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Monday, October 06, 2008

Missing: Christopher Howse's marbles

A humbling confession: I spent a day or so last week in the grip of a conspiracy theory of my own creation.

How it happened: on Wednesday I read a post on Christopher Howse's Telegraph blog, with the title 'Salman Rushdie taught liberals to hate Islam'. Mr Howse is a man whose writing I have on occasion admired. On this occasion I thought to myself 'this man has taken leave of his senses'. It was that bad.

The following day my browser history told me the address was wrong, and I was struck by a sudden illumination: suppose Islamists had somehow hacked into the paper's site and passed their views off as Howse's? The more I thought about the contents of the post the less plausible it seemed that they could really be the thoughts of a senior Torygraph hack, and the more plausible my conspiracy theory became.

But, finding a day later that the post was still there, I was left with the maginally more prosaic explanation: Christopher Howse of the Telegraph has taken leave of his senses.

If you're after rational thoughts on the same subject, I would encourage you to read George Weigel's appreciation of Pope Benedict in Standpoint magazine. What I have to say in response to Christopher Howse really ought to be obvious to anyone still in possession of their marbles. But evidently it does need saying, not to speak of the therapeutic benefits to myself.

'Muslims are denied the right to take offence when their most holy emblems are deliberately pilloried'

Of course Muslims have the right to be offended by what others say about their faith, as I - like Mr Howse no doubt - am regularly incensed by Christian-baiting in the media. Being offended, however, does not give them or me the right to commit murder. There really cannot be the slightest hint of compromise on this point. Bearing in mind that the threats breathed against Salman Rushdie were not idle, and though he escaped with his life others were not so fortunate.

'Now, Salman Rushdie has declared that he has nothing against true believers until their faith spills over into the public sphere and becomes "my business". That, he must know is a fallacious distinction.'

Islam, like Christianity, has a public dimension and, indeed, that is not in itself bad. But you can't have it both ways. If your religion has public consequences you must expect to be accountable to collective, public standards of morality - standards expressed in laws saying, for example, that you can't kill someone just because you don't like a book he has written or a film he has made.

'So why not, the film-maker [Theo van Gogh] thought, project the holy words of the Koran on to the exposed body of women? Tee-hee, he chortled in his Dutch way.'

One of the less endearing traits of some religious believers is the arrogance which assumes that only believers ever act out of passionate moral conviction. Theo van Gogh's film may have been deliberately provocative, but he surely knew the risk he was taking (as did his collaborator Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who is less easily dismissed as a clown), and he took it because he was genuinely outraged by the contempt shown for Dutch liberal values by Moroccan immigrants.

And, as a good liberal, he managed to find a way of taking offence publicly which did not involve killing Muslims. So even if you take the dimmest possible view of his motives, that is not, repeat NOT, an excuse for condoning a do-it-yourself death sentence.

Hirsi Ali has in common with Salman Rushdie a Muslim background, of course. So what Howse is effectively demanding is that Western states should take on the task of policing dissidence within Islam at the behest of its most intolerant and reactionary representatives.

'The secularist haters of Islam pretend that that they have a sacred principle of their own, which is freedom of speech, freedom to publish.

'In Britain this is a very lowly idol, since the most unenlightened fly-by-night businessman can stop the mouth of the press with a libel suit.'

This argument, if you can call it that, falls at every possible fence. Three objections will suffice. First, two wrongs don't make a right. Second. arguments against free speech always have a double standard built in: it is never my speech which should not be free; my declaring that I find Christopher Howse's views offensive will not, I suspect, suffice to silence him. Third, free speech is not just some arbitrarily selected idol. It is a good because it serves the cause of truth, and for Christians truth must be an absolute good.

Christians have sincerely believed that truth was best served by lighting bonfires under heretics and their books. Then, after the passage of untold amounts of suffering, came the Enlightenment, which was not just a reaction against Christianity but also a recognition by Christians that the way of the bonfire had actually been fundamentally un-Christian. Pope Benedict sees this with tremendous clarity. Christopher Howse may, we must hope, catch up with him once he has been reunited with his marbles.

