The future of Islam

Can Ken Bigley's death by beheading help rescue a religion of peace from violence?

Published October 12, 2004 1:54PM (EDT)

One has to be careful about ascribing complexity of thought to the people who murdered Briton Ken Bigley. After all, anyone who cuts off the head of a living, talking man must surely be lacking, at the very least, the vital mental facility of empathy. But whether intended or not, the consequences of Bigley's videotaped beheading, and the other similar killings that preceded it, are many and far reaching.

First of all, it's obvious that such barbarity is a powerful disincentive to civilians staying in or going to Iraq as part of the reconstruction workforce. It places further pressure on the British government, and Tony Blair in particular, to rethink its war policy. It gives global publicity to a small group of fanatics and fosters the idea of an "us" and an unknowably frightening "them." But perhaps most cunning of all, it challenges Islam to define itself in ways that it might prefer to avoid: as pro- or anti-Western, as moderate or militant, as "with us or against us."

Among the many voices of British Muslims who pleaded on behalf of Bigley was Yusuf Islam, the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens. This is what he wrote in an open letter to the Tawhid and Jihad group thought to be holding the civil engineer: "As a member of the Muslim Council I request you, in the name of Allah, the Rahman (the all-merciful), to release British citizen Ken Bigley for the good name of our religion and according to the sayings of Allah in the glorious Qur'an." He went on to ask that the kidnappers "show the world the justice and mercy which Islam teaches us."

Crucially, then, Yusuf Islam was appealing not only as a Muslim but also to fellow Muslims. This is significant because many Muslims in this country have expressed anger and frustration at the manner in which they have been involuntarily grouped together with suicide bombers and violent extremists. As far back as 1997, in a conversation I had with him, Islam told me he wanted to counter the misconception of what he called his religion's "phenomenological appearance." "It's not curry," he told me. "It's not terrorism."

As we know, the "Muslims" to whom Islam made his appeal went on to cut off the 62-year-old Bigley's head with a knife while shouting, as if to remind us of the authority of its justice, "God is great." If that's not terrorism, then what is?

Naturally, there will be those who will skim over the grim details and point out that British forces should not be in Iraq and that many thousands of Iraqis have died and no one makes too much fuss about them. (This numerical realism has its place, of course, although it should be observed that more concern is shown for dead Iraqis now than the many tens of thousands who died under Saddam.)

The point is that even if Britain left Iraq tomorrow, the decapitations would not stop. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his cohorts would not suddenly take up kite flying. Their psychopathology would not be miraculously cured. And anyway, it's Iraqis who make up the vast majority of their victims. There is an argument about whether the fundamentalists would have a footing in Iraq if Saddam were still in power, but it's a futile argument. He's not there now, but the beheaders are, intoxicated with religious sadism.

Zarqawi is a Jordanian, an extremist who has literally driven to the conflict. But conflict can also drive people to extremism. And it must be his hope that his Internet snuff movies find not only a horrified infidel audience but also an appreciative Islamic one. If so, it may be at this point that his strategy becomes too clever for its own good.

Perhaps Yusuf Islam does not mean much to Zarqawi. Very possibly he's never heard any of his records, even the recent religious ones on which he sings without godless instruments. But Islam, who has been a key figure in gaining government support for Islamic schools, does have a respected position among Muslims in Britain, and if Tawhid and Jihad had really wanted to gain a propaganda coup, it might have responded to Yusuf Islam with a demonstration of leniency rather than ritualized murder.

In reality, gaining the respect of fellow Muslims was always going to be a much weaker motivating factor for Bigley's kidnappers than their own hatred of the West. This, I think, is a sad truth of which Islam was well apprised before writing his letter. Nevertheless in writing it, he positioned himself, and the British Muslims for whom he spoke, on the side of universal humanity. Alas, that is a position that in the past he has not always occupied unambiguously. When Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa on writer Salman Rushdie, Islam was reported to have made a speech in favor of the decree. He denied it, claiming that he had only protested at the publication of the "Satanic Verses."

Yet eight years later, Islam told me that he thought Rushdie, who was still under around-the-clock protection, should be "extradited" to Iran to stand trial -- where presumably his sentence would have been a good deal stiffer than a fine. He also expressed views on adultery and the punishment thereof that might best be described as medieval, if that didn't defame a whole epoch.

However, since 9/11, an event he wasted no time in denouncing, Islam has distanced himself from Islamic literalists and relaxed his hard-line interpretation of the Koran. Islam, he argues, is a religion of peace. Like all faiths, Islam is in fact a religion of many things -- including calls to war -- but at the moment it's enough to say that it's not a religion of cutting off innocent men's heads. And Yusuf Islam said that. It may not have saved Bigley, but it might help save a religion from the same fate of kidnapping and, ultimately, bloody death.

By Andrew Anthony

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