Ring-fencing Religion Again

There’s this article by Timothy Garton-Ash in yesterday’s Guardian, titled ‘What we call Islam is a mirror in which we see ourselves’. Well, yes, no doubt – but one could say that of anything. What we call anything is a mirror in which we see ourselves, but what of that? Does that get us much of anywhere? It could, but it could also not. In other words, calling something [whatever we do call it] could indicate that we are [rational/irrational/misanthropic/empathetic] and be true or untrue all the same. The two can be quite independent. A person can be malevolent or loony and still get things right, and a person can be caring and understanding and still get things wrong.

Garton-Ash offers six examples of possible things to say about Islam. First:

The fundamental problem is not just Islam but religion itself, which is superstition, false consciousness, the abrogation of reason. In principle, Christianity or Judaism are little better, particularly in the versions embraced by the American right. The world would be a much better place if everyone understood the truths revealed by science, had confidence in human reason and embraced secular humanism. If we must have a framed image of a bearded old man on the wall, let it be a photograph of Charles Darwin. What we need is not just a secular state but a secular society.

Then he comments on it.

This is a view held by many highly educated people in the post-Christian west, especially in western Europe, including some of my closest friends. If translated directly into a political prescription, it has the minor drawback of requiring that some 3 billion to 5 billion men and women abandon their fundamental beliefs.

But what is the point of saying that? What’s he talking about, ‘If translated directly into a political prescription’? What does he mean? Apparently something like people saying: ‘”The world would be a much better place” should be translated to “Let us enact laws that would force people (how?) to have confidence in human reason and embrace secular humanism.”‘ That seems to be the political prescription he has in mind. But who does suggest political prescriptions like that? Who does make the leap from saying religion is superstition to saying that people should be forced to abjure it? No one. Damn well no one. So why do people insist on saying or implying that the first entails the second? It’s a form of moral blackmail, it’s a way of ring-fencing (as Rushdie calls it) religion and making critical discussion of it more difficult, and it’s not based on reality.

This kind of thing is especially irritating coming from professional intellectuals and opinion-purveyors. I might as well tell Timothy Garton-Ash that he shouldn’t write for the Guardian because that equates to ‘requiring’ me to agree to whatever it is that he says. It’s ridiculous! People criticising religion does not equate to summoning an army to force people to ‘abandon their fundamental beliefs’! Can we for once get clear on that so that we can discuss the subject honestly?

The second example:

The fundamental problem is not religion itself, but the particular religion of Islam. Islam, unlike western Christianity, does not allow the separation of church and state, religion and politics. The fact that my Iranian newspaper gives the year as 1384 points to a larger truth. With its systematic discrimination against women, its barbaric punishments for homosexuality and its militant intolerance, Islam is stuck in the middle ages. What it needs is its Reformation.

And the comment.

A very widespread view. Two objections are that such a view encourages a monolithic, essentialist understanding of Islam, and tries to understand its history too much in western terms (middle ages, Reformation). If we mean by Islam “what people calling themselves Muslim actually think, say and do”, there is a huge spectrum of different realities.

But monolithic, essentialist understandings of systems of ideas are not necessarily unreasonable or silly or wrong in the way that monolithic, essentialist understandings of groups of people are, because systems of ideas can be and often are monolithic and essentialist. That’s rather the point of them. Systems of ideas have particular content, which is different from other systems of ideas. It’s not even coherent to criticise an account of a system of ideas for being monolithic and essentialist. And the primary meaning of Islam (as it is with Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism) is not ‘what people calling themselves Muslim actually think, say and do’ but the doctrines of the religion itself. There are interpretations and schools, yes, but that’s not the same as no core doctrine at all.

Irfan Khawaja talked about this subject in an article a year or two ago.

“Belief in an Islamic essence that supercedes [sic] the behavior of actual Muslims,” we are blithely told, “leads people to making sloppy generalizations about Islam.” So the criterion of “the Islamic” is “the behavior of actual Muslims.” The absurdity of this claim is almost mind-boggling. For one thing, it ignores the fact that Muslims themselves believe that Islam has an essence that supersedes the behavior of actual Muslims. It ignores the fact that the Qur’an states that Islam is a “perfect” religion whose essence is contained within the Qur’an itself. It ignores the fact that according to Islam, the Sunnah takes precedence over and regulates “the behavior of actual Muslims.”…What Staerk is telling us is that it’s easier to generalize rigorously about the behavior of 1.25 billion existing Muslims plus all the Muslims who have ever existed in the 1400 years of the existence of Islam – than it is to generalize about the claims of a handful of Islamic texts!

And so on. Garton-Ash’s argument isn’t a very good one.

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