A surfeit of moderation?

I’m not an islamophobe – at least I hope I’m not – but boy do some things about Islam really scare me. I want to understand these people, there are many things about them and their commitment that I admire, but they really do confuse me.

I live in Ireland and I cannot see any evidence of islamophobia here – they have their mosques, our President recently visited their splendid Islamic centre in Dublin and spoke very warmly and encouragingly to them. Significantly however, I thought, she encouraged them to try to help us to understand them more. We certainly need that help – and it is not always forthcoming.

Not many weeks before that address from the President I nearly choked on my Wheetabix one morning when I read a quote from a moderate spokesperson for the Islamic community here. He was talking about the experience of living in this country and how in general things were good for them. However at times, he said, things can get a little tense – like in the aftermath of the “incidents” in September, 2001 in New York and Washington, and the later ones in Madrid, London and Bali. “Incidents”? I looked again. Yes, that was the word he used. What, I asked, is going on in a mind like that? I can think of a thousand words which I would find to describe any one of those horrific atrocities before I would choose the word he chose. I wondered why – and I am still wondering. Does he really think these were mere incidents in the lives of ordinary people or is he using this word because he is looking over his shoulder to see who among his own people might be listening and weighing up what he is saying, finding it wanting in commitment?

To me there is still a huge question mark over the relative silence among what is described as the moderate Islamic world about the numerous “incidents” perpetrated in the name of the Islamic faith. There are those who deny that this has anything to do with faith but that is naive in the extreme. It may be a perversion of faith but if a 12-year-old boy is put on video slicing off the head of his enemy in a ritual execution, calling out at the same time, “God is great”, religion is at the heart of it. The Daily Telegraph reported: “The film, overlain with jihadi songs, then shows him hacking at the man’s neck, before exclaiming: ‘God is great!’ and hoisting the severed head by the hair.”

Where is the outcry? Why are there not statements of outright rejection coming from around the Islamic world? Why are there not mass demonstrations proclaiming “Not in my name and certainly not in God’s name do you do this”?

Nearer home this week we heard Scotland Yard’s Peter Clark, head of its counter-terrorism command, appealing again for help from within the Islamic communities in Britain to protect the British people against more terrorist attacks. Is the root of this reticence a tacit support for the terrorist or is it the effect of terror itself within these communities?

All this reminds me of an encounter with a student from Eastern Europe 30-odd years ago. He was doing post-graduate work here in Dublin. He was open and friendly in all things until it came to anything which touched on the politics or way of life in his own communist controlled country. He was not a communist but clearly he was afraid to say anything which might be negatively interpreted back home – and he wasn’t taking any risks that anything he might say should reach back home. It wasn’t that his life was necessarily at risk, but he certainly felt that his state-funded studies and his promising career back home were at risk.Militant Islam is an even more ruthless and lethal controlling agent than Communism ever was. That it draws on the great and inherently good power of religious conviction makes it even more lethal.

We must pity the unfortunate moderate Islamist who wants to practice a benign version of his faith. We might hope that one day the inherently false religion which is manifested in the malign version of the militants’ Islam will implode as Communism did. Do we hope in vain? Our hope would be stronger if we could see some of the courage among moderate Islamists that we did among the dissidents who helped contribute to the fall of Communism.

2 thoughts on “A surfeit of moderation?

  1. Andrew Quinn

    It seems a fair point about Islam but it is also a point which can be made just as strongly against christianity. Islamic terrorism is a hot issue and the main bogey man in our culture. However, no one I hope will doubt that the crimes and atrocities which have been committed in the name of our own creed and the different sects of christianity both in the present and in the past are just as serious a concern. Not so long ago in this country we had a dangerous culture of sectarian violence which was never condemned to the extent that it should have been. You mention the term “incidents”, I would list “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland as another euphemism that requires serious revision. Every moderate should feel shame and disgust that their church was so freely associated with punishment beatings and horrendous acts of terrorism over the 30 years that this tragedy was allowed to persist. We should be disgusted that the religious extremists who stoked the fires of this conflict are now in positions of power laughing and joking with each other, as if the tragedy they helped to prolong was a forgettable means to an end. We should be disgusted that the party which has been in power in this Republic of Ireland for the last ten years and counting is “The Republican Party”. Subtitling one’s party with a reference to the most harmful movement of the last century in this country is seemingly a sure way to get votes. We should be disgusted that Celtic football club, a byword for masked sectarianism, is (surprise surprise!) one of the most popular sporting franchises in this country. These are examples which are off the point somewhat but they represent the implicit sectarianism that bubbles underneath our culture in Ireland, and everyone who cheers along is culpable. I would like to say now exactly what muslims are accused of not saying. Not in my name.

    The fact that no one or at least nowhere near enough people in the muslim community seem to have come out strongly against terrorism could have many reasons, not least the reasons that people in this country had and continue to have for not letting their feelings known. One reason is that certain people in these communities may feel more benefit than injury from the results of militant Islam. Take muslim clerics, the equivalent of our clergymen. They don’t want to alienate the most unfortunate yet perhaps most fervent aspects of their community, those who feel that on some level these attacks are indeed perpetrated in their name and for the causes they would like to see addressed. I would say the fact that Sinn Féin represent most voting roman catholics in Northern Ireland is a situation that has parralels in the muslim communities where community figures are unwilling or unable to make their objections heard.

