A rudderless ship on a treacherous sea

One of the many, many revealing things which historian Tom Holland brings to our attention in his important book, Dominion, (reviewed by James Bradshaw in last December’s issue of Position Papers) is the distinction between the secular and the religious which Christianity brought to our Civilization.

Properly understood, this distinction is embodied in Christ’s own words, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God, the things that are God’s.” Philosophically the great elaboration of this teaching is rendered to us by St. Augustine in his City of God, where the journey of humankind in this world is described in terms of our harmonious – or otherwise – engagement with the affairs of the planet in the Earthly City and the life of the spirit in the Heavenly City.

What this distinction does not mean, of course, is that these two realms do not mix and merge with each other. They do, but ultimately do so in the consciences of each one of us, either well or badly – a good conscience requires that our actions in one realm are at peace with our actions, beliefs and understanding in the other. If not, our lives will be on a short road to the horror of rank hypocrisy.

All of which brought me back to reflect on a book written about two years ago by Isabel Hardman, now assistant editor of The Spectator. Why We Get the Wrong Politicians is a worrying book. It places before us a picture which tells us that all is not well in the affairs and workings of the Earthly City. She wrote this book in the context of British political life but our own everyday observation makes it clear, however, that the malaise in that system is one which is mirrored in many if not most western democracies. Nor is it just the rise of what we rather lazily call “populism” which is at the heart of our current winter of discontent. That is just a symptom of the deeper problem infecting our political souls.

Hardman’s book is the fruit of more than two years research carried out largely in the heart of the mother of parliaments. Essentially, the concerns she raises about modern political life stem from the breakdown of that vital connection between the governed and the governing. This crucial element in the structure of a functioning political system has been damaged to the degree that it no longer seems fit for purpose. The challenge which Hardman lays before us now is that of finding a solution to this rift.

It is a good book, descriptive and anecdotal rather than severely analytical. Despite its provocative title, it is a very balanced and honest examination of the workings of British parliamentary democracy, a kind of limited version of de Tocqueville’s 19th century masterpiece, Democracy in America.

On the one hand the elected governors have to be wise enough and willing enough to address both the deficiencies in the system and the personal inertia which for decades – if not for the best part of a century – has prevented them from doing so to date. On the other hand, the governed have also to be wiser and more willing to appreciate the very nature and limitations of the system they expect to serve their common good. As a consequence they must demand integrity and better leadership from their politicians. .

Among the things she highlights as blighting the judgment of all those who are seeking – or who should be seeking – the common good in the earthly city is the debilitating phenomenon which we now call the “bubble” effect.

The Westminster Bubble, she tells us, was first identified in the late 1990s. It was a description of the tight community of politicians, researchers, think tanks and journalists around Parliament. “It has gained increasingly negative connotations as an insular community in which insignificant things seem enormous and the things that matter to everyone else are ignored. Bubble members are out of touch with the rest of the world, and their lack of understanding of the people they purport to represent leads them to make serious mistakes on a regular basis.”

It is this which is at the root of the distrust which so many now harbour about the assemblies of their representatives in many jurisdictions, including Ireland. Hardman observes that MPs are the least trusted professional group, surveys tell us – below estate agents, bankers and journalists – with just 21 per cent of Britons saying they’d trust an MP to tell the truth.

A YouGov poll Hardman commissioned for her book asked those who wouldn’t even consider standing for Parliament what put them off. Forty-one per cent of them said, ‘I don’t like politicians and the way politics works’, and 16 per cent said, ‘none of the main political parties reflects my views’.

This is serious and is, to an extent, a form of disenfranchisement. If 16 per cent is bad, think of the 30 plus percent of the Irish who now consider themselves disenfranchised. Over 90 per cent of Irish legislators passed an extremely liberal abortion law (they deny that it is extreme, of course) with the effect that the 33 percent who clearly opposed abortion in a referendum in 2018 now consider that they have no effective representation in parliament.

In the Irish context two major factors have produced this chronic dysfunction in that country’s political life.

The first is the fatal three-way nexus which characterises politics there. The system is essentially one where a group of, at best, marginally trusted parliamentarians, locked into a rigid party system, represents the people. In her book Hardman does a great job of describing how the “necessary evil” – de Tocqueville’s term – of the party system militates against genuine choice in the British system. It is even more limiting in Ireland.

That group is assisted in the work of government by a cadre of elite public servants – particularly in departments with a brief for social policy – seriously infected with the left-leaning ideology dominating the Irish universities in which they were educated. This elite has been perpetuating itself in that ideological image for decades. Both these elements in turn are manipulated by a media establishment of the same essential colour. This part of the machine cheerleads when things are going according to its ideological principles. When they veer off course, pressure is applied to bring them back by seeking to mould public opinion to the desired shape. This is done partly by the cultivation of a range of pressure groups driven by the self-same secular liberal principles.

