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Friday, June 16, 2006

Steering clear of Charybdis

I see the 'Ahmadinejad was mistranslated' myth is alive and well and being peddled by al-Grauniad's incorrigible Jonathan Steele. David Aaronovitch in the Times provides the simple and definitive refutation: go and look at the man's official website. If I may be allowed a modest mention of the fact, I was on to this somewhat earlier than Aaro.

Aaro's on fine form - the David Edgar quote in the last paragraph is superbly apposite, and a nicely ironic touch given that Edgar is surely the very embodiment of the Guardianista literary/theatrical establishment.

I can't quite give him ten out of ten, though. This is a crucial passage:-

'It is hard to steer these days between the Scylla of Tullochism (just don’t invade them and they’ll go away) and the Charybdis of the currently fashionable Londonistan paranoia. Tulloch may have been through hell, but that doesn’t make him right when he agrees to that same notion of unique Muslim victimhood that Khan was so desperate to assume. And the mirror image of the Islamic world containing a unique villainy is in the same way both an analytical error and a political one.'

I do agree about the danger of foundering on Charybdis, but I think it's marked at the wrong place on Aaro's chart. The next sentence is characteristic of the kind of analytical error this leads him into:-

'The admixture of victimhood and religious extremism leads to violence [...]'

So Islamist terror is just an instance of a broader sociological phenomenon. But the generalization is wrong - or else it is tautologous. Consider, for example, the Jehovah's Witnesses. I'd say theirs is a fairly extreme form of religion, and I doubt if Aaro would disagree. They are bound to a rigid fundamentalism which announces the imminence of the Apocalypse at regular intervals, and they are expected to spend a large chunk of their waking hours ringing doorbells and flogging the Watchtower. As for victimhood, many are poor and black.

Do we need to go in fear of a JW immolating himself in a tube train? Not unless they scrap their commitment to absolute pacifism. So 'religious extremism' has to mean 'violently intolerant religious extremism', and Aaro's Law becomes pure tautology.

Does the Islamic world indeed contain a unique villainy? Clearly at the very least in the sense that every villainy is unique, it does. Suicide bombing is a villainy replicated (initiated, actually) only by the Tamil Tigers, who are a big problem for Sri Lankans but not for the rest of us (and they're another exception to Aaro's Law, since their motivating ideology is non-religious). It really doesn't help anyone to insist that it's nothing whatsoever to do with Islam. To say that is not to say that it is either a typical or an unalterable phenomenon within Islam. It's just stating the blindingly obvious: there is a connection.

Yes, yes, I know - a comprehensive history of violent intolerance within Christianity would fill many volumes. Nevertheless, I think Christians are entitled to point out that a religion centred on a man who went to a gruesome death without violent resistance is not the same as one whose founder led armies and made converts by the sword. After it had been in business for three centuries Christianity made a convert of the most powerful man in the world and became a state religion, with an exceedingly mixed bag of consequences which it has taken a very long time to unravel. But it is possible for Christians to see these consequences as a secondary accretion to their faith in a way which is not so obviously open to Muslims.

Purely by chance I've just come across this passage in a book by the Pope which I'm reading:-

'It was through Christianity that the idea of the separation of church and state first came into the world. Up to then there had only been the identity of political order and religion. It was common to all cultures that the state bore the sacred within itself and was its real and supreme guardian.'

('Salz der Erde', Munich 1996, p. 254 - my translation)

In Islam the identity of state and religion is powerfully reasserted. It's certainly an overgeneralization, but one supported by many observations, to say that for the individual Muslim this tends to mean that living under a non-Islamic state is easily felt to be 'victimhood' in its own right. There are certainly counter-traditions within Islam - I've linked before to a lecture by Rowan Williams which says interesting things about the history of minority Muslim communities. But the global reach of Islamism seems capable of overarching the most diverse of local conditions and making minority status problematic just about everywhere.

As others have noted, although it's many years since Aaro's membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain lapsed, there's still a whiff of historical materialism about him, making belief systems like religions merely superstructures of the economic forces which are the real drivers of history. Of course this won't do. Ideas have consequences, and big ideas - of which Islam certainly is one - have big consequences.

Aaro makes a superb case for taking what the Ahmadinejads and the Abu Hamzas say seriously. Well, one of the things they say is that they are inspired by their religion. And not by the Bible or by the Talmud or by the Mahabharata or by the Communist Manifesto. Islam says things which are distinctively Islamic, and they make a difference. The Charybdis to be rigourously avoided is the perception that it is a source of nothing but evil. But the assertion that it has a unique and causal relationship with a particular manifestation of evil needs assessing and debating, not ruling out a priori.

PS Shuggy also has the measure of Jonathan Steele.


Anonymous said...

I applaud your blog, former JW member speaks out.

The core dogma of the Watchtower organization is that Jesus had his second coming 'invisibly' in the year 1914.Their entire doctrinal superstructure is built on this falsehood.

Jehovah's Witnesses door to door recruitment is by their own admission an ineffective tactic. They have lost membership in all countries with major internet access because their false doctrines and harmful practices are exposed on the modern information superhighway.

There is good and valid reasons why there is such an outrage against the Watchtower for misleading millions of followers.Many have invested everything in the 'imminent' apocalyptic promises of the Jehovah's Witnesses and have died broken and beaten.
Respectfully,Danny Haszard

Cyrus said...

Danny, thanks for the comment. I most certainly wouldn't encourage anyone to join the JWs - I'd only say that as compared with signing up with al Qaida it's the lesser evil.