Analysing the Imam Shakeel Begg Judgment Exploited by Neocons

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Sara Khan in her contribution to the Hope Not Hate report, State of Hate 2017, dedicates a whole page for Imam Shakeel Begg to prove both “Islamist extremism” and her subservient utility before neocons. Imam Shakeel Begg of Lewisham Islamic Centre took the BBC to court after Andrew Neil labelled the Imam an “extremist”. Against numerous positive character references, the court held that the Imam was a “Jekyll and Hyde” character who was in reality an “extremist”.

Scrutinising the case is important.  Like PREVENT, a bogus theoretical model to determine whether Islamic beliefs are “extreme” is used to label the Imam an “extremist”. Such cases enable an ideological state to pick and choose “extremist” beliefs based on the prevailing climate of prejudice against the Muslim minority.

The judgment is already being paraded in the neocon media and think-tanks run by hate preachers.  It is being used in an McCarthyistic fashion to bully charities that choose to share a platform with the Imam. This sets a dangerous precedent for Islamic scholars of all mainstream persuasions.

The Politicisation of the Courts

The judgment was based on the expert submission of Dr. Matthew Wilkinson.  The evidence submitted on behalf of the complainant demonstrating the opposite, was authored by Professor Robert Gleave. Gleave is the same professor whose questionable witness testimony was relied upon by the court in the Imam Jalal Uddin case to prove that the “one finger salute” and the declaration of faith on a flag had become symbols predominantly associated with ISIS.

This indicates to a disturbing politicisation of the courts, where a judgment is made on whichever “expert” coincides with a position against a Muslim, even against an “expert” whose evidence has previously been used to prosecute Muslims.

Wilkinson an “Islamic expert”?

So, who is Wilkinson? Wilkinson’s evidence has been used in a number of different counter-terrorism cases by the prosecution. His statements often support the neocon counter-extremism theories which underpin PREVENT. Interestingly, his qualifications and suitability have come into question before.  In the context of previous cases, he has been criticised for his rudimentary knowledge of Arabic and for not even bothering to read footnotes of books which have being used as evidence. He is said to have automatically dismissed these references simply on the basis that they had been written in an earlier historical period.[1]

As per his lengthy submission to the court his Islamic qualifications include the following:

  • Memorising three juz (sections) of the Qur’an and studied associated exegesis,
  • Memorised the Arabic grammar poem Al-Ajrumiyya.
  • Studied the classical texts of Maliki fiqh (Law) ‘Al-Muwatta’, (‘The Well-Trodden Path’) of Imam Malik, ‘Qawa’id al-Islam’ (‘The Foundations of Islam’) and ‘Ash-shifa bi T’areef Al-Huquq Al-Mustapha’ (‘Healing by Recognition of the Rights of the Chosen One’) by Qadi ‘Iyad and “other seminal Maliki texts”.
  • Memorised and studied the famous forty Hadiths of Imam Nawawi.
  • Studied the biography of Ibn Hisham and contemporary biographies of the Prophet peace be upon him by Martin Lings and Tariq Ramadan.
  • Advanced study into classical and contemporary Islamic theological philosophy and history during studies as a PhD student and employment as a post-doctoral Research Fellow in Islamic philosophy.

Whilst perhaps exceptional to the judge, such qualifications from within the very Islamic orthodoxy Wilkinson’s defines as “moderate” (i.e. Traditional Islam/Activist Islam) are simply insufficient.  Children in the Muslim world have memorised more Qur’an and Hadiths than the expert. Moreover, the Muwatta and Qawa’id al-Islam are considered basic level hadith and fiqh texts.  The fact that such qualifications are even presented suggests the absence of qualification. To defer expertise to such an individual on matters where Islamic views are being discerned within an overarching securitisation framework is disconcerting and most certainly rejected by the Islamic scholarly milieu.

Moreover, critical to Islam as understood traditionally is the notion of ijazaat, or license granting authority to transmit.  Wilkinson does not list any Ijazaat.

Wilkinson’s Model

A number of positions have been pronounced “extreme” in Wilkinson’s subjective and unqualified view. Instead of dealing with all of these positions, the inadequacy of his incoherent model used to adjudge certain views will be demonstrated.

There are fundamental theoretical problems.  The model used by Wilkinson is reproduced below:

In explaining his model he writes,

“This is important as, although these phenomena often have a similar ‘Islamic’ complexion, they are in reality fundamentally different in their philosophy, theology, methodology and substance.

