Sunday, 26 September 2010
Saturday, 25 September 2010
I don't have much sympathy for the men who burned copies of the Koran in a pub car park in Gateshead, and I suspect they weren’t motivated by high-minded rationalist scepticism. But the fact that they were arrested for their actions worries me. Still more concerning is the fact that the charge was inciting racial hatred. As I’ve grown weary of saying, Islam is a religion, not a ‘race’, and to conflate the two is to play into the hands of militants and fundamentalists who seek to shut down criticism of their faith.
As in a number of recent cases involving supposed religious ‘offence’, it looks like the authorities didn’t like what was going on, were worried about what it might lead to, and then cast around for a law which roughly fitted the ‘crime’. The religious hatred laws seemed not to cover this kind of eventuality, so why not try the race hatred laws instead?
As for the argument that to burn a book was deliberately to ‘incite’ hatred or violence, we’ve been here before, I think. The best response to this I’ve read was from Kenan Malik, in a comment on this post:
I agree that Qur’an burners are mindless idiots. I disagree that it would have been OK for them to have been arrested for ‘incitement’, even had they done it front of a mosque. There are two notions of incitement that all too often get conflated. The first is incitement in the sense of directly persuading others to commit violence. The second is incitement in the sense of causing offence that provokes others to be violent. Incitement in the first sense should be illegal. Incitement in the second sense should not.
It is incitement in the second sense that has been one of the prime drivers behind censorship in recent years – people being prevented from doing something because it might cause offence and hence provoke others into violence. Think of the debates around Bezhti or Fitna or The Jewel of Medina.
Take Wilders. He is a reactionary idiot and Fitna a crude anti-Muslim film designed to provoke. That is immaterial. He was originally banned from Britain because, in the government’s words, his ‘statements about Muslims and their beliefs… would threaten community harmony and therefore public security in the UK.’ But Wilders was a threat to public security only insofar as some of his critics may have been provoked enough to respond with violence. But then they, not Wilders, should have been held responsible. It would have been neither logical nor just to have penalized Wilders not for his actions but for actions others may have taken against him.
Remember that many held Salman Rushdie responsible for the violence that followed the publication of The Satanic Verses because he ‘must have known the offence it would cause’. Indeed Matthew Taylor made the very argument when I gave a talk last year at the RSA. Most of us would say that it is immaterial whether or not Rushdie knew the offence he would cause. Those who caused the violence, and only they, were responsible for that violence, however provoked they might have felt. The same goes for any violence that might follow the showing of Fitna or the burning of the Qur’an.
Burning the Qur’an in front of a mosque is clearly close to the line. Its intention would obviously be simply to provoke, and one could argue that it is similar to shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre. There is, however, a difference. Shouting ‘fire’ in a theatre when there is no fire is to induce people to take a certain action (to rush for the exit) that is rational, inevitable but will cause mayhem. The theatre goers are not responsible for the mayhem, the person who shouted ‘fire’ is. Burning a Qur’an in front of a mosque will undoubtedly provoke a response from believers. But in this case the believers have a choice in how they react, and so are responsible if they respond in a violent way. Even in this case, in other words, it is vital that we keep distinct the two different notions of incitement.
Mind you, we should be grateful to the masked goons in Gateshead for raising some interesting philosophical and theological questions. There was a brief flutter of debate on Twitter, for example, about whether burning an English translation of the Koran (as seems to have happened in this case) was as sacrilegious as destroying one in the original Arabic. If, as Muslims believe, the Koran is sacred because it contains the actual, directly-dictated words of God, then maybe versions in other languages are somehow less inspired? Doesn’t the fact that Muslims pray in Arabic confirm this literalism?
Another Twitterer wondered if deleting a copy of the Koran from his Kindle would be as offensive as burning a printed version, and whether it would similarly count as a criminal offence. Obviously a joke, but one that again raises questions about what counts as ‘sacred’, and which points up the absurdity of religious literalism and fundamentalism.
Monday, 20 September 2010
Taking the latter first. I found many of the banners and chants at the ‘Protest the pope’ demonstrations distasteful and gratuitously offensive. In addition, I got the impression that many of the protestors started from a position of visceral anti-Catholicism, and then made a grab at any issue that lent support to their hatred. It was certainly odd to see liberal humanists making common cause with fundamentalist Protestants and Paisleyites.
Since there is no conclusive evidence that the current pontiff covered up priestly abuse, the whole ‘arrest the pope’ charade was pointless. The issue with which I had most sympathy was the church’s attitude to homosexuality, but that would have been more effective without the tasteless banners. And I couldn’t for the life of me see what Richard Dawkins and his band of atheists were doing at the protest. By all means disagree intellectually with Christians about the existence or otherwise of God, but don’t deny them their right to celebrate their faith. And that was my other objection to the protestors: they seemed like intolerant party-poopers whose aim was really to stop those they disagreed with from expressing their beliefs in peace.
Turning to the pope himself, obviously some of his comments about ‘aggressive secularism’ were unfortunate, to say the least, and the ‘atheism leads to Nazism’ quote was an unnecessary gift to his critics – and the headline-seeking news media. But if you listen to, or read, his complete speeches and homilies – whether at Holyrood, Bellahouston or Westminster Hall – they were rather more measured and thoughtful than you’d think, and much of what was quoted has been taken out of context.
