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Why it is time for an Islamic Reformation

It would be monstrous to lay the blame for the Manchester bombing at the door of all Muslims, but their religion's intolerance of plurality leaves too many questions unanswered, writes Sean O'Driscoll.

Her legs were chained together and she was sobbing. She was an Indian Christian, identified by the initials SM, who had been caught distributing bibles on the streets of Abu Dhabi.

The police presented the bibles in court as evidence of proselyting - preaching any other religion except Islam, which is a crime in every Muslim majority country. They held up the bibles like they were a couple of grams of cocaine.

After four years of living in the United Arab Emirates, I got used to the petty rules - like how two Muslims must sign your most intimate personal documents. They could be any two Muslims, no matter how criminal, because Muslims are considered by the UAE government to be inherently more honest.

I had attended the witchcraft trials, where maids (it was nearly always maids) from minority religions like Christianity and Hinduism were accused of black magic, with evidence supplied by the government's Department of Islamic Affairs. I saw one maid (I secretly recorded part of her trial) show the court the Christian blessing and explain that it was a Christian symbol, not the act of a witch, as prosecutors had claimed.

A reporter friend for a UAE newspaper was in court with me. She was a devout Muslim and was shocked when I explained that it was wrong to prosecute a Christian for talking about her religion. "She cannot do this in a Muslim country," she said. When I asked her if it would be ok to prosecute Muslims for preaching in London, she fell silent. I could see the panic in her eyes. She was so consumed with Muslim victimhood her whole life that she was never confronted with the reality that she was the bully, she was the aggressor, she was the bigot, she was the oppressor. "But people would not know which path to choose." "Isn't the currency of human exchange?" I asked. "Isn't that what makes us human - the freedom to make choices."

She was so confused that she walked away and said that she didn't want to discuss it ever again.

I see her western friends are on Facebook with her every day, praising her and all Muslims, and denouncing the west for our racism.

I don't hate any Muslim, but I loathe and despise smug liberals who appease them, without understanding the social and political context within which Islam operates in the Middle East.

When I got back from the UAE (I was deported for speaking out about human rights), one of my first assignments as a journalist was to attend the launch of a government-funded Islamophobia report in the Republic. The complaints in the report included almost a full page from a Muslim woman who was told she couldn't park in a non-parking area and felt she was being moved on by a garda because she was a Muslim.

One of the speakers at the launch was a liberal arts professor.

He spoke glowingly about people who convert to Islam, then corrected himself and said "sorry - revert". He did this because Muslims believe that all people are born in Islam and only become Christians, Jews, Sikhs and everything else out of sin and ignorance.

In 20 years of journalism, with all the mental scars of the Middle East still fresh, I don't think I was ever as livid or unable to keep my journalistic professionalism. During a break in the speeches, I spoke to the professor, who said that "revert" should always be the correct phrase in front of Muslims. I told him about the Indian woman with her feet chained together for talking about the bible.

He couldn't have been more dismissive or condescending.

"Well, that's just one incident in one country. I have to take a call," he said, and walked off. He had never lived in the Middle East, or witnessed what I had seen.

We cannot go on like this any more. We cannot pretend that the Manchester bombing has nothing to do with Muslim society, that the bigotry of the Middle East does not find its most violent form in confused young men who come to the west and have their views challenged in ways that would never be permitted back home.

There was never been a Muslim reformation. It's time for one. As with the Christian reformation, it comes not from liberals placating those in religious power, but by confronting them, and by refusing to accept glib responses.

The next time you see Muslims preaching in Belfast, London or Dublin (I've engaged them in all three cities), ask a simple question: "Would you permit such street preaching for Christians, Jews or Hindus in Muslim countries? If the answer is no (from my experience it will be), then ask why. Ask in a polite, assured way for their opinion on the right to preach of religious minorities in the Middle East.

Am I saying those street preachers are to blame for what happened in Manchester? Absolutely not. Am I saying that Muslims are inherently violent? Absolutely not.

But in every Muslim majority country, it is illegal for other religions to win converts, in every Muslim country it is illegal for a Muslim to leave their religion, in every Muslim country minorities live every day with the fear of latent violence or imprisonment if they step out of line. For insecure young Muslim men, still trying to find their identity in the west, Islam offers easy answers to complex questions.

It's time for those answers to become more complex and for them to live in a complex society, one in which there are mosques but also gay clubs and Ariana Grande struts across stage in sexy clothes in front of Muslim girls wearing hijabs. Until Islam is made to reform, it will produce more and more lost young souls.

Until we have the bravery to make it reform, we can expect those lost souls to confront our confusing society with a simple, and deadly, response.

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