Interview with Fareena Alam, 27-year-old editor of the British Muslim magazine Q-News. Since 2002, Alam has emerged as a leading voice for what the journalist calls ‘liberal British Islam.” Her answer to all the current problems is not less religion but more religion.
The only way to counter extremism, she believes, is with more religion, not less: by promoting an Islam she characterises not as “moderate” but as “fundamentalist”. She argues: “Mercy and patience are the fundamental values of Islam. This is not a watered-down version of religion.” Her conviction worries more secular Muslims, who perceive the group around Q-News as “odd”, “crazy” or “Islamists by another name” – and so, perhaps, does her language. “I know people have trouble with the promotion of religion, and that’s a legitimate concern,” counters Alam. “But we cannot run away from the fact that religion is important to these young people. The 7/7 bombers didn’t come on the platform of secularism, they came on the platform of being bearded, praying-five-times-a-day Muslim guys. We have to talk to people on their own level.”
She and her magazine have helped organise the Radical Middle Way, described as “a series of talks funded by the Foreign Office aimed at tackling extremism among young British Muslims.”
In the scramble for influence, the best-funded (and loudest) voices are likely to prevail. “The petrodollar-funded literalists think that their version of Islam is the real Islam, and they’ve had the money to promote it around the world,” explains Alam. “I’m for an Islam that is very at home in Britain: I don’t want a foreign religion.” The Radical Middle Way project attempts to bolster moderate Islam in Britain by promoting traditional scholars, such as Shaykh Abdallah bin Bayyah of Mauritania and Habib Ali of Yemen, “whose learning and authority are undeniable”.
The scholars’ tour of Bradford, Oldham, Manchester, London and Leeds has attracted 15,000 young Muslims since December. Though the promotional material does not mention it, government funding is common knowledge. Birt sees this as a positive shift: “The debate is moving on from a knee-jerk cynicism against any government involvement. The basis of engagement is really changing.” Yet this dialogue throws up difficult questions. In supporting the tour, the government is funding highly conser-vative scholars who accept few of the tenets of secular western society. Alam believes the scholars’ piety and compassion make their cultural mores unimportant. “How is it that a man from Yemen understands so well the nature of our situation here?” she asks. “That’s traditional scholarship for you.” The strategy seems to be working, satisfying a real hunger for religious knowledge among young Muslims.
A positive step? Or a dangerous path?