Having said that, there are some things I wish the pope had said, but didn't, and if it’s not too presumptuous or disrespectful, I’d like to suggest a few of them here. For example, here’s what he might have said to his Catholic and Christian listeners:
My brothers and sisters, some of you seem unduly exercised by the outbursts and antics of various secularists and atheists in your land. I have heard your representatives talk repeatedly of ‘aggressive’ secularism, and of a ‘new’ or ‘militant’ atheism. But there is nothing new about hostility to the faith, and using such language makes it look as though you are trying to dismiss their criticisms without responding to them. The Church flourishes when it encounters healthy opposition: conversely, lack of criticism makes us lazy and complacent. So welcome these challenges, and be confident in your response to them. And before you criticise the 'aggression' of your atheist brothers and sisters, consider whether you too have ever been aggressive or intolerant of dissent in your own Christian faith.
Try, also, once in a while, to see things from your opponents' point of view. Ask yourself: why might atheism and secularism being enjoying a revival just now? Might it be because unbelievers have legitimate fears, following various terrorist outrages and death threats against writers and artists in the name of religion, about the growth of an aggressive religious fundamentalism that threatens their basic freedoms? You may protest that these threats do not come, in the main, from Christians: but how often have you rushed to 'understand' the actions of those who bomb, riot and burn when they feel religious 'offence', rather than standing up, alongside your secular fellow citizens, for the human values that you both share?
Then again, I have heard some of you talk of persecution and of your faith being banished from the public square. Frankly, I am astonished - 'gobsmacked' is I believe the appropriate word in your language - when I hear such talk. Here I am, in a country where the upper chamber of your parliament includes Christian bishops as of right, where your church schools are partly funded by the taxes of unbelievers, where your services and sermons have guaranteed slots on television and radio, and where your politicians make regular obeisance to 'faith communities' and 'faith leaders'. How Christians in some other lands - Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, North Korea - might wish for such 'persecution'! I endorse what my brother Christian, the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote recently: Christians in the west should stop whining and campaign instead for believers who are truly persecuted elsewhere in the world. I seem to remember that Our Lord warned us to expect persecution, and went so far as to say that we would be blessed if men despised and rejected us. Can you imagine the martyrs of the faith asking for special privileges from the state, as some of you have done? In other words: dial it down a bit, my brothers and sisters, or as your own young people might say: just chill, OK?
And this is what I wish the pope had said to Britain's majority of non-believers:
My brothers and sisters beyond the Church, there is much that divides us, but as a guest in your land, I would not presume to lecture you. Instead, I want to emphasise today what we share in common - I as a Christian, you as atheists, agnostics, humanists and members of other faiths. I want to acknowledge the great good that you have done, and continue to do, and what your fellow non-believers have achieved over the centuries for the good of humanity. On this visit I have already praised the great Christian philanthropists of this land, such as Wilberforce and Nightingale, but it would be wrong of me to overlook the good work done by the secular heroes of your country, who have done so much to advance human dignity and equality. And yes, in humility I acknowledge that humanists have often led the way, for example in advancing the rights of women and minorities, in promoting freedom of thought and expression, in care for the environment, where we in the Church have followed belatedly and yes, have sometimes blocked the way. We need to learn from you, as much as you from us.
And although I have often criticised the secularisation of society, today I want to acknowledge the value of a true secularism, of a separation of church and state which guarantees freedom to believe, or not believe. For it is only in such an atmosphere of freedom that true faith, freely chosen faith, can flourish. My fellow Christians in other parts of the world, in countries where they are in the minority, know the value of such a secularism. And I want to humbly acknowledge the failures of my own Church in the past, our willingness to support authoritarian and oppressive regimes, whether in Spain or Latin America - regimes which some of you rightly campaigned against - simply because they bore the name 'Catholic', while they suppressed the basic human freedoms which humanists, whether secular or Christian, should hold dear.
Where we differ, of course, is that I, as a Christian, while holding that liberty of conscience and freedom of expression are fundamental and the precondition for a fully human life, believe that they are not sufficient. As Christians, we believe that secular humanism is not enough, that it cannot provide answers to the fundamental questions about our existence, its purpose and that of the universe. On this we must agree to differ, and indeed to continue to converse and to listen to each other. But let me end on a positive note, by thanking you, my secular humanist brothers and sisters, for reminding us believers of the great value of human freedom, and of the equality and dignity of all human beings, whatever their race, gender or lifestyle. I look forward, while I am here in your country, to a dialogue marked by agreement on what we have in common, and where we disagree, by respect for each other's opinions.Here endeth the lesson.
Sunday, 19 September 2010
I’m still thoroughly absorbed by the Blair book. I've just ploughed through the dense and closely-argued chapters about Iraq, which are a must-read for those who refuse to allow that there were any legitimate reasons for going to war. For the most part, I find myself sympathetic to the narrative, but one or two sentences have jarred. It could be me being nit-picky, but I believe these things matter.
