The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, was widely criticised for his critical comments about Islam during an address given at the Gregorian University, Rome, on the 25th of March 2004. One of his claims was that: “very few Muslims understand reality and they do not understand that coming to terms with globalisation is one of the greatest challenges facing them”.We beg to differ, and anyone wishing to see a Muslim understanding of globalisation should read the article on the subject in this edition by Farooq Khan. As for the main thrust of Dr Carey’s speech, regarding Islam’s “opposition to practically every other world religion” and its “association with terrorism and death”, the reader is directed to the open letter of rebuttal by Dr Abdullah Robin, an edited version of which is printed here.
Dear Dr George Carey,
Thank you for your interest in bringing about greater harmony and reconciliation between Muslims and Christians and for sharing your thoughts about Islam and Muslim countries. Though on a number of points I beg to differ with you, I am not of those who view censure through a lens of political correctness that demands an unreasonable indifference to difference. Unlike others who have responded to you in the media I do not oppose you just because you voiced disapproval. It is good that you did not obfuscate before a community inexpedient these days to criticise nor wash your hands of responsibility for the truth as you see it. In keeping with your high standing in the Church of England you did not follow the ignominious example of the one who cynically asked, “what is truth?” before abandoning truth in front of an easily offended crowd.
That being said, we can on some points agree. You have correctly pointed out some of the terrible problems that characterise Muslim countries today. You spoke about the backwardness of these countries and you spoke about the tyrannical dictatorships in the Middle East that oppress their own people and what you have said here is indeed the truth even though I wish it were not.
I believe that the cause of the current backwardness remains the general degradation in the understanding of Islamic thought, the closure of the juristic process of ijtihad and the Western world’s addiction to colonialism. It is widely recognised, however, that prior to this the Muslim world was the leading civilization in all the major sciences over a period of many centuries. If you had connected our past with the lamentable present you would have realised that Islam’s former ‘golden age’ was delivered under the shade of the Islamic Khilafah, a comprehensive political Islamic entity that did not detach religion from life, yet whose progress in material matters shone throughout the world. While recognising this technological and intellectual advancement, many Western commentators still compare such a State to the 7th Century medieval theocracy that stifled progress during their own peculiar history. It would, of course, be nothing short of a miracle if a major scientific or technological discovery came today from a Muslim country because for one thing the material wealth, that would fund state of the art laboratories, is being shipped out of these countries so that Americans can enjoy cheap fuel for their cars. PhD holders in Muslim capitals are more likely to be serving coffee in a restaurant than building new technologies for humanity.
That brings us to the corrupt regimes. We find that Muslims in Uzbekistan are boiled alive for insisting upon their five daily prayers while in Egypt and other places Muslims are pursued and targeted by their unaccountable rulers. A point worth noting for future dialogue is that accountable government was not invented by Montesquieu or Thomas Jefferson and it is in fact one of the cornerstones of Islam’s Khilafah system. The West does of course continue to support many of today’s corrupt regimes and thankfully you were candid about the double standards of the West that have understandably fuelled anger amongst Muslims.
It is ironic, however, that you yourself have praised some of the most autocratic of Muslim regimes as examples of progress. You proposed Turkey as a positive example of a country that has embraced Islam and democracy. Yet Muslims practice their faith in a climate of fear and intimidation under Turkey’s system of militant secularism. The headscarf for example has been banned from many aspects of public life in Turkey since long before the French adopted their anti-Islamic stance. The army, which reserves the commonly used prerogative of dismissing elected puppet governments, enforces a most austere form of secularism regardless of the wishes of Turkey’s people. You spoke of King Hussein, Prince Hassan and King Abdullah as important names in Islam with whom you have had fellowship over many years. Yet these names were not chosen by the people of Jordan over whom they have ruled for generations as a clan since the British first installed them into power. Accountable government is sadly lacking and the picture is far worse than you may have thought. What is interesting is that you see these individuals as carrying enlightened and moderate views, yet the majority of Muslims in the Islamic world see them as autocratic and subservient to Western capitals.
You also spoke about conflict and the rise of Islamic opposition to the current regimes and you said that Islam is “in opposition to practically every world religion” including Christianity. You also sought to address the “reasons for Islam’s association with terrorism and death.” You are correct in part because Islam clearly is in conflict across the globe but it is the nature of this conflict, which I believe you have misrepresented.
For example you mentioned Islam’s conflict with Judaism with reference to the violence in Palestine. However, this conflict is not with Judaism for it began with the British occupation of Palestine after the First World war and the colonial design of setting up a Jewish homeland over the heads of the existing population without any reference to their needs or wishes. The British government illegally opened the doors to a flood of European migrants who sought to escape the terrible anti Semitism that prevailed in secular Europe. These Jewish immigrants eventually waged a war of terror first against the British who had armed them and then against the Palestinian population to expel and subdue them. From the inception of the State of Israel – a state for Jews to the exclusion of others – the Muslims and Christians of Palestine have been suffering the daily tyranny of occupation and expulsion from their lands and homes. So now in Palestine Islam is in conflict with Israelis – not in their capacity as Jews who historically had lived alongside Muslims in peace and security for centuries – but in their capacity as occupiers.
You spoke about conflict with Christianity, but Muslims do not blame Christianity for their ills. Rather Muslims identify the secular democracies of the West as engaging in a pernicious and inhumane foreign policy. It is therefore disingenuous to conjure up a picture of Islam and other religions being in violent collision.