By implication, the further away his “phenomena” are from Islam, the more “fundamentally different” they are in “their philosophy, theology, methodology and substance.” His categorisations, however, are problematic in that elements which are grounded in Islamic orthodoxy are determined by him to be “extreme” or “extreme Salafi-Islamist”.

In describing the themes and tropes of Islam (which is traditional and “moderate”), he cites the great scholar of Islam Imām al-Ghazālī.[2] Moreover, he considers al-Ghazālī as an example of someone who fits in his “Islam” category.[3] This is important as we shall now see.

In defining “extreme Salafist Islamism”, Wilkinson writes,

“According to Extreme Salafist Islamists, such as Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), the ‘unbelievers’ include all those who are not confessing, practising Muslims, Christians and Jews. However, in mainstream, traditional Islam, Christians and Jews are not classed as ‘unbelievers’ (kuffar).[4]

The suggestion that Jews and Christian are not theologically considered disbelievers (kuffār) is utterly ridiculous.  The Qur’ān itself refers to Jews and Christians as committing “kufr” in several places.[5] The Qur’ān refers to those who committed kufr “from amongst the People of the Book and the Idolaters”,[6] including the Ahl al-Kitāb (People of the Book) amongst those whom have committed disbelief. The scholar Wilkinson uses to determine aspects of “Islam”, Imām al-Ghazālī, says in this regard:

“Kufr is to reject the Messenger (Allāh bless him and grant him peace) in anything from what he has brought [as part of the message of revelation], while īmān is to believe him in all that he has brought. Thus, the Jew and the Christian are Kāfirs on account of their rejection of the Messenger.[7]

Under Wilkinson’s model, Imām al-Ghazālī would be an “extreme Salafist Islamist”.

Describing the “themes and tropes” of “Political Islamism” he mentions the “khilafa” as this group’s “classic theme”.[8]

Nothing demonstrates the importance of an issue in Islam more than its legal weighting.  When something is considered a communal obligation, it is automatically considered an important aspect in Islam. Yet it is within Islamic tradition that the obligatoriness of the establishment of the Khilāfa is elucidated.

Imām al-Ghazālī has said:

“The obligation of appointing an Imām (Khalīfah) is from the absolute essentials of the Sharī‘ah, there being no justification for abandoning it.[9]

The great Mālikī imām, Qāḍī ‘Iyāḍ, a younger contemporary of al-Ghazālī, and someone whose works Wilkinson claims to have studied, states in his commentary of aḥīḥ Muslim:

“Appointing a Khalīfah is necessary, and this is also of that which the Muslims have reached consensus upon after the Prophet (Allāh bless him and grant him peace) and in all ages.[10]

The Mālikī scholar Ibn Khaldūn held the view that the appointment of an Imam in the context of Khilāfa was obligatory based on the fact that, inter alia, the Muslims were never without a leader.[11]

Wilkinson claims to have studied Shafi’i jurisprudence. The Sufi scholar Shaykh Nuh Keller, in his translation of the classic Shafi’ fiqh text added the section titled “Caliphate”. Adducing the renowned Shafi’ jurist Imam Abu’l-Hasan al-Mawardi, Shaykh Keller avers that,[12]

“the caliphate is both obligatory in itself and the necessary precondition for hundreds of rulings established by Allah Most High to govern and guide Islam community life.

Quite evidently, the Khilāfa is not merely a “classic theme”, but an “essential” theme of Islam – not just “Political Islamism”.

Intrinsically, a paradigmatically established Khilāfa would be fundamentally different to contemporary nation-states characterised constitutionally in a modern democratic fashion (e.g. the “central domain” of the Khilāfa, as a non-negotiable, would be the moral basis of the Qur’an etc.). Wilkinson considers this belief to be a “Political Islamist” belief.[13]

The purpose of expressly highlighting the views of Imām al-Ghazālī and other Mālikī and Shafi’i jurists which Wilkinson himself has studied and referenced in the context of “moderate” Islam in his submission, is to pointedly refute the notion that aspects which he deems to be “political Islamist” or “extreme Salafi Islamist” are, as Wilkinson claims at the beginning of his thematic explanation, “fundamentally different” philosophically, theologically, methodologically and in substance, to his own demarcation of Islam.