In the course of a long explanation of the background to 9/11 and the rise of jihadi fundamentalism, Blair offers a thumbnail sketch of the history of Islam, charting how in the 7th century the new faith was seen as a reform movement when Christianity had become corrupted by sectarianism and power. Apparently, Islam ‘was in part an attempt to take the Abrahamic faiths back to their roots and develop them into a principled, rational and moral way forward for the world.’
Fair enough. But then the next sentence reads: ‘The message of the Prophet was given to him by the angel Gabriel from God – the Koran therefore being the direct recital of the word of God.’ Notice how that sentence is not prefaced by the phrase ‘Muslims believe that…’ or ‘According to Islam…’ Rather, it runs on from, and is given the same credence, as the preceding historical narrative. Now, as I say, I could be accused of over-sensitivity here. You could argue that the style of A Journey is populist, informal, switching between registers and that the ‘Muslims believe…’ bit is implied.
But I’m not so sure. The author does, after all use the term ‘the Prophet’, and earlier writes about ‘the Prophet Mohammed’. The Christian equivalent would be describing Jesus as ‘the Saviour’ or using the term ‘Our Lord’ or ‘the Lord Jesus Christ’. And later in the book, Blair states that the fundamentalists have perverted the ‘truth’ of Islam. Truth? But I thought Tony Blair was a Christian? What does he mean by saying that Islam is ‘true’: does he believe that Mohammed really was sent by God, and that his message (which, as I understand it, contradicts that of Christianity in important respects) was somehow divinely inspired?
As regular readers will be aware, I’m a huge Blair fan. I didn’t always agree with his domestic policies (academy schools would be a case in point): in fact, I must be one of the few people who admire him more for his foreign than for his domestic achievements. One area in which I’ve often found myself in disagreement with him is the matter of religion. I don’t mean his decision to become a Catholic. I regarded that as a genuine and legitimate choice, and loathed the mean-spirited and ignorant media commentary that accompanied its announcement. But where I part company with him is in his pro-faithism and multi-faithism, his support for the notion that any faith is better than no faith, that all faiths are somehow ‘one’ and are preferable to the supposed empty secularism of modern society.
It’s this kind wishy-washy attitude that seems to lie behind the uncritical statements about Islam in A Journey (not that Blair isn’t severely critical of the fundamentalist forces that he sees as perverting Islam’s ‘truth’). I remember detecting a similar attitude when reading Albert Hourani’s A History of the Arab Peoples, where (once again) the supernatural ‘events’ of Mohammed’s life were treated with the same historical realism as wars, population movements, etc. It was rather like reading a history of Europe that gave the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection the same credibility as the fall of Rome or the Hundred Years War. Or a history of America that accorded Joseph Smith’s reception of the golden plates of the Book of Mormon a similar status to the Boston Tea Party or the Battle of Gettysburg.
Whether writers fall into this way of writing about Islam out of plain fear, or just fear of offending, I wouldn’t like to say. Given the likely outcry, or worse, if they were to suggest that the Koran might be a human creation, or the story of Mohammed partly legendary, perhaps they are just opting for an easy life. Maybe they just want to make sure their books get published (rather than burned) in the Middle East and Asia. It occurs to me that a sign of real progress and reform in the so-called ‘Muslim world’ would be if a book that treated the history of Islam in the same way that Christianity has been treated in western books for the past two hundred years - as one belief system among many - could be published and sold openly in those countries.
I may be wrong, and maybe such publications are already available in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran. If so, do let me know, and I stand to be corrected.
Monday, 13 September 2010
Instead of history being viewed as a matter of class conflict, it was increasingly seen as an anti-colonial, anti-Western process. The place of the proletariat in the affections of the Left, as a group onto whom fantasies of revolution could be projected, was assumed by the non-Western peoples of the globe.
The reason the Palestinian cause is so central to modern left-wing activity [...] is because it is the contemporary rallying point for the dominant radical impulse of our time - anti-Westernism. And attachment to the Palestinian cause is an emotionally satisfying and morally exalted way of attacking Israel - the country that is the West's front line, the state that embodies Western values in a region and at a time where they are under particularly vicious assault.
Thursday, 9 September 2010
I don't believe that any books are 'sacred'. The Qu'ran, the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Tibetan Book of the Dead - all are human products and should be treated as such. In a free society no book, whether secular or religious, should be protected from criticism, ridicule or even condemnation if necessary. But talk of burning books of any kind makes me nervous and summons up some pretty unpleasant historical memories (see above).
Wednesday, 8 September 2010
During the course of the conversation [with Campbell] I discovered something I hadn't been a hundred per cent of previously: he had clanking great balls. This was someone you would have to pull back, not push forward [...] He and Peter Mandelson might fight (and my goodness they did, occasionally literally), but in tandem they would be as formidable a political force as could be imagined. Peter would slip into the castle through a secret passageway and, by nimble footwork and sharp and incisive thrusts of the rapier, cleave his way through to the throne room. Meanwhile, Alastair would be a very large oak battering ram destroying the castle gates, and neither boiling pitch nor reinforced doors would keep him out.