Tag Archives: Islam

To understand the politics of Islam you must look at its history

Islam has become one of the hottest topics in politics worldwide.  And yet the religion is little understood by non-Muslims. Instead ill-informed narratives gain currency, even amongst the better educated. It is a hard subject to get a grip on, but BBC Radio 4’s The World This Weekend, on Sunday broadcast an excellent item on combating Islamic State (IS). Each of the three introductory interviews was illuminating, but that with Washington Islamic history expert Haroon Mughal made things a lot clearer to me.

As with most areas of current politics, we need to get a historical perspective. Most educated people will know that Islam has two main denominations, Sunni and Shia, which arose from a split in the 7th Century over who was the prophet Mohammed’s successor as caliph. That, of course, remains an important fault-line, as followers of the two sects (and variations within) are intermingled in Iraq, Syria, Lebenon, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and Yemen, to name the main hotspots. The split may be compared to the Christian split between Catholic and Orthodox, but geographically it is much messier. Apart from in Iran and, to a lesser extent, Iraq Shias are in the minority – but they are politically more coherent because there have reasonably clear hierarchies and, perhaps, they are used to a greater level of challenge.

The Sunni realm too used have clear hierarchies and orthodoxies, sponsored, in early-modern times, by the Ottoman Turks, who held sway across most of it; there was even a (nominal) caliph, until the Ottoman Empire fell in 1922. But this orthodoxy was subject to challenge, and a Reformation of sorts took place in the 18th Century, led in particular by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Like the Christian Protestant Reformation, it urged a back to basics creed, that rejected the corrupt ways that orthodox Sunni religion was practised. There are two key things to know about Wahhabism, which is now the orthodoxy in Saudi Arabia. It emphasises the separateness of true-believing Muslims; others are condemned to hellfire and not worthy of consideration. The second is that it takes inspiration from the customs of early Arab days, most notably in its strictures on sex, women and crime.

Mr Mughal’s critical insight was that, unlike for the Christian Reformation, there was no Counter Reformation – a reinvigoration and counterattack by the orthodox. At this time the Ottomans were on the wane, and the orthodox structures were too weak to mount such an effort. That leaves a vacuum at the heart of Sunni Islam. There is a huge amount of scholarship which can be used to counter Wahhabism, but efforts to do so are weak and disjointed. Imams tend not to be up for the sort of intellectual challenge required. Meanwhile the Wahhabists have a clear message and are expanding their appeal. The ground has been prepared through official Saudi sponsorship of mosques and schools, which has spread throughout the world, and undermined orthodox teachings. Now more sinister forces are promoting Wahhabi ideas to the disaffected, in ways that a re socially corrosive.

There are two important groups of Wahhabist derivatives, both of which have a clear political agenda, that some refer to as “Islamism” . There are the violent ones (I don’t want to call them “Jihadis”, since it is important to preserve non-violent aspects of jihad, just as there are non-violent uses of “crusade”, a very similar idea), promoted by terrorist movements like al-Qaeda and IS. They have a millenarian interpretation of the scriptures: that the end of the world is nearing. They extend the Wahhabist ideas of separateness to the practice of violence against non-believers, not least Muslims that do not share their binary world view.  There are enough sacred texts and historical episodes from Islam’s formative years to allow a coherent narrative – even if their practices go against a mass of Islamic scholarship. This narrative of violence has a clear appeal to the disaffected looking for some kind of heroic way out of their dead-end lives. The second group is known as Salafists; they share much of the millenarian credo of the terrorists – but they are non violent. They advocate the withdrawal of believers from any non-Islamic political structures. Salafists are much more numerous than the terrorists, with a lot of strength in Egypt and Tunisia, but their doctrines of withdrawal reduce their political weight. Some politicians have tried to play them off against the terrorists, since they are able to argue the case for non-violence from a Wahhabist perspective. But this serves to entrench the basic, and socially corrosive, ideas of Wahhabism.