Sufi Omission

In identifying an example of a “Political Islamist” which overlaps with “extreme Salafi Islamism”, he mentions the anti-colonialist Imam Hasan al-Banna.  Al-Banna followed the Hasafiyya Sufi order. Moreover, he was influenced by Muhammad Abduh and in particular, Rashid Rida, two modernist scholars whom Wilkinson lists as examples of his non-extreme “activist Islam” category.[14] In other words, the examples he uses demonstrate the contradictory limitations – and sectarian bias – of his model.

This leads to a debilitating flaw which indicates toWilkinson’s sectarian nature.  There is an abject absence of Sufis in his theoretical framework.  The Mālikī Qadri Sufi and Mujaddid of Islam Shehu Uthman Dan Fodi (d.1817) through his congregation, engaged in what he considered Jihad (qitaal) in the Hausaland and even managed to establish the Khilāfa (on the model of the Khilāfat al-Rāshidah). Writing in his text Misbāh, the Shehu expressed that the appointment of a “just Imam” to look after the affairs of the Muslims is compulsory by law, irrespective of time or circumstance.[15]

In more contemporary times, there have been a number of insurgent groups in Iraq adhering to Sufi orders.  One Sufi group has even gone onto form a loose alliance with ISIS. The Mālikī Shaykh, Abdullah bin Hamid Ali, says,

“That, however, does not mean that “Wahhabis” are the only Muslims prone to violence. In fact, Sufi scholars were included after all amongst those who issued fatwas characterizing suicide bombings against Israelis and American soldiers in Iraq as “martyrdom operations” when the Wahhabis were strong and explicit in their condemnation of such acts.

There are many more examples that can be drawn to expose Wilkinson’s problematic submission, however, the point made is clear.  Wilkinson’s model is woefully contradictory and alarmingly poor. It also helps, inadvertently or otherwise, cement the academically discredited conveyor-belt theory of radicalisation.

Despite this, it is being used to prove “extreme” views, castigating millions of orthodox Muslims.

Khan’s Claims

Much of what Khan claims is derived from Justice Haddon-Clive’s judgment. These claims will now be briefly analysed.

Khan begins her HnH contribution on the Imam by highlighting that he has “promoted and encouraged religious violence”.  The question is of course, why is not the Archbishop Justin Welby listed in the HnH report too?  In 2016, he gave his blessings for warring in Syria. If this is not religiously sanctioned violence, then what is?

CAGE Dinner Speech

The first evidence highlighted by Khan and brought by the BBC was that the Imam attended a dinner organised by CAGE. Though Khan insidiously implies that an association with CAGE itself is a problem, the specific point of a contention was a speech given by the Imam in which he highlighted “brothers who made Hijrah and Jihad in the path of Allah”. It is customary in Muslim circles to make an indirect reference to individuals without mentioning their names in the case of praise. The reference was to Moazzam Begg, his travel to Afghanistan for humanitarian purposes, and then subsequent engagement in “Jihad”, i.e. struggle, when he endured imprisonment and torture in Bagram and Guantanamo. Professor Gleaves in his submission to the court supported this position based on the context; CAGE was founded on its primary campaign of freeing detainees.  Justice Haddon-Clive chose his own interpretation of the Imam’s usage of the word “Jihad” and believed it to be used in admiration of those traveling overseas to engage in armed conflicts.

Belmarsh Prison Speech and Tenuous Interpretations

Khan also highlights a speech given outside Belmarsh Prison to highlight the plight of detainees held without trial, such as Babar Ahmed.

The question in the first instance is, why is this a problem at all? Does the judge – and the “human-rights activist” Khan for that matter – agree with detentions without trial?  Are we to conclude from this, using their own standards of imposed subjective interpretation, that the judge and Khan do not truly uphold human rights and the rule of law?

It was argued that the Imam’s “crimes” for speaking at Belmarsh was his usage of the phrase “brothers in Islam” without qualification. This, it was argued, amounted to an approval of the prisoners whom had been convicted of terrorism.  Again, the context of the speech sufficiently demonstrates that this is not the case. Ironically, this view was also supported by Wilkinson.[16]

A pertinent observation here is that this drastically tenuous argument is also a “takfiri” one; to deny that Muslim criminals are no longer “brothers in Islam” is to excommunicate them based upon their “sin”.  In other words, by the judge, Khan, and the BBC making this argument, they themselves espouse what they would regard as an “extremist” position.

In another example highlighting awkward re-interpretations of statements, the judge even upheld the argument that “speaking truth to power” meant praising prisoners and their actions. With a context clearly being the abuses of detainees, this imposition only demonstrates the lengths gone to prove the Imam as an “extremist”.

