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Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Rowan Williams: a difficult posting

The Archbishop of Canterbury has had some stick on this site, most recently over his sermon at the memorial service for the victims of the London bombings. I’ve just been reading something in a very different register: his lecture to the European Policy Centre in Brussels. This is the one-time Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity in his element, treating an audience of wonks to some heavy-duty intellectualizing. A man who can wrap Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire into one lecture with this much assurance has some serious brainpower. It’s well worth a read.

And yet, and yet…

I complained that his sermon airbrushed out the ambivalences in British Muslim reactions to 7/7, presenting an idealized view of a community united in unequivocal rejection of terrorism.

Drawing on the work of Tariq Ramadan, the Brussels lecture argues that Western Muslims are able to draw on a tradition of adaptation to non-Muslim majority cultures which would encourage them positively to embrace a Western cultural identity.

‘There is, says Ramadan (Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, p.53) no single “homeland” for Muslims: they can be at home in any geographical and political environment, and they need to avoid “self-ghettoization”, becoming “spectators in a society where they were once marginalized” (55). They need to be arguing and negotiating in the public sphere. But the acceptance of such argumentation is undoubtedly a development, as Ramadan agrees – a necessary recognition of distinctions between primary and secondary concerns in social life, a following-through of principles rooted deeply in classical Muslim thinking about ijtihad, the labour of interpretation (43-48). In modern conditions, this labour is something needed not simply in the context of jurisprudence within Muslim society, but in relation to an irreversibly plural and complex environment.(65-77).’

So the Archbishop does not here deny what is plain to all with eyes to see: a ‘development’ and ‘labour’ are required to break down the walls of the self-created ghetto in which too many Western Muslims live. But how, in the meantime, is the non-Muslim majority to manage its relationship with communities which have benefited from European ‘cultural hospitality’ but remain deeply suspicious of the liberalism in which it is rooted? As the Archbishop says, ‘while [Europe] is essentially hospitable to the stranger and the migrant, it has to confront the risk that it may find itself being hospitable to some sort of bid to alter the foundational idea of Europe as a sphere of “liberal” interaction between communities within the frame of law’. Well, it is actually a lot more than a risk. How do we confront it in a way that does not undermine the very traditions of tolerance and pluralism which we want to protect for the sake of all the other groups which need to be able to rely on them? Ramadan provides the Archbishop with some good ideas about which way we should be heading, but there is not even the sketchiest roadmap here.

Another complaint was widely made about the sermon, and drew a speedy apology: listing groups who had fallen victim to terrorism, the Archbishop omitted the Jews. There was some scepticism about the explanation that this was 'inadvertent’.

In his lecture, the players shaping European culture are Christianity, secular liberalism and Islam. Is there any absence which strikes you here? I wanted to be sure I hadn’t missed anything. I called up the source code and searched for ‘Jew’. Then I searched for ‘Judaism’. Nada.

I can just about believe that the contribution of Jewish thought and culture to the shaping of modern Europe was considered by the Archbishop to be too marginal to merit a mention in his ‘breathless tour’ of European history. But when the Jews figure neither as a force shaping European culture nor as an exemplar of a religious minority negotiating its relationship with it, it all begins, in the words of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell, to look like carelessness.

What on earth is going on here? I feel embarrassed to be raising this issue in relation to the spiritual head of my church. Surely this wise and holy man wouldn’t be influenced by something so crass… But perhaps it is time to take him down from his pedestal and see him as a fellow human being.

Before Auschwitz, it was not unusual, and quite acceptable in polite society, for heavyweight intellectuals to declare robustly that they just didn’t like Jews. That notable Anglo-Catholic T.S. Eliot was one instance. Since 1945 shame has largely silenced these voices, but shame does not in itself transform feelings. What is suppressed will find some means of expression. It will invent rationalizations – righteous anger over the uniquely appalling behaviour of Israel, as articulated in the Anglican Consultative Council resolution which the Archbishop disgracefully supported. Or it will simply manifest itself in what is not said - and of course a case from significant omissions can never finally be proved.

This is part of the trouble with attempts to outlaw ‘incitement to religious hatred’, and the culture of politically correct inoffensiveness generally. The less space is left for plain speaking, the less we know where we are and what we have to confront. If Rowan Williams really doesn’t like Jews much, he should feel he is free to say so, and leave the rest of us to decide what we want to do about it. Heaven knows I have enough gut prejudices of my own to deter me from casting the first stone.

And if anyone can demonstrate that I’m barking up the wrong tree altogether, please get writing.


Anonymous said...

I think his silence is all the more interesting given the rather large role that Jews play in the founding of Christianity.

I am not sure I would cite silence about Jews as a basis to think that your Archbishop has personal hatred or contempt or anything else for Jews. I think he speaks in the reality of today's Europe in which Jews clearly are a marginal minority which serve as a focus of Muslim hatred and considerable Christian hatred.

More than likely, your Archbishop was sidestepping contraversy, wherein Jews always manage to be hip deep - today being no exception -. As has often been the case for Europeans, the concerns of Jews are viewed as not being important enough to be considered so that playing down Jewish history, if it placates and lends itself to dialogue with Muslims, is just fine with certain Christians.

Now, my gut reaction, as an American watching the state of Europe, is that Europe has more than a little crisis on its hands. In fact, Europe's entire future is on the line - more so than the US and more so than Israel, both of which know, more or less, where they want to head and be. The crisis in Europe concerns how Christiandom and Islamdom, as cultures, can co-exist. If the present prefaces the future, the future is very, very bleak, to say the least. Which is to say, your archbishop is not wrong to focus on the chief rivalry for its future, lest it be swallowed up.

And, as evidence of the swallowing up, I point you to the Marcion heresy which has re-entered discussion, this time as a way of finding accord with Islam.

The problem, as I see it, is that Jews and Israel, being in large measure, a focal point on which Muslims advance their cause in Europe, are, contrary to what your Archbishop thinks, central to the issues at hand. Read carefully. Israel is not the issue. Israel is the means adopted by Muslims for restoring Islam to regain territory lost to Europe, not merely to destroy Israel.

He write:

We need to examine the true origins of the issue of Palestine: is it a fight between a group of Muslims and non-Jews? Is it a fight between Judaism and other religions? Is it the fight of one country with another country? Is it the fight of one country with the Arab world? Is it a fight over the land of Palestine? I guess the answer to all these questions is ‘no.’

The establishment of the occupying regime of Qods [Jerusalem]was a major move by the world oppressor [ the United States] against the Islamic world. The situation has changed in this historical struggle. Sometimes the Muslims have won and moved forward and the world oppressor was forced to withdraw.

Unfortunately, the Islamic world has been withdrawing in the past 300 years. I do not want to examine the reasons for this, but only to review the history. The Islamic world lost its last defenses in the past 100 years and the world oppressor established the occupying regime. Therefore the struggle in Palestine today is the major front of the struggle of the Islamic world with the world oppressor and its fate will decide the destiny of the struggles of the past several hundred years.

The Palestinian nation represents the Islamic nation [Umma] against a system of oppression, and thank God, the Palestinian nation adopted Islamic behavior in an Islamic environment in their struggle and so we have witnessed their progress and success.

Anonymous said...

My apology,

The "He" in my last comment is the President of Iran.