How much intolerance can we tolerate?

The old liberal values will not be enough in the battle between faith and secularism in a multi-cultural society, says Paul Vallely
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Do not think it could not happen here. It already has. Indeed, in many ways we set the gruesome template. Arnold Wesker's new play, Blood Libel, which received its premiere at Norwich Playhouse last month, tells the story, set in 12th-century England, of one of the first recorded instances of the canard that Jews sacrificed Christian children at Passover in order to obtain blood for unleavened bread. The persecutions which followed spread through medieval England, ending with the death of 150 Jews in Clifford's Tower in York. This set the pattern of segregation, persecution and expulsion that became the model for the blood libel pogroms which occurred throughout Europe over 800 years, culminating in the cataclysmic events of the Holocaust.

The events that Wesker depicts may be 800 years old, but the contours of the relationship between a majority and minority culture - separated by ritual, culture and language, yet bound together geographically and economically - remain largely unchanged in today's Britain, where a new majority, secularism, is eyeing up a new minority, the Muslims.

The situation raises once again the conflict between liberality and authority which, until recently, seemed to have died when the social stranglehold of religion was loosened.

The turn in that tide is not just down to Islam, although its proselytising has come to be seen as the great threat to the world of liberal pluralism. Faith is on the march elsewhere. We read of conversions in the UK to Catholicism and even Russian Orthodox Christianity. We see the increasing reinsertion of God into the world of American politics. We see half-formed religious simulacra in New Age culture and in the communitarianism partially embraced by both Bill Clinton and Tony Blair in the politics of responsibility rather than rights.

The renewed tensions between the liberal and authoritarian ethics are at their starkest in the United States, reaching their epitome in the abortion debate. The authoritarians, at their most extreme, say that abortion is killing and we all have a moral obligation to prevent injustice, even to the extent of killing the abortionists. The liberals insist that everyone must be allowed to define abortion for themselves. Increasingly, there seems to be no ground on which the two groups can address one other.

The problem has now taken on a new dimension in Britain. The US may be a divided society, with the secular world view locked in constant conflict with that of conservative Christianity. But Britain is now essentially post-Christian in its dominant ethos. Existentialism has taught us each to create our own identity. That subjectivism has combined with social and economic liberalism to produce a quagmire of relativism in which all truth has become dependent on the circumstances in which we live. The rise of relativism has affected religion, too, with vibrant belief being replaced by a vague secularised Christianity with its thin gruel of shared norms of tolerance and fairness. Dispersed authority is the masterly equivocation that the Church of England has come up with to describe this celebration of the national genius for non-committal. Such equivocal pragmatism is what the English have lived by, argues the political philosopher John Gray of Jesus College, Oxford, and that is what we are moving out of because it is no longer sustainable. "This is a new situation," he says. "There is no late modern culture which has worked out how vivid forms of belief can coincide with a liberalism which has nothing left to teach. It has been hollowed out and all that remains are a few ruins of the Enlightenment and some bric-a-brac from Christianity."

In the past, the debate between liberalism and authority took place against the background of a strongly religious culture. Atheism and humanism were the shadows cast by Christianity. But now Christianity is just one voice among many and so the conflict has become multilateral rather than polar. A multicultural society has to work out entirely different ways of reconciling strongly held religious belief with the norms of liberal tolerance and fairness.

That Islam is the new bogeyman is a commonplace. The points of potential conflict between the majority and the comparatively recently arrived Muslim minority are many, but the defining battleground is education. Recently, 1,500 Muslim children were withdrawn from schools in Kirklees after their parents protested that their offspring were being corrupted and confused by a multi-faith religious education syllabus. In Birmingham most of the pupils in one school have staged a mass opt-out from the state's official multi-faith syllabus and have chosen an Islamic one. With half a million Muslim children in British schools, the potential for increased divergence is great.

The classic answer to all this is liberalism's "anything is permitted, so long as it doesn't interfere with others". The state intrudes on the individual only to protect others from harm, and the law (formulated in line with liberal ideology) is used to set the limits of what harms other people (hence racial discrimination is illegal where religious discrimination is not). In recent centuries this liberalism, with its emphasis on freedom and tolerance, has avoided terrible religious wars and developed a high culture of science, art and learning.

In keeping with that tradition, today's liberal society looks at the spectre of multiracial conflict and rules that in a multi-ethnic society all children need two things: to have their sense of moral and spiritual values developed and to be given a greater understanding of the traditions of Britain's main cultural groupings.

The Government has decided that its two-fold aim was best fulfilled through a compulsory act of worship, which has to be of a specifically Christian character, and through a multi-faith religious education syllabus that presents all religions without value judgements.

"In this way, children can learn about beliefs and values and start to establish their own code of ethics, enriched and informed by knowing how a range of religions work," says Lesley Prior, lecturer in religious education at St Mary's University College and an RE adviser to the multi-ethnic London borough of Hounslow, outlining the received wisdom.