The critical question is whether orthodox Sunnis can organise themselves into putting together a vigorous, international counterattack on Wahhabism, and to win back the battle of ideas. The hope is that a confident, cosmopolitan orthodoxy can be established that offers a middle way between a godless  materialism that denies Islamic heritage, and the backward looking ideas of Wahhabism. This seems to be what Mr Mughal was advocating.

But such a Counter Reformation faces formidable challenges. The first comes from political power. One group that would love to promote such a “respectable” version of Islam are the military backed regimes of Arab countries, like Egypt. And yet the incompetence and corruption of these regimes is one of the things that gives the Wahhabist creeds a lot of their appeal. Any Counter Reformation has to keep its distance from such willing official sponsors. Another challenge, of course, is the rejection of Saudi sponsorship; we may hope that low oil prices will reduce this malign influence.

But the biggest challenge surely is to develop ideas that are compatible with the modern, cosmopolitan world. This means rejecting the paternalism of the current order -allowing young people more freedom to consort with the opposite sex and choose their own marriage partners, and to offer women more freedom and power all round. To say nothing of more tolerant attitudes to gay sex. This is a huge jump for many, older Muslims. To them the paternalist ways are something worth fighting for, and their religion is bulwark against dissolute modern ways.

Is their anything to learn from what has happened to Christianity? In Europe established churches are fighting a losing battle with materialism. They cannot find a viable middle way between an empty modernism and being perpetually behind the Zeitgeist. They remain the standard bearers for socially conservative values – which is perhaps why they have a strange obsession with sexual morals. This has parallels with modern Islam.

Still, in America it is a different story. Somehow American churches are able to find compatibility between traditional beliefs and the modern world. We may associate them with conservative strictures on abortion and gay sex, but they have moved on in the question of love and marriage, and the empowerment of women. American churches are fragmented and highly competitive. They have no choice but to adapt to the modern world, or else they will lose out to neighbouring churches, constantly juggling a mix of social conservatism and modern values. To my knowledge Muslim imams and mosques haven’t taken on such a competitive approach – but I don’ think there is any institutional barrier to it. This bottom-up way offers more hope, surely, than some kind of top-down institutional one based on learned scholars and high level conferences.

But, assailed by an ultimately futureless and destructive Wahhabism on one side, and the temptations of godless materialism on the other, orthodox Sunni Islam must change itself somehow.


The Arab world must find its own way

Two weeks ago I wrote a long essay on Israel, which focused mainly on the Israeli government and its wider network of support. But Israel is simply an actor in a wider drama centred on the Middle East. Today I want to look at this wider drama, and to focus on the Arab world. That is because this drama has drawn in the Western democracies, and we need to see a bigger picture. My main message is that we must find a way of stepping back, and letting events take their course, apart from clear humanitarian interventions.

Who are the Arabs? The narrow definition encompasses the native peoples of the Arabian peninsula, and their descendants, such as the Bedouin tribes that are scattered across a wider area. But I will opt for the wider version, for whom the Arabic language and Islamic religion are the defining characteristics. These are spread across North Africa from Morocco to Egypt, and then through “Greater Syria”, which includes Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine, and then, of course, the Arabian peninsular.

The heyday of these Arabs was an era that I will loosely call the Caliphate, when, in the Middle Ages the Arabs could claim to be the centre of the civilised world. They constituted an empire ruled by people who could trace their succession back to the great Prophet. This empire collapsed, most notably with a Mongol invasion and the sacking of Baghdad in 1258. In due course the Arabs came to be ruled by the Turkish Ottoman empire. This empire weakened progressively through the 19th Century and finally collapsed in the First World War. It was replaced by period of European colonialism of varying degrees (deep in Algeria, largely absent in the central Arabian peninsular). The modern era begins as this colonial rule was shaken off, but succeeded by a series of states whose boundaries were defined by the colonial powers.

