The promised post: inevitably anticlimactic

05 Feb

At last I am writing that promised post linking Arthur, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the latest bit of right-wing European pop anti-Islam, and, for good measure, a couple of rather hideous rather challenging*** women from the central west of NSW. Needless to say the post cannot fail but to be shallow.

First, I do feel for the Archbishop of Canterbury who is generally speaking one of the good guys in the religious world. You can tell that by the way fundamentalists tend to despise him. I am not, I must add, an Anglican. Lately he delivered a lecture that was subsequently reported in the press; Arthur gets into this because he listed the Times version of the story in one of his collections of feral religious manifestations. (See previous entry.) This is what the Archbishop actually said.

Briefly, my points have to do with two aspects of the question.  The first is the way in which discussion of these matters has so often been conducted in complete abstraction from considerations of what is socially desirable or constructive; the second, related to the first in obvious ways, is the isolation of the discussion from the realities of cultural and political power in various contexts in our world.

On the first, Richard Webster, in his immensely intelligent and independent essay on the Rushdie affair, observes that absolute freedom of speech is not in fact either a possible or a desirable state of political affairs.  The fact is that ‘in the real political world which we all perforce inhabit, words do wound, insults do hurt, and abuse – especially extreme and obscene abuse – does provoke both anger and violence’ (Webster, p.129).  An abstract discussion of free speech, in which, to quote Webster again, no distinction is made ‘between the freedom to impart information and the freedom to insult’ (ibid.), is in effect a strategy which isolates the would-be ‘blasphemer’ from the actual historical and interpersonal constraints which secure a reasonable level of civility in human society (after all, we do restrain freedom of speech by laws about libel and slander).  The creation of avoidable resentment, never mind avoidable suffering, does not seem like a positive good for any social unit; and the assertion of an unlimited freedom to create such resentment does little to recommend ‘liberal’ values and tends rather to strengthen the suspicion that they are a poor basis for social morality and cohesion.

That is not a fair conclusion, but it is equally not a surprising one, given the way the argument has gone (and Webster – who is not a religious believer of any kind – offers some extraordinary examples of ‘liberal’ aggression and ignorant bigotry in his account of the reactions in 1989 and 1990 to the furore over the fatwa against Rushdie).  What this analysis obliges us to think about is some of the things which much of the classical liberal case for freedom to offend takes uncritically for granted.  It assumes, for example, that any pain caused by offensive language or behaviour is so superficial as not to be significant; if you feel hurt, wounded, by abuse, it is a mark of undue or even immature sensitivity (‘Grow up!’ ‘Get used to it’).  Furthermore, to pick up a regular defence of the admissibility of anti-religious abuse, it is commonly said that since a religious believer chooses to adopt a certain set of beliefs, he or she is responsible for the consequences, which may, as every believer well knows, include strong disagreement or even repugnance from others.  But this assimilation of belief to a plain matter of conscious individual choice does not square with the way in which many believers understand or experience their commitments.  For some – and this is especially true for believers from outside the European or North Atlantic setting – religious belief and practice is a marker of shared identity, accepted not as a matter of individual choice but as a given to which allegiance is due in virtue of the intrinsic claims of the sacred.  We may disagree; but I do not think we have the moral right to assume that this perspective can be simply disregarded.  Both the dismissal of the possibility of actual mental suffering and the assimilation of belief to a matter of choice reflect a worryingly narrow set of models for the human psyche – or, in plainer English, a lack of imagination…

Without necessarily endorsing everything the Archbishop says, I do think it is a serious contribution to a paradoxical issue and stands in mark contrast to the blithe and thoughtless provocativeness of people, usually on the extreme right, such as that Dutch politician cum film-maker getting so much carefully orchestrated attention as the date of his movie release draws near.

Reading the Quran again lately I found much — one example is in the previous entry — that enables me to see the attraction, much that accords with an interfaith perspective. At the same time what the Quran asserts again and again is that it is a certain path, and that tends to attract the malign as well as the benign in us. Clearly the former Cat Stevens, alluded to also in the previous entry, was drawn into Islam because he craved that sure path, and for him it has worked, I would argue, in a benign rather than malignant direction. He will hate my saying this, but my conclusion is that is because of who he is — not a pop star, I mean, but an essentially decent person. Unfortunately (or sometimes fortunately) our God is often ourselves writ large. Mine too, probably.

