manicstreetpreacher lets you in on what really makes his blood boil.
By failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally.
A lovers’ tiff
I read this post a few days ago on Edmund Standing’s blog (also cross-posted on Harry’s Place) regarding Norwegian “liberal” Muslims who have come out in support of Kurt Westergaard, one of the Danish cartoonists who caricatured the prophet Muhammad and provoked the fury of Islamists on an international scale in 2006:
A liberal Norwegian Muslim organisation named LIM (Equality, Integration, Diversity) is standing up for free speech and against Islamism. Shakil Rehman of LIM has spoken in defence of republishing the notorious Jyllands-Posten cartoons in the Norwegian newspaper Klassekampen… Now LIM have challenged the Islamic Council of Norway (IRN) to organise a demonstration in defence of free speech, not that they think this is likely to happen… Rehman is unimpressed with arguments about it being ‘offensive’ to depict Muhammad… Muhammad is not God, says Rehman, and he is not above criticism…
Before I go any further, I must make clear that Standing is a personal friend of mine and we see eye-to-eye on a great number of issues. In fact, he has been an important source of advice and support and without his example I would not have done as much as I have in the one year I have being writing this blog. Standing has written some truly excellent pieces on the Old Testament, the Gospel of Matthew, the “value” of theology, the Qur’an, the far left’s abuse of the language of racial prejudice and Rage Against the Machine’s UK Christmas Number 1.
Standing has a gift for trawling the darkest reaches of the Internet in his spare time when the rest of us find it depressing enough to read the BBC News homepage. The result has been a devastating report for The Centre for Social Cohesion which cuts through the British National Party’s attempts to clean up their politics and exposes them for the racist, anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi scum that they are (download PDF). Even before we began corresponding, I kept some of his articles in a hard-copy folder alongside Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and (he’s not going to thank me for this next one!) Johann Hari.
However, the concluding paragraph of Standing’s post really made me see red:
Islam, as Rehman shows, can be ‘liberalised’ and can co-exist peacefully with liberal European culture. Just as Jews no longer stone disobedient children, and Christians no longer burn ‘heretics’ at the stake, so a future is possible in which Muslims in Europe are as ‘European’ as anyone else.
I get it. So, Muslims are capable of common sense and rationality as much as anyone else and are well able to cherry pick their appalling holy book to exorcise the nasty bits that do not sit well with 21st century Western secular society, right? Let’s not forget that this is coming from someone who has written of the Qur’an:
I am at a complete loss as to understand how anyone can hold such a high opinion of a book which, it turns out, is so crude, so blatantly a product of a specific time and place, and so filled with childish threats and superstition. Reading the Qur’an is an arduous task, for in translation at least it is not a book whose literary style naturally commands admiration in the reader; in fact it is an exceedingly tedious book, made up of a collection of disjointed and often self-contradictory texts, filled with tiresome repetition of certain key phrases and themes, and brimming over with threats of torture and torment for those who will not accept its authority… I hope to demonstrate… quite what a divisive, primitive, and insulting book it actually is…
While Jews may no longer think it acceptable to stone their children to death for drunken insolence, many of them still think it is perfectly kosher to slice off the foreskin of their days-old infant boys in a procedure done without the use of anaesthetic which would otherwise require the subject’s expressed or implied consent in law. This is clearly one piece of Bronze Age parenting that has survived the Enlightenment. Similarly, most Christians do not torture or burn heretics at the stake, although they would look rather blushed if you told them that Augustine and Aquinas – still two of the leading lights in theological seminaries the world over – endorsed such practices in their writings.
Islam: the fringe is the centre
Last year I read my copy of Arthur J Arberry’s English translation of the Koran in full and it was an appalling experience. I started to write my own opinion on the Koran for this blog, but I can’t bring myself to complete the piece, because the prospect of re-reading the central text in greater detail is utterly unpalatable. On page after page the reader is informed that God will administer a painful chastisement in Hell, Fire or Gehenna to non-believers. It’s not like we have a choice in the matter either. The Koran oozes with a particular sinister brand of predestination that would make John Calvin raise an eyebrow: God has blinded and deceived those whom he chooses into disbelief and there is no way that they can save themselves.
In 2007, two years after a well-to-do group of young British Muslims blew themselves up on London transport and took many innocent people with them in the process; Ed Husain published The Islamist, an autobiographical account of how he was transformed from his parents’ moderate Muslim upbringing to become an extremist bent on the Islamisation of the world as a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir. As is so often the case, it was only the love of a good woman that brought Husain back from the edge.