Things have not gone particularly well for these countries in this modern era. In spite of their great inheritance, their economic development has lagged. While they do better than the African countries south of the Sahara, Turkey and the European parts of the former Ottoman Empire have mainly done better. They have usually been ruled by strong men in highly paternalistic and corrupt regimes, with or without token references to democracy. Many have been marred by civil war, of which the worst were in Lebanon, Algeria, and, ongoing, in Syria. The western powers have been unable to resist the temptation to meddle, most egregiously with the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

These wars mark a struggle for identity after the Ottoman and colonial eras. This has two aspects in particular. The first is the obvious one that Arab countries want to become strong, prosperous countries, like their European neighbours – but have unable to do so largely through the ineptitude of their rulers. Some Arab countries are very prosperous, of course, courtesy of oil and gas resources. But high average wealth in these countries masks otherwise underdeveloped economies. This underdevelopment has caused frustration and a crisis of confidence.

Enter the second theme: the Islamic faith. The Arab world is not completely Islamic, but Islam is central to their identity. And so, with the failure of secular, nationalist dictatorships, Arab peoples have been drawn to an identity that is more explicitly based on their faith. Fundamentalist interpretations of the faith have been gathering momentum, marked by a return to traditional practices, such as the closeting of women and brutal punishments. Fundamentalism has been promoted by Saudi Arabia, using its oil wealth. This has been based on their highly traditional Wahhabism. But this has spiralled out of their control, as extremist groups, such as al-Qaeda and Isis have taken these ideas to a logical conclusion, but without reference to the Saudi state, which they regard as corrupt and hypocritical. I will call these groups Jihadis. We need to be a little careful here. The Christian equivalent of the Islamic doctrine of Jihad is a crusade. The correspondence between the two terms is rather good – conveying as it does anything from an entirely peaceful campaign to deal with mundane problems like litter, to a full-blown war. Jihad itself is a perfectly functional part of the architecture of Islam that has much positive potential. But not if it translates into eulogising violence, as the Jihadis do.

But the Jihadis are by no means the only form of militant Islam, and Wahhabism by no means the only fundamentalist one. Three other groups are worth mentioning. The first is based on the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement of Egyptian origin which includes Hamas, which rules Gaza and which is propagating war against Israel. This has its origins in the early to mid 20th Century. It has developed highly secretive practices, from generations of evading state suppression. This makes the movement particularly difficult for outsiders to grasp. One of the unfortunate aspects of this is that it impossible to take the statements of their leaders at face value. They have a long record of saying one thing and then apparently changing their minds – something which undermined their credibility when they briefly took power in Egypt under President Morsi. A further Militant movement is based on Shia Islam (all the rest are Sunni); this includes the highly effective Hezbollah in Lebanon. Shias are a minority in the Arab world (though a majority in Iraq), but they draw strength from backing by Shia (but non-Arab) Iran – and this movement is clearly well-led and effective. Finally it is worth mentioning Salafism, a Sunni fundamentalist (but not militant or Wahhabi) movement particularly strong amongst the rural poor cross North Africa. Salafists advocate a return to highly traditional Arab practices, but their methods are peaceful persuasion and politics, not the violence of the Jihadis.

Ranged against this assortment of fundamentalists and militants are the Arab strong men, who seem to be able to rally all those who fear the politicised Islamic movements. They make full use of state structures and institutions, like armies and secret police. By and large they remain in power. But at the cost of corruption, oppression and continued economic underdevelopment.

The problem for us as westerners is that there is almost no room for movements that we find congenial. Ordinary Arabs (to generalise absurdly) seem to see the western powers as part of the problem. Westerners seem both decadent and contemptuous of the Arab Islamic heritage. Their identification with Israel and colonialist days does not help. The fundamentalists see democracy as a means of seizing the reins of power, but not as a thing of value in itself. The strong men see democracy as in a similar but opposite light: a threat to their regimes.

