Eric Ollerenshaw OBE MP is Member of Parliament for Lancaster and Fleetwood. He is also a Member of the APPG on Islamophobia.
The world looks on aghast as the barbaric ISIS militants continued their brutal campaign of violence in Iraq, claiming now to have established an Islamic state, with their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as a “leader for Muslims everywhere”. Nothing in any religion can justify their actions, and there can be no doubt that their abuse of the language of faith to promote sectarian violence causes profound offence to those who rightly see these extremists as an affront to any interpretation of Islam.
So, as Muslims across the world mark the holy month of Ramadan, many may be prompted to ask some fundamental questions. What does it actually mean to be a Muslim? How permissible is it to declare others as apostates, and who has the right to presume to issue legal rulings within Islam (fatwas)?
In fact, these are the very questions which King Abdullah of Jordan asked ten years ago when he devised what has become known as the “Amman Message”. His statement sought to affirm what Islam is (and what it is not), and to clarify to the modern world “the true nature of Islam and the nature of true Islam”.
In support of the message, the King convened an international conference of 200 of the world’s leading Islamic scholars from fifty countries, who considered the complex issues of faith that had been raised. Their conclusions recognised the validity of all strands of Islam, and the right of all adherents to their faith – including the Sunni, Shi’a, Ibadi and Salafi traditions – to be recognised as Muslims. They also forbade declarations of apostasy and issued preconditions on the issuing of fatwas, to expose those issued illegitimately through ignorance in the name of Islam. These points have since been endorsed by over 500 leading Muslim scholars worldwide
The relevance of the initiative to today’s conflicts is obvious. The damage done to all Muslims by brutal fanatics claiming to act in the name of Islam is a problem that has been with us for many years, and remains a cause of tension. The Amman Message seeks to build on the unity of its broad range of supporters to counter stereotypes of Islam and highlight inconsistencies of extremist discourse, using their own theoretical references to undermine them.
It is an ambitious project with important objectives, and has attracted wide support, including from the British Council and the University of Coventry’s Institute of Community Cohesion. Recently, I met a delegation of Jordanian Imams who were in the UK for a conference to discuss how to continue to promote the message, to advance a positive view of true Muslim values.
There were many good ideas, and I highlighted a number of issues I felt they should consider, including: the need for British Imams fluent in English and English culture, and the fact that in the UK there is no recognised body or individual to speak up consistently for the majority of Muslims when they form a minority faith community such as in the United Kingdom. It is interesting to note, as we mark the centenary of the First World War, that Bosnia-Hercegovina has a Grand Mufti to speak on behalf of the Muslim community, in a similar position to the office of Chief Rabbi in this country.
Addressing these points is just a small part of the profound challenge the project has set itself. Countering negative perceptions and challenging those who abuse the language of faith for their own evil purposes is a massive task. Some will ask if a declaration, however worthy, is equal to meet it. The challenge to all of us who view with concern the prevalence of anti-Muslim feeling is to ensure the true values of Islam – moderation, peace and respect for human life – are truly recognised and celebrated.