Anti-Muslim activist and co-founder of the English Defense League (EDL), Tommy Robinson (a pseudonym), reacted to a Qur’anic verse quoted last Sunday during an Academy Awards acceptance speech. The verse was largely overshadowed by two other notable wins, with Mahershala Ali and Iran’s “The Salesman” winning for best supporting actor and best foreign film respectively, which both drew Muslim issues into last Sunday’s awards show spotlight.
In a video published Friday by Rebel Media, Robinson slams “Hollywood elites” for constantly “ramming Islamic scripture down our throats” while unwittingly “calling for their own execution.” Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, left the EDL in 2013 and has since become involved in PEGIDA UK, the British iteration of Germany’s nationalist movement that aims to counter what it views as the “Islamization” of Europe.
The chapter (sura) was quoted by Orlando von Einsiedel, director of “White Helmets”: a film chronicling the treacherous lives of the famous troop of volunteer rescue workers of the same name, who chase explosions throughout warn-torn Syria to provide medical services to blast victims. The film won an Oscar for best documentary short. Receiving the award, von Einsiedel recited a statement from Raed Saleh, founder of the White Helmets,
“We are so grateful that this film has highlighted our work to the world. Our organization is guided by a verse from the Qur’an: to save one life is to save all of humanity. We have saved more than 82,000 Syrian lives. I invite anyone here who hears me to work on the side of life to stop the bloodshed in Syria and around the world.”
To most rational people, Saleh’s statement reads as to a call to peace. Yet, in his response, Robinson dismisses the statement as a nothing more than a liberal deception to mischaracterize Islam. Despite the White Helmets’ acts of immense charity in the face of unimaginable horror, and Robinson’s history of anything but, he still felt morally justified in his condemnation of Islam’s sacred text in this context. In his discussion of the “real meaning” of Saleh’s verse, Robinson also felt comfortable serving in the role of expert in the Arabic words “Taqiya” and “Kitman” and correctly interpreting the Qur’an—1,400 years of Islamic scholarship notwithstanding.
While the subsequent sura at the center of Robinson’s response is indeed violent and disturbing, his application of the verse—as evidence that Saleh’s “to save one life” is really a message of war against the infidel West—is unsupported, corrupted by his determination to find no moral nuance in Islam and to view all Muslims as fundamentalists, who unlike the majority of Christians and Jews, are compelled to follow every word of their most sacred text.
Claim: Sura 5:33 is evidence against claims that Islam is a “religion of peace,” proving that Muslims believe that all non-Muslims should be killed, and justifying extreme measures to fight against the “Islamization” of the West.
Source: Tommy Robinson’s reading of the sura, as presented in the YouTube video, “Tommy Robinson: The Oscars lied about Islam”
Accuracy rating: Mostly inaccurate and completely bigoted
Analysis: To be fair, Robinson never explicitly mentions the White Helmets in his video, doing so would be a poor PR move by any standards (even for those who reject political correctness), but his censure of the Qur’anic verse is an undeniable rejection of the Saleh’s stated motives in helping victims of bomb blasts in Syria. In his biased reading, Robinson perverts the faith that Saleh claims to be the inspiration guiding his work. He says,
“Now I know what you’re thinking, its a beautiful, peaceful, loving verse, how can I be such a racist bigot? Muslims don’t want us to take the Quran out of context. We continue to hear that. But apparently it’s okay for them to do it time and time again. Stop telling people they are misinterpreting it or misunderstanding Arabic. So not wanting to be an Islamophobe, I am going to put this verse in context for you. I’m going to show you exactly what the problem is.”
Robinson claims that this verse, sura 5:32, was quoted out of context; if one “includes [the subsequent verse], it changes everything.” He then misquotes the two verses, blending them together as if they were part of a single passage;
“Continue reading after 5:32: if you kill one man, you kill all of humanity, unless he causes mischief or corruption in the land, then you execute him. You cut his hands and feet off. You drive him from his homeland.”
The actual Sahir International English translation of suwar 5:32-33 is as follows:
“Because of that, We decreed upon the Children of Israel that whoever kills a soul unless for a soul or for corruption [done] in the land – it is as if he had slain mankind entirely. And whoever saves one – it is as if he had saved mankind entirely. And our messengers had certainly come to them with clear proofs. Then indeed many of them, [even] after that, throughout the land, were transgressors.
Indeed, the penalty for those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and strive upon earth [to cause] corruption is none but that they be killed or crucified or that their hands and feet be cut off from opposite sides or that they be exiled from the land. That is for them a disgrace in this world; and for them in the Hereafter is a great punishment,”
Taken literally, sura 5:33 (presented as the second paragraph above) appears to be a disturbing divine license for capital punishment against criminals. That is how it is interpreted by Robinson. (Of note, the practice of amputating one’s hand as a punishment for theft was not introduced to Arabia by the Prophet Muhammad. Rather, the brutal custom was sanctioned in the Qur’an as an existing Arab cultural custom, as it did with other controversial practices, including polygamy).
Robinson refers to the fourteenth century Islamic scholar, Ismail Ibn Kathir, who Robison erroneously identifies as “Ibn Kathir Tafsir” (the name sometimes given to his written commentary on the Qu’ran, which is called tafsir in Arabic) as being “pretty clear on what constitutes ‘mischief’: If you don’t worship Allah, or you don’t accept the dominance of Islam, than you are guilty of mischief,” and therefore deserving of such punishment.