So what are we supposed to do? The strong men are asking us for military support, because they brand the Jihadis as a terrorist threat to the West. They have support within our security services, for whom these militants are seen as the main enemy. And yet the Jihadi threat to the West seems to be diminishing. They gain little from their terrorist assaults in Western countries. They would rather their recruits came to the Middle East where the real war is being waged. Excessive Western involvement simply increases the flow of recruits. Now that our troops are finally pulling out of Afghanistan, the Western effort should mainly focus on propaganda – to show disaffected Muslims that these wars are brutal affairs that are not their business, and to persuade them of the opportunities they have as constructive members of our own societies. We need to move away from the idea of war. Funnily enough, the media savvy of Jihadis like Isis is playing to our advantage. It is easy enough to use their own material against them.

Is there hope? I think there is. As the Western powers withdraw, it is becoming clearer to Arabs that their problems are largely of their own making – and that a culture of victimhood, however much it is apparently justified, is getting them nowhere. Fundamentalist and militant Islam is step in the wrong direction. They need to forge a new understanding of the Islamic religion that is more workable in the modern world, but still confident of its heritage. One that embraces democracy, accepts diversity and celebrates the equality of women. We might call it liberal Islam. But we liberals have to be very careful. The Arab peoples need to feel that these ideas are a natural progression of the Islamic faith – and not an import. We can’t help them with that. Something like this a slowly taking shape in Tunisia, and we have to wish them well. I firmly believe that the tenets of Islam are susceptible to this form of interpretation.

The Western world must stand ready to provide humanitarian support for the inevitable series of disasters that the region faces. We should provide logistical support to any efforts that promote a peaceful resolution of conflicts. But we should back off from military interventions and seeing the Middle East as one front of a “War on Terror”. It will take time, but the Arab peoples really need to work this one out for themselves. And the sooner they understand that their fate is in their own hands, the sooner any resolution will arise.


Rethinking Liberalism 3: defeating intolerance

In my first two essays in this series about rethinking Liberalism, I kept to my comfort zone of economics. I concluded that we need to retain capitalism as part of a mixed economy, but that we need to develop the language of economics so that policymakers become less obsessed with crude productivity and growth. Now I want to step back and look at what troubles me most about our society, both in Britain and elsewhere: rising public intolerance.

In my personal bubble, as a white middle class citizen of British heritage, here in a smart inner London district, it is easy to ignore the problem, or even to deny that much of one exists. It just isn’t visible directly. My neighbours are easy-going. The parents and staff that I meet at the local primary school where I am a governor are very positive about taking a tolerant society forward, notwithstanding its ethnic and social mix. I witness easy interactions between people of different ethnic and national groups everywhere. This is all much better than in my youth.

But venture beyond this and things soon get darker. Take this cry of pain from Asian Lib Dem activist Kavya Kaushik, on the relentless hostility and rudeness she has encountered while canvassing for the party, directed not just at Asians, but East Europeans. This is consistent with what other ethnic minority writers have said; things are getting worse not better. Ukip has done well by tapping into this angst, especially in working class communities. Britain First, an intolerant Facebook grouping, keeps coming up on my newsfeed, and has nearly half a million “likes”. Jewish groups are under increasing fear of attack, exemplified by recent murders at a Jewish museum in Belgium. A recent opinion poll found a growing proportion of people admitting that they had racist views, although the Economist has tried to talk this down.

This phenomenon seems typical of the white working class. But it would be a mistake to think that it is only prevalent there. One of the nastiest media outlets is the very middle class and female-oriented Daily Mail. On a local forum this morning it was a nice middle class woman that drew a connection between a local rubbish dumping scam and the arrival of travellers locally (something that I am sure is baseless, judging by the person that tried it on us).

