This all started at Steve’s place (if you’re not reading already, you should be), with a great parody of apologism:
Today is the 10th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. On 11 July 1995, the Bosnian Serb Army, led by Ratko Mladic, disarmed UN peacekeepers and systematically murdered 8,000 Muslim captives. The atrocity shocked the world and Mladic and his boss Radovan Karadzic are still being hunted for war crimes.
Before we condemn the perpetrators, though, we need to understand the underlying causes of this massacre. For 500 years, the Serbs lived under Muslim rule. The Bosnian Muslims are the descendants either of the Turkish conquerors or of South Slavs who converted to Islam. Their ancestors lorded it over the Serbs, oppressing and enslaving them. When Yugoslavia fell apart, many Serbs feared that Bosnia would again become a Muslim dominated state. Others simply wanted to settle some old scores. Southern Serbia was not liberated from Ottoman rule until the 1900s. It is still just within living memory that Serbs were ruled by Muslims. Many Serbs would have grown up with stories about members of their families being brutally treated by their overlords. While we should not condone the massacre at Srebrenica, we should try to understand the historic resentment of colonial rule that drove the perpetrators to such atrocities.
Somehow it developed into a discussion on Islam and the liberal response, carried out through email between me and Jarndyce. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s been edited for readability, but otherwise is as the discussion wentÃ¢â‚¬Â¦
Steve’s parody of apologism shoots down one bit of nonsense: Nobody’s saying that Orthodox Christianity is responsible for Srebrenica, are they? Well, Islam isn’t responsible for Madrid, or London either. We need to get down to much more basic definitions of responsibility. Anything else is just apologism, as bad as anti-war types saying the London bombings “wouldn’t have happened but for Iraq”.
Steve agrees that we can’t blame “Muslims” for the London bombs, but suggests something deep within Islam that gives cause for concern. I’m not sure: I don’t let SWPers inform me what it’s like to be on the Left, I don’t let the KKK inform me what it’s like to live in the Deep South, I don’t let Mussolini inform me what it’s like to be Italian, I don’t let Gazza inform me what it’s like to be a footballer, and I don’t let a bunch of homicidal lunatics inform me what it’s like to be a Muslim. Most of my neighbours are Muslim, and I’ll stick to local knowledge. The sorts of people who put bombs on trains are nihilists. Why should our interpretation of Islam be theirs? A proper liberal should never apologise for indiscriminate killing, but nor should s/he cast around for a group to blame. Moral agency is much simpler.
But who really is truly a liberal, anyway? Not many is my guess. And whose definition of liberalism is the right one? Liberality in its original form, as one of many virtues, meant something very different to what it became for us through Locke, or then Mill, or since then, Rawls.
Turning to Islam, it has the same features – literalism, radical egalitarianism, the direct connection with God – that inspired Protestantism’s eruptions during and after the Reformation. Like Puritanism, Islam extracts a pretty high price from its adherents. Then Islam adds another dangerous element – it is a law-based religion, which doesn’t allow for a clear division of spiritual and temporal powers.
Voegelin‘s conclusion on Islam: “Perhaps, for the masses, this high spiritual clarity is made bearable through a connection with the neither high nor especially spiritual extension of God’s realm by force of arms over the ecumene.” (Said over 40 years ago.)
Now, there are many and widely different flavours of Islam. But if we think Islam is fertile soil for outbreaks such as happened in London last week, then surely this is a legitimate point of concern for us all.
It simply won’t do to hide behind a generalised theophobia – “yes, Islam is false, but so are all religions.” Without even bothering to get into an argument over the arrogant religious assertions contained therein (atheist humanism being a religion much like any other); if the worst Christianity has to offer is Christian Voice, or West Bank settlers for Judaism, while Islam has al-Qa’eda and Hamas… well, the difference speaks volumes, doesn’t it?
Your main point, I think, is that the Koran is open to literal translation. Not just that, but that Muslims do take it literally. But I don’t accept that’s unchanging or unchangeable, or that nuance implies one single interpretation. Hardly any Muslims want the shariah introduced in Europe. Many of Europe’s Muslims are Turkish origin, and they don’t even accept the primacy of Islamic law at ‘home’.
Plus, why judge a religion by its worst elements? Does Tim McVeigh represent Christianity? Does Baruch Goldstein represent Judaism? Christian Voice and peaceful Israeli settlers are not the worst those two religions have thrown up recently. Now, if you’re saying that empirically speaking, Islam seems to be hijacked by extremists more than other religions, then I agree. But all, it appears, are hijack-able.
Second, there are powerful modernising Muslim strands in Europe arguing for a non-literal approach to the Koran. Saying, in effect, that a European Islam will be different.