The second factor behind this effective disenfranchisement is effectively the child of the first – the collapse of trust in anything said by any of the people in power within this nexus. Surveys of this trust factor don’t exist in Ireland – suggesting perhaps the extent of control which the protagonists in this story have over the narrative about themselves.

Almost twenty years ago the late David Foster Wallace summed up what he saw as a major factor behind the killing of political interest among the young in America. Guess what? It was distrust. Things have moved on inexorably since then but there is little doubt but that what America is now experiencing politically is the direct descendant of what Wallace drew attention to.

Wallace was commissioned by Rolling Stone magazine to cover the late Senator John McCain in the primaries for the US election of 2000. At that time McCain, rightly or wrongly, was the face of honesty in US politics. As such he seemed to electrify youth with a promise of integrity. Eventually his campaign was snuffed out by his party’s power-brokers, but before that happened Wallace explained McCain’s appeal in terms of his express commitment to telling the truth. McCain often finished his rallies with this refrain:

“I’m going to tell you something. I may have said some things here today that maybe you don’t agree with, and I might have said some things you hopefully do agree with. But I will always. Tell you. The truth.” (sic)

Wallace did not think it was that simple. “But you have to wonder,” he wrote. “Why do these crowds from Detroit to Charleston cheer so wildly at a simple promise not to lie? Well, it’s obvious why. When McCain says it, the people are cheering not for him so much as for how good it feels to believe him. They’re cheering the loosening of a weird sort of knot in the electoral tummy. McCain’s résumé and candour, in other words, promise not empathy with voters’ pain but relief from it. Because we’ve been lied to and lied to, and it hurts to be lied to. It’s ultimately just about that complicated: it hurts. We learn this at like age four —- it’s grownups’ first explanation to us of why it’s bad to lie ‘How would you like it if. . . ?’”.

“Render to Caesar…” The truth, a foundational truth of our Christian civilization, is that without each of us rendering to God that which God asks us to render – honouring truth, serving justice and loving each other as children of a Father who is God himself – rendering to Caesar will be a meaningless sham. A world without God, as Nietzsche tragically foretold, will be a world of misery and barbarism. A political life in which political activists work as if God did not exist will be grim indeed. For as long as the earthly city lasts it needs to be inhabited by souls whose consciences tell them the difference between truth and falsehood, justice and injustice – and ultimately between good and evil. The secular world, devoid of the perceptions which the City of God brings to it, is like a rudderless ship on a treacherous sea.

This article incorporates material from earlier Garvan Hill posts and in this form has now been published in the print and online August/September edition of Dublin based magazine, Position Papers.

Reflections on jihad

Is the Muslim world and its bonding substance, Islam, in the throes of its own self-destruction or is it just in the early stages of a dramatic conflict which will ultimately end with its defeat of the civilization it has been at war with since it first emerged from the Arabian Desert in the 7th century?

The third option is of course that it is simply in another phase of that war and that this one, like all the others, will end in a tacit stalemate. Will its core states will once again barricade themselves behind new borders and slumber on until the next phase of this seemingly eternal struggle begins again?

If one were to draw a map of the world today and identify on it all the significant human conflicts currently in progress and further identify the source of each of those one would notice that some expression of Islamic jihad is at the heart of the majority of them – from Nigeria in the west of the African continent to the horn of Africa in the east, from the southern shores of the Mediterranean through the middle east over to the subcontinent itself, the Muslim world is either tearing itself apart or is tearing into its bordering territories, giving new life to that sad geo-political reality, the “bloody borders of Islam”.


A world at war

 What does all this signify? Does it not justify the question of Manuel II Palaiologos, one of the last Christian rulers before the Fall of Constantinople to the Muslim Ottoman Empire, which he put to his Islamic interlocutor in a conversation dealing with such issues as forced conversion, holy war, and the relationship between faith and reason in Islam? This of course was the question quoted by Pope Benedict XVI when he alluded to this same problem in his famous Regensburg address, provoking an Islamic response which clearly underlined with pathetic accuracy the very problem he pointed to. The Emperor said, “show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

But need Islam have been this way? Robert R. Reilly in his book, The Closing of the Muslim Mind, sees a pattern of events in history which suggests that it might have been otherwise. Had that process of development which Benedict XVI saw as such a pivitol and providential factor in the development of Christianity, its enculturation with the thought and traditions of the Greek world, been allowed to work in Islam then its history might have been very different. It almost did but in the end the power of the contrary forces which eventually triumphed in Islam’s internal conflicts thwarted it. Islam is what it is today, Reilly asserts, because reason was vanquished in the crucial battle for the minds and hearts of Muslims which took place between the ninth and eleventh centuries.