First a note of caution. I have been careful to use the word “intolerance” as being the primary issue, not “racism”. Intolerant comments are typically introduced by the expression, “I’m not racist but…”. Ukip, and the mainstream newspapers who also promote intolerance, are careful to avoid outright racism, without complete success in the case of Ukip. The flashpoints are cultural (Muslim dress code, for example) or over the impact of immigration on the availability of housing and jobs and the take-up of state benefits. And the intolerance is itself multi-ethnic. Some of the things that I have read an Islamic writer say on state primary education are totally inexcusable (“worse than a toilet, because at least after the toilet you can wash your hands…”). On being challenged by me, incidentally, this writer quoted the Daily Mail. But it all boils down to the same thing – and talking about racism obscures rather than clarifies the problem. And anyway ethnic intolerance is leading to intolerance of anybody who is different, such as benefit claimants, the upper or lower classes, gays and so on, and an orgy of scapegoating,  of politicians, bankers and anybody else you don’t know personally.

There is an optimistic way to view this. It is like the anger stage in the seven phases of grief – just a phase that society must get through on the way to becoming more tolerant – and the product of temporary economic tensions. But behind that optimistic view there lurks a nightmare. In the 18th Century the Enlightenment ushered in period of rising tolerance, and especially the integration of Jews to mainstream society. But from the middle of the 19th Century there was a backlash. And this backlash was no temporary phase. It grew and grew until it burst out into mass murder and destruction with the Nazis.

What lies behind the current rise in intolerance? There are two big phenomena, at least here in Britain. The first what I might call a Muslim backlash. This is a complex thing; it is mostly a peaceful but angry battle between conservative Muslims and the rest of society over things like mosques and dress codes. But it also inspires terrorists – and since the 9/11 attack in New York, these have been elevated by our security services to being the greatest security threat the country faces. This backlash generates its own backlash. The second thing is the mass immigration of East European workers since the end of the Cold War, and especially the entry of former Communist Bloc countries to the European Union. This has visibly disrupted job and housing markets.

But I think there is an even more important driver: the insecurities generated by the world’s headlong process of globalisation and technological advance, of which both of these are aspects. People are stirred by events in far-away places (such as Iraq and Israel); jobs are made less secure by the rise of developing world industries and automation; people are more inclined to change their country of residence for better economic prospects or a more conducive climate. This creates both physical and cultural insecurity, as well as economic advances. This is not unlike the situation that persisted in the 19th Century, which fuelled intolerance then.

So what should liberals do? Many mainstream politicians, Labour and Conservative alike, are seeking a middle path. They accept that immigration is a problem; they want to push minority groups to integrate better into the mainstream way of life. This includes promoting “British Values” in schools, which include “tolerance”, as  away of promoting universal human values while at the same time nodding to the intolerant appeal to Britishness (see Britain First).

I don’t think this is working. It just encourages intolerant attitudes. “We spoke up by voting Ukip,” they might say “and now at last they are listening. Let me speak some more.” The more politicians talk about immigration as being a problem, the more members of the public think it is OK to be intolerant. That may not be logical, but it does seem to be the way things work. And as for “British values”, the trap is obvious. What the public thinks this means (“no foreign cultures here like Islam”) is different from what the politicians think (“Accept Muslims as being fully British”). It’s all a bit “I’m not racist but…”.

Instead liberal, and Liberal, politicians should concentrate on three things: challenging intolerant attitudes, without the buts; developing broad-based community education; tackling the insecurities.

First is challenging intolerance. This means taking on people who say that immigration is destroying society, that Muslim communities are a threat, that benefit claimants are scroungers, and so on. This is more difficult than it sounds. Most mainstream politicians say the words, but destroy them with a “but”. “This society could not survive without immigration, but it has disrupted communities,” for example. Instead politicians should try and divert the blame for the society’s stresses onto economic insecurity following technological and global development.

Next is community education. Schools, especially primary schools, should be celebrated as places where different communities meet. Pupils should be taught about different religions, world regions and so on. Of course Britain’s own special story must be taught as part of this, but not in such a way as to promote narrow nationalism. And the school curriculum should embrace wide life-skills, such as dealing with people who disagree with you, and taking responsibility for you own fate, rather than always trying to blame somebody else. This is not rocket science. Many of our schools are already doing this. But it is difficult to see how this is compatible with the government’s programme of fragmentation of school management, driven by parental choice – and focus on narrow skills such as literacy and numeracy.

