NE Reporter: Mr. Armstrong, could you please introduce yourself for our readers?
Paul Armstrong: Yes. My name is Paul Salahuddin Armstrong. I’m the co-director of the Association of British Muslims and the director of Khalafa Online Ltd., which I founded. I’ve been a Muslim since the year 2000. And I’ve been studying Islam since then.
NE Reporter: Would you please tell us about how you converted to Islam?
Paul Armstrong: That’s quite a story. When I was about 18, I left home, I went to university. And I started to have a lot of questions. I wanted to know how things were in the world, and why things were the way they were, and what was the meaning of life. I had all this burning questions, and they set me on a spiritual journey, which eventually culminated with me embracing Islam.
NE Reporter: And you’ve been following very closely the situation of Bahrain. What do you think about the country’s current situation?
Paul Armstrong: It’s quite an appalling situation really. It’s the same sort of situation that you find in a lot of Middle Eastern countries, and not just Middle Eastern countries, you find this situation in a lot of developing countries and other countries around the world. You’ve got an elite who want to hold on to power, and they are doing anything they can to prevent that power from being returned to the people. And of course any government should be the servant of the people, they should be serving their people, it shouldn’t be the other way round. And all the rest of the problems, the human rights abuses, the conflicts, the trying to set Sunni against Shia and Shia against Sunni, all of this comes out of the fact that you’ve got people who have no legitimacy to be in power, they are trying to hold on to a power that they are not entitled to.
NE Reporter: What do you think about the so-called problems between the Shia and the Sunni in countries like Syria, Egypt, and other countries? Are these problems brought about by Muslims themselves or are they rooted somewhere else?
Paul Armstrong: Firstly, I don’t see it as a problem between Sunni and Shia. This is how it keeps being labeled, but the problem between Sunni and Shia was 1400 years ago, and it was a political issue that caused the two groups to diverge mainly on their ideas to do with politics and how a country should be run. At that particular time, during the time of the Imam Ali (pbuh), there was very little difference, theologically, between the group that became Shia and the group that became Sunni, because they wouldn’t even call themselves that at that time. This came later on. Until decades, Sunnis prayed in their mosques, Shias prayed in the mosques, sometimes they prayed in each other’s mosques. But they had their own mosques, they had some festivals that were different from one another. But other than that there was a kind of respect there, and we just accepted that we are a little bit different. Just like if you look within the Sunni Islam, you’ve got four schools of thought: Malikis don’t agree with Shafi’ison everything, and Shafi’is don’t agree with Hanbalis, and they don’t agree with Hanafis on everything, but the majority of their beliefs are the same. In the same way, if you compare them with the Ja’farimadhhab, which is also known as Shia, they aren’t really that much different. When you look at the things which we share, they are much more than what we don’t share. So, this I think is an excuse. It is not a real problem. But there are people who are trying to make this into a problem, trying to turn Muslims against Muslims and cause this division. Because when you divide people, they become much easier to control, because they’re fighting among themselves, they’ve got no strength, they’ve got no unity. So, it seems to me that while there are certainly groups within the Muslim community who are helping this along and are causing these frictions, it’s someone else outside that is influencing this. It’s probably the same global corporatist elite, who just want to hold on to all the resources in the world, so they go richer and more powerful while everybody else suffers. And they are the enemies of everyone in the human family.
NE Reporter: Why do you think it is that although many Islamic scholars have iterated that there should be no divide between the Shia and the Sunni, this divide still exists and is affecting the Muslim world?
Paul Armstrong: It’s not. This is how the media reports it. If you look at some of the mainstream news channels especially some of the ones broadcasting in the west, they hype up this Sunni-Shia issue as if it was really a Sunni-Shia issue, when the reality on the ground in any of these places is actually between Wahhabi Islamist types who are very extreme; they’re not even representative of the more moderate Wahhabi types, and they’re not even Sunni. They’re a fractional group. They broke off from mainstream Sunni Islam even though they keep trying to say that they’re Sunni. You can look at the number of tombs of Sunni saints that they are smashing and destroying. How can they possibly be Sunni when they’re destroying the tombs of our scholars and saints? They’re following something else. They "claim” to be Sunni. And also on the other hand, you’ve also got groups also within the Shia denomination who are extremists, whom most Shias would turn their back on and say, "They have nothing to do with us, we do not believe in what they’re doing.” So, you’ve got two groups of extremists fighting one another and then saying it’s a Sunni-Shia conflict. When I ask majority of Shias and Sunnis, they’re saying, "Look! Would you please behave yourselves? You’re a bunch of terrorists. And you don’t represent either of us.”
NE Reporter: Iran’s Supreme Leader recently had a speech and said exactly the same. He said, "In the Sunni community and the Shia community, there are groups that are ruining Islam by dividing Muslims.” What do you think has to be done to reunite Muslims against their common enemies in the world?
