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February 20, 2008

On the Archbishop of Canterbury and sharia law: We need less religious privilege not more

The Church of England is commonly regarded as one of the most mild-mannered and innocuous of modern religious institutions. But its representatives seem to be making something of a habit of betraying this reputation. The latest wave of absurdity began with the Bishop of Carlisle, who following last summer’s floods explained that, “We are reaping the consequences of our moral degradation.” Elaborating further, the bishop cited the recent ban on businesses discriminating against homosexuals. If so, one rather wonders why the divine being aimed the deluge at gruff Yorkshire. Why not fabulous Brighton? Why not mincing Soho?

But it was the present Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who ultimately severed the Church’s already tenuous relationship with liberalism and reason. The incorporation of aspects of sharia law into British law was, he declared last week, “unavoidable”. Dispelling the possibility that this might have been a slip of the tongue, he declared that the idea that “there’s one law for everybody” was dangerous. Inevitably, Williams balked at “the kind of inhumanity” that sees women and homosexuals stoned in theocratic Iran and Saudi Arabia. But effectively he maintained that Muslims, and implicitly other religious groups, should be privileged with separate laws in areas such as financial and family matters. It was the fatalistic tone as much as the content that grated, and the short shrift that the major parties have given to Williams’ proposal reminds us that separate laws are by all means avoidable. Wrong in principle and unworkable in practice, this proposal deserves to be greeted with contempt.

The social cohesion that Williams apparently aspires to would be best served not by segregated laws but by a fully secular state. He is right to point out that English law allows individuals to reach their own settlement in front of an agreed third party, as existing sharia and Jewish rabbinical courts do, but he is wrong to argue that any formalisation of this is either possible or desirable. Islamic scholarship contains no fewer than five major interpretations of sharia law. Which is to be adopted? And on whose authority? Williams conspicuously ducked this issue. A secular state, which privileges no religion and protects all, is the most reliable means to integration. Believers who wish to change the law should democratically campaign to do so, as all free citizens can.

Secularists have long dreaded the persecution and bloodletting that the religious have historically inflicted on each other. But juxtaposed with this is a lingering fear that the faithful, notably those who regard Abraham as a common father, will eventually pool their resources in a common front against the secular. It is in this context that the Archbishop’s favourable attitude to what is, after all, a rival faith must be understood. One is reminded of Prince Charles, who upon his mother’s death will become Supreme Governor of the Church, and his professed wish once King to be known as ‘Defender of Faith’ not ‘Defender of the Faith’. Watch as House of Lords reform comes round once more and the Church, desperate to hold on to its coterie of unelected bishops, proposes that each faith should be awarded a quota of ‘representatives’.

At a time when a few courageous individuals have been brave enough to publicly form the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, (the Hadith prescribes death for apostates), Williams has given succour to Islamist patriarchs who may well cherish state legitimation for the right, maintained under all interpretations, to remarry while refusing their first wife a divorce. He has simultaneously pandered to the essentialist doctrine of the nationalist far right, who think British law only fit for white Anglo-Saxons, and that of the Islamist right, who seek outright sharia law. He should be removed from office as a prelude to the removal of his Church from the state.

Published in the Warwick Boar, 12/02/08

July 06, 2007

In Come The Apologias: Islamist butchers don't just hate our foreign policy, they hate us.

Once again prominent commentators have made it plain that for them the Islamist threat simply begins and ends with US/UK foreign policy.

The Guardian’s former Comment Editor Seumas Milne began his new column by stressing the Iraq War above all else. Similarly in this week’s New Statesman John Pilger, going out of his way to blame anyone but Islamists, trumps his claim that the bombs of 7/7 were ‘Blair’s bombs’ by declaring that the potential bombs of 2007 are ‘Brown’s bombs, too’.

Undoubtedly the Iraq War has been an extremely useful propaganda tool for Jihadists and has both widened and deepened the pools of sympathy they exploit. Yet the reductionist view which speaks of terrorism as an inevitable consequence of Anglo-American foreign policy is impotent both as a tool of analysis and as a political stance.

In the first point of his core analysis Milne argues that “If the bombers’ real focus was, say, sexually liberal western lifestyles, they would presumably be attacking cities like Amsterdam and Stockholm.” The choice of Amsterdam was a particularly unfortunate one given the onslaught against free expression waged by Islamists there. Film-maker Theo van Gogh lost his life at the hands of one of them in 2004 and the prominent atheist and feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali has been forced to flee to the United States after credible threats made against her life.

Milne’s reference to sexual liberalism as a false target was a most unwise one after the recent targeting of bombs at a London nightclub. In 2004 a virtually identical attack was planned on the Ministry of Sound and many an Islamist website proudly declared that the ‘slags’ and ‘sluts’ of London had it coming to them. Johann Hari pointedly noted this week that death-threats against him cite his homosexuality before all else.

In his piece John Pilger rightly lambasts Harriet Harman for voting “for an invasion that has destroyed the lives of tens of thousands of women.” “Some feminism” Pilger remarks, but he might have cared to also offer some words against those for whom feminism is a reprehensible ideology by definition.