I have great praise for Husain’s book. It is a touching story about how an otherwise sane and rational individual had his mind poisoned by religious dogma. However, I do have one caveat. Husain fails to address the intrinsic violence and tribalism in the Koran and the Hadith. He cherry-picks passages that portray his prophet in a favourable light, while ignoring those that show he was in fact a medieval butcher. Someone who has not read the Koran for themselves would come away thinking that Hussein’s descent into fundamentalism was a perversion of “true Islam” and that he simply “fell in with the wrong crowd”. My own experience of the central text shows that exactly the opposite is true.
Now, whenever I see “moderate” Muslims on Newsnight calling for their ilk to come out against extremism and saying that Islam does not mandate such things, I know they being disingenuous. The actions of the 9/11 hijackers may not be typical of all Muslims, but they were a perfectly rational interpretation of the Qur’an and the Hadith. The recent case of Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian man charged as the Christmas Day Detroit underpants bomber, who was a former head of University College London’s Islamic Society and lived in a £4 million house while studying, is further proof, if any were needed, that Islamism is not a movement where the poorest of the poor have risen up against the ills of the Israeli government and US foreign policy.
Then, when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever ye find them, and take them (captive), and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush. But if they repent and establish worship and pay the poor-due, then leave their way free. Lo! Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.
– Koran 9: 5
There’s no such thing as “moderation” in religion
I also find Standing’s closing paragraph to be unintentionally patronising to Muslims by applauding them for their liberal approach. It is like praising a Roman Catholic for admitting that he does not really believe that the Pope is infallible, which shows Standing’s position to be intellectually untenable.
Those passages about insolent children and homosexuals being stoned to death are as canonical as love thy neighbour as thyself. Religious moderates simply apply their humanistic morality to ignore those unsavoury passages on the grounds of the “context” in which they were written. However, they do not have the courage to admit to it. And Christians, please don’t tell me that Jesus rescinds the barbarism of the Old Testament, because he doesn’t. If anything, the New Testament ramifies much of the Old Testament with Jesus beginning the Sermon on the Mount that he has “not come to abolish the law and the prophets, but fulfil” and “Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” (Matthew 5: 17 – 18).
I have to concede that religious moderates are far better than religious extremists. They are not blowing themselves up in marketplaces or flying planes into buildings. However, one of the most startling ideas to have come from the New Atheists is that religious moderates are actually fuelling fundamentalism by creating a taboo of criticising religious faith as much as social and political ideas. The Christian dogma that Jesus will return to Earth trailing clouds of glory and judge humanity for 2,000 years of sexual indiscretion may be a ridiculous belief to a non-believer (and certainly a promise that is long overdue!) but it would not on its face appear to be a mandate for extremism. Until you realise that there are fundamentalist Christians hard at work in the Middle East attempting to incite Armageddon among the warring factions to bring about the return of their Messiah.
In a recent Intelligence Squared debate I attended featuring Richard Dawkins and A C Grayling, theist panellists Charles Moore and Richard Harries denounced “mad creationists” in response to a question I asked. Fair enough, but are their beliefs regarding the resurrection and the Second Coming any more rational? Surely these involve scientific claims regarding the decomposition of corpses and human flight without the aid of technology. Why shouldn’t we laugh at them when they espouse these beliefs? If Harries was so offended by Dawkins’ comparing the likelihood of the existence of the God of Abraham with leprechauns, he should have spent the rest of the evening defending the claim that Almighty Zeus sent his only begotten son Perseus to Earth via a virgin birth to rid humanity of Medusa and the Kraken, and then he would have realised how much we – believers and atheists alike – really respect religious claims.
I know that Lord Harries is not a creationist. Indeed, he has supported Richard Dawkins in the fight against creationism entering school science classes. I am sure he doesn’t take stories such as Noah’s Ark and Sodom and Gomorrah literally and thinks that there is a link between metrological and seismic phenomena and human morality. Doubtless he disagreed strongly with his colleague in the Church of England, the then Bishop of Carlisle, who’s verdict on the July 2007 floods in Northern Yorkshire was that they were divine retribution were punishment for homosexual marriage. But if Harries ever said or wrote in public condemnation of the Right Reverend Graham Dow’s decidedly Old Testament take on the bad weather, I have yet to discover it.
If the moderates do not police their religions, then the atheists will be forced to.
Accordingly, I am not prepared to say that a world inhabited only by religious moderates would be a much better place. That can only be possible in a world with no religious believers at all, moderate or extremist. Whereas many Roman Catholics may feel uncomfortable with the thought that their Church is lying to people in AIDS ravaged countries in Africa, where around 3 million people a year die of the disease, by preaching the sinfulness and ineffectiveness of condoms, they are inadvertently contributing to the problem by creating a climate in our public discourse that makes it impossible for the Vatican to receive the same level of condemnation that a US president would receive for getting a blow job in the Oval Office.
