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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 September 2005, 15:42 GMT 16:42 UK
Is Islam compatible with the West?
As extremists increasingly claim it is not, and attack Western values not only through rhetoric but acts of violence, many Muslims find themselves being forced to respond by re-examining their values.

Here two Britons, both born into the Muslim faith, explain why they have ended up following different paths as far as their religion is concerned.

Nagina Shah

Nagina Shah, who walked away from her faith and family 14 years ago after a forced marriage, believes that traditional Islam and modern Western life do not mix.

Aftab Malik

Aftab Malik, who has discovered a new-found passion for Islam as an adult, says that traditional Islamic values can themselves help overcome extremism.

NAGINA SHAH

I was born into a strict Pakistani Muslim background but, when I was 19, I decided to break away from my family.

Nagina
My parents chose a husband for me - I was engaged at 14 and forced into marriage at 17
I have three brothers and three sisters, and am the youngest in the family. I'm the only one born in England, in 1972, a few years after my parents had emigrated from Pakistan.

My upbringing was very strict, even by Asian community standards. My family were Sunnis [the majority branch of Islam] and our faith and religion were largely influenced by - and intertwined with - our culture.

But it was backward, strict and suffocating. I was not allowed to go out on my own or even travel on buses.

I went to an all-girls school, although my father believed girls should not really be educated. Instead, all attention was focused on my brothers, who were expected to become doctors or lawyers.

My father preached one thing but did something else in practice. He said we needed to be pure and pious but was himself quite volatile. In contrast, my mother would never say boo to a goose.

The double standards really struck me. I always felt suppressed and suffocated by my father and brothers, who ran the household.

I was never able to accept or understand why my brothers were treated better than me. They were allowed to go out, mix with women, drive, go to college, have an opinion. I was allowed to do none of these things.

Turning point

My parents chose a husband for me. I was engaged to him at 14 and forced into marriage at 17. when I was 19, I had had enough and I decided to run away from home. On 8 August 1991, I packed my bags and went.

I have since put myself through college and university and now consider myself as an independent career woman.

At the time, I left with hardly anything. And having lived in a sheltered, reclusive environment, I suddenly had to face up to real life for the first time.

I now want to help other British Muslims who face a similar situation to me
I moved away from Leeds and lived in a hostel for a while. I worked at the same time as going to college where I studied for my GCSEs and then A levels. I later went on to read engineering at university.

When I was staying in the hostel, I met many other young Asian girls like me. It was tragic because they wanted to break away from their families but they kept on going home and getting into a total mess.

There must be lots of other men and women who want to break away from their culture. I now want to help other British Muslims who face a similar situation to me.

Torn identity

I went through the most enormous life-changing experience. I must have been numb and in shock for about two years.

I became a totally different person, and found I was also quite spiritual and could relate to many religions at different levels.

THE ISLAM DEBATE
BBC Four, Wednesday, 14 September
Nagina Shah and Aftab Malik are on panel
It will address issues raised in BBC Two's Battle for Islam, which screened on Monday

Since leaving home I have not been in touch with my family. I would not be able to live my life the way I choose if my family have anything to do with it. I do not blame my parents for not seeing my point of view. They both come from a very different culture.

There is a cultural clash between my parents' generation and mine. The Eastern and Western cultures are so extremely different that it is difficult to find middle ground.

I believe my parents were so strict because they did not want to lose their identity, their Pakistani roots. But by doing this they did not allow me my own identity.

The danger of organised religion is that they all teach exclusivity and preach that theirs is the one true faith. To have one true faith means that all other faiths are wrong, hence the fighting we see around the world.

I believe the only way we will achieve peace and mutual respect on this planet is if we are all willing to change our beliefs.

I am not saying we should completely throw away our belief systems but what we need to do is let go of the beliefs that no longer work and keep the ones that do.

AFTAB MALIK

It was not until university that I began to think about what it meant to be a Muslim. Until then, life was pretty much plain sailing. I prayed and would fast in the month of Ramadan, but only half-heartedly.

Aftab Malik, editor of With God on Our Side: Politics and Theology of the War on Terrorism
Rather than architects of destruction, traditional Muslims were builders of a magnificent civilization synonymous with life
Experiences at the mosque taught me that Islam was something that came from the sub-continent: backward and ritualistic.

But my perception and understanding of Islam changed as I soon discovered that Islam had an intellectual and spiritual tradition.

Little did I know that I'd become part of an increasing number of Muslims in the West who, in the past decade or so, have been seeking the revivification of an authentic, traditional wisdom; one that rises above sectarian divisions and discredits the angry rhetoric of the orphans of modernity.

Rather than being architects of destruction, traditional Muslims were builders of a magnificent civilization synonymous with life, celebration, purity and knowledge.

Some Muslims today, in their rhetoric or by their actions, portray a faith whose adherents want a religion to die for, as opposed to live for. These Muslims are replacing the legacy of that civilization with anger and hatred.

Confusion rife

Unfortunately, despite the huge upsurge of interest in Islam, there remains much confusion as to what it's really about.

A twisted and mutated offspring is wreaking havoc in the name of Islam
While "the war on terrorism" has shifted relations between Islam and the West in tectonic proportions, the responses by Muslims have been different.

Some argue that 9/11 signalled the ultimate showdown between Islam and the West; others reactively repeat the mantra "Islam is a religion of peace". And another segment of the community has decided it is time for some serious and critical reflection.

These messages have been mixed and confuse many people, who cannot understand why so many Muslims are angry.

Despite the immense suffering in the Muslim world, nothing can justify the heinous actions that result in the spilling of innocent blood.

Devoid of the necessary skills and tools to decipher the religious texts, minions of chaos have side-stepped over 1,000 years of scholasticism and Koranic exegesis [critical explanation of a text] to create their own deluded Sharia - a new law couched in Islamic terminology established solely to be the antithesis of the West.

Under this law, there is only hatred and rejection. Under this law, Muslims and non-Muslims alike are its victims.

Classical traditions

For the integrity of Islam, these individuals and their organisations need to be seen as they are: marginal and heretical.

Muslims protest against the London bombings, PA photo
Traditional Islam can help calm the frantic nature so prevalent in Muslim psyche today
So far are they from classical notions of ethics and morality, manifestations of this extreme reading of Islam are more in line with "Islamicised" Marxist-Leninist notions of revolution and anti-imperialist struggle than with anything derived from the Koran and the Sunna through a classical legal tradition.

Muslim reformers who dismantled and undermined the Islamic tradition with its legal philosophy, an apparatus of law and system of spirituality during the 19th and 20th Centuries, paved the way for a twisted and mutated offspring that is wreaking havoc on the Earth in the name of Islam.

So what is traditional Islam? It really means orthodoxy, consisting of the four Sunni legal schools of thought (madhahibs), two schools of doctrine (aqida) and the science of ihsan (excellence or perfection), otherwise known as tasawwuf.

Traditional Islam teaches how to view tribulation and oppression through prophetic eyes and not how to contribute to it.

By restoring the equilibrium between the heart and soul, the intellect and creation, traditional Islam can help calm the frantic nature so prevalent in Muslim psyche today and, once again, marginalise and eject extremism from the Muslim discourse.


Nagina Shah and Aftab Malik were panellists on Debate: Battle for Islam, shown on BBC Four on Wednesday, 14 September. The programme examined issues raised by BBC Two's Battle for Islam, which was shown on Monday 5 September.


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