So: Salman Rushdie must be heard - as Muslims must be heard - because his voice, his unique experience, has its part to play in the unending conversation through which we inch towards the truth. Here's the Pope, quoted in the George Weigel article:-

"On the one hand, one must counter a dictatorship of positivist reason that excludes God from the life of the community and from public organizations ... On the other hand, one must welcome the true conquests of the Enlightenment, human rights, and especially the freedom of faith and its practice, and recognise these also as being essential elements for the authenticity of religion. As in the Christian community, where there has been a long search to find the correct position of faith in relation to such beliefs - a search that will certainly never be concluded once and for all - so also the Islamic world with its own tradition faces the immense task of finding the appropriate solutions to these problems. The content of the dialogue between Christians and Muslims will be at this time especially one of meeting each other in this commitment to find the right solutions. We Christians feel ourselves in solidarity with all those who, precisely on the basis of their religious convictions as Muslims, work to oppose violence and for the synergy between faith and reason, between religion and freedom..."

'Since that day there has been a creeping racialist antipathy towards Muslims, by the Left.'

If Howse believes that 'liberals hate Muslims' he should get out more and try reading some liberal papers. You would need to be psychic to divine any such sentiment, since, transcending all Left liberal feuds, there is an absolute taboo against identifying Islam per se as a problem.

Beyond that unifying principle, the Left liberal camp splits into three: the well-meaningly woolly, the rationalists and the romantics.

Little needs saying about the woolly variety. Of course they don't hate Islam. They are in no doubt that if they are nice enough to it, it will turn out to be as nice as they are. That is the assumption on which multiculturalist liberal orthodoxy has beem founded. Hope continues to triumph over experience.

Among the rationalists there may indeed be varying degrees of hostility towards Islam per se, but what gets articulated is hostility to religion in general. Some may indeed loathe Islam as such, but find it imprudent to break the taboo. Others have 'issues' with religion generally - usually with special freference to Christianity - and find Islamist excesses a useful stick to beat it with. The obvious irony here is that nothing confirms the rationalist religiophobe's prejudices more perfectly that seeing Christians like Christopher Howse take it upon themselves to defend the indefensible in the name of 'faith'.

And the romantics? Well, this is the strain of leftist on whom violent radicalism exerts an irresistible fascination. They've been fellow-travellers with Stalin, with Che, with Mao (not with the Dalai Lama, of course), with the Provisional IRA, and what could be more natural than that Hamas and Hezbollah should take their turn? Hatred of Islam? You must be kidding. Even Comrade Seumas, of the Grauniad and the Communist Party of Britain, has got religion now that religion is globally the most popular reason for killing Americans. There's no solidarity with Rushdie or van Gogh on offer from this quarter.

Three dead ends, three reasons why I don't belong on the Left. Woolly liberalism respects only half of our Lord's injunction to be 'wise as serpents and harmless as doves'. If there are wolves at large it's no good pretending they are really sheep. I've got romantic leftism out of my system by the simple expedient of growing up a little. I have considerable sympathy with the rationalists, but their religiophobia is deeply objectionable and leaves them ultimately without a leg to stand on in defending liberal values againt trendy relativism. There is a fixated irrationality about it which is itself the best proof that reason on its own cannot be enough.

If the Left liberals don't get it, who does? The Pope, for sure. Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali does (would that he were a less lonely figure among the purple shirts), and so does Dominic Grieve (an Anglican), who told the Guardian this about multiculturalism:-

"In this vacuum, both the BNP and Hizb ut-Tahrir rise. They are two very similar phenomena experiencing a form of cultural despair about themselves and their identities. And it's terribly easy to latch on to confrontational and aggressive variants of their cultural background as being the only way to reassure themselves that they can survive."

Returning to our starting point, it seems there's another variation on the theme of cultural despair to be included in the equation. One which loathes liberals so much that it would love to see the Sharia boys come and sort them out. It's the kind of conservatism that helped Hitler to power, preferring him to liberal democracy (vide Alfred Hugenberg). It may be somewhat exotic at present, but it'll bear watching.

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