But obviously there can be, Sir Iqbal: it not only happened in Britain on July 7, but in Iraq almost daily, in New York on 9/11, in Madrid on 3/11, and on and on. Your words are comforting to jittery Westerners, as are those of many other self-styled Muslim reformers. But what exactly are you doing to convince young Muslims that there can be no such justification? How would you respond to Dr. Hani Al-Siba’i‘s assertion that in Islamic law there is no concept of civilian in the Western sense — an assertion that I have seen confirmed in my own studies?
The Independent interviews the Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain (thanks to Sr. Soph):
Sir Iqbal says among Muslims there is still a pervasive sense of “disbelief” the bombings could have taken place at all, including among community workers who knew the culprits. The attacks, he says, were “a major eye-opener” for the community.
“Until now we knew there was this rhetoric, we knew there were pretty high emotions, but we never ever felt that would be translated into such evil and criminal actions,” he says. “Whether we were in the dark or a bit naÃ¯ve, the reality is that it happened. We have to take this situation extremely seriously.”
Sir Iqbal said many Muslims were still in denial that their neighbours had carried out the attacks – despite overwhelming evidence. “Nothing is clear about what motivated them,” he says.
Oh, Iqbal. Nothing could be clearer. Don’t expect us not to have heard of jihad — even the defensive jihad that the groups who claimed credit for the bombing invoked as their justification.
He said one theory circulating in the bombers’ community is that they were doing a dummy-run through the Tube, and explosives were put in their back packs. From his talks in Leeds he had heard that “there is some sort of video at the moment being circulated on the internet. There were various mock trials taking place – a test, people saying ‘we just want to try you out’. Then the very same people are brought in and somebody planted bombs in.”
Sir Iqbal is adamant that it is incumbent on members of the Muslim community to help the police with their investigation – and report any suspicions about other “criminals” who may be considering violent acts. But he is worried that co-operation is being hampered because law-abiding Muslims are being treated as suspects – not only by the police but by the public.
“We are all being accused and sentenced as if we are criminals,” he says. “There are innocent families who have got nothing to do with the act of criminality who have been treated as though there is some criminality in themselves.”
There’s an easy way to take care of this problem: fight the jihadists instead of the police. Then everyone will know what side you’re on.
Sir Iqbal believes Muslim leaders must now do more to foster good relations with the authorities, perhaps through a “third party” mechanism for reporting suspicions, which can then be passed on.
To help build trust, Sir Iqbal convened a caucus of 100 leading Islamic scholars and imams, from throughout the UK on Friday evening to issue a statement unequivocally condemning the attacks. The gathering, the first of its kind since the fatwa was issued against Salman Rushdie, issued a clear message that bombing attacks on civilians does not lead to martyrdom.
The message to the community was clear: “The pursuit of justice for the victims of last week’s attacks is an obligation under the faith of Islam.”
But there remained a niggling ambiguity, after the press conference, about whether the imams equally condemned British Muslims who mount suicide attacks in Israel or Iraq. After a number of questions, Sir Iqbal issues the clarification that seemed to have been missing before: “The position as far as the council is concerned in terms of any innocents wherever they are in any part of the world – there can never, ever be justification of killing civilians, full stop.”
But who exactly is innocent? Who exactly is a civilian? Iqbal, you need to do some more clarifying.
Some Muslims have suggested that Israeli adults can be considered combatants as they may be on a military reserve list. Is he prepared to distance himself from this view? “Israeli innocent civilians are in exactly the same category as innocent Palestinians, as innocent Britishers. They are innocent civilians,” he says, without hesitation.
This is not enough. It still allows room for a very narrow definition of what constitutes an “innocent civilian.” Please define “innocent civilian.”
Sir Iqbal insists that British Muslim scholars have taken a lead in condemning suicide attacks. But he reveals that in the behind-the-scenes discussions before the statement was issued on Friday a distinction was drawn by some between military targets and civilian targets in the Middle East.
“I will tell you where the confusion gets into it. Where there is a war. Where there are soldiers, they try to kill the soldiers.” Then he adds, with a hint of frustration: “These sorts of explanations will get us nowhere. What is needed is to bring an end to this crisis.”
Sir Iqbal acknowledges that Britain’s backing for President George Bush over the Iraq war and lack of action over the conflict in Palestine is fuelling frustration among young Muslim men. The task is to channel anger into legitimate forms of protest, including the ballot box. He wants mosques to inform people about the means of legitimate protest to steer them away from violence.
“There are people who are really opposing the Iraq war – more Britishers than anybody else,” he says. “How do they go about it? They don’t go about it with bombings. They went into the streets, they went into letter writing, this is what we have been trying to say.”
There is no room for diplomacy on one issue, however. “If someone is inciting someone to commit acts of terror,” he says, “it is a crime.”