Finally we must tackle the insecurity that drives intolerance. This brings me back to economics, and I will develop my ideas on this in future essays. But in essence I think we need to look for stronger local economies, with stronger local governance – to balance the global dimension with a local one, at the expense of our current national focus.



Seeing with the eye of faith

A little while ago I blogged on the subject of Islam and the modern world, following the BBC series on Mohammed.  This included some rather dismissive comments about Christianity, which I contrasted with Islam in some rather unfavourable ways, at least with regard to consistency.  Unsurprisingly this annoyed a (Catholic) Christian reader, and we subsequently engaged in a prolonged Twitter conversation, mainly about the crusades.  Twitter isn’t a good medium to explain ideas, and I feel strangely compelled to explain myself properly, even though I am not going to persuade anybody to change their views.  My point is this: I hold my views on Christianity not through ignorance but through a lack of faith.  This has led me to rather a long post, taking me through my own Christian journey.

Faith is an important part of any religion – and any relationship in fact.  To be a Christian you have to subscribe to a whole series of beliefs which you take on trust.  It’s your membership subscription, or, more aptly, the club rules.  You believe these things because you are a Christian; you not a Christian because you believe in them.  Or mostly, anyway.  People will be drawn to the faith because they come to believe, through reflection or experience, in some critical parts of Christian gospel; they then take the rest on trust.  For me I was drawn to the faith in the first place because I believed in my church community and wanted to be part of it; subsequently I was overwhelmed by the truth and beauty of the message of love, forgiveness and redemption that came through in the Gospels and the early Epistles of St Paul.  I lapsed mainly because the burden of faith became too much to bear – the accumulated superstructure of doctrine.  In my heart of hearts I could not believe that God is a person who intervenes in the world beyond the workings of immutable natural laws; neither can I believe in any meaningful afterlife, certainly in the sense of heaven, hell, judgement and so forth.  But I am a secular agnostic, not an atheist.  I am sometimes moved to take Communion in a C of E church service, on the rare occasions that I attend.  It is not inconceivable that I will come back to the faith one day, provided I’m not pushed too hard on the infrastructure of beliefs.

I was brought up as a Church of England Christian.  Both my parents had a strong faith, and took a philosophical interest in it and we talked about Christianity a lot as a family.  My mother’s father was a canon and professor of divinity (at Oxford), though he died long before I came into the world.  Our house was full of religious books, and my mother, who had a degree in Philosophy, studied theology and comparative religion as a mature student.  Our church was rather High, in the jargon of the C of E, meaning that it liked a lot of traditional, catholic rituals.  The biggest controversy at the time (it was the 1970s) was whether women could be ordained to the priesthood – my parents strongly beleived they could, but some of our clergy did not.  At university (Cambridge) I fell in with a much more “Low” group in the Christian Union, associating with Methodists and Baptists.   Here the issues were mainly about how to interpret the Bible, with a strong fundamentalist faction.  I had something of an intense religious experience while meditating in a retreat, as the message of love seemed to explode out of the New Testament in a burst of light.  That experience remains with me still, but I started to lapse pretty much as soon as I began to live on my own in London.

Two experiences in particular stand out in as I passed over the invisible line between faith and agnosticism.  I attended one my local churches (St Mary’s Islington), and the preacher considered at length whether dancing was to be allowed under scriptural rules.  Although he came to the right answer so far as I was concerned (yes), I was appalled by the idea that talking about these sorts of rules was an important part of church life.  In a second instance I visited a packed evangelical service in Nottingham with a couple of university friends.  The preacher there was developing the theme that the Apocalypse was near.  One his arguments: “The price of gold has trebled in just a year [or some such statistic]: that means that the value of money has fallen by two thirds!” – to a chorus of approval.  This dates the story to about 1980, the last time the price of gold shot through the roof.  To me then, as now, this is utter drivel.  Ever since I have had a visceral hatred of the use of gold as a substitute for money.  But more the point I thought to myself: “Why do I have to put up with all this nonsense?”