Paul Armstrong: What we need is on two fronts: First, mainstream Shia and Sunni scholars have to come together more, and have to see how we can work together to create more unity and more understanding through the education of the people in our communities. That is a vital thing, because if the people, especially the young people, in our community are educated they would understand what Islam is, they would understand that Sunni and Shia are just two schools of thought within Islam and on the main topics we are not really different. We are all saying "La ilahaillallah” "Muhammad rasulullah,”we are all Muslims, we just have some differences of opinion on small issues which are not major issues that are what makes us Muslims. We need to get that education across to the young people first, but the other thing is that we have to collectively counter those people who are coming up with crazy ideologies and claiming that they are in some ways representative of Islam. Often the extremists are the ones who claim to be more authentic than anybody else. You look at some of these publications of the translations of Qur’an and what not that come out of the Saudi and some of them actually say they’re more authentic than any other. And when you start reading it, you cannot imagine any of them to be the translation of Qur’an,whetheryou’re talking to Muhammad Assad, or Yusuf Ali, or Muhammad Pickthal, or Ahmed Ali, or M.A.S.Abdel Haleem, or any of the others. And there are things in their translations which are not found in any of the others. They’ve actually changed the meaning of Qur’an. I mean, how can you change the meaning of the Qur’an?!
NE Reporter: The image of Islam in Europe and the United States and other non-Muslim countries is the image of Wahhabism. Why do you things it is so? And how can we change this image?
Paul Armstrong: I thing a big part of the problem is that these people are heavily funded by the Saudis. You look at any of the major Wahhabi organizations which are operating in the United States and in Europe, and you find Saudi funding. But there is no country in the world these days that is really run by mainstream Sunnis even though we are the people that are representing most Muslims in the world. It’s a big irony. Since the Ottoman Khilafa collapsed the Sunni community has lost its pillar of support around the world, and this is why you’ve got the Saudis that grew and developed in the vacuum that was left behind. And they started to falsely claim that they were representing Islam around the world. And then they started doing these crazy things, they started condemning the people that really do represent Islam because they obviously see that they are a threat. And they funded them, and of course when you put money into something, and they spend a lot of money on those booklets, on subsidized copies of the Qur’an, subsidized copies of the summarized versions of Bukhari, subsidized TV channels, like Peace TV and various other channels that are operating around the world that are clearly being backed by them. How else can they operate and how else can they make such glossy productions if they are being funded by someone? And when you look at the ideology which they’re putting out, who are they most likely to be funded by? It doesn’t take a genius to look it out. Even if it’s not publicly said.
NE Reporter: Do you think Saudi Arabia is alone in building this image of Islam or are they helped by Western countries and Hollywood and others?
Paul Armstrong: It’s true. Hollywood has had a problem with its representation of Arabs for a very long time. They tend to represent Arabs as a kind of cartoonish character. And I know within Hollywood at the moment there are voices that are trying to counter that. But it is true, there is this kind of impression that has been put out and it’s quite despicable really, it reminds one of anti-Semitism in the way that Arabs are often portrayed in Hollywood. And there has been occasions when other Muslims are also portrayed in a similar, very narrow-minded, perspective.
NE Reporter: For the last question, can you tell us about the condition of Muslims and of real Islam in Britain right now and how it is influenced by the Wahhabis?
Paul Armstrong: There are a number of different groups of Muslims operating in the United Kingdom. Probably from any Jama’at which exists around the world you will find that they have a branch somewhere in the United Kingdom because a lot of the Muslims in this country are immigrants of other countries and they’ve brought their interpretations with them. The organization I represent and which was founded in 1889 by Sheikh-ul-Islam Abdullah William Quilliam, he was actually given the Ijazah to do what he did from Sultan Abdul Hamid II. So there was at least the legitimacy in what he was doing. And that was what most British Muslims were working with back then in 1889 and during the early years of the twentieth century. Later on when waves of immigrant came into the country they weren’t feeling particularly British, they were new to the country so they wanted to set up their own organizations that they felt represented their own cultural theological interpretation of Islam. And it broke the unity, at the time, of the British Muslim community. And what I’m working on at the moment with colleagues and with various organizations is to try to repair the damage that was done then, and to bring people back to a common British understanding of Islam that we can all come back to. Because now it’s not the people who first came here, but their children and grandchildren who are British, they are as British as me, irrespective of where their families originally came from. So, there is a chance now that we can actually start bringing people back. But there is an awful lot of Saudi-funded Wahhabi propaganda in this country. There are a lot of mosques which were built using funds from the Saudi Arabia. So it doesn’t take much to say where they loyalties lies. And of course the problem there is that should they change their minds and come more to the mainstream the channel of funding is cut off. And there have been organizations where this has occurred. And thank goodness that there are already some organizations that are brave enough to do that when they realize the path that they were taking was wrong. But it has been a bit of a mess for a number of years in terms of so many conflicting ideologies that are operating, and it’s confusing a lot of young people.
NE Reporter:Mr. Armstrong, thank you very much for your time.
Interviwer: Mostafa Afzalzadeh