I’ve had a growing sense of frustration over the last few weeks and months. A lot of airtime has been devoted to the “so-called Islamic State” (as the BBC always says) and the many acts of terrorism which have been so much in the news.
My frustration stems from the fact that so often politicians and the media want to carefully avoid mentioning anything which might actually suggest the problem lies within Islam itself – so much so that it’s become almost obsessive. Not so long ago, whenever an act of terrorism happened you’d see an orderly queue of politicians lining up to say how it was “nothing to do with Islam”. The general picture to emerge is that Islam is basically a peaceful religion the world over, much like Christianity, and there are only a tiny fringe group of extremists who aren’t “real” Muslims causing the problems. And, of course, anyone who dares to challenge the status quo is branded Islamophobic, or racist, or a bigot, etc.
But even the press has got in on the act. Just yesterday Archbishop Cranmer posted a good example of the way newspapers are avoiding the issue:
(Check the source link. A newspaper – well, alright, the Mirror – reported a terrorist incident without mentioning Islam. This seems to be a running theme recently – newspapers will refuse to mention anything to do with Islam in connection with terrorism).
It seems that our situation at the moment is just … well, it’s silly. We need to be free to discuss religion and extremism. And if there is a problem, we need to name it, rather than pretending there is no problem and sticking our fingers in our ears whenever more evidence is presented.
Anyway, I felt compelled to write something to try and present an alternative perspective, even if it’s not one everyone will agree with. Stifling discussion will not help, nor will assuming the conclusion before we’ve even begun.
Coping with complexity
I think one of the issues we have at the moment in the UK (and much of Western society) is that we can’t deal with complexity in public life. Certainly when it comes to religion, anyway. This is partly a problem with our education system – when I was at school, the religious education I had was pretty awful: I think I learnt a bit about the pillars of Islam but didn’t really learn much about its history or how different people interpret the Qu’ran. The teaching I had on Christianity was even worse.
I think the problem is most Western people think they know something about Christianity, and then assume that every religion must be something like that. People know that Christianity has an authoritative text (the Bible), basically one creed which is believed throughout the world, and they know its followers generally try to do good and avoid violence. Because this is the case for Christianity, it then becomes the case for all religions: Islam, therefore, has one authoritative text (the Qu’ran), basically one creed, and its followers generally try to do good and avoid violence. The problem with this is that it’s massively oversimplifying. I think the media and politicians are often to blame (how often do you hear about ‘religion’ as if all religion is the same?) And politicians lately have been talking about “extremism” as if the problem is one which cuts across every religion – as if every religion has an extremist problem.
The snag is, you can’t lump all religions in together. Islam is not Christianity, which is not Buddhism, which is not Hinduism, etc. Western society has decided that the problem is extremism, and as long as we can stamp that out we’ll be OK. Even if that means sending in Ofsted to inspect your Sunday school (and I’m not even joking – it’s crazy that the government would consider such things, even if they’ve now changed their mind).
Islam and terrorism
One of the most helpful people I’ve heard on Islamic extremism is Colin Chapman, who spent many years living and working in the Middle East and is an expert on Islam. A few years ago now he wrote an article: Christian Responses to Islam, Islamism and Islamic Terrorism. It’s not a short read but the whole thing is worth reading, as I think it is very fair and balanced.
I think one or two points are worth drawing out though. Firstly, as he points out, it is patronising and wrong for Westerners to be saying “there is a correct interpretation of Islam, and we know what it is…” Muslims must be allowed to define their own religion. But, here’s the rub, for that exact reason I think it is patronising nonsense for secular Westerners to be saying that Islam is clearly a peace-loving religion and anyone doing violence is not a real Muslim.
As the article says:
There are significant numbers of British Muslims, however, who would not actively support the use of violence, but would not openly condemn it. And many would argue that if violence cannot be justified in the British context, it can be justified in certain other contexts like Afghanistan, Iraq or Israel/Palestine. Neat categories with clear labels do not fit this debate, and even among Islamists there is a wide spectrum of approaches from moderates (in sympathy, for example, with the Muslim Council of Britain and the Muslim Association of Britain) to extremists
Neat categories do not fit this debate – so the attempt by politicians and the media to foist their particular interpretation of religion onto us is as patronising as it is damaging.
Secondly, this is as much a problem within Islam as it is outside. There are verses in the Qu’ran which are quite sympathetic towards Christians, and there are others which are more hostile. There are interpretive principles which govern how the Qu’ran is understood. However, the matter of who is right on interpretation is perhaps not as settled as Western politicians and media would have us believe. As the article says:
The really obvious gulf is not so much between traditionalist, orthodox Muslims and politically involved Islamists, as between Muslims who practise and approve of violence and those who do not. So, for example, Ziauddin Sardar, a British Muslim, writes: ‘We must acknowledge that the terrorists…are products of Islamic history. Only by recognising this brutal fact would we realise that the fight against terrorism is also an internal Muslim struggle within Islam itself. Indeed, it is a struggle for the very soul of Islam.’
We must face up to facts and understand that we can’t simply make something true by repeating it ad nauseam. If there is a problem within Islam, then it helps no-one to pretend that it doesn’t exist and that the problem is instead generic ‘extremism’.
There are apparently 1.6 billion Muslims, there is a huge variety within Islam (some Islamic countries are quite friendly to Christians, for example; in others converting to Christianity could get you killed or arrested). To admit that there is a violence problem within Islam is not to tar everyone with the same brush. It’s not demonising a whole religion. But we have to face facts. And the facts are there for those who aren’t too politically correct to find them.
Those who want to look more into the history might enjoy reading Tom Holland’s book, In the Shadow of the Sword, which I talk a little bit about here.
Or you could simply have a look at what’s going on around the world today. Open Doors, a Christian charity which serves persecuted Christians worldwide, sends out a prayer email which I subscribe to. Very often the persecution is being done by Islamic extremists. On their news page as I write this, for example: Nigeria: Blasphemy rumour leads to eight dead – Islamists burnt down a house in Northern Nigeria on 22nd August. The Sudanese Pastors who have been imprisoned for months in an explicitly Islamic regime. Hawa, a believer from a Muslim background who was rejected by her family. The list goes on. (And, I could add, occasionally things have happened in the UK too – e.g. a man who was battered with a pickaxe in Bradford for converting from Islam to Christianity.)
The secular worldview
A large part of the problem is the way our society currently thinks about moral issues. We think that our liberal Western democracy basically fell out of the sky – we still believe the lie that our morals and values are simply common to everyone and that all roads do in fact lead to the Rome of liberal Western secularism.
But, of course, our culture – particularly in the UK – largely depends on Christianity. As Tom Holland pointed out a while back, even a liberal secular democracy would not exist without Christianity. We in the UK hold certain views about violence, respect, tolerance, etc. These are not ‘obvious’ or ‘secular’ values – I think they are Christian.
And this is what frustrates me most about the politicians / media presentation. All religions are seen as being equally problematic, and ‘extremism’ seen as a problem for all of them. Whereas the reality is completely different: religions are not all the same, and our society owes a huge debt to the Christian faith. The values our secular society now holds dear only arose because the Christian faith gave them in the first place.
It’s sad to see such cultural blindness even in our leaders, but I think it’s worse when we’re not allowed to raise this as an issue and have a grown-up discussion. If there’s anything we desperately need right now as a country is to be able to talk about the truth – not a nice, sanitised falsehood which doesn’t offend anyone. And if we can face facts and and deal with the actual issues we might just find we make some progress.