There are, to be sure, enormous contradictions in this, as John Hull, professor of religious education at the University of Birmingham, pointed out last year at the Royal Society in a devastating critique of the Department for Education's muddled policies. There are tensions between Christian worship and a non-judgemental programme of comparative religion. There are problems when members of other faiths opt out of the worship sessions that were designed to give a sense of common values to the school community.

Where secularists argue that worship should therefore be scrapped entirely, and liberals of most faiths would want to see the specifically Christian component dropped from the act of worship, the sense is growing strongly in certain significant minority sectors of society that value judgements do have to be made. Mohamed Mukadam, a parent-governor at Birchfield Primary School in Birmingham, speaks for those who feel no ambivalence - which is why he has organised the mass opt-out from a multi-faith syllabus into an Islamic one.

A former accountant with the Prudential, he became involved in education when his children first went to school. Horrified at what he saw as the materialistic secular ethos of the place in which they were to be taught, he left his job and went back to university to study education. He is now engaged on a PhD on a Koranic perspective of spiritual and moral development and is setting out to question the philosophical underpinning of the Government's multi-faith education strategy.

The traditional approach, which used Christianity to form spiritual and moral values, developed in children the ability to know right from wrong. It fostered a sense of honesty, trustworthiness and tolerance. It gave support to family values. "So why can't we use Islam to pursue a similar approach for Muslim children now?" Mukadam argues. "There has been a direct correlation between the decline in faith and the break-up of the family, the rise in crime, drugs and violence. A return to a faith-based approach is needed."

There are many evangelical Christians and political traditionalists who agree. Their argument is that it is from the development of a spirituality that morality takes its nurture. If you move away from religious truth, then morality just becomes a way of expressing your feelings. And though most of us are no longer convinced of the truth of religion, we are still drawing on the dwindling moral capital built up by centuries of Judaeo- Christian tradition.

It is not just the backwoodsmen who voice this scepticism of the multi- faith approach. The idea that you can teach religion anthropologically or as a cultural phenomenon is absurd, says Pat Walsh, a philosopher at King's College London, because it can give no basic understanding of what it means to be a believer.

And looking for the common truth behind all religions is a monstrous fudge, insists Henry Hardy of Wolfson College, Oxford. A lowest common denominator of values can be found only by reducing religious "truths" to metaphors and attenuating their power to make the incompatible seem compatible.

Liberalism is under fire from other directions, too. "Liberalism and communitarianism, which purport to supplant or improve on liberalism, are both ideologies of vagueness," insists Ted Honderich, Grote Professor of Philosophy and Logic at University College, London. "Both get a good press but both avoid saying what distribution of things - economic, social and cultural - there should be in a good society. Both can be interpreted to justify a society of gross inequality or extreme equality.

"What liberalism has come to is a vague defence of a lot of things which relatively well-off people want and they use it to oppose poorer people who say they want something different." It avoids the hard facts that medieval churchmen such as St Thomas Aquinas faced up to when he said it was not a sin for the hungry to steal food. The essential reason why people behave badly is that they feel badly used. To obviate that, you need to arrange things in a way that is tolerable to those people.

But creating an arrangement that is tolerable to all Muslims provokes fears inArnold Wesker. "Blood Libel is rooted in a specific historical incident," he says, "but it is a metaphor for the persuasiveness of all religious fanaticism - bible-bashers in the US South, Jewish extremists and Muslim fundamentalists. In Islam there are signs of a profound intolerance to other faiths. If you root education strongly in religion, it leads to intolerance."

Such a response raises the question of what we mean by a liberal democracy. Just what are we prepared to tolerate? Not anything. A society that will tolerate even those who reject tolerance will eventually assert its own fragmentation.

What we need to develop in a post-Christian liberalism is an undogmatic pluralism that defines the core values to which the majority subscribe and creates a climate in which the majority feels sufficiently secure to tolerate even those whose world view they do not share. Religious convictions, where they are deeply held, cannot be privatised. They affect the real world - attitudes to education, family life, sex, and when people want to live and die. If Muslims want their own state-funded schools, there can be no principled argument against that. But should there be constraints about what can be done within them? Could teaching different curriculums to boys and girls, for example, ever be acceptable?

John Gray puts it this way: "Do Muslims defend their traditions on the grounds of fairness and parity in a tolerant society? If so, we have to agree to them. But if they defend them because they are `true', then we have to resist their claim and assert the fundamental values of liberalism. And if necessary, we have to be authoritarian in doing so."

A new British style of Islam can live happily with that, insists Mukadam. "British law and sharia law can coincide. It is only Islamic extremists who want to impose Islam on everyone. What we need is a balanced religion. If we use school to inculcate a moderate Islam, those who benefit under it will feel that the system works for their needs and will support it."

Undoubtedly there are risks involved. But the alternative would be to risk that most Muslims will drift into the moral relativism that has so ill-served the Western world since the decline of Christianity, while the minority will seek succour in fundamentalism.

Defining a post-Christian liberalism, which combines tolerance with a sense of purpose, will not be an easy task. To avoid the challenge will take us into very dangerous waters indeed.