In the week before the Swiss voted on banning the construction of minarets the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group (which is where the UK Tories sit) and the British Council did their bit to entrench a bit of prejudice by putting on a debate in the Parliament on “Islam and Europe”. I had the misfortune of attending this event and to come face to face with the likes of Douglas Murray.
Douglas Murray, the widely credited political commentator, came off by far the strongest in the debate. This is a travesty of the highest order as he presents such simplistic arguments (albeit in a clever and articulate way) that anyone with even the slightest grasp of Islam should have been able to expose him. None of the panellists managed this. I am by no stretch of the imagination an expert on Islam, or even a follower of the faith. What I am, is somebody who can see that having a debate about “Islamic culture” and “European culture” is so overly simplified that it borders on being useless.
There is clearly a debate that does need to happen, and this is how to reconcile potentially antagonistic aspects of cultures within a given geographic location. We can see that honour killings for example are clearly incompatible with western understandings of liberalism and human rights. Murray went to great lengths to represent some actions of some people who purport to act in the name of Islam as being representative of Islam as a whole.
This argument should be quite easy to show as being flawed. Just as the opinions put forward by George Bush in the name of Christianity might sit uncomfortably with lots of practicing Christians, so an individual Muslim in the public eye may well act in a way that is abhorrent to many millions of Muslims. This first point was at least partially raised, that people interpret faith in many different ways and can use it to justify all sorts of actions (from invading countries to habitually helping the poor!).
The point that was not raised (to my utter shock) however was that theologically Islam is extremely diverse. It is a truism that Liberal Quakers and the Catholic Church represent two very different schools of Christian thought. In the western media and in every day life however there is a lot of loose language around different schools of Islamic thought. The most often quoted is that of Wahhabism (thanks in large to people’s connections with it and Bin Laden). Often this is blurred with inherently violent forms of Islam such as Jihadist Salafists. It cannot be stated clearly enough that there is nothing inherently violent about Wahhabism. There is something inherently conservative, but this is vastly different from violence.
There is nothing within Islam that suggests that it cannot be compatible with human rights and western understandings of liberalism (See the writings of An-Na’im http://www.law.emory.edu/aannaim/). What is apparent, is that an absolute understanding of Islam as one distinct religion (opposed to a series of theological schools of thought messily brought under one banner – like nearly all the world’s big religions) can be used to either justify the complete compatibility of Islam and western standards, or (if you so choose) it can be used to argue that they are inherently antagonistic.
By arguing that any religion (including Islam) is inherently peace-loving is short-sighted and plays into the hands of those who would wish to paint a faith as intolerant (like Douglas Murray for example). We all have a responsibility to engage with the worlds religions, even when we are starting off from a level of ignorance. If we do not explore alternative religions and see the potential within them for moving towards a progressive future we will alienate those who wish to work for a better future through a religious framework. Equally we leave ourselves ignorant to argue against those who wish to paint any given religion as being intolerant.
I happen to agree with Douglas Murray when he comes out with comments like “Mary was probably a Jew who told a lie” and “Mohamed probably did not write the Koran” (he actually said these things in the Parliament sessions), but I would have at least two responses to such comments :
- Firstly I would have to question what he hopes to achieve by making such inflammatory statements and
- Secondly I would suggest that he leaves himself alienated from billions of people who see their religion as their primary moral guide. If Mr Murray is genuinely interested in building a better world he is going about it in a very strange way. How can you build a better world when you have just insulted half of its population?
Instead of showing themselves to be progressive minded individuals the ECR and the British council have shown themselves to have little academic (let alone political) credibility. If you are interested in this, do not be afraid to go and ask about it in your local mosque and be honest that you do not know much about Islam but you are interested.
I am no expert, but even I can see that Douglas Murray is a short-sighted populist. Let’s not stigmatise people because of the actions that are undertaken in the name of their faith.