Islam is followed by only 5% of Britons, still a tiny minority, and the vast majority of these follow a quiet belief which condemns murder or even violence and demands no more than a declaration of faith, prayer, charitable giving, occasional fasting, and a once-in-a-lifetime journey to Mecca - the Five Pillars of Islam. There can be resentment when neighbourhoods undergo a visible change, when the first local mosque appears, but communities have nothing to fear from an increase in Islamic families. In fact the reverse is more common.
But away from the street corner it’s hard to place Islam and peace in the same sentence. Aside from the headline atrocities, the wars between Sunni and Shia factions regularly tear up cities of the Middle East, especially the Iraq we devastated and then left to militant extremists. Their quarrel over who was the true successor of the Prophet Mohammed is undimmed after 1350 years, a war fought over towns which are still flash-points today, Karbala, Basra, Bagdhad, Damascus. Most Muslims have a tolerant attitude to these ancient differences but the extreme factions still pursue a violent conflict which can have no resolution. They’re not unique. Christianity no longer tortures and burns people for their faith, but its history is just as bloody, its conflicts just as pointless, still inspiring violence in places such as Ireland.
But Islam has a crisis to face.
Right now all the news is negative. Beside the manic violence of Al- Shabaab and Al-Qaeda there is the looming threat of the Taliban, the organisation which shoots girls for merely going to school, surely destined to take Afghanistan back into its desolate grip. Also gaining more attention is the horror of female genital mutilation, still regarded as essential to Islamic cleanliness by some African cultures. Forced marriages and the gruesomely misnamed ’Honour killings’ are still the rule in some families. Even the clothing is a problem, as most western people are happy enough with the hijab, the head scarf, but uneasy with the niqab where only the eyes are visible, and profoundly so with the burka which hides even the eyes behind a gauze mesh. We can no more have normal relations with a woman in a burka than with a man in a balaclava.
The challenge is: which of the above do we respect as differences of culture and which will never be acceptable in the west?
A crucial touchstone is the status of women, a theme which runs through all the above. There are texts in Islam which speak of the importance of women, but many others which reinforce her inferior role . The Prophet was not known for his good opinion of the female sex, her status or intelligence. Many – most – of these cultural differences have at their heart the inequality of the sexes, the concept of women as property, to be kept virginal, modest, even incapable of sexual pleasure, married on demand, and rendered invisible to other men; and in men virility, strength, readiness to fight or die for God, even, at the most grotesque extreme, pretending to be Action Heroes while murdering defenceless women and children in a supermarket.
Western society has little enough to boast of in its slow progress towards gender equality, but it is at least on the path. To absorb our values in this area would cause Muslims much soul-searching and pain, but neither can we reverse the process. The cultural fantasy of the uber-male and the submissive female chattel is part of our past not our future. It’s a long road for both sides, but the line where cultural tolerance oversteps our own social values needs to be drawn, and held.