The problem is not Muslims, but the theoretical underpinnings of Islam
Mehdi Hasan, one of our most respected commentators, has written a piece for the New Statesman in which he points out that Islamophobia has now joined the mainstream.
Has what Mr Hasan calls “Islamophobia” in fact gone mainstream? Simple answer, yes. Almost all of the opinions that he quotes and which he brands as Islamophobic are in fact mainstream opinions; most of them I broadly agree with; some of them are statements of plain fact. If to hold these opinions is Islamophobic, then most people are Islamophobic.
Take the statement that “sharia legalises paedophilia”. Now this is not something that would ever be mentioned in polite society, but the truth of the matter is that various Muslim authorities (who may not be a majority) will authorise the marriage of underage girls, and they use the sharia to justify this behaviour.
Funnily enough, Canon Law has the following to say on the age of marriage:
Can. 1083 §1. A man before he has completed his sixteenth year of age and a woman before she has completed her fourteenth year of age cannot enter into a valid marriage.
§2. The conference of bishops is free to establish a higher age for the licit celebration of marriage.
Can. 1072 Pastors of souls are to take care to dissuade youth from the celebration of marriage before the age at which a person usually enters marriage according to the accepted practices of the region.
I am sure an anti-Catholic would be able to have a field day with these canons; just as an anti-Muslim can have a field day with the actions a few imams whose conduct is no doubt condemned by the wider Muslim community.
Now it is unfair and unjust to look at what goes on in Yemen and assume that this sort of social custom is widely accepted elsewhere by Muslims. In fact, most Muslims in Britain are keen to embrace British customs. Most Muslims in Britain are probably like Mehdi Hasan himself. But, and there has to be a but here, Muslims are not the problem.
How could they be? How could anyone seriously object to people not drinking alcohol? To people who pray five times a day? To people who dress modestly? To people who feel it their duty to give alms? None of these could possibly be a problem to any reasonable person.
True, there are certain drawbacks to the Islamic aesthetic. While may Islamic buildings and artefacts from the past are very beautiful, some of the modern stuff is hideous. But the same is true of Catholicism.
Muslims are not the problem. The problem is not how Islam works out in practice (apart of course from a few extremists). The problem is in the theoretic underpinnings of Islam. Chief of these is the belief that the Koran is the uncreated word of God and therefore cannot change. Christians of all sorts believe the Bible to be divinely inspired, but it is a human and historical document as well, and therefore subject to interpretation, and an interpretation that develops over time. Hence, for example, we will eat pork, even though this is condemned in the book of Leviticus, because the dietary laws given to Moses were, we believe, for a time only, and no longer apply to us. Now that sort of interpretation would simply not make sense to a Muslim, as far as I can see, and this difference in thinking marks a chasm in understanding between us and them.
The Bible, like the Koran, sanctions, even recommends, the death penalty. Yet most contemporary Catholics believe very strongly that the death penalty is wrong in all circumstances thanks to our growing understanding of our God-given human dignity. So we campaign everywhere for the abolition of the death penalty. But Muslims who share our disapproval of the death penalty, and who share our position in all practical senses, do not campaign for the abolition of the death penalty, but for a moratorium on its use. In practical terms this will have the same result – no executions – but in theoretical terms it means that they do not concede that the Koran can in any way be reformed or need reform. They argue for change using various categories to be found within the Koran itself. At least, this is the way I understand it, as an outsider looking in.
This division in the way we look at our sacred texts marks out a huge division between Islam and what one can term the West. Western civilisation rests on various concepts that are derived from the Bible. For example, parliamentary democracy is derived, it seems to me, from the concept of synods and councils of the Church. The idea that reason has a part to play as much as revelation does, because both come from God, is also foundational. The Enlightenment, though an anti-religious movement in many ways, was also a movement that would not have been possible were it not for Christianity. But in the Islamic world, there was no Enlightenment as there was in Europe. So, while both Christians and Muslims in the United Kingdom give their allegiance to the State, and in practical terms there would be no difference between the two, they would not do so in the same way in the purely metaphysical realm.
I am fully aware that hardly anyone these days gives two hoots about metaphysics. But some people do, still, and metaphysics have a way of impinging on reality. Some people maintain that the only source of legislation is the Sharia, the God-given path to the state of affairs that God wants. I maintain that the Sharia is not simply a bad thing in practical terms, and problematic to enforce, I maintain that God’s will is not to be found in this manner, that is, through any legislation as such, but rather through discernment in the Holy Spirit, and rational discourse. Moreover, I believe that all sacred texts are subject to rational discourse and interpretation, in the light of faith. As for Canon Law, quoted above, that is for a time only, and subject to revision. Mehdi Hasan is a Muslim, and he and I approach things from a different perspective, a fundamentally different perspective. It is this that we should be talking about; and a conversation about the foundations would in the end lead to the dissipation of Islamophobia, in that greater understanding must lead to greater tolerance and harmony. Or is that just another flawed Enlightenment view?