And so my views of on Christianity became very detached, as I was liberated from the eye of faith.  I have come to see it as a very interesting human phenomenon, and not a process of divine intervention.  It is an outgrowth from the Jewish faith, promulgated by a few years of radical and inspring preaching by Jesus Christ.  Something strange happened on Jesus’s death; his followers became inspired to accept Jesus himself as divine, and to spread the religion further.  There were several strands to this outgrowth, but the most important to us in the west was that of St Paul, who took the message to the Gentiles.  The faith was the right idea at the right time and its popularity exploded.  It survived persecution, with its adherents apparently welcoming martyrdom.

But then it was adopted as a state religion by the Roman empire.  This was a major challenge.  Christianity was at heart a revolutionary creed, with some burning beliefs but with a certain lack of coherence.  Some of its beliefs, especially a very strong strand of pacificism, were inimical to running a state.  Gradually it had to be knocked into shape, and a series of doctrines were established to create an orthodoxy compatible with a state religion, starting with that of the Trinity.  In due course the great thinkers of St Augustine of Hippo and St Thomas Aquinas added to this process to create a coherent framework of doctrine.  This has subsequently been added to and taken away from both by the orthodox branches and various breakaways – the latter often trying to recapture the early Christian magic from the dead hand of the orthodox (that is Catholic and Orthodox) institutions.

These doctrinal systems may or may not be quite tidy, but they really do need the eye of faith to make them work, and the more so as time passes.  They are simply part of a process of divine revelation.  But without faith they just look awkward.  This awkwardness has two roots.  The first are the compromises required to get the cat back into the bag.  Monotheism is one of the most conspicuous casualties here.  The divinity of Christ was an early theological problem, and the Holy Spirit crept in too.  To this pantheon has been added the Blessed Virgin Mary and countless saints, to whom many Christians pray.  Of course Christian theologians offer a reconciliation of this pantheon to monotheism, but these sound very similar to any other defence of polytheism.  The contrast with Judaism and especially Islam is quite striking – though some Islamic sects (notably Shias) have blurred the difference by consecrating saints.

A further difficulty is that the doctrinal view is increasingly at odds with modern beliefs about the universe.  On my kitchen wall hangs a facsimile of the Mappa Mundi, the early medieval map in Hereford Cathedral.  The world is a flat disc, with Britain at the edge and Jerusalem at the centre.  Such a world view was quite compatible with the idea of God being a person, a bit like us, inhabiting a nearby world, and intervening in our affairs.  We can begin, perhaps, to understand the idea of Atonement, that “God so loved the World that he gave his only Son to be a living sacrifice”, which comes through from the very earliest Christian writings.  But now we understand the universe as being vast, which leaves this idea with a problem: either God is much bigger and more powerful than we thought in which case the idea of the son of god, and sacrifice, and indeed the whole concept of God as a person is impossible to get a handle on.  Or else God is much smaller than that, like The Authority in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, in which case it becomes impossible to offer him the respect the religion demands.

And the Crusades?  I am rather shocked that any modern Christians seek to defend them.  The intent, apparently was to protect and liberate Christians in Jerusalem (and elsewhere, for that matter).  This might be argued as an extension of self-defence.  But they have become associated with the slaughter of infidels, and many other crimes (such as the sack of perfectly Christian Constantinople).  These may or may not have been part of the intent, but it is quite futile to separate the “justifiable” bits from the crimes.  Christians do not do that sort of thing now – and Christian communities remain under attack in many parts of the world.  Violence begets violence; early Christians turned the other cheek.  It has allowed Muslims to convince themselves Christianity is something that it is not.  If you’re in a hole, stop digging.  Best to put it all down to a horrible mistake, based on values that we have long left behind.

