Friday, 21 January 2011

Lady Warsi's problematic distinction

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi's Sternberg lecture, delivered at Leicester University yesterday, was a bizarre and rather alarming rant against opponents of all religion, especially her own. Intellectually, it was utterly vacuous. Its tone was churlish and more than a little paranoid. Some of her remarks struck me as dangerously naive. She may have been "got at" by Islamists (Harry's Place carried an interesting piece that discussed, among other things, her friendship with Lord Ahmed, the somewhat dodgy Labour peer). Her presence around the cabinet table suddenly seems troubling - as does the fact that so well-integrated and successful a British Muslim as she can harbour such thoughts.

I don't want to waste too much space discussing whether or not Warsi was justified in her claim that "Islamophobia" is rife in modern Britain, or whether (if it exists) it is necessarily irrational or a manifestation of religious ignorance. She seems oblivious to the distinction between Polly Toynbee's Islamophobia (a principled objection to the theology and practice of Islam, especially to the intolerant version that is currently in the ascendant worldwide) and that of the BNP. It is, of course, this distinction that is deliberately obscured by the neologism "Islamophobia" - that is largely the purpose of the word. Warsi's mental befuddlement is caught well by this pair of sentences:


Islamophobia should be seen as totally abhorrent – just like homophobia or Judeophobia – because any phobia is by definition the opposite of a philosophy. A phobia is an irrational fear.


A staggeringly stupid remark by any standards. Unlike (say) fear of spiders or closed spaces, which are indeed psychological phenomena, proper phobias, Islamophobia is a recent and artificial construct, a concept inseparable from the ideology of those who coined it. Some would argue that fear of Islam - certainly political Islam - is wholly justified. At any rate, when Polly Toynbee cheerfully admitted to Islamophobia she was not claiming to be irrational.

But I want to tackle something else that caused a stir, which is Warsi's remarks about "extremism", in particular her objection to the commonly made distinction between "extreme" and "moderate" Muslims:

We need to stop talking about moderate Muslims, and instead talk about British Muslims. And when it comes to extremism, we should be absolutely clear: These people are extremists, plain and simple, because their behaviour has detached them from the thought process within their religion.


Warsi's formulation turns the notion of an "Islamic extremist" on its head. It implies that extremists are less Muslim than "moderates", not more so. A comforting thought. But is it true?

Sam Harris has said that "the problem with Islamic fundamentalism are the fundamentals of Islam". He points out that Muslim extremism wouldn't be so much of a problem if violence in the service of the faith and discrimination against non-believers had not been mainstream themes in Islam since the day the prophet Mohammed raised his sword against his former fellow-citizens of Mecca. The form religious extremism takes, on this view, depends on the religion that is being too-enthusiastically implemented. Extremist Jains - Harris's example - take extraordinary pains not to tread on an insect. Indeed, some starve themselves to death as an act of ultimate devotion. That is true "extremism" - an example of the dangers of taking even the most peaceful of creeds too seriously. But at least no-one else gets killed.

On this analysis, an "extremist" Christian would perhaps be someone like St Francis of Assisi, who took literally Christ's request to the rich young man to sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. But over the centuries, Christian extremism has taken numerous other forms. St Simeon Stylites spent more than thirty years standing on top of a pillar as (I suppose) some sort of Christian gesture. St Catharine of Siena drank pus. St Hugh of Lincoln ate the bones of another (deceased) saint. (A lot of these strange people were made saints, for some reason.) Jesus never recommended such behaviour. Nor did he exhort his followers to kill unbelievers (he did say "I came not to bring peace but a sword", but the sword was purely metaphorical - even if history has proven the remark sadly prophetic). The monks who murdered Hypatia in a church in Alexandria, the Spanish Inquisitors, the murderers of abortion doctors, the Rev Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church, all were or are Christian extremists, doing extreme things inspired by aspects of their religion, taken to an extreme.

On the other hand, Catholic and Protestant terrorists in Northern Ireland have been Christians, and extremist, but not Christian extremists. Rather, they are political extremists who use religion as a badge of identity.

With Islam, the distinction is harder to draw. On the one hand, Islamic extremists - violent or merely ideological - act and think in ways that are very similar to the way in which political extremists have always thought or acted. But on the other, in doing so they draw plausibly upon Islamic history and tradition. It may be that violent or intolerant political Islam represents a perversion of what Tony Blair likes to call "the true faith of Islam". But if so, it is a remarkably pervasive and persuasive one - as recent events in Pakistan make clear. It's not the only Islam, and perhaps not the majority Islam, but it is a visible, energetic and growing Islam - and in Islamic terms, therefore, not particularly extreme.

Is Islamic extremism, then, political extremism cloaked in the language of religion or the political manifestation of a religiously extreme worldview? Of course, it's both. That's the problem.