I read the Quran and see intertext, and of course orality. But then since I do not regard God as the actual author of any infallible scripture I am predisposed to see it that way. It is quite obvious that the Quran has drawn on many preexisting traditions, or that the Prophet did; in fact the book virtually admits this time and again, its claim being that it is correcting as well as appropriating those earlier traditions. Whether you accept that is I suppose a matter of faith, at least the part about correcting. The appropriation really is a fact, just as I (without deliberately offending Mormons) find the Book of Mormon to be a work of 19th century fiction that appropriated certain expressions and tropes from the type of Christianity in which Joseph Smith had been saturated. The Quran, objectively, is a more authentic text than the Book of Mormon whose very origins have to be taken on trust, all trace of any history of that book having been obliterated. The Bible, almost everyone admits, evolved over a very long period, is a collection and not a book, but at least has a lineage that can be traced as well as, often rather better than, other ancient texts of the Mediterranean and West Asian worlds — the only world that either the Bible or the Quran show any familiarity with. Like all texts the Bible and the Quran are cultural and historical products. Neither of them offers a complete and guaranteed insight into the mind of God, no matter how much believers have wished this were so, unless, to be quite frank, God is suffering at times from very severe mental illness that manifests itself in such ways as an unhealthy preoccupation with foreskins and the more than occasional endorsement of genocide. There is little dreadful that you can cite from the Quran that is not paralleled in the Bible.

A good example of the malign effects of the quest for certainty will be shown on ABC tonight: Jihad Sheilas. The link there is to Rob Baiton, an Australian in Indonesia; his entry is worth repeating.

…The documentary focuses on two Australian women both from rural New South Wales; Dubbo and Mudgee respectively. These are not the two country towns that you might think of first as being hot beds of radical Islam or for that matter being very much anything associated with Islam.

But Rabiah Hutchinson of Mudgee is known as the grand dame of extremist Jihadis in Australia. Quite a claim to fame for Mudgee. What stirs the pot most are her statements that she has little or no sympathy for the victims of the Bali Bombings because Australian tourists go their for drugs, sex, and to commit pedophilia.

The Indonesian connection is not the lack of sympathy for the victims of the Bali Bombings but rather the fact that Rabiah learned her Islam from Abdullar Sungkar and Abu Bakar Bashir of Jemaah Islamiah fame. She apparently married the Australian head of Jemaah Islamiah in the 1990s. The other, Raisah, openly supports Osama bin Laden as someone who follows a pure undiluted form of Islam and his actions have awoken Muslims to the oppression that they were suffering at the hands of non-believers.

I look forward to being able to watch the whole documentary to properly critique it. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating link between Australia and Indonesia that I had not known of previously.

The lack of sympathy because of the suggestion that Australian tourists engage in pedophilia and take drugs is taking a broad brush and labelling all the same. If one generalizes in a manner such as this then they can hardly complain when the same things happens in reverse where people label all Muslims as radical fundamentalists.

Both of these are generalizations that simply cannot be sustained. Not all Australian tourists are pedophiles or drug users and not all Muslims are radical fundamentalists. It is high time we got past these generalizations and started addressing the future.

Very true, and the way we do address these concerns brings us back, surely, to a serious consideration of what the Archbishop of Canterbury was saying.

There is another point to make, and that is that whatever our beliefs we have to face the fact that a very large part of the world consists of believers, and a very large number of those believers are Muslims. Somehow we and they have to become pluralist and relativist enough to get along. That strikes me as the only way, in the end. That said, as far as Muslims are concerned, they have their own conversation going on about that. It is not for us on the outside to make that conversation harder.

If you search here under Islam you will find I have alluded to that conversation before. Here is just one voice from inside the camp:

Science can prosper among Muslims once again, but only with a willingness to accept certain basic philosophical and attitudinal changes—a Weltanschauung that shrugs off the dead hand of tradition, rejects fatalism and absolute belief in authority, accepts the legitimacy of temporal laws, values intellectual rigor and scientific honesty, and respects cultural and personal freedoms. The struggle to usher in science will have to go side-by-side with a much wider campaign to elbow out rigid orthodoxy and bring in modern thought, arts, philosophy, democracy, and pluralism.