Compared to Islam, Christianity is a chaotic muddle of a religion.  But in that muddle there remains a burning light, which the muddle, paradoxically, seems to magnify rather than diminish – that light burns more brightly for me than any equivalent understanding in the faith of Islam.



Islam and the modern world

We’ve just finished watching Rageh Omaar’s Life of Muhammad, although the BBC series finished a couple of weeks ago – the joys of the PVR.  In spite of a snarky piece in Private Eye, I really enjoyed it.  I probably know more about Islam than the vast majority in Britain, but this programme revealed how little I actually know.  And while being appropriately respectful, the programme did not shrink from posing many of the challenges made by people today.

Of course, the benchmark I measure Islam against is Christianity, about which I do know something.  Islam is clearly from the same family of religions, and like it sprang from nowhere to become one of the world’s great religions.  Unfortunately, since the programme focused on the life of Mohammed himself, we did not get much insight into how it took the world by storm, merely its eventual success in Arabia.

Islam clearly has many strengths against Christianity.  Its core narrative and doctrine is much better worked out.  Christianity is an accidental religion bursting forth from the teachings of Jesus over a very short period.  So there’s a lot of muddle at the heart, the doctrine of the trinity, the incarnation, virgin birth, and the idea of the Atonement, and so on.  Compared to this Islam is a model of clarity, with the overwhelming dominance of the one God at its heart.

Still, I had not appreciated that the Koran, the revelations of God’s word that came to Mohammed, built up over a period of quite a few years as the prophet struggled from crisis to crisis before his eventual triumph.  This leaves it with a certain amount of ambiguity, which is clearly a problem today.  What makes it worse is the idea that the Koran, as the direct word of God, is sacrosanct and incapable of being wrong.  This is an even harder doctrine than than the popular Christian one of absolute faith in their Book.

Two examples were discussed at some length in the programme.  First there was women’s dress, and the popular idea that Islam means that women should be veiled in public.  Several modern scholars popped up to say that this was not what Koran teaches, with the offending verses being both vague and explainable in context.  Set this against the absolute confidence of a fully veiled woman who believed that the more modestly she dressed, the more pleasing it was to God.  No number of urbane scholars were going to convince her otherwise.

Likewise the jihad doctrine behind terrorist movements like Al-Qaeda.  An even wider range of scholars was on hand to say that this was a misinterpretation of the idea of jihad, and that the killing of innocent bystanders was absolutely forbidden.  Again this had to be set against the conviction of a pair of young men that jihad exactly meant war against the infidel, supported by a blood-curdling looking verse from the Koran itself (which the programme flashed across the screen without reading out); they also had difficulty in accepting that there was such a thing as an innocent bystander.

This kind of irresolvable dispute is all too familiar in Christianity – consider the issues of homosexuality and women priests.   No amount of scholarship will help here, since the believers on either side feel the truth deeply in their hearts.  There is enough in the writings and doctrines of Islam to give terrorists and oppressors of women’s freedoms what they need.  But at the same time these are far from necessary implications of the faith.  In fact Islam is remarkably similar to Christianity in being a basis for all manner of good works and liberal ideas.

My understanding of Christianity is that it has a stronger pacifist element than Islam, though pacifism was not absent from Mohammed’s message.  It will, of course, be very difficult to persuade Muslims of that, given the wanton violence committed in the religion’s very name in the Crusades, and by many Christians since.  Indeed, it only recent political correctness that is taking the positive connotations away from the word “crusade” in the West.

Islamic scholars and imams clearly have a job on their hands in adapting their religion to the needs of the world around them.  But this is not an impossible task, as this wonderful religion, and the life of the great man its prophet, has all the required raw material.  We westerners should respect it more; the basics of Islam should be taught in all our schools, along with those of Christianity.  It is above all the sense of threat that drives so many followers of Islam into an extremist path.  We must reduce that feeling of threat, while standing up for women’s rights and peaceful coexistence.