by Sean Gabb
(13th September 2016)
This brief essay on the relationship between Islam and violence is inspired by and expands on a comment left earlier today by Keir Martland on the Libertarian Alliance Blog. I will not presume to call it an expression of his own view – though I suspect it largely is. But it does express a view I have held for many years, a view that I feel is worth repeating as often as it becomes relevant.
I am told every so often that Islam is necessarily a religion of terrorism – that a true Moslem has no choice but to accept the rightness of spreading and upholding his faith by violence, and that any Moslem who denounces the murder and oppression of unbelievers is either lying or not a true Moslem. These declarations of alleged orthodoxy generally come from people who are unable to read The Koran in Arabic, and who are unfamiliar with the two million hadith, or sayings and doings of the Prophet, which are variously binding on the faithful, and who have not made themselves aware of the different schools of interpretation of these foundation texts, and who have only a nodding acquaintance with the multiplicity of sects that have arisen within Islam over the past fourteen hundred years. Usually, they come from people who have not read the whole of The Koran in English. Their ignorance, even so, is matched by the certainty they bring to what they say about the nature of “true” Islam.
Rather than take issue with these factual claims, let me shorten the argument by discussing our own religion. A Christian is minimally defined as someone who believes in the divinity of Jesus Christ, whose coming was prophesied in the Old Testament and whose life and teachings are to be found in the New Testament. This definition being stated, there is much else in dispute. Is Christ one with the Father, or like unto the Father? Has He a dual or a single nature? Is The Bible the only source of authority, or is it supplemented by, or co-ordinate with, church tradition? If it is the only source of authority, are we to believe that the universe is six thousand years old, and that the value of π = 3, or are we to apply some scheme of interpretation? Is the Pope vested with the keys to heaven, and infallible in matters of dogma? Or is he only the first among the Patriarchs? Or are popes and patriarchs and bishops, and all else not explicitly endorsed in the Gospels or the Letters of St Paul, absolutely illegitimate? Are we obliged to kill witches, or should we follow our reason and deny their existence? Are we to burn heretics, or are we to call them “separated brethren”? Are we able to choose good or evil of our own free choice, or is all predestined? Are kings by God anointed, and to be obeyed in all things? Or have we inalienable rights that we are justified in using violence to defend?
These are the questions that come immediately to mind. There are many others. The answer to all of them is open to argument. I have friends who believe that their answers are the absolute and obvious truth, even if there are only fifty people on earth who agree with them. Looking, however, at the generality of Christians, the practical consensus is that, adherence to the minimal definition being given, Christianity is whatever Christians believe. John Locke was a Christian, and so was Torquemada. So was Martin Luther. So was Pope Innocent III. So is the Patriarch of Moscow, and so is Justin Welby.
I turn back to Islam. There are Moslems who smoke, and Moslems who shoot smokers. There are Moslems who wear short dresses, and Moslems who circumcise their daughters. There are Moslems – in Iran, for example – who have given themselves functioning representative democracies. There are Moslems who think it right to live under absolute monarchies. There are Moslems who blow themselves up in coffee bars, and Moslems who run coffee bars. There are over a billion of them, and they have been around for over a millennium. Their theologians have been almost as clever as ours, and just as soaked in Aristotle. You stand up as an outsider, ignorant of the libraries of exegesis that go into the average tract, and tell any Moslem what he is obliged to believe, and you will get – and deserve – at least an impatient frown.
We are told that Moslems are hand-chopping misogynists who persecute Christians and throw homosexuals off tall buildings. Some of them are. But judge not lest ye be judged. Under a law of Henry VIII, poisoners were to be fried in molten lead. Until the middle of the eighteenth century, women who murdered their husbands were burned alive. In France until the Revolution, the normal mode of execution was breaking on the wheel, and blasphemers were roasted to death over slow fires. Judicial torture was common throughout Europe before the 1780s.