Moderate atheists and agnostics: more annoying than believers!
I’m an atheist butters like the philosopher Michael Ruse infuriate me more than liberal theologians like Alister McGrath. Ruse accuses Dawkins of being a poor philosopher and not taking the arguments for God existence seriously enough, but ultimately he agrees with his position on the existence of God. This is rather like someone in the 1930s saying that while they disagree with Nazism and do not accept the claims of Mein Kampf, they nonetheless respect National Socialism, appreciate its nuances and feel that only a proper and sincere engagement with Nazi philosophy could overthrow Hitler’s regime.
In contrast to Standing’s tolerant approach, my hand-to-throat response was demonstrated by my reaction to a recent edition of Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable? Christian apologist to Muslims, Jay Smith, debated Muslim moderate, Muhammad Al-Hussaini, on the Ethical Guidelines for Christian and Muslim Witness in Britain (download PDF), in particular point 6: the requirement not to ridicule or demean other faiths. I am not the biggest fan of Jay Smith (!), however, the attempts by Al-Hussaini to portray the Koran as a moderate text made me even angrier; especially his quoting of “Let there be no compulsion in religion” at Sura 2 of the Koran. With my blood still very much up, I fired off a bile-laden email to the presenter and the participants:
[T]he verse constantly quoted from Sura 2 of the Koran by apologists eager to claim that Islam is a tolerant and pluralistic religion, “Let there be no compulsion in religion”, is followed a few verses later with the promise that all unbelievers will dwell forever in the Fire in the next life. There doesn’t seem to be anything optional about that preachment…
Although I am unimpressed by the gross hypocrisy and double-standards that Jay Smith employs when promoting his own religion over Islam, I agree that the Koran should be “ridiculed and demeaned” at every opportunity, because frankly I am insulted and offended every time someone tries to tell me that it is a miracle of literature that could only have been authored by an omnipotent deity.
As it happens, Al-Hussaini sent me a very civil and respectful response and probably didn’t deserve the full-on MSP treatment that he received. But the idea that Christians should respect a religion that ineptly plagiarises their own holy book was akin to historian Hugh Trevor-Roper’s reaction to the Rushdie affair:
I wonder how Salman Rushdie is faring these days under the benevolent protection of British law and British police, about whom he has been so rude. Not too comfortably I hope… I would not shed a tear if some British Muslims, deploring his manners, should waylay him in a dark street and seek to improve them. If that should cause him thereafter to control his pen, society would benefit and literature would not suffer.
As Ibn Warraq rightly pointed out in Why I Am Not A Muslim:
Will that “closest hooligan” Trevor-Roper wake up from his complacent slumbers, when those “poor hurt Muslims” begin demanding the withdrawal of those classic Western literature and intellectual history that offend their Islamic sensibilities but must be dear to Professor Trevor-Roper’s heart?
In conclusion – a pragmatic means but far from an end
While Standing may well agree with much of what I have written in principle, he knows that religious faith is not going to be eradicated within our lifetimes and is prepared to play real-politick and endorse religious moderates even if it means making an ideological trade-off. I certainly see the practical sense in this, but for once I am thinking with my gut and am not yet prepared to compromise my philosophy. This is one example where integrity is everything for me. Standing’s approach’s is scarily reminiscent to the “you’ll never get rid of it” line taken by many of the Four Horseman’s atheistic opponents such as Ruse.
And of course if you start thinking like that, you never will get rid of religious faith. Ever.
Tags: Al Qaeda, Centre for Social Cohesion, christopher hitchens, Danish cartoons, Detroit airport bomber, Ed Husain, edmund standing, Equality Integration Diversity, Ethical Guidelines for Christian and Muslim Witness in Britain, extremism, extremists, Fire, fundamentalism, Gehenna, Graham Dow, Harry’s Place, hell, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Ibn Warraq, islam, Islamism, Johann Hari, John Calvin, July 2007 North Yorkshire floods, koran, letter to a christian nation, LIM, Michael Ruse, Muhammad Al-Hussaini, muslim, predestination, premier christian radio, Prophet Muhammad, Qur’an, religious moderates, Report, richard dawkins, Salman Rushdie, sam harris, Shakil Rehman, The BNP and the Online Fascist Network, The Christian Muslim Forum, the end of faith, the god delusion, The Islamist, The Satanic Verses, Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab, unbelievable, underpants bomber, Why I Am Not a Muslim