Faith & Reason: Islam avoids the dangers of doubt: Dr Shabbir Akhtar replies this week to the Right Rev Michael Nazir-Ali's proposals for opening dialogue between Islamic fundamentalism and mainstream Christianity.
Saturday 29 January 1994
Islam is merely to say seven Arabic syllables - and to mean it: 'La ilaha illa Llah Muhammadun rasulu Llah'. But everyone claims to mean them after their own style. Fundamentalism, then, seems only one option among many, not the essence of that right religion which confronts, not accommodates, the secular European confidence. In Western parlance, Muslim fundamentalists are those radical believers who reject the view that non-Europeans are happiest when governed from London and Washington.
There was a time when some Muslims were so 'moderate' that they gave their offspring Muslim names solely as an act of diplomacy. After Bosnia, they have realised that even that minor concession to Islam can be fatally dangerous. Their case cannot detain us because of respect for Britain's unduly strict libel laws. Suffice it to say here that the heedless sheep finally loses not only its fleece but also its skin.
Many would dismiss Islamic fundamentalism as merely Islam with a superiority complex. Now, individual fundamentalists may indeed fall prey to such a condition. And perhaps there are whole faiths which mistake this particular psychological condition for their theology. Hence, no doubt, the Jewish theologians' boast, 'We Hebrews gave monotheism to the world,' when, in fact, God had done so a little earlier. Triumphalism is never a virtue; but there should be no veto on stating one's strengths as a fact rather than as a boast.
Muslim fundamentalists have shown a sound intuition in opposing certain pernicious convictions, which have reduced modern Christianity to an anachronism that oppresses the artist rather than a faith that liberates the citizen. Radical Muslims have not been lured by the glamour of doubt, liberalism and the open society. The secular offer is only a temptation. In a politically secure Western Europe, where poverty is tackled through the compassion of a welfare state, where disease and death are increasingly sanitised and privatised if not conquered, there is little reason for people to ponder the few remaining reminders of human vulnerability. But there is still death. And Hell is a real place and quite a few people are likely to go there.
Nor is there a Heaven on earth. In the Third World, of course, the fascination with democracy has largely to do with the mistaken belief that democracy leads to economic prosperity. The present recession in the industrial world disabuses us of that myth. And those of us who live in Western democracies realise that the question of choice between rival parties in a country such as Britain is unimportant for most citizens and wholly trivial for Muslims.
A powerless group, no matter how numerous, cannot affect the political process even in the most mature Western democracy. There are cynics who would say that while all modern nations are ruled by scoundrels, only democracies have the habit of re-electing the same ones every five years. Certainly, a career in politics these days is effectively a commitment to dealing with human nature at its worst.
There is also a trump card in the liberal polemic against fundamentalist Islam: the charge that such religion is the most potent enemy of artistic creativity and expression. The dogmas of Islam do, admittedly, prevent artists from imposing on others a dictatorship of vulgarity and calling it 'modern art'. But a man in Cairo, out to profane, has something to profane. Imagine someone trying to blaspheme in central London. Who cares? Blasphemy presupposes the sacred.
It is moreover perverse to think that only indecency in art is worthy of awards in Hollywood. As outsiders, Muslims can only hope that Western artists will some day achieve sufficient maturity to put their Christian heritage to some nobler use than merely ridiculing it as part of some overused shock tactic. It is one thing to live in bad times while a common language of decency is still spoken; it is quite another to live in bad times and find people who think a crucifix dangling in urine is an artistic achievement. For the decent man, life is bad enough without having it further embittered by the evils of bad art.
The state of creative literature in the West is lamentable. Even serious writers are repeating themselves without enthusiasm or getting hysterical about the evils of sexism or, more often, retreating into a private world of sexual fantasy. Political novelists have lost their themes of protest. What is there to protest about? Domestic politics has come to an end, history has reached a climax in the form of democratic liberalism, Communism has died a premature death and the liberal hour is over. Fantasy must look elsewhere.
Western writers envy dissidents such as the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz, the Czech playwright Vaclav Havel (during his days as a rebel) and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. These are mere novelists who seem powerful enough to take on entire states and orthodoxies. Solzhenitsyn indicts the Soviet leadership; he is imprisoned in the Gulag. There he writes secretly - not on a word processor but on toilet paper. He took on a superpower and not only got away with it, someone gave him a Nobel Prize too.
The British protest novelist takes on something called the Establishment, attacks various politicians, and even spices up their sex lives on their behalf. And nothing happens. No one from the intelligence services knocks on the door in the thick of night. If the novel contains sufficient sex and violence, it is bought by television companies: the poor protest novelist becomes a rich dissident. No one takes Western novelists seriously because making the truth credible is a more dangerous task than making fiction as plausible as truth.
The aim of authentic religion is to confront social evil, not merely to comfort the private self. That latter task, is, in any case, well performed by an industrial culture that has scant regard for such subtleties as the human soul. Moderate Muslims often insinuate that the political appeal of fundamentalism is a delusion. But this is actually an expression of their private depression; only Westerners mistake it for political sophistication.
Shabbir Akhtar is the author of The Final Imperative (1991)
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