For me, you have to go beyond the quoting of scripture and look at the nature of Arab (and other Muslim-populated) states. They have failed, almost every one. Partly we’ve had a hand. We have to accept that – and it makes our mission in places like Iraq even more obligated. But it’s not just us: the obsession, for example, in Gulf states with boys learning the Koran by rote, instead of algebra, English and economics, is producing a generation ill-equipped for the modern world. This isn’t Koranic, but an interpretation put on it by a generation of despots whose only interest is suppression of their people’s wills. Many of their young men are failing in a globalized economy, and are looking for someone to blame. There is no outlet at home. They look abroad, and target their hate accordingly. We insist on our supposedly precious democratic principles differently in, say, Egypt and Iraq, and the crap the local salafist-jihadist is filling their heads with is confirmed: the West is imperialist; the West wants to dominate and subjugate Muslims; the West is hypocritical.
That hate travels over here via radical imams – we’ve left the pastoral care of our communities, remember, to be paid for by foreign countries. Unlike established religion, Islam has to look after itself financially. The rhetoric of failure and hatred spreads: it chimes with British unemployed (Muslim) youth. Some are held back by traditional structures; others denied opportunities because of racism. It’s a cycle.
All you need is for some of this nonsense to hit the wrong sort of personality, and there’s trouble. It’s politics, in the end, the politics of global radical political Islamism.
No – I think there’s more to it than passing political pressures alone.
I want to be thorough, to avoid any misunderstanding. I don’t think that Islam is evil at all – I think it is one of the great religions with good reason, and I know as well as anyone that most Muslims are good people. You know me – I tend to take it as read that most people are working with good intentions, even if their reading of the facts might be barmy.
What I do think is that Islam possesses certain characteristics as a religion, which makes it especially prone to the Gnostic temptation – that is, the temptation to seek a transformation of the world around a claim of absolute knowledge of ‘reality'; an ideological worldview, as we might call it today. This typically involves some (explicit or implicit) preparation for the end-times – whether through asceticism or the release of all restraints.
The spiritual impulse in man always leaves us open to this temptation, however channelled – the Reformation craze for witch-hunts, Nazism, Soviet Communism – all have done it at some stage. Unfortunately, the spiritual impulse is perhaps the most vital motive for human action – it is what we draw on when reflecting on what makes life living, after all. Harnessing that impulse allows humanity to achieve many, many things. But by the same token, it needs to be kept caged – if unleashed without constraint, the spiritual impulse is the most lethal force we know.
Now, most major religions have had some Gnostic outbreaks, and some are more prone than others – religions emphasising individualist worship with a direct connection to God are especially prone, because there are no traditions, doctrines, or institutions (however fallible) to sublimate spiritual energies. That’s the genius of Orthodoxy (Judaic, Christian, any) – it puts some thickness between the individual and God, to prevent the worshipper mistaking and acting on every event as an apocalyptic symbol. To see this source of the problem within Radical Islam, consider that these ‘conservatives’ often have no truck with local cultural practice – what counts is Koranic interpretation above all, regardless of circumstance, time and place.
Islam’s tendency to Gnosticism is both structurally and historically too difficult to ignore. Structurally, as well as the same features that caused problems in Reformation Protestantism (sola scriptura, private worship, etc), it is law-based and so sees no reason for a distinction between Mosque and State. Within its literalism, part of the problem of Islam is also (as much as I know any of it) an unfortunate tendency to deal in stark concepts like the House of Peace/House of War dualism. You might say some focus unduly on that, but because of the sola scriptura approach, a radical cleric can go on peddling the same line – and by the same sola scriptura token, anybody can become a radical cleric, because there’s no necessary qualification to teach Koranic scripture.
The historic problem is that, whereas similar (if slightly less concerning) structural conditions hold for Evangelical Protestantism, they were burned out through the Reformation and have since been pacified (enervated?) in modern-liberalism. Yet, within parts of the Islamic world, and within some corners of Islamic communities in the West, this is all burning quite hot.
Now, my point is that until Islam on the whole (a) develops suitable institutions or practices to constrain and dissipate the radical temper that can emerge in any religious community; and (b), probably as a consequence of (a), becomes much more effective at disinfecting its own bad elements, it will remain a concern to most, me included.
In terms of the worst of other religions – McVeigh and Goldstein – well, these are single freakoid mentalist types, rather than any large-scale phenomenon. The current problem in Islam, and one that has grown over many decades now, is that of a common ideological movement, across countries and continents. Relatively small in active numbers, but loud in impact, they often remain far too unchallenged in their own backyard. Christianity and Judaism do not, and have not, presently seem to generate such movements. Doubtless, a lot of the other problems of the Middle East haven’t helped, but that’s not the only explanation. Some of the most pious Islamic fundamentalists are drawn from the young, educated professional classes – seeking some escape from existential angst, y’know. (Incidentally, Timothy McVeigh was not a Christian – he was an agnostic.)
