Can we talk?
The motion ‘We should not be reluctant to assert the superiority of Western values’ was proposed by the author Ibn Warraq. He contrasted the West’s openness and flexibility with the ossified ‘closed book’ culture of Islam. ‘Easterners flock to collect their degrees from Oxbridge, Harvard and the Sorbonne,’ he said. Traffic in the other direction is minimal. Rejecting the ‘mind-numbing certainties’ of Islam in favour of the ‘liberating doubt’ of Bertrand Russell, he asked us if Islam would tolerate an equivalent of The Life of Brian.
I wish the values had been called liberal rather than Western, because 1) that is what was meant 2) they are universalizable rather than parochial and they are not unknown outside the West 3) ‘the West’ hasn’t always lived by liberal values, as people of course lost no time in pointing out 4) the point is surely not hemispheric loyalty but merit and 5) the very idea of prancing around asserting the superiority of Western values makes me feel like a prize turkey. But, all the same, the hemispheric aspect is not completely irrelevant, as Ibn Warraq’s comment above highlights.
[Tariq Ramadan] surprised us with a list of Islamic mediaeval thinkers who had espoused the cause of free debate. We struggled to recognise their names. And that was the point. Western history is too blinkered and exclusive to admit the tradition of liberal Islam.
Yes but with all due respect, what’s that got to do with now? Not much. Taner Edis talks about this – the irrelevant defensive resort to past glories:
Today, it’s something of an impediment for the Muslim world to continually look back to the glories of the past and keep saying that the Islamic world used to be a world leader in science. This tends to obscure some very important differences between modern science and medieval thinking. They did some very interesting things in medicine and optics. But all of this was mixed in with astrology and alchemy and what today we would consider dead ends.
Ibn Warraq (whom I am proud to call a friend) rounded things off with a flourish.
The winning majority howled with pleasure when Ibn Warraq summed up the debate: ‘I don’t want to live in a society where I get stoned for committing adultery. I want to live in a society where I get stoned. And then commit adultery.’
David Thompson has more. Douglas Murray asks how a ‘dialogue’ might begin:
Where does [the dialogue] start? Would it start, for instance, with making a joke? Contra Mr Khomeini – not a funny man. Or, would it start with an article, perhaps? Would it start, perhaps, with a film? It did, a few years ago, with Submission, and Theo van Gogh was killed. Could it start with making a joke, perhaps? A joke in a cartoon? Well, apparently not, because we know there were burnings and killings and lootings and rioting across the globe in reaction to those cartoons. If you’re going to start a dialogue, what could you do that would be smaller than drawing a cartoon? This dialogue which we keep on being offered is not [reciprocal].
Smaller than drawing a cartoon…hmm…conversion, perhaps? Would that do?