According to one source, Ibn Kathir’s Tafsir interprets the ayah (meaning “evidence” or “sign” in reference to a verse of the Qur’an) as a prohibition against “various types of evil,” including murder and idolatry. Hardline interpretations of the violent parts of the Qur’an have indeed led to justifications of capital punishment in the Muslim world, including by Wahhabist Saudi Arabia and the so-called Islamic State.
Yet these instances of violent extremism in the name of Islam are not representative of the faith as a whole. Muslim leaders around the world have repeatedly denounced terrorism, murder, capital punishment, warfare, and all forms of hate in the name of Islam, but in a world where news is business, words of peace just don’t glue viewers to the television; fear does, and their words often go unreported. Just as we do not call for the banning of all Christians or Jews after a terrorist incident, in which the perpetrator claims they are acting as soldiers of God, we should reject blanketed bigotry of Muslims because of the vile acts of an extremist minority.
Most importantly, Robinson’s criticism of the Qur’an is completely devoid of religious relativism. In his conception of reality, only Jews and Christians are capable of ignoring the violent parts of their sacred texts. This perception stems from a deeply seated hatred of Muslims, which has conditioned Robinson to view even seemingly innocuous events, like the Oscars, through a distorted lens where a global liberal conspiracy, though a partnership with the Muslim Brotherhood, is ignorantly advancing a plot to Islamize the West and consequently facilitate their own demise.
Translating the Qur’an
Robinson calls on the “liberal elite” to “stop telling people that they are misinterpreting it [the Qur’an] or misunderstanding Arabic,” but proper translation of the Qur’an into other languages is a major issue in Islamic theology, which views the text as the direct revelation of Allah, in Arabic, to the Prophet Muhammad—not to mention an incredibly difficult linguist process.
Muslims are encouraged to read and recite the Qur’an in the original Arabic, lest they miss the subtleties that can only be understood in Arabic. Like other Semitic languages, Arabic is highly dependent on context, with words having many potential meanings. As such, translating the text into other languages is a difficult process, including a considerable amount of subjective interpretation. Consequently, Islam’s “sacrosanct view of language” has regarded translated Qur’ans as an incomplete manifestation of Allah’s holy words, and Muslims consider them separate from the original.
An English version of the Qur’an, which would be used by Robinson (and myself), therefore cannot be fully trusted to be a complete picture of the complex linguistic, cultural, and religious components that add depth to the Arabic Qur’an. Even with knowledge of Arabic, 1,400 years of Islamic scholarship and sectarian splits speaks to the inherent difficulty in agreeing on any one interpretation—a truth also present in Judaism, Christianity, and every religion with a sacred text at its foundation.
While words like “submission” and the seemingly close bond between religion and governance that are expressed in the Qur’an may frighten western audiences, it is absolutely crucial to not only view these verses within their unique cultural context, but to also afford Muslims the same leniency that we give other religions in how they interpret the Qur’an as a whole.
More about Tommy Robinson
According to his autobiography, Robinson believes that there is an “Islamic war that’s being waged against the west,” and that in order to “handle radical Islam,” equally radical policies are required. He invokes debunked conspiracy theories of “sharia courts outside [the UK’s] legal system,” and “Muslim enclaves that are literally no-go areas for non-Muslim people” in his conception of all Muslim refugees and immigrants to the UK as a ticking time bomb of violent, anti-British, rape-tolerant, Islamic imperialists hell-bent on destroying the West and imposing Sharia Law.
Robinson’s brainchild, the EDL, advocates for the banning of Islam in Britain and organizes street protests against Muslim immigration, which have sometimes turned violent in confrontations with anti-fascist activists. Robinson and his co-founder Kevin Carroll left the EDL in 2013, (ironically) citing concerns that the organization had become a radicalized threat to democratic principles, stating, “I acknowledge the dangers of far-right extremism and the ongoing need to counter Islamist ideology not with violence but with better, democratic ideas.”
Robinson’s public disavowal of violent Islamophobic extremism is indeed deserving of recognition, but his continued promotion of this distorted ideology should be universally condemned. His views, while perpetuating the false reality of a “culture war,” incite hatred by demonizing Muslims and, by radicalizing his supporters and alienating Muslims and other religious and ethnic minorities, actively bring us closer to such a reality.
 http://englishdefenceleague.org/  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/10389954/Who-is-the-real-Tommy-Robinson.html  http://www.pegidauk.org/  The movement has since spread beyond Europe, with branches in Canada, the US, and India.  http://www.ibtimes.com/oscars-2017-who-are-white-helmets-syria-civil-defence-volunteers-working-war-torn-2498084  http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/news/tommy-robinson/  https://quran.com/5/32-42  Jeffry R. Halverson, Theology and Creed in Sunni Islam: The Muslim Brotherhood, Ash’ariam, and Political Sunnism, 2010.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ayah  http://www.alim.org/library/quran/AlQuran-tafsir/TIK/5/32  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kelly-james-clark/why-dont-moderate-muslims_b_8722518.html  In his video, Robinson claims that “Hollywood has become the mouthpiece of the Muslim Brotherhood.”  Richard C. Martin, Ed., Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World, 2004.  http://translationjournal.net/journal/43culture.htm  http://www.4islam.com/translations.shtml  http://www.snopes.com/politics/religion/nogozones.asp  Tommy Robinson, Enemy of the State, 2015.  http://englishdefenceleague.org/  http://www.quilliaminternational.com/quilliam-facilitates-tommy-robinson-leaving-the-english-defence-league/