Maybe those changes I seek in Islam will come from the European experience. But how well they will catch on remains to be seen, and until they do begin to address some of my concerns, the size and shape of the Muslim world, including that part of it in the UK, seems to me to be a pressing issue for our political debates.
1. Private revelation/a direct route to God;
2. Literalism, especially in the legal field;
3. No church structure to hold back the maniacs.
My central point is this: that could be Stephen Green. As you say, though, Christian Voice aren’t putting bombs on trains. So the problem isn’t the theory, the scripture, but its application, and the weight of numbers going down the wrong path. To me, that’s politics (and some of it internal radical politics).
Crudely, Islam needs to go through a process of change like Protestantism did two-hundred years ago. A separation of the public-political and legal from the spiritual. (Then maybe “war on the unbeliever” will be a duty to debate with him, rather than blow him up?) My argument is that it is already going through this change. European contact is changing Muslims, secularizing or making their devout Islam compatible with (most of) liberalism. Countries like Turkey and Lebanon keep the clerics outside of politics. The daughter of my Turkish neighbour goes out in clothes that make a thirty-something blush.
What isn’t happening is a real confrontation with extreme “Wahhabism” and its source, Saudi Arabia and the madrassas of Pakistan. This is only one strain (I don’t see many Sufi suicide bombers…), but it’s the one that gets most attention from the “kill all Muslims” brigade. The way to tackle these people is not, like some think, to go round selectively quoting scripture and branding Islam as evil. Plenty of Muslims don’t interpret the Koran that way – plenty don’t think a literal interpretation of the Koran is even appropriate. Hardly any think shariah ought to apply in Europe, as I’ve said. These are all facts. What we need is to tackle the problems, not ‘Islam’. And we’re pushing against an open door: any fool can see Wahhabism = failure. And you’re right: Muslims need to tackle the problem, too. To that aim, they ought to be coopted inside the state not left on the outside. Right now the only person on the inside who seems to be speaking for them is Galloway, and his influence isn’t helpful to anyone outside the SWP.
We shouldn’t also forget that the number of people prepared to do this is very small indeed. Okay, you can fire back at me that x,000 have sympathies. But how many anti-globalization protestors are there in this country? How many would sanction the bombing of the Carlyle Group? That’s the difference.
Murderous political Islamism is a cancer and has to be removed. Agreed. But the answer’s integration, not ramping up the Othering.
On your latter, prescriptive point, I’d agree, but it isn’t enough to say that we must ‘include to integrate’ as the only strategy. We can only affect one small corner of Islam, and hardly a dominant one either. The Islam that inspires in much of the world is strident and vigorous, and has no respect for liberal social and political institutions – in fact, often quite the opposite.
Given the wider context, this is why we should be mindful over the level of Islamic migration and residency here. I don’t see why this is controversial – you’d agree with me that religion is not race, and that’s why the Religious Hatred Bill’s a wrong’un, because religion is about ideas and should be open to criticism. But how can we act on that criticism, if it’s not satisfactorily refuted? As I said, I have a lot of respect for Islam, so there’s no great issue here – but if it were the problems of a popular Satanism we were discussing, I’d have no problem in suggesting direct action, even persecution. Religious tolerance takes place within limits; there are some spiritual claims that are incompatible with a given society – thankfully, Islam as a whole is nowhere near that position, but we shouldn’t forget that there are limits.
The comparison with Stephen Green: on the terms you cite, yes. But there are crucial differences beyond the similarities:
First, Christianity is a teaching- and not a law-based religion – it does not claim to be a complete guide to temporal life. Islam, like Judaism, does. This could be solved by the triumph of some kind of orthodox tradition – like Rabbinic teaching in Judaism – but we’re a long, long way from this happening, and it will be very difficult to achieve because Islam is a globalised religion before it has any central institutions capable of administering such authority.
Second, as you say, Protestantism has evolved from its Reformation origins – there is distance between rhetoric and action now. The difference here is critical – a Christian who murders abortionists is widely reviled, and can find no public traction or support; nor can their advocates. Unfortunately, although only a minority, groups like al-Muhajiroun were allowed to exist and the moderate, mainstream Muslim community has not found the backbone or the methods to ostracise them as they would be in the Christian community. This is, as you imply, a historic problem – it might well change – but there’s a long way to travel yet, and until we get there, caution seems advisable.
Third, and related to Islam’s being a law-based religion, is its insistence on stark notions that encourage “them-and-us” thinking. There’s an underlying idea that goes around that, once you strip out language and theological concepts, all of the traditional religions are pretty much the same. But that’s not true – although the Abrahamic religions share some ground, there are substantive differences between them which cut to the heart of their worldview. To give just one example, they have very different notions of God – in Islam, as far as I am aware, God is a more distant, arbitrary power-that-is.