Respected voices among believing Muslims see no incompatibility between the above requirements and true Islam as they understand it. For example, Abdolkarim Soroush, described as Islam’s Martin Luther, was handpicked by Ayatollah Khomeini to lead the reform of Iran’s universities in the early 1980s. His efforts led to the introduction of modern analytical philosophers such as Karl Popper and Bertrand Russell into the curricula of Iranian universities. Another influential modern reformer is Abdelwahab Meddeb, a Tunisian who grew up in France. Meddeb argues that as early as the middle of the eighth century, Islam had produced the premises of the Enlightenment, and that between 750 and 1050, Muslim authors made use of an astounding freedom of thought in their approach to religious belief. In their analyses, says Meddeb, they bowed to the primacy of reason, honoring one of the basic principles of the Enlightenment.

In the quest for modernity and science, internal struggles continue within the Islamic world. Progressive Muslim forces have recently been weakened, but not extinguished, as a consequence of the confrontation between Muslims and the West. On an ever-shrinking globe, there can be no winners in that conflict: It is time to calm the waters. We must learn to drop the pursuit of narrow nationalist and religious agendas, both in the West and among Muslims. In the long run, political boundaries should and can be treated as artificial and temporary, as shown by the successful creation of the European Union. Just as important, the practice of religion must be a matter of choice for the individual, not enforced by the state. This leaves secular humanism, based on common sense and the principles of logic and reason, as our only reasonable choice for governance and progress. Being scientists, we understand this easily. The task is to persuade those who do not.

But crude Islamophobia from some self-publicising European Rightist helps not one bit.


Arthur has returned to the Archbishop’s views here: Rowan Williams, you do not have the right not to be offended. He has also given me a wrap here: Quote of the week: Barack Obama**. Between the Archbishop and Barack Obama there is probably a reasonable position for people of faith, even those faihfully atheist. 😉 I still think the Archbishop is in large measure on the side of the angels, which means almost inevitably he will be sniped at from all directions…

I have added some examples of the "left" evangelicals to the VodPod on the right… (Paradoxical as that sounds.)

RELATED leads to some relevant entries, mostly from 2006.

** When I logged in to WordPress at 7 pm today I saw that Arthur’s post was one of the WP top posts at that time. Glad to have helped, Arthur. 🙂

*** Well, now I have seen that documentary, which in itself was a very good one. Strange that ferocious ex-Catholics sometimes gravitate to some other extreme position. I also found my more than distrust for the search for "pure truth" or "pure religion" confirmed, whatever form it might take. It seems to be too much for humanity to bear, and under it is a weird mix of hubris — as if we can achieve such an aim! — and vulnerability. Unless Nobodaddy makes himself known to me in minute detail life is meaningless. Yet the documentary did present two individual human beings, and it has to be said the opposed experts were just about as, if not more, robotic. All very challenging.

See ‘Jihad Sheilas’ speak out. Somebody will probably YouTube it, but it hasn’t been done yet.

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Posted by on February 5, 2008 in challenge, Christianity, faith, interfaith, Islam, pluralism, religion


3 responses to “The promised post: inevitably anticlimactic

  1. arthurvandelay

    February 5, 2008 at 5:53 pm

    The Archbishop’s heart is in the right place–I don’t think anybody can deny that. But he conflates sorely needed criticism of bigoted rhetoric (be it anti-Islam, anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, anti-secularist, etc.) with the manifestly unnecessary outlawing of such rhetoric.

  2. ninglun

    February 5, 2008 at 6:48 pm

    Thanks, Arthur. The bit I put in bold does name the problem, I think, and I really am unsure about the best way to address it. The cost of getting it wrong is really very high, whichever way you read it. I was aware of that even in writing this post which would no doubt offend quite a few people in all the Abrahamic traditions, perhaps especially Mormons!

  3. Rob Baiton

    February 27, 2008 at 4:32 am

    Don’t know how you found me, but thanks!

    I was surfing the net and that is how I found this entry…I will link to you so that I can keep coming back…

    An interesting and enjoyable read!

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