Moreover, Milne’s essential point, that only those states waging war on Iraq have been targeted, is incorrect. Indeed, those states in the vanguard of opposition to the war are also in the firing line. Numerous plots to blow up the Paris Metro have been uncovered by French police, and more recently a plan to destroy German trains was foiled.

For his second point, Milne asserts that “it is only necessary to listen to what the bombers say themselves”. He points out that Bin Laden has consistently stressed the Western occupation of Muslim lands. Yet isn’t it strange how Milne and Pilger, normally so quick to unveil the ‘hidden agendas’ and false rhetoric of western leaders, nevertheless feel confident enough to take Jihadist leaders at their word? In any case, if Milne wishes to listen to the bombers, he might also care to turn his ears onto the reams of contempt for female independence, free expression and sexual freedom, twinned with dreams of Caliphate imperialism that seeps from their mouths. Milne quaintly refers to their “socially conservative ideology”, situating them somewhere towards the centre of the Conservative Party.

The bombers despise the West not just for the foreign policy that many of you reading may disagree with. They despise what liberals and leftists cherish most about their societies. Christopher Hitchens, writing nine days after September 11th, put this point more eloquently than any had before or any have since:

“Now is as good a time as ever to revisit the history of the Crusades, or the sorry history of partition in Kashmir, or the woes of the Chechens and Kosovars. But the bombers of Manhattan represent fascism with an Islamic face, and there’s no point in any euphemism about it. What they abominate about “the West,” to put it in a phrase, is not what Western liberals don’t like and can’t defend about their own system, but what they do like about it and must defend: its emancipated women, its scientific inquiry, its separation of religion from the state. Loose talk about chickens coming home to roost is the moral equivalent of the hateful garbage emitted by Falwell and Robertson, and exhibits about the same intellectual content.”

It is the ideology of Islamists that gives their discontent an acid twist which has evaded others. The unique, defining element of Islamist terrorists is not fury over the Iraq War. It is the belief that the murder of innocent westerners can be divinely justified when they are infuriated. Wars will start and end, and troops will return home. Yet in its totality the Islamist mind finds ever more targets be it the novels of Salman Rushdie, the work of Danish cartoonists, short-skirts or even Bill Clinton’s penchant for fellatio, cited by Osama Bin Laden in his 2002 “Address to the American people.” as ‘the worst kind of event’ committed by the US.

The history of US foreign policy is littered with oppressive and brutal actions. To cite but a few, in 1954 the US launched a successful CIA coup against the democratically-elected Arbenz government of Guatemala, in the 1980s the Reagan administration funded the hard-right Contras against the Nicaraguan Sandinistas and on September 11, 1973 the CIA propelled the imposition of Augusto Pinochet on Chile, casting aside the democratically-elected government of Salvador Allende.

But did the Chilean people, or any of the other suffering citzens of Latin America, ever respond by mounting bombing campaigns against western civilian centres? No, instead the courageous democrats and socialists of that country wrenched back control from the dead hand of fascism and recast Chile as the prosperous, success story of the continent. What a contrast with these clowns of Islam who do nothing to alleviate the global poverty that so many claim lies at the root of their grievances.

Of course, Milne and Pilger claim to be simply offering objective, clear-minded ‘analysis’ of Islamist terror. Yet their all-encompassing emphasis on the actions of Western governments is so disproportionate to the reality of the threat that they lapse into excuse-making. One expects more than just token mutterings, ‘Of course nothing justifies the murder of innocent civilians but…’, against the most reactionary people on the planet.

An illuminating comparison can be made with the waves of opprobrium which European far-right movements rightly still recieve from such commentators. This doesn’t preclude an analytical debate over the causes of their success or the grievances that they play on, but it does offer the verbal ammunition that such movements deserve. Yet following the logic of Milne we should point the finger at multiculturalism and our asylum obligations as the ‘root cause’ of the violence of BNP thugs. But in the wake of such an incident anyone whose first instinct was to castigate cultural pluralism as the ‘inevitable cause’ of white racist violence would be rightly hounded as an apologist.

The reality is that Milne and Pilger are unable to accurately conceive of an enemy which is not at root the fault of the West. For one who speaks stirringly of the power of human agency, Pilger grants none to the bombers. He cannot even bring himself to mention the word ‘bombers’ nor consider that the Islamist ideology which all the bombers share may be worth noting for future reference.

The pernicious phenomenon of sourcing all evils back to the West has been best articulated by Nick Cohen in his book What’s Left? Cohen is able to elucidate the bizzare lengths to which Pilger and his ilk will go to because initially in the wake of 9/11 he offered a more moderate but like reasoning. In November 2001 Cohen wrote that Blair “had pinned a large target sign on this country.”

However, by the time of this year’s book Cohen, with striking intellectual clarity and self-perception, conceded that “My pieces weren’t written in good faith. I wanted anything associated with Tony Blair to fail because that would allow me to return to the easy life of attacking him.” More powerfully he grasps in one short burst the essence of the impotence of Pilger and others against the Islamist foe.

