Monday 14 May 2007

Restrained and unrestrained anti-secularism

Last week I took issue with William Dalrymple over his comparison of current western foreign policy with the travails of the British Empire in the 19th century. I mentioned that Dalrymple was one of a number of liberal Catholic commentators who can often be found these days either trying to 'understand' the root causes of Islamist outrage, or alternately engaging in tirades against contemporary secularism. (Isn't it interesting how those two tendencies frequently go together?)

This weekend saw articles in the media by two other members of this loose-knit group: Madeline Bunting and Cristina Odone, writing in The Guardian and The Observer respectively.

Credit where credit's due: Bunting's article was one of her more balanced pieces and was refreshingly free from her usual tendency to condemn as an 'Enlightenment fundamentalist' or 'aggressive liberal' anyone who dares to criticise any aspect of contemporary Islam. Mind you, she was interviewing Ed Husain about his new book The Islamist and it would have been difficult to take issues with criticisms of Islam voiced by a practising Muslim, and what's more one who has inside experience of fundamentalist Islamism. So most of the article is a fairly accurate account of Husain's experience and of his own conclusions from it.

Bunting reins in her usual attitudes with admirable restraint until the very last paragraph, when she can't resist this gentle dig at her interviewee:

One suspects the naivety which took him into Hizb-ut Tahrir has blinded him as to how his story will be used to buttress positions hostile to many things he holds dear - his own faith and racial tolerance, for example. A glance at the blog response to a Husain piece in the Telegraph reveals how rightwing racism and anti-Islamic sentiment are feasting on his testimony.

I find this suspicion of naivety faintly patronising and reminiscent of some of the reviews of Ayaan Hirsi Ali's book, which also appeared to suggest that Muslims who criticise Islam are somehow responsible for how their opinions are received - and should maybe think twice before speaking out. Bunting's comment about the blog response may be accurate but she never allows that there might be a legitimate liberal, non-racist critique of aspects of Islam.

Odone's piece, in which she reflects on a recent encounter with Richard Dawkins, is much less nuanced. She tries to pin on him the kind of labels - dogmatic, extremist - that he attaches to religious believers. In other words, this is another of those attempts to characterise atheists and secularists as being just as 'fundamentalist' as those they oppose. The article starts to go badly wrong when Odone calls Dawkins a 'secular extremist', thus making the familiar but lazy confusion of atheism with secularism. How often does it have to be pointed out that you don't have to be an atheist to believe that in a modern, liberal and plural society, religion should not have a privileged place in the public sphere? And 'extreme' though he may be in his views, the implicit parallel with religious extremism doesn't work because Dawkins doesn't seek to impose his views with threats and violence.

Odone's confusion leads her to the peculiar conclusion that Dawkins' public criticisms of religion are somehow a threat to religious freedom. She thinks secularists and atheists aren't much of a danger in the US, where they're heavily outnumbered by believers. However:

In secular Britain, faith-bashing carries far more resonance and risks causing far greater damage. In this country, belief is a minority practice and believers a persecuted lot. The rabid attacks by Dawkins and his camp-followers spur even the most mild-mannered Christian, Muslim or Jew into a hard-line position.

This is overwrought in the extreme. Is Odone saying that atheists like Dawkins shouldn't be allowed a public platform because it might upset believers? And exactly what kind of 'damage' can a few books and TV programmes do to 'faith'? As for the statement that believers are a persecuted minority: well, we've been here before and, in a country of state-funded faith schools and bishops in the Lords, it hardly deserves a serious response.

But it's the final sentence in this paragraph, in which Odone spells out what she means by 'causing...damage', that is the most astonishing. She seems to be saying that non-believers shouldn't speak out because it might provoke otherwise 'mild-mannered' believers to take a 'hard-line' position. Oh, I see: if reactionary Christians get a TV programme taken off, or conservative Sikhs force a play to be cancelled, or fundamentalist Muslims threaten death over a few cartoons - then it's not their fault, it's the fault of those unbelievers like Dawkins who dare to disagree with them. What a strange argument to find articulated in a liberal newspaper!

It gets worse:

(T)he only hope for tolerance is for him to publish a stream of new titles - The God Solution, The Selfless Gene - and address cosy church groups as an apostate who has seen the light. With their loudest persecutor silenced, believers would see no need for hard-line posturing. They would once again feel like ordinary citizens rather than a hunted species that must bare its fangs to survive.

So religious fundamentalism is all Dawkins' fault. And what about that final sentence: believers a 'hunted species'. By whom? When was the last time a believer had to go into hiding because of death threats from atheists or secularists? As for 'bare its fangs', now that's threatening language. And how incredibly aggressive for a column written from a supposedly christian perspective.

As I've often wondered before: whatever happened to the 'liberal' in liberal Christianity?

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