Saturday, 9 April 2016

Faith can move mountains – or hearts. Or it can kill shopkeepers...

I’ve met many people who are improved by their religious faith. Somehow, the teachings of their beliefs improve their naturally good qualities.

Sadly, however, the exact opposite can also apply. There are many for whom belief, and in particular the belief that all their basest instincts are endorsed by a supreme power, only emphasises their worst characteristics. Indeed, they treat it as authorisation to act on them.

Asad Shah, who was murdered on Good Friday, was a Glasgow shopkeeper viewed with great affection by the community he served. He regarded himself as a Muslim but liked to keep lines of communication open to other faiths – not long before he died he used Facebook to post the message “Good Friday and a very Happy Easter, especially to my beloved Christian nation.”

A community grieving for Asad Shah's death
Their slogan? “This is not who we are”
He also liked to distribute personalised Christmas cards to his customers. That reminded me of my Jewish grandmother who used to exchange Christmas cards, each and every year, with her neighbour, for decades. The fact that one of them was Jewish changed absolutely nothing in a small gesture that was intended to communicate goodwill and bring a little happiness. To both of them.

The general form in murder cases is for the presumed perpetrator to deny everything, plead not guilty and struggle to get off the hook. In this case, however, the defendant, Tanveer Ahmed, has taken the unusual step of issuing a statement, in his own words, through his lawyer:

This all happened for one reason and no other issues and no other intentions.

Asad Shah disrespected the messenger of Islam the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him. Mr Shah claimed to be a Prophet.

When 1,400 years ago the Prophet of Islam Muhammad peace be upon him has clearly said that “I am the final messenger of Allah there is no more prophets or messengers from God Allah after me.

“I am leaving you the final Quran. There is no changes. It is the final book of Allah and this is the final completion of Islam.”

Just to make a trivial point in passing, this communication makes me hope he isn’t the product of a British school system. Because if he is, it’s no testimonial to his teachers’ ability to teach him English.

The chilling part is the reference to Shah disrespecting the Prophet Muhammad. No wonder he had to die. Ahmed at the end of his statement tells us, “If I had not done this others would and there would have been more killing and violence in the world,” which is a glorious notion: he killed a man, by stabbing and beating him, in order to reduce the killing and violence in the world. That has all the rationality of NATO powers going to war to preserve international peace.

Mr Ahmed’s hatred was directed at the man who disrespected Islam, while claiming to be a Muslim. We hate no one as much as a traitor, do we? The man who turned his coat is far worse than the man who was always an open, avowed enemy.

To make things still graver, Shah belonged to a sect, the Ahmadiyya, whose members are not even allowed to refer to themselves as Muslims under the law of Pakistan. A man who persisted in calling himself a Muslim, though he belonged to a group deemed beyond the Pale by one of the world’s great Muslim Nations? No wonder he had to die. 

Especially if he disrespected Muhammad.

Treason, when it occurs in a religious context, has its own term: apostasy. And religious authorities who, down the ages, have never been reluctant to resort to fairly hideous forms of punishment, reserve the worst for the apostate. Catholics and Protestants burned each other with particular glee precisely because each side saw the other as traitors from inside the same Church, who had turned against it. Why, there was plenty of persecution even of Protestants by other Protestants.

Similarly, Stalin, despite having taken supreme power in what was then the Soviet Union, couldn’t rest until Trotsky had been murdered. Trotsky, reduced to a rootless exile, travelling from country to country until he found some kind of asylum in Mexico, thousands of miles from Russia and Stalin. Yet even there, Stalin could not bear to let him live, and sent in Ramón Mercader to see him off with an ice axe.

He contrived the murder in August 1940, the same month in which he signed the Nazi-Soviet pact. Stalin could shake the hand of Hitler, but couldn’t bear the thought that he was sharing the world with his old comrade from the St Petersburg barricades of 1917.

Just like Tanveer Ahmed, who couldn’t bear the idea that Asad Shah was drawing breath at the same time as he was.

Most of us take limited action against those we feel have betrayed us. A friendship ends. A professional relationship dies. Maybe a marriage leads to divorce. Generally, we stop short of violence. A long way short.

But when there’s a belief at stake? If what you’re doing is the will of God? Or, as in Stalin’s case – and Hitler’s – obeying the dictates of history? Why, what possible limits should you put on a righteous anger in the name of an unlimited cause?

As assuredly as Mercader wielded his ice axe, or the two sides of the Reformation wielded their bonfires, Tanveer Ahmed wielded his knife in the name of something they all saw as greater than themselves. Most often, against victims as hapless as Asad Shah. 

No wonder he had to die.

I know many people who have been helped to lead blameless, even praiseworthy lives by their beliefs. Unfortunately, however, belief can also have the opposite effect. Instead of intensifying the better instincts of man it can justify the worst – and sadly Asad Shah and his community have paid the price.

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