Islam: back to the Dark Ages: We should not repeal the Enlightenment to appease Ayatollahs, says Conor Cruise O'Brien

Conor Cruise O'Brien
Thursday 11 August 1994 23:02

THE ECONOMIST has devoted more than 30 columns to a 'survey' on the subject of how to love fundamentalist Islam. As I realise that I stand in need of instruction on this subject, I read the survey with interest. Specifically, I was curious to read what it would say about the fatwa sentencing Salman Rushdie to death. I thought it would be difficult to avoid this topic in any sustained discussion of the relationship between fundamentalist Islam and the West.

Difficult, but not impossible, as I found when I had ploughed my way through that survey. Not a word about Salman Rushdie, unless perhaps we are to understand his case somehow to be subsumed in the following paragraph about the case of Iran, in the context of the hope for 'harmony' between the West and fundamentalist Islam:

'The hope (of harmony) even survived the Iranian revolution of 1979 . . . Iran's revolutionaries started out as snarling enemies. They can still growl and bite. But time, and the sobering experience of government, have made them noticeably milder in their foreign policy as well as in what they do at home.'

This is the sort of thing that British and French devotees of appeasement used to write in the mid-Thirties. 'Time, and the sobering experience of government' were forever about to do wonders for Adolf Hitler, and we may be sure that these factors will exert an equally chastening influence on the character and disposition of Ayatollah Khamenei.

To say that the Iranian regime has got 'noticeably milder' is not just untrue; it is the reverse of the truth. The regime in Iran is getting noticeably more ferocious, as the recent bombings of Jewish targets in London and Buenos Aires attest. The Argentine authorities at least have no doubt as to the origin of the bombing that took the lives of nearly 100 people in Buenos Aires. They believe that the atrocity was planned in the Iranian embassy in the city, on the orders of Ayatollah Khamenei, chief religious authority in Iran and also Minister for the Interior.

There is no distinction, in Islam, between the spheres of religion and politics, and no terrestrial limit to the dual jurisdiction of such an official. For infidels to seek 'harmony' with Islam is an illusion. The only way of attaining harmony with Islam is by conversion. The Economist seems to think that this might not be too bad an idea. According to the survey, '. . . Islam claims to be an idea based upon a transcendent certainty. The certainty is the word of God, revealed syllable by syllable to Mohamed in a dusty corner of Arabia 1400 years ago and copied down in the Koran. As a means of binding a civilisation together there is no substitute for such a certainty.'

Is there not? If so, the West, and Britain in particular, are in quite a bad way, as compared at least with the civilisation of the Muslim world, whose rulers are happily bound together by Islamic certainty.

The survey goes on to discuss the important thing that is in common between the West and fundamentalist Islam. The thing is religion, which should link rather than divide Western civilisation and the Islamic variety. 'Both have their origins in religions that believe in a single God and any Westerner who asks what that has to do with modern life needs to think about what made the West as it is today.'

I had thought that the Enlightenment, that potent dispeller of illusory 'certainties', had more to do with 'what made the West as it is today' than had the Age of Faith. I had also thought that the fact that the Islamic world is still stuck in the Age of Faith, and apparently determined to get stuck still deeper in it, had something to do with the present not altogether enviable mental and material condition of the inhabitants of the Islamic world.

The Economist, however, implies that we would do well to repeal the Enlightenment in order to attain the bliss of harmony with the likes of Ayatollah Khamenei. Readers will make up their minds as to whether or not this would be a good bargain. I suspect that the Economist, when it writes in this lofty strain about religion, history and civilisation, may really be thinking about oil and money. That is its proper sphere, after all.

This week an even more important world personality than the editor of the Economist has been thinking along similar lines. The Guardian describes Pope John Paul II as having 'forged an alliance with Islamic fundamentalists in Iran aimed at blocking a global agreement on population due to be endorsed in Cairo next month'. Nor is this appetising alliance to be confined to the question of abortion.

There was a meeting in Tehran on Monday between the Papal Nuncio and Mohammed Hashemi Rafsanjani, deputy foreign minister and (probably more importantly) brother of the Iranian President. After the meeting, Rafsