Young girls have been forced into arranged marriages and the practice leads to young women being taken away from school, limiting their social and educational development and restricting their opportunities of becoming financially independent. Any parent who forces a child into marriage is not acting out of love, whatever their claims to the contrary.
This cultural tradition is fast becoming an anachronism in society today, where young and educated Muslims recognise that the Koran is clear on the importance of upholding justice. Drug abuse, however, is an insidious social problem that has recently taken hold among Muslim young people, and a study in Blackburn, Lancashire, shows that there has been a threefold increase in the number of Muslims being arrested for drug offences in the last four years.
In spite of their being 24 mosques in Blackburn, young Muslims are turning to drugs not just because of poor housing, low wages and unemployment but also because of the erosion of traditional ties to mosque and family.
In Tower Hamlets in London, the heroin abuse problem is reported to be at an all-time high among Bangladeshi youth. In Waltham Forest, the Noor Ul Islam Trust is working in the community to remind Muslims that Islam is the better way and is now providing drug-counselling at mosques.
This is surely a more pressing problem for Muslims to be addressing than gay marriage. Rather than watch helplessly while we raise a new generation lost to drugs, crime and extremism, let us encourage our leaders to be far-sighted and wise in their promotion of Islam and encourage their communities to vote according to who will best address the challenges of the youth rather than an issue which will have little bearing on them.
Dr Azeem Ibrahim is a lecturer at the University of Chicago, fellow and member of the board of directors at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and a former research scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and world fellow at Yale. He obtained his PhD from Cambridge University.
This article was published by The Scotsman on April 24, 2012. Read it here.