    Another reason, the most important reason, and the reason you stated, is the complete absence of courage on the part of those who could speak up and don’t. It is a disgrace, but it is no surprise, the whole world, including myself of course, has lost it’s moral fortitude, and it has been replaced by a false courage which consists in some very gung ho towing of the line.

    Islam is one of the forces that the west fears. We fear them because they, like all fundamentalists, are keen to remember the transgressions they feel they have suffered and are quick to punish those they see as responsible. Sunni Muslims still resent the stationing of troops on holy land in Saudi Arabia, the American-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention the west’s support for Israel. Such a person will always claim to have history on their side. I spoke recently to a man who visited my college, he had worked for Israeli intelligence and was a Zionist of powerful conviction. Whenever I would bring up an issue, take for example what I saw as the disproportionate and deplorable campaign of destruction that Israel waged against the people of Lebanon in the summer of 2006, he would simply come back at me with a prior incident of transgression by Hezbollah, Al Qaeda or some other group on the other side of the fence.

    In order to understand Islam we need to see history as both a factor to be taken extremely seriously and as a factor that we would like to one day overcome. This is a difficult task, and it is not one that is made easier by the actions of our quasi-allies in the United States. I won’t jump on the anti-Bush band wagon for that is the most clichéd position in this country, the thing about clichés though is that they are true. It is at least a credit to our country that we can say in the pubs “Not in my name George W”, even if that is not reflected in ballot boxes.

  2. Intersting points. But I doubt the assertion that the points made “can be made just as strongly against Christianity.” While not in any way disputing that in the past terrible atrocities have been committed by Christians and in the name of Christianity, no Christian today is in any serious doubt about the fundamental errors, either of human judgement or in Christian doctrine, made by the perpetrators of those acts.

    After eliminating those atrocities and injustices in which the real motives were greed, personal hatred, racism, political expediency etc – one might think of the judicial murder of Joan of Arc – we could look those events where genuine religious motivation was dominant. Such would be at the tragedy of the Crusades, the acts of the Inquisition, the wars of religion. In judging actions in the distant past, however, we have to adjust our vision to make an allowance for the moral sensibilities developed in us over centuries – largely through the teaching of the Church itself. In doing so we would not be mistaking the evil nature of the deeds done. We would simply be taking into account the circumstances of the times, the more basic moral sensibility of the protagonists and the fierce and primitive customs prevailing in societies very different from our own.

    If on the other hand we come to our own time and look at the sad recent history of this island and the atrocities which have been carried out by both sides – popularly identified with religious affiliation – we may think that there is reason to be disturbed. I think not, because in fact the identification of these two sides with true religion is fallacious.

    If, in a Northern Irish connection I am asked if I am Catholic or Protestant, I feel the need to clarify if the questioner is asking what my religious affiliation is or what my tribal affiliation is. I will generally seek a rephrasing of the question – do you mean am I a republican, an Irish nationalist or a unionist? I fact I am stone cold about republicanism at this stage, wanting nothing to do with those who have espoused that ideology, precisely because of the atrocities which they have committed in its name. That they have allowed themselves to be identified with my faith makes them doubly offensive. On the other two categories I would at best be described as ambivalent. However, I live in a republic and if I am not compelled to bend my knee to everything it stands for I can live with that.

    In the political and economic life of a people living as a community on a specified territory, what is important is the combination of freedom and good government. What a political system should ensure in this day and age for any community is a combination of self-determination, freedom and other human rights – as well as prudent regulation of economic forces and good administration of services. With those things in place the rest is mythology – be it republican, monarchical or whatever. To me the mythology surrounding a monarchic system is no more offensive that the mythology we have promoted around our republic. Indeed, I think it has a better understanding of itself as myth and is therefore much safer.

    All societies seem to have a need for mythology and if so, so be it. They are probably useful when maintained in a non-ideological way. Unfortunately that is not always the pattern. The ideology of republicanism led this country into an unnecessary war of independence and consequently into an even more bloody civil war. Our recent miseries are nothing more than the legacy of this same ideological folly. Home Rule and a – perhaps robust – constitutional struggle would eventually have given us everything we have today. The only unintended consequence which we benefited from as a result of the path we took was being spared embroilment in World War II, a practical if rather unheroic benefit.

    In the end of the day I would be much more relaxed and comfortable watching and identifying with the spectacle of a coronation or the changing of the guard than I am looking at various sects of republicans celebrating an unnecessary armed insurrection which led to the deaths of thousands. But to return to the main issue, none of this had anything to do with religion.

    When, however, we worry about the threat of Islamic fundamentalism in our world today we are not worrying about the past nor are we judging the Muslims of the past or the zeal with which they pursued the spread of their religion. We are worrying about a force which in many respects is now engaging in what might be the early stages of a third world war. We are worrying about a not insignificant movement which seeks to establish a world-wide theocracy, an ideology which we happily left behind in the middle ages, based as it was on a misunderstanding of the right and proper relationship between church and state, a misunderstanding of how Christ himself might, in practical day-to-day life, have gone about rendering to Ceasar what was Ceasar’s and to God what was God’s.

    This threatening Islamic ideology is already the dominant force in not a few states and there is no reason to assume that it may not do so in more. The conflicts in Afganistan and Iraq have multiple origins – and I do not deny that the supply of oil is one – but the question of basic political freedom is certainly another and more important one in the long term. These are the initial battlegrounds of a war which may become a much more devastating one. Victory will not be easy but victory is vital. The voice of moderate Islam still needs to be heard loud and clear on the question of how they see Ceasar and God working in harmony on this earth.

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