In traditionalist Islamic states, Christians have been subject to legal discrimination, and have had to pay special taxes to be left alone. We are supposed to raise our eyes in horror. Well, in Christian states, until a few hundred years ago, it was considered a duty of the secular power to uphold one view of Christianity, and to persecute anyone who dissented. One of the many reasons why the Islamic conquest of Syria and Egypt was so complete and final in the seventh century was that their overwhelmingly Christian populations could no longer be bullied from Constantinople into accepting the canons of the Council of Chalcedon on the dual nature of Christ. One of the reasons why Hungary has a large Protestant minority today, and Slovakia has none, is that the Turks ruled Hungary until the Austrians had given up on religious persecution, and the Austrians ruled Slovakia throughout the Counter-Reformation.
The hijab is, no doubt, an inconvenient form of dress. But I doubt it is so constrictive and unhealthy as the corsetry and mass of petticoats that European women were expected to wear until just over a hundred years ago. And, if corsets and petticoats are not prescribed by any religious text, it was not unusual for Christian ministers of religion to denounce the more comfortable female attires that came into fashion after the Great War. Equally, the hijab does not appear to be prescribed in The Koran. It is a Greek and Syrian custom that has been associated with Islam, and has never been universally followed in Islam.
I go further. Until the 1880s in England, married women had no separate legal personality. On her marriage, Jane Jones became Mrs John Smith. Any property she held at the time of her marriage was automatically conveyed into her husband’s possession, and the law gave no regular protection if he promptly stripped her naked and left her in the gutter. I am not sure if traditional Islam is better than this, but doubt if it is greatly worse.
Where homosexuals are concerned, I was born into a country where men were routinely locked away for having sex with each other. I was nearly thirty when two men were arrested for kissing each other at a bus stop in Oxford Street. Traditional Islamic societies have been notoriously more tolerant in these matters, and with at least some religious support.
We have two great advantages over Islam. The first is that, in every European state, and wherever Europeans have settled, there has been a tendency towards consultative government. There have been periods of despotic rule, but these are the historical exception. Even the Roman Empire was largely a confederation of city states, negotiating with the central authorities. The second is our scientific and technical progress. These advantages placed us ahead of all other civilisations after our earliest emergence from barbarism, and our consistent use of the inductive method, since the seventeenth century, has placed us in a position of unique wealth and power in the world.
But, if no Islamic civilisation has matched us in these things, that is because Europeans may have certain advantages over all other peoples. Assume ourselves out of existence, and Islam automatically moves into first place in terms of relatively less despotic government and a relatively less stagnant technology. Another reason the Christians of Syria and Egypt settled so easily under Islamic rule was that the new tax gatherers were for a long time less rapacious than the old.
I will not say that the House of Islam was ever paradise on earth. But it has often compared well with Christendom, and has been better than all the other civilisations – not excepting classical paganism. The idea that Islam is some kind of religious virus that turns human beings into suicide bombers is an absurdity on the most casual acquaintance with the historical record.
The problem we face is not Islam. It is mass-immigration from the third world. The arrival among us of large numbers of people radically different from ourselves in their ways and appearance is destroying free constitutions all across the West. Mixed populations can only be kept at peace by unaccountable and vastly empowered ruling classes that regard themselves as detached from those over whom they rule.
And the enemy in this process is not the immigrants. Some of them are human trash who make trouble because they are trash. Many of them are essentially decent people who, but for their ineradicable difference of appearance, might blend in among us to our common profit. The enemy is our own ruling class who allowed these people to settle among us, and who have made it a crime to try avoiding them or to complain about their presence.
All this being said, I reject the Islamophobia now fashionable in our movement. I regard traditional Islam as a most admirable civilisation – inferior on the whole to our own, but admirable all the same. My view is that our present difficulties could be easily settled, and to general satisfaction. Part of the deal is that our government should stop invading and bombing their countries. And, if I prefer to leave the other parts unsaid, it is not because I am worried that someone with a beard will murder me in the street.
Islam is not our enemy.