Praise of Sayyid Qutb and Shaykh Abdullah Azam

Khan then brings to attention the Imam’s praise of two historic figures, Sayyid Qutb and Abdullah Azam. Relying on Wilkinson’s evidence, the judge considered both to be “godfathers of modern Jihadists”.

With regards to Qutb, his writings are a reflection of the historic context of abject oppression through imprisonment, torture and eventual death sentence he faced under the dictatorial Nasser regime.  Pertinently, the British historian and writer on Arabic literature Robert Irwin has stated that his writings have been “read and interpreted in many different ways”. This is evidenced by the fact that Rachid al-Ghannouchi in Tunisia whilst differing with him on particular issues, has historically taken inspiration from Qutb.   Gleave in his expert evidence stated,[17]

“Qutb’s identification with Jihadi Salafism, though, is simplistic – and though it has been claimed by many sensationalist commentators as the founder of Jihadism, this is not his common perception in the Muslim world. Instead, in that context, he is viewed by many as an intellectual who opposed Western domination and often as an example of a sort of Islamic “Thirdworldism”. It should not be seen necessarily as having any link to violent Jihadi Salafism.

Azzam’s thought was usefully exploited by Western powers as they supported the Afghan Jihad. In 1979, Zbigniew Brzezinski initiated a campaign of supporting the Afghan and Pakistani mujahideen freedom fighters, whom were to be later funded and armed by the CIA and MI6. The mujahideen – and that would include Azzam – were the “good guys”.

Pertinently, the contexts of the Imam’s praises were a reference to Qutb’s oppression, and Azzam’s defence of Afghanistan.

It is interesting to note here that in Wilkinson’s submission, he cites Shaykh Yusuf al-Qardawi in explicating traditional Islamic concepts.[18] He also places Shaykh al-Qardawi within the category “activist Islam”, which he deems “moderate”.  However he also states in his footnotes that,

“…his opinions on suicide bombing depart from this norm and may be considered, in this respect only, violently extreme.

If the Judge is willing to accept Wilkinson’s selective affirmation of individuals, why is it impossible to consider this also in the case of the Imam?

Perhaps demonstrating the incompetency of the judge and Khan is that Shaykh Ibn Taymiyya is endorsed by the judge in the judgment as a “great” Islamic scholar.  He certainly has been recognised by many Islamic scholars as “great”, but he also happens to be the subject of Qutb’s inspiration.

Other Speakers

Khan then argues that the Imam has shared platforms with other “extremists” and that Lewisham Islamic Centre has invited various speakers from a Salafi background, whom are automatically labelled “Salafi-Islamist”. Given the exploitatively elastic nature of the term “extremists”, it is likely that the label has been applied on the basis of orthodox Islamic beliefs held by the speakers.  Khan also highlights the purely circumstantial incident of Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale as having “said to have worshipped at Lewisham”. The implication is that mosques, and specifically Lewisham Islamic centre, are somehow a radicalising factor. This is purely unsubstantiated conjecture.

Submitting Adebolajo as evidence of “hate” is not exactly Khan’s strongest argument. According to his friend, Abu Nusaybah, he would “float about” between various gatherings.  His radicalisation was due to his physical and sexual torture at the hands of the Kenyan authorities and subsequent harassment by Mi5. Adebolajo did not express hate towards the British people, but rather explicitly cited foreign policy (“These soldiers go to our land, kill or bomb our people”) as his motivation. He explicitly stated that the women and children were safe and warned members of the public to get back when the police arrive.

Interestingly, these arguments were not submitted against the Imam to prove his “extremism” in the case, despite the BBC consulting subversive organisations like the Quilliam Foundation during the course of the case. This is most probably because they were weak to begin with.

Smearing Opposition to Draconian Policies

Using the Imam as an example, opposition to draconian, human rights-violating policies is framed by Khan within the discourse of “Salafi-Islamist”. Khan writes,

“Unsurprisingly, he has been an active advocate against counter-terrorism and counter-extremism policies…”

In doing so, she echoes the hate-financed Henry Jackson Society-prescribed method of silencing PREVENT-critique.

