Henry Porter: What God condones this?

Respecting Muslim countries is not the same as exempting them from criticism
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The Independent Online

A few times in life you come across someone from a completely different background, and for no obvious reason you hit it off and become instant friends. For me Mohammed Abdel Fatah fell into this category. After reading Lord Carey's speech criticising Islam for its fanaticism and backwardness, I thought of Mohammed and his views of the West.

A few times in life you come across someone from a completely different background, and for no obvious reason you hit it off and become instant friends. For me Mohammed Abdel Fatah fell into this category. After reading Lord Carey's speech criticising Islam for its fanaticism and backwardness, I thought of Mohammed and his views of the West.

His life is spent making a small living on the Nile, ferrying tourists in a little canopied launch called Lotus which has a highly unreliable outboard motor. He was a thoughtful and devout man who had put himself through Islamic college in Cairo, and is now perhaps a little disappointed with the way things have turned out.

My parents were there and for the best part of the week we puttered up and down the Nile talking about 11 September, Palestine, where my father had been as a young army officer, and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

At some stage Mohammed suddenly looked at me intently and asked about the attacks on Catholic children as they walked to school through a predominantly Protestant neighbourhood of north Belfast. He couldn't understand the level of hatred between the communities and the hatred shown towards the children. How could a country like Britain allow such intolerance when so many of our political and religious leaders criticised Arab countries for the same vices?

It's good to see ourselves as others do. We often forget how intensely the West is watched by the Muslim world and how much it knows about us - about our divorce rates, the binge-drinking of our young, our attitude to sex, which to the average Muslim eye seems so dangerous and unromantic.

Since that conversation with Mohammed, I've been a mite more reluctant to write off Islam as a medieval basket case in the way that Lord Carey did in his speech in Rome last week.

In many respects, the former Archbishop of Canterbury's argument seemed no more sophisticated than the conversation in the Coach and Horses at Sunday lunchtime: Islam is socially retrograde and undemocratic; its religious tenets cause it to lag behind the vaulting technical ingenuity of the West.

It's the old triumphalist argument. In one way it is odd for a senior cleric to make the point that "no great invention has come for many hundreds of years from Muslim countries" because the criteria used are so obviously materialist. Yet in another way it is entirely predictable for a Protestant to draw attention to this. Lord Carey presumably considers 1453 as being the last throw of Islam. In the spring of that year Constantinople fell to the Ottoman armies sweeping from the south and east. But in Europe the High Renaissance was beginning (Leonardo da Vinci was born in 1452) and very soon the Reformation would change the churches and states of northern Europe for all time. A new type of Christian would come into being, one who was free in conscience and action to earn and accumulate, invent and invest.

It seems an unchallengeable truth to most Protestants that Islam is now ready for an equivalent reformation that liberates the Muslim intellect and frees people to explore their potential without constant reference to Allah. In other words, a movement which puts Islam in step with the Judaeo-Christian West and allows us all harmoniously to pursue wealth, comfort and pleasure.

But far from taking what seems to be an obvious course to us, Islam has, in the face of the West's technical accomplishments, sought solace in the word of God as revealed by the Prophet. And from this springs the acute defensiveness of movements such as al-Qa'ida, which seek to enforce the purest and least humane version of Islam in the Middle East.

So, while one agrees that reformation is desirable, we can in the West probably forget any such development, particularly if it is suggested by people like the former Archbishop. He means well, but such a sweeping criticism of Muslims is, frankly, unhelpful at the moment. They are in protective mode and will be deaf to the elements of reason and sense in his speech. (Despite The Daily Telegraph's account, it was quite well balanced and contained some strong criticisms of the Western values.)

But should the argument end there? Should we stand by and watch as life continues in Muslim countries without comment or prescription? Should we even consider coming to an agreement with al-Qa'ida which leads to our withdrawal from the Middle East, southern Asia and north Africa and permit the fundamentalists to go about their regressive business?

The answer should be a resounding no, because whichever God a man believes in, and whatever rules he chooses to live by, he cannot be allowed to ignore the existence of universal human rights. This was the good and brave part of Lord Carey's speech, and it should not be drowned out by the indignant chorus of Muslim leaders and Western liberals vibrating with relativist fervour.

In the absence of any serious and broad-ranging reform initiated by Islamic leaders, we should insist, for example, that it is wrong of the regime in Pakistan to preside over a system of bonded labour which sees an estimated 7.5 million children working in conditions of near slavery.

In the same breath we should condemn the endemic use of torture in most Muslim countries, the absence of the basic democratic conditions, the failure to foster women's rights and the absolute evil which sends a boy of 16 staggering towards Israeli lines wearing a jacket of explosives. These are unacceptable by any decent religious code and it is a disgrace that so many Muslims refuse to address them.

Why? Because the problems are political and secular in nature and it must be perfectly obvious that to banish torture and eliminate the wicked dictatorships of the Middle East does not threaten Islam, nor the truth of the Prophet's message, one jot.

But before getting too carried away, it's perhaps worth looking at the world through my friend Mohammed's watchful eyes. While we campaign against torture, it's as well to remember that America supports many of the regimes which apply it most enthusiastically. As we object to the beheadings of Saudi Arabs we should recall that subnormal teenagers are convicted of murder and executed without a second thought in Texas. When we descant on the evils of slave labour in Pakistan we should remember the wretched conditions of the immigrant workforce in Britain.

This is where the true liberal conscience focuses - on universal rights and the global abuse of them. The idiotic relativism that passes for liberal thought has no place in this discussion because it acknowledges difference without critical or moral judgement. Nor should the reflex defensiveness of Muslim clerics who refuse to countenance criticism on the grounds that it is an offence to their religion.

Let us state quite squarely that the absence of human rights is to Islam's dishonour. Lord Carey is right to open the debate. But it is only sensible that we tread carefully in this argument and remember our own shame and failures.

Henry Porter is the author of 'Empire State', a novel about terrorism