As he puts it, “My instant reaction to the 9/11 attacks was that they were a nuisance that got in the way of more pressing concerns…Accepting that fascism is worse than Western democracy, even Western democracies governed by George W. Bush and Tony Blair sounds easy in theory, but it is very difficult to do in practice when you are a habitual enemy of the status quo in your own country.”

The monopoly that the faults of the West hold on Milne’s and Pilger’s intellectual resources and critical faculties should be broken. The failure to look Islamist terror in the face, forever forcing it through the distorting mirror of western foreign policy, can be tolerated no longer. The universal standards which Western states are rightly criticised for flouting through ‘extraordinary rendition’ are meaningless if not applied universally. And by those standards the pitiful but deadly bombers land right by the arse end of humanity which we must all push them back into.

March 06, 2007

Free To Offend

At Clare College, Cambridge, a student in hiding for his own safety, faces disciplinary proceedings for satirising religion in the student magazine; meanwhile in Paris a French magazine is in court, defending itself against a defamation charge brought by Islamic groups. The principle of free speech is once more coming under direct attack, with largely supine populations allowing superstition and hysteria to trump one of the defining principles of liberal society.

I have not seen the disputed edition of the Cambridge magazine Clareification, all copies having been recalled for destruction by the College. However, Cambridge News reports that the contents included a cropped copy of one of the cartoons depicting Mohammed, first published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, along with headlines such as “Ayatollah rethinks stance on misunderstood Rushdie”. The central charge, as in the case of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, which also re-published some of the cartoons, is one of ‘inciting racism.’ Race and religion are increasingly used synonymously with pernicious consequences. A clear distinction can be made between religion, a personal belief system and a matter of choice, and race, something unchanging and not chosen.

The fact that Clareification, specially renamed Crucification for that edition, also gave large space to an exploration of the inaccuracies and contradictions of Mark’s gospel would suggest that the motivation was to incite atheism, not racism. But as another Cambridge student writing for a New Statesman blog put it, ‘being anti-Christian or being accused of it…doesn’t have the stigma of being held to be hostile to Islam.’ Sacha Baron- Cohen as Borat will cloak himself in anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism for satirical and ironic purposes but you may have noticed that he won’t dare touch Islam.

Comparisons between anti-Islamic and anti-Semitic cartoons are inappropriate and muddle-headed. Anti-Semitic images target an ethnic group, regardless of the number following Judaism. Marx and Freud both defined themselves as Jewish despite being evangelical atheists. By contrast, Islam makes clear claims for universality, and as the advertisements for Islamic Awareness Week pointed out, is not defined by or restricted to any one ethnic group. It is true that a few ignorant individuals will take from the cartoons the idea that all Arabs are Islamist terrorists but this rationale, followed consistently, would leave us with an absurdly diluted and bland culture, any number of violent films could be banned for fear of inciting imitations. A charge of ‘inciting racism’ should only hold if the direct intention of the student and others can be shown to be the achievement of such ends. Needless to say, the cartoons remain pitifully simplistic and demagogic; there are far better ways to ridicule religion.

This leaves the lesser charge of ‘offence’ standing. The Union of Islamic Organisations of France, are suing Charlie Hebdo for “public insults against a group of people because they belong to a religion”. There is nothing unusual or wrong in taking offence, the new malevolence is the idea that being offended by someone can be used as a pretext to silence them.

The religious should be the most wary of using offence as a marker to limit free speech. The compelling irony is that those who wish to do just that are often those who themselves cause the most offence. Hypocrisy at best, at its worst this tendency falls into contradictions, which as in the case of Kissinger and the Nobel peace prize, deal a deathblow to satire. A banner seen at a British demonstration following the cartoons declaring, ‘Behead those who say Islam is a violent religion’, is yet to be rivalled. Muslims would do better to hold up a banner inscribed with the maxim famously attributed to Voltaire, ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ Thus recognising that the restriction of one person’s free speech sets a precedent that threatens many more.

A law against ‘religious hatred’ would be best understood as just that- a law referring to hatred from religion. Far more offensive than the cartoons was the response to them. Scandinavian embassies in particular, and European embassies in general, were pummelled with bricks and torched with fire, leading to the deaths of nine people. Christian churches in Pakistan and Nigeria, even with no European ties, were similarly burnt. When religious belief rises to such heights of arrogance, satire against it becomes not just desirable but essential.

Yet today condemnation of the cartoons is used to diminish, or even to apologise for the want-on violence that followed. Similarly, surely the fact that a student’s safety has been put at risk for holding an opinion is of greater concern than the opinion itself. It is unlikely that our own Students’ Union will offer him any solidarity but anyone who writes for the Boar, which recently reaffirmed its commitment to absolute free speech, should do so. Fierce disagreement with and a willingness to hear provocative opinions are not irreconcilable opposites; rather, they are the precondition of all rational thought.

Published in the Warwick Boar, 06/03/07

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