Again, let me reiterate that these points are not necessarily specific to Islam – but Islam fits the bill now, and is also large enough to be potentially problematic. We can’t get away from the fact that, here and now, most of the terrorist problem-children in the world are Muslim. For whatever reason, Islam is proving some of the richest soil for ideologised hatred right now – and it seems to me that this is not wholly coincidental.
Now, hopefully you’re right that a European Islam is emerging that’s thoroughly pacified by modern liberal society – but that’s got all the makings of being a global/historical aberration – unless the more dominant global strands are challenged (especially, as you say, Wahabbism), it seems to me that global Islam will remain an issue. And I don’t see how it’s going to be solved, and until it is, there are factors to consider. I don’t disagree about the importance of binding British Muslims into the state as much as possible – quite the opposite. But this is not a one-way process, and isn’t helped when many of the leading Muslim groups jump on the racial identity bandwagon, and damn any questioning reference to their faith as Islamophobia. It’s helped even less when, sometimes, while criticising extremism in general they duck out of criticising specific groups and individuals. When we reach the extremes, Muslims have to choose Britain over Islam, and too few of the ‘leaders’ (self-appointed, self-important though they are) seem willing to do so.
Not unproblematically, as Walter Berns once pointed out, the rule of liberal society is “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s; render unto God that which Caesar permits.” Evangelical Protestantism has long since accepted this rule; Islam has not, so far.
Well, you clearly know more about the scriptural detail than me, and I don’t think we’re that far apart. Maybe I’m just less pessimistic than you. I see this twisted form of Islam losing the battle almost everywhere. No, we shouldn’t be stopped from giving opinions about religions, I agree. But assigning group blame, for anything (not all Christians wanted Jerry Springer: The Opera stopped), has to be discouraged. Muslims themselves, in the end, will have to lance the boil. It’s in their interests, and they have the comparative advantage. We have to help them find the resources to do that in Britain. That means coopting them within the state, helping them train imams within proper educational structures so we don’t have to import Saudis and Pakistanis who don’t understand the British context. The “Muslim = evil” meme has to be challenged wherever it appears, including on blogs. Islamophobia is an ugly word, but it exists. That has to be recognised, even though some may be exploiting and exaggerating its prevalence.
And we can’t calculate what the effects of a moderately secular and successful Iraq would be on the Middle East. Lebanon is already more successful than, say, Egypt. A bigger country succeeding spectacularly may tip the scales. Turkey’s longevity is proof that secular Islam is possible – their ‘Islamist’ government are using the ECHR to defend secularism, as well as trying to get into the EU. Surveys of naturalised ‘European Turks’ (including one on my desk right now – not online) find virtually no support for the primacy of Islamic over secular law. We have a slightly skewed sample in the UK, as the majority of our Muslims are Pakistani-origin. The picture looks different over the water.
Liberalism is the path forward, and it’s working. I like the fact that it is silent on the big questions. It doesn’t mean you can’t have your own answers to those questions. Just that, as long as none are incompatible with liberal society, one doesn’t outlaw or invalidate any. Equal consideration, including for all religions. We’re reached a crucial juncture, sure, but change is already happening. We just need to keep the process moving.
Yes, you’re right – we’re not too far apart. Both of us see, I think, that there are issues in Islam, but that also we in the West aren’t simply bystanders in the process. That’s takes place internationally – in building a successful Iraq most of all, as you say – but also domestically, in working to bind British Muslims into our national life. You’re also right that I’m more pessimistic than you are. I don’t think this is impossible, but I think it’s a high wall we want to climb, and I question whether we in the West have the will even to play our part in it.
Modern liberalism’s cunning is in its silence on the big questions – but it also makes it ultimately an empty vessel – but agreeing to be indifferent to each others’ deepest belief is hardly a basis for community. That’s why I think liberalism can never be enough on its own, and never has been in any society, either. Unless we have some basic agreement on those big questions, we don’t have the fellow-feeling on which we can build our liberal regime.
I think this is where I do worry about Islam in Britain today. To achieve what we both want – British Muslims who feel British Muslims – we have to be willing to offer them some substance to buy into, some additional motivation to inspire their thoughts and deeds. Liberalism alone cannot offer that; all it does offer them is the chance to be Muslims providing they keep themselves to themselves (some offer!). We have to offer Muslims participation in a genuine community, with a sense of holding some substantive values in common – not just ‘tolerance’ and ‘rights,’ but a sense of order and justice and the good life.
The problem is that this is where the liberal-Left will not be willing to tread – it likes the idea of community, but blanches at any of the steps necessary to achieve it. Communities, after all, are built on particularities – on exclusive loyalties, on personalities, on parochiality. Liberals will always (as liberalism demands) put universal values – choice, freedom, equality – above the particular claims of communities.
I have to wonder if the question of Islam in Britain really might force us to discover whether liberalism can ever alone provide a basis for society. And the more I think about it, the less I think that it can.