Definitions and Burdens of Proof

From a legal perspective, the case was a civil action. The burden of proof to satisfy is “the balance of probabilities”, which is substantially lower than “beyond reasonable doubt”.  Thus, if there is a 51% chance that someone is an “extremist”, he or she will be adjudged an “extremist”.  Yet within the PREVENT framework, “extremism” leads to terrorism which demands a criminal standard of proof (i.e. beyond reasonable doubt).  Taken together, the Imam has been categorised as “extremist” using a civil burden of proof for a radicalisation model designed to prevent a crime that necessitates a much higher standard. The Imam is thus being smeared like a criminal despite having not committed any crime. This contradicts principles of natural justice.

Then there is the issue of definition.  Khan operates within the PREVENT paradigm of “extremism”.  Yet the court relies on a single individual’s biased and incompetent judgement on what is religiously considered “extreme”.  What further compounds this issue is that whilst something maybe considered by PREVENT or Wilkinson to be “extreme”, may not constitute hate (or indeed be extreme at all).  This makes the placement of the Imam within the HnH publication all the more dubious.

Concluding Remarks

The judgment against Imam Shakeel Begg is an epic scandal. Far from proving the “Jekyll and Hyde” character of the Imam, the judge seems to have behaved like Reverend Samuel Parris, the prosecutor in the Salem witch trials famously depicted in Arthur Miller’s Crucible.

A brief analysis of the case shows that the judgment is a politicised, utterly biased expression of Orientalism. It is a bad judgment relying on appallingly poor “expert” evidence.  It is also offensive to the Islamic scholarly tradition where a non-Muslim, upper-middle class white man unschooled in the Islamic sciences has operated as the decision-maker in determining what Islamic expressions constitute “moderate” or “extreme”.

The anti-Muslim bias of the court is concomitant with a historic trend where the courts have increasingly taken discriminatory stances against the Muslim minority, whether it is charging white terrorists under the Explosives Act, or unquestioningly applying broken PREVENT theories in ward of court cases regarding “extremism” only within the Muslim context.

The above analysis briefly exposes the methodological problems.  There is an urgent need for Islamic scholars to forensically dissect the whole of Wilkinson’s appalling submission. A statement from Ulama is needed which rejects both the content of the judgment and its dubious basis, and the neoconservative exploitation of the case to further justify coercive regulation of Islamic thought and interference with privately held religious beliefs. If this remains unchallenged, then more Islamic beliefs will be consigned to the ever-growing category of “extremism”- based thought-crimes.


May the mercy of Allah be upon the righteous scholars. Ameen.


References

[1] Julia Thibeault, “Wilkinson: An Expert Witness?”, JURIST – Professional Commentary, Jan. 27, 2015, http://jurist.org/professional/2015/01/julia-thibeault-wilkinson-witness.php.

[2] Matthew Wilkinson, Shakeel Begg v. BBC Expert Witness Report, 2016, para. 5.4.5

[3] Ibid. para. 5.6.1

[4] Ibid. Para. 5.1.4

[5] Al-Qur’an, 5:17, 5:72-3, 2:89, 2:91, and many others

[6] Ibid. 2:105, 98:1,6

[7] Imām al-Ghazālī, Fayṣal al-Tafriqah, p. 25

الكفر هو تكذيب الرسول صلى الله عليه وسلم في شيء مما جاء به، والإيمان تصديقه في جميع ما جاء به، فاليهودي والنصراني كافران لتكذيبهما للرسول صلى الله عليه وسلم

[8] Fn.1, para. 5.4.8

[9] Imām al-Ghazālī, al-Iqtiṣād fi l-I‘tiqād, Dār al-Minhāj, p. 293

وجوب نصب الإمام من ضروريات الشرع الذي لا سبيل إلى تركه

[10] Qāḍī ‘Iyāḍ, Ikmāl al-Mu‘lim, Dār al-Wafā’, 6:220

لا بد من إقامة خليفة، وهذا أيضا مما أجمع المسلمون عليه بعد النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم وفي سائر الأعصار

[11] Ibn Khaldūn, Muqaddimah, 239-240

[12] Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri (Translated by Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller) Reliance of the Traveller, Beltsville: Amana Publications, 1994, o25.0, p.638

[13] See Fn.2, para. 5.4.8

[14] Ibid. paras. 5.3.7, 5.6.2

[15]  Sulayman, I, The African Caliphate – The Life, Works & Teaching of Shaykh Usman Dan Fodio, The Diwan Press: London, 2009, p.246

[16] Fn.2, para. 15.2.8

[17] Robert Gleave, Shakeel Begg v. BBC Expert Witness Report, 2016, p.14

[18] Fn.2 para. 5.2.1

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