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Enough ‘Eurabia’ Talk. Let’s be Optimistic.

I am not a regular reader of Lesbilicous, “the web’s tastiest lesbian magazine,” but I was drawn to this headline: “Poll reveals Muslim support for gay rights.”

A poll conducted by YouGov on behalf of the UK think tank Demos showed that fewer than one in four British Muslims have a problem with Britain’s uber-relaxed approach to homosexuality. Half agreed with the statement “I am proud of how Britain treats gay people.” The good news just kept coming. Over 80 percent of British Muslims describe themselves as “proud to be a British citizen” whilst two thirds agreed that they are “proud of British culture.” It turns out Muslims are more up-beat about their country than Anglicans; only 30 percent agreed with the statement “Britain’s best days are behind her” (compared to 48 percent of Anglicans). As for the idea that when it comes to foreign policy Muslims are uniformly hostile, that needs rethinking. Only 20 percent responded “no” to the statement “I am proud of Britain’s role in the world.”

Max Wind-Cowie of Demos tried to explain the gulf between the picture painted by the poll and the usual view. “Too often, [British Muslims] leadership use their political capital, the ear of Government and their self-made legitimacy to portray their own community as uncomfortable in modern Britain.” He went on, “This false portrait, painted by leaders more old-fashioned and more extreme than the community at large, does a terrible disservice to British Muslims and it plays into the hands of those who argue that Islam cannot be reconciled with democracy, liberalism and diversity.”

Dr. Rob Berkeley, director of the Runnymede Trust agreed: “This poll highlights that negative stereotyping of the views of Muslims in the UK distorts our political debate.”

But is the poll true? Doubts have been widespread.

The blog Harry’s Place claimed that when British Muslims say they are “proud of how Britain treats gay people” they are really saying they are proud that Britain still discriminates against gay people in such matters as the distinction between “civil marriage” and “civil partnerships” as well as in the exclusion of gay men from giving blood, and from the protection of hate crime legislation. This seems unlikely to say the least. The simpler explanation is the better one. These Muslims really were proud of the UK’s near-complete reversal of a couple of millennia of discriminatory legislation and attitudes.

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Some responses to the YouGov poll

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Harry’s Place is on stronger ground when it raises concerns about the poll’s methodology. The poll was conducted on behalf of the “Progressive Conservatism Project” at Demos and the results certainly did lend convenient support to Prime Minister Cameron’s Munich speech (discussed here back in February). And it is odd that as recently as 2009 a Gallop Poll showed zero tolerance among British Muslims for homosexuality. The scale of the reversal must prompt some caution (and more research and a bigger sample). Still, the political commentator Sunny Hundal argues the two polls are not contradictory: “Muslims can agree that Islam does not tolerate homosexuality, while celebrating gay rights enshrined in the law.” Finally, it is significant that non-English speaking Muslims were excluded from the Demos poll (suggesting mass free language teaching should be a priority, by the way).

Despite these legitimate concerns, I do worry that some of the disbelief is influenced by the panic-driven idea (really, a prejudice) that we will all soon be living in “Eurabia.” Don’t forget, living in Hotel Abyss has always been attractive to some people, especially the intellectuals. The danger of the “Eurabia” concept is not just that it ignores the tussle for the future going on within the Muslim community but that—by painting an entire community as most probably incompatible with democracy and modernity—the concept lends support to the wrong side in that tussle. The “Eurabists” and the Islamists seem to agree on one thing: the progressive Muslims can be ignored. And the MSM often acts as the publishing wing of this weird Eurabist-Islamist alliance, with its message of “The Muslims Are Coming!”

If we would but look past the MSM, the tussle for the Muslim future (which means our shared future, for Muslims are Britons and Britons are Muslims and that is never going to change) is everywhere.

Under pressure, the East London Mosque promises to ban homophobic speakers. Good. Almost the next day it’s leadership invites in Sex and Relationship Education Islamic (SRE Islamic), a group involving the extremist Islamist sect Hizb ut-Tahrir and which campaigns for “the unacceptability of homosexuality which is often portrayed as a lifestyle choice.” Bad.

