The 9/11 anniversary has come and gone, and perhaps no future anniversaries will be as poignant and as raw as this one. But of the many images the day provided one has stayed behind to trouble me, and that is the picture of Muslim extremists burning the American flag outside the US embassy in London. There is a report of the incident here.
Clearly this flag-burning was calculated to cause maximum offence, timed as it was to take place during the special silence. Just in case anyone asks, yes, I do support free speech, and though I find the flag-burning and the attendant demonstration deeply upsetting and offensive, I would not support any law that tried to restrict such a form of demonstration. If that is what people want to do, they have a right to do it. The best attitude from those of us who are offended is to ignore such demonstrations; and indeed it does go against the grain to dignify the demonstrators with any comment, but there is something here that is worth commenting on, I feel.
The demonstrators call themselves Muslims against Crusades, which should alert us to the structure of their mental world. Their website is very up-to-date, technically speaking, but its contents exhibit a complete rejection of reason. In fact, they make it clear that they wish to abolish all man-made laws and replace them with what they consider to be a law made by God, namely Shariah. One cannot engage with that sort of mindset, because there is no common ground between us and them; they reject the facts of history (there are some claims they make that made me laugh out loud), and they reject reason. It is hardly worthwhile visiting their website, except to see that it is the abode of those who reject modernity.
But this is really what should worry us – not their religious beliefs – but their rejection of what ought to be everyday thought processes. And sadly it is not just them. Westerners who have grown up in countries like Britain and America, with all the advantages in education that should entail, also reject reason when they subscribe to crazy conspiracy theories about “what really happened” on 9/11.
What is the solution? Perhaps the whole world needs to be given a copy of Fides et Ratio, the superb encyclical of Blessed John Paul II that explains the way reason and faith go together. Come to think of it, one could even go back to 1870 and the document of the first Vatican Council, entitled Dei Filius, which condemns both rationalism and traditionalism as two equally misguided approaches: the first which rejects religion totally, the second which rejects reason in its entirety.
The fact remains that human truth is truth, and to be believed because, among other reasons, God is the author of humanity. Again this is spelled out in Gaudium et Spes. Sadly, it is unlikely that anyone of these extremists is likely to be brought round by reading Vatican documents, because it is precisely this sort of reasoning to which they are seemingly immune.
But looking at the flag-burners, I was struck by the sheer ugliness of their attitude, and their beliefs. There were some Muslim counter-demonstrators also present (mentioned in the report above) who were there to sympathise with the victims of 9/11 and show respect for their memory. There really is no contest as to which group I would prefer to go and have a cup of coffee with afterwards. And this is not a flippant point. There are the arguments to do with rationality, which must have their place; but before that there is something else – an argument to do with the rationality of aesthetics, if one could describe it as such. This might just touch people in a way that an appeal to bare reason may not; it is an appeal to reason, but to a reason of another kind.
“Muslims against Crusades”, or whoever rejects reason, are ugly. Their slogans are ugly, their contorted faces are ugly. Their flag burning is ugly. Their mocking of the dead is ugly, and their celebrating of mass murder is cruel in the extreme. These people are quite simply unkind, rude, inhumane, keen to inflict distress. The 9/11 “Truthers”, the Holocaust deniers, people like that sad old man Bishop Williamson, are (or should be) objects of revulsion. By contrast, all that points to truth is beautiful. A proper mourning of the dead is beautiful, dignified and healthy. So many of the fruits of our Western culture are beautiful, and beautiful because they point to truth. We need to point to what is beautiful, and point out what is not.
There will always be arguments about truth, and quite rightly, but there need to be more arguments about beauty. God is supreme Truth but He is also supreme Beauty. Just as post-modern philosophy has tried to dethrone Truth and replace it with equal and contradictory “truths”, it has also declared that Beauty is exclusively in the eye of the beholder, utterly subjective. Well, it isn’t. Look at what the Taliban did to Afghanistan, and are still doing there: that provides its own unanswerable argument. Look at what happened to the Buddhas of Bamiyan – this action shows us the truth about Talibanism. Let us talk about what is beautiful and what is not – surely a conversation that many would like to have – perhaps that way we can move beyond our current lack of dialogue.