Muslims in Britain also take issue, not with Christianity but, with secular democracy for the pervading hedonism and narcissism that have eroded fixed moral standards from all aspects of public and private life in this country. Today’s social mores have nothing to do with Christianity so we cannot blame Christianity for the state of Western societies. Where the Church of England may once have been a moral compass it is now an irrelevance to the vast majority of English people when it comes to societal affairs. It has given ground, diluted its core and has constantly redefined itself within ever decreasing circles. To claim as you do that Western values are founded “on the Christian moral tradition and culture” is perhaps doing a disservice to Christianity. Western values are based on a secular post-reformation culture and have far more to do with the “might is right” and the “ends justifies the means” morality of Niccolo Machiavelli and the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham than they do the teachings of the New Testament or the philosophy of Saint Augustine. The result of releasing societies from a spiritual basis is the rampant materialism and corporate power that have now become the new deities. The challenge for those who do believe that God has a role in society greater than mere remembrance in a church or a mosque is to understand that the main obstacle facing us is not Islam or even Political Islam, but a new and pernicious form of militant secularism.
Western secular thinkers have struggled over the ground of political philosophy to the point of despair, such that now the espousal of any particular belief is considered a crudity. Uncertainty and doubt are the post-modern virtues of Western culture and there is no moral compass other than that. Perhaps the only certainty is the certainty that political Islam should be opposed because of its unfashionable certainties! The result of this post-modern condition is self-interest, political intrigue, occupation of foreign lands, alienation, and communities in fear not of “Islamic terror” but of street gangs, muggings, rape and criminal vandalism. This is why I believe that the West finds it so difficult to build traction for its core beliefs within the Muslim world. Muslims see that values and principles are altered in the name of expediency and genuinely point out that if Western principles and values are so important and true, why are they not held firmly even in the face of inconvenience. As Will Hutton recently said “More than two years after 11 September, the tally of core Western values and beliefs that we have allowed to become corrupted as we respond is lengthening by the week. Equality before the law, the presumption of innocence, the right to a fair trial – all have been seen as expedients to be put aside.” He goes on “We are undermining our own civilisation”
The challenge for Muslims is to adhere to the fixed principles of Islam that while maintaining the right, even the duty, of resisting occupation – outlaw the targeting of civilians whether in Madrid or New York or elsewhere. There is of course a terrible logic that the utilitarian West is ironically slow to grasp. Namely, that as Western militant secularism under its ‘War on Terror’ has adopted the utilitarian doctrine of the “ends justify the means” this may also be invoked by some who have become impatient with the slow and difficult work for political change. Islam, however, rejects utilitarianism even if violence against innocent civilians were to lead to a desired goal such as the withdrawal of Spanish troops from the US led occupation of Iraq.
Islam is in conflict as you say but that conflict is not with humanity, but with the militant secularism of the West. Should this be viewed as criticism of Islam or the West or both? Islam’s political philosophy as you know is based upon submission to the creator and its values are defined. You called for the acceptance of criticism – well Islam can face that, Muslim scholars have been arguing and debating with each other and with other philosophers for centuries. The idea that Islam is some kind of monolithic series of texts which are the preserve of some coterie of clergy is incompatible with the nature of Islamic thought or even the historical record. However the dialogue and the debate that needs to take place has to be effective and here is the crux of the issue.
For an effective dialogue to take place it must be between the West and those who for better or worse agree on an alternative societal and political model for humanity. It is pointless Western commentators and leaders having endless dialogues and interfaith meetings with Islamic ‘moderates’ who in essence are already at one with them in their societal outlook and political vision. Genuine dialogue can only occur with people who disagree and who have distinct viewpoints so that assumptions, premises and conclusions can be rigorously challenged. So called Islamic ‘moderates’ by their nature do not hold such distinct viewpoints, this is why they are categorised as being ‘moderates’ by the West in the first place. It is also clear from the Pew organisation’s findings that it is not the moderates’ views that are the main stay in the Islamic world.
The other point to make is that the agenda of such meetings must be all encompassing. I acknowledge that calls for a new Islamic political entity may cause unease and reservation in some quarters but this call is based upon reasoned thought. It is dishonest to label those with divergent thoughts as extremist when thoughts require only one of two judgements. Either they are true or false. The use of the term extreme is a way of avoiding the term false, which might lead to a much-feared intellectual debate upon Islamic and Western thoughts. If a case is not built upon thoughts then upon what is it built? Muslims are willing to debate these issues in a calm rational atmosphere and I for one would welcome an intellectual challenge.
Are Western commentators also prepared to debate comprehensively the deep unease that is now being expressed at the state of Western societies? You alluded to some of the social issues, but to these we can add the epidemic levels of crime, drugs, the neglect of the elderly and an inhumane foreign policy. Within this composite dialogue, for it to be meaningful surely the discussion should also incorporate whether the Western world despite its technological advancement is also in need of major overhaul and transformational change, a topic that receives scant attention. It is not sufficient to simply acknowledge the weaknesses within Western society, but still call for its values to be exported to the Islamic world, without first having a robust debate on the suitability of such values to begin with. The challenge for the West is to recognise that the spiritual decay commonly bemoaned cannot be arrested without a fixed moral framework built upon a clear intellectual foundation that recognises man’s limitations and his nature. Islam does offer that and Muslims do still believe and uphold that. The existing dialogue fails to be deep and comprehensive and if maintained will only reinforce suspicions that calls for yet greater dialogue are at best one sided, and at worst tools formulated to enact political change.
Perhaps there is a divide so very great – between faiths – or perhaps the Western world wants once again to have faith in faith. If so, then it must be a faith worthy of faith; that leads and guides and stands above the sea of doubts with solid intellectual arguments. So come and discuss with us – challenge and criticise – yes, but do not expect to recreate us in your own image as a pre requisite for discussion. We Muslims are ready for sincere debate and waiting to see who is ready to meet us with their own thoughts.
Dr Abdullah Robin