The Muslim Council of Britain leader, Sir Iqbal Sacranie, once blurted out his view that gays and lesbians are immoral, harmful, and diseased. Bad! Yet Muhammed Aziz, policy advisor to the MCB, tells PinkNews that he had been in discussions with gay rights group Stonewall and that “We have brought about a lot of change from five years ago when the MCB were behind issues such as section 28 [a law banning teaching about homosexuality in schools], and against gay adoption.” Good!

The Eurabists and the Islamists agree the progressives can be ignored because the reactionaries are theologically correct and so the only ones who matter. How should we respond to this argument?

Sir Sacranie can certainly claim canonical authority. “Do you approach the males of humanity, leaving the wives that Allah has created for you? But you are a people who transgress,” says the Koran (26:165–66.)

However, when the (admittedly smaller) Association of British Muslims condemns discrimination against gays it too draws on the Koran. The association’s codirector, Paul Salahuddin Armstrong, prefers to talk about Verse 17:70 as sheltering gays and lesbians under its beautiful, protective umbrella. “Now indeed, We have conferred dignity on the children of Adam, and borne them over land and sea, and provided for them sustenance out of the good things of life, and favored them far above most of Our creation.”

The question “Who is correct?” is the wrong question for politicians and policymakers. If Muslims come to pay more attention to 17:70 than to 26:265–66, would it be so very different to the way that, say, I learnt at Sunday school to ignore or reinterpret those weird, violence-soaked, and discriminatory bits of the Old Testament (we all know the West Wing clip, I assume?) and attend instead to the Psalms or the Sermon on the Mount or Mary’s Magnificat? To ask whether I was “correct” to do so, is meaningless.

Reza Aslan, the Muslim-American author of No God But God, thinks not. I interviewed him in 2009 and he is worth quoting at length because we must get this right if we are to believe in our bones that integration is possible and so work for it.

Scripture is a neutral thing with absolutely no meaning beyond the individual’s encounter with it. Scripture says what the reader thinks it says. In the United States, a couple of hundred years ago, both slave owners and abolitionists used the exact same verses to justify their arguments. To reject a reformist or a progressive Muslim’s interpretation of scripture as invalid because it interprets away certain violent sections, but then to accept a radical or puritanical interpretation of the same scripture because it accepts those violent elements—whilst it interprets away the pluralistic and progressive elements of scripture—is ridiculous.

The idea of abrogation—that later verses of the Koran abrogated earlier verses—is ... merely an exegetical tool that was invented by second and third generation Islamic scholars. ... The truth is that the Koran, like all scriptures, is full of contradiction and paradox ... the modernists and progressives will pick the verses that they feel are most representative of what the Koran is and ignore the rest. That’s human nature, and goes back to the fundamental issue—religion is what you say religion is.

In other words, religious stories, to use Aslan’s technical academic language for a moment, function as “prophetic topos” (or ways of talking) and “the historicity (or factual accuracy) of these topoi is irrelevant.” What really matters is which stories are adopted and how they make sense of the world for people, and in what direction they push identity and action.

Perhaps some of the disbelief about the Demos poll was a case of refusing to take yes for an answer. Maybe we can’t quite believe that the combination of freedom and social solidarity afforded by European social democracies attracts. Well, it does, if it is proclaimed and defended against its enemies. Yes, we will need a generational patience, but if we can create combative democracies—fierce in tackling racism, fierce in tackling extremism, fierce and utterly unapologetic in defense of our values—then there is no cause for pessimism about the prospects for integration.

So let us dare to believe the poll is true or, at least, that we can make it true. Let us prove in practice the truth of these bold words from Max Wind-Cowie, head of Demos’s Progressive Conservatism Project: “The only people who need to fear British Muslims are their leaders. Time is running out for the extremist posers who have long got away with declaring themselves representatives of the Muslim community and made a living from misrepresenting their view.”

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