The publication of a new report seeking to define 'Normative Islam' is long overdue but whether it will actually change reporting and policy-making is a moot point, argues Faisal Bodi.
The sight of press and politicians trotting out putative 'representatives' of the Muslim community every time Islam or Muslims make the headlines is something with which we have all become painfully familiar.
Sometimes it's just down to lazy journalism or the time constraints dictating instant media. Usually though the motive is more sinister with the selection of talking heads being governed by the need to convey a pre-conceived angle.
To serve this agenda, Muslims have found themselves neatly compartmentalised into various categories. In the eyes of the wider world we are either secularists, liberals, moderates, conservatives, extremists, Islamists or latterly, jihadists, to name a few.
The problem with all these classifications is that they tell us little about the actual beliefs of Muslims and more about where they are though to stand in relation to so-called western values. The main purpose of this, of course, in a society in which Muslims are widely considered to be potential fifth-columnists is to identify those who can be trusted, who are 'one of us', and hold them up as normative in contradistinction to the rest of the community.
The picture we get is of a prevailing community heterogeneity. Muslims, we are supposed to believe, entertain such diverse views of their faith that it would be wrong to consider them as a homogenous entity. While diversity is indeed a feature of Muslim communities the world over, it would be more accurate to conceive of them as possessing an underlying unity. For most Muslims this is so obviously self-evident that it does not merit mentioning.
However, the authors of a recent report, Normative Islam, have made it their goal to empirically underpin that conception by way of research identifying the near universally-held beliefs of Muslims. 5Pillars, the Muslim news and views website, felt that if 'normative Islam' could be quantified, it could assist in educating the wider British public in understanding what mainstream Islam is. The website commissioned a private market research firm to solicit the views of influential leaders in the Muslim community in the expectation that they would demonstrate a pattern of religious consensus on a pre-selected range of Islamic beliefs and practices.
The results proved their hypothesis. The average level of agreement with the great majority of the 95 statements presented to the leaders about mainstream Islamic beliefs was extremely high. On average across all 95 statements, 86% “strongly agreed” and a further 9% “agreed”. Only 1% “disagreed” or “strongly disagreed” with them.
True, there was stronger agreement on dogmatic statements defining the faith than those related to social or political issues such as the right to wear the niqab or Islamic governance, but the results indubitably highlight an underlying consensus formed around key beliefs. Even on the more disputed statements - such as for example “The true Caliphate (or any other Islamic equivalent) is considered the ideal Islamic way of governance for all people” (69%) - the level of consensus is high enough for them to be considered normative.
5Pillars says it would like the perspective of a normative Islam to inform British media and polticians' conceptions of Islam and Muslims. However, judging by the scant coverage its report has received in the media this is likely to be an uphill struggle. In the main, their outlook is not characterised by ignorance but by an ulterior agenda. And changing hearts is a lot harder than changing minds.