William Flew London Papers

March 19, 2011 § Leave a comment

I n the early 1990s Usama Hasan was a familiar sight in Cambridge, cycling around town dressed in a turban and robes. He was a brilliant young man, studying theoretical physics. He was also a devout Muslim — and his adherence to the ultra-conservative Salafi branch of Islam made university life a lonely experience.

“I couldn’t integrate. I wouldn’t go near a bar or pub, so I never went to the students’ union,” he says. “I didn’t understand British society. I totally bought into the idea that pubs were dens of vice and that British people were ungodly and promiscuous. I didn’t know how to talk to women.”

Though he had lived in Britain since the age of four and studied for A-levels at the prestigious City of London school, Hasan had begun to believe in an extremist ideology that saw the western world as hostile to Islam and preached that Muslims everywhere were under threat. So much so that he spent a summer away from university, fighting with the mujaheddin in Afghanistan. “My part in the global jihad, a wonderful, spiritual experience,” he says.

Yet this one-time radical now finds himself under threat of death, having been accused of blasphemy by Islamic Awakening, a London-based group of Muslim fundamentalists. His crime? Trying to reconcile his religion with his belief as a scientist in Darwin’s theory of evolution.

A lecture he gave on the subject in January at his local mosque in Leyton, east London, was noisily disrupted by Islamic Awakening, whose members heckled as he spoke and handed out leaflets claiming that “Darwin is blasphemy”. One man approached Hasan as he was trying to make himself heard above the melee and shouted: “You are an apostate and should be killed.”

Hasan is taking that threat — and others — seriously. Extra security has been installed at his home and a planned return to the mosque for prayers 10 days ago was cancelled on police advice. “Generally, Muslim communities deny evolution; they regard it as denying God,” he says. “For them, Darwinism is the same as atheism, so I upset a lot of people.”

The Koran holds that Adam, the first man, was created from clay and water and that God breathed the spirit of life into his body. “What I was trying to say is that science has the same starting point, that life began in water or clay, in the earth. My argument was that God gave life but science could be seen as the process by which life happened,” says Hasan, 39.

Consequent to this, though, is the idea that man is descended from apes: “That we might have evolved from monkeys is seen as insulting to everyone but particularly the prophets of God, who are revered figures. Some people find it very offensive.”

Last week, in an effort to placate his opponents, Hasan retracted his public claim that Darwin and the Koran could be reconciled, and issued a grovelling statement, saying: “I seek Allah’s forgiveness for my mistakes and apologise for any offence caused.”

What impact that will have remains to be seen: since the row began he has been unable to set foot inside Leyton mosque, where he had led Friday prayers for many years. He comes from a scholarly background and could recite the entire Koran by the age of 11. “It was a very big part of my life. I miss it,” he says.

The story of the softly spoken academic — Hasan is a senior lecturer in engineering and information sciences at Middlesex University — is both a fascinating journey from teenage radical to middle-aged liberal and a depressing reminder of how hard it is to go up against the forces of conservatism within Islam in Britain.

Last week, the Quilliam Foundation, set up by a group of liberal Muslims to counter extremists — Hasan was a founding adviser and spoke at its launch — was forced to appeal to its supporters for funding when its Home Office grant was reduced. An organisation that has pledged to tackle the radicalisation of young Muslims at university and identify terrorist threats may now have to close and is unlikely to be rescued by its co-religionists. “The community wasn’t ready for Quilliam. People thought it took the liberal agenda too far,” says Hasan.

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