Muslims today are to be found in every country in the world. The vast majority of them are at peace with the world but a crucial element within that international religious community is not. It is crucial because it is the segment of Sunni Islam which is true to the essential theological tenets of the religion which were set in stone for its adherents by the end of the 11th century and which kept it imprisoned there until the late modern age. That peace is the reason for the war which is being waged in so many parts of the world. It is this peace, perceived as a deadly threat to Islamic orthodoxy, which ultimately gives rise to the rage which is driving the Sunni jihad wherever it is found. That peace is seen as a virus which will ultimately undermine the central tenet of Islam’s 11th century theology. This tenet is that reason is the enemy of Islam, that reason is alien to God himself and the man who dabbles in reason as a guide for his life is rejecting the principle of unquestioning submission to the will of Allah. For the jihadists the battle is the battle to preserve and defend to the death this doctrine and to do all in their power to destroy the peace that is corrupting faithful Muslims throughout the world.

In the early years of Marxist Communism the great internal struggle was between those who compromised their cause by accepting the principle of the practicality of communism in one country as a stepping stone to world domination and those who saw this as folly. They argued that Communism could only succeed ultimately if the struggle was global. Peaceful co-existence was a formula for disaster and accepting it was going to lead to failure. They were right. Communism could not compete with freedom and only by extinguishing freedom and all memory and experience of human freedom could Communism dominate the world. “Communism Limited” ultimately spelled the death knell of Communism. It is still in its death throes and is still inflicting suffering on millions of human beings but the end is inevitable.

The Islamic jihadist knows the same. Islam sealed itself off from the world that it could not invade and conquer for the best part of nine centuries. Then in the 19th century, as its major power-house, the sclerotic Ottoman Empire, was dying it began to reach out for help. Help came but with it came the price of contamination. This contamination by an alien culture has ultimately provoked the backlash which is the modern jihad. That jihad knows that unless it can destroy the sources of all those influences which are corrupting the pure Islamic product, as defined by the theologians of the ninth and tenth centuries then their cause is dead. Unless they are victorious then Islam will succumb to reason. Reason is their enemy. If and when reason is allowed its rightful place it will be their undoing. Reason will reveal the truth about man which will ultimately bring about the unraveling of the flawed fabric of Islam which was woven in the early middle ages by the desert tribes who spread east and west from Arabia creating one of the greatest empires which the world had seen.

Historian Tom Holland has put his life on the line by questioning the very provenance of the Koran in his book, In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World (2012). The religion of Islam, as it emerged from the desert into the light of history in the eighth century, in his view may be little more than the initial bonding element adopted by the conquerors of the Middle East in those centuries to cement their conquests into an empire. It then took on a life of its own and its rules and regulations acquired their later theological identity and force to become what we know it is today. But whatever its origins, by the ninth century it had become a powerful religious force. It was then that its theology became the subject of the bitter disputes and bloody warfare described by Reilly in his book.

Tom Holland

For a period in the ninth century the embryo of Islam was moving towards the Hellenic world and Hellenic influences. Had it continued to do so its understanding of the Divine would have been different and history might well have witnessed a great ecumenical movement which would have brought together two great religious movements of the time, Islam and Christianity, which had common roots in Judaism. But something happened in the tenth century which was to fatally thwart this development. An Iman, Al-Ghazali, rose to prominence in the Ash’arite sect of Islam.

As we know the Arabs of the early Islamic era are responsible for the preservation of extensive  elements of Greek culture and philosophy. To them we owe the preservation of the works of Aristotle. Two Islamic scholars, Avicena and Averroes, are giants in the history of philosophy. Al-Ghazali was a brilliant philosopher but he was also a mystic and like many mystics he found it hard to stay rooted in reality. In the end he turned his back on philosophy and in a celebrated book, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, he rejected Plato, Aristotle and all their works and pomps, proclaiming that they lead to nothing but darkness and confusion. Averroes was his contemporary and he responded with his book, The Incoherence of the Incoherence. But it was too late. The leaders of Sunni Islam espoused the Ash’arite doctrines of al-Ghazali  and persecuted and murdered all who denied them. The Ash’arite faction triumphed over the Mu’tazalite faction which had followed a Hellenic approach. The battle between them might be seen as a foreshadowing of the Protestant/Catholic divide of the 16th century – with one vital distinction: the Ash’arites triumphed totally over their rivals and the Mu’tazalite tradition died for all intents and purposes.

Reilly quotes the verdict of a twentieth century Muslim scholar, Fazlur Rahman, on the outcome of the battle: “A people that deprives itself of philosophy necessarily exposes itself to starvation in terms of fresh ideas – in fact, it commits intellectual suicide.” Reilly argues that the flight from the hellinization of Islam began with a particular idea of God which took definitive shape in the ninth century. When this idea began to encounter Greek philosophy the confusions inherent in the Koran began to demand explanations and the explanations which eventually triumphed proved incompatible with the rational approach of Greek thought. Then the battle royal began and the As’arites prevailed.

Today they still prevail in the heart of every jihadist. There is no doubt but the sword of Islam is lethally unsheathed again in today’s world as it was in the early middle ages. The question now is whether it will prevail again in the wider world as it did in the medieval world or whether the hellinization of Islam will eventually be allowed to resume, triumph and reap consequences which might bring a peace to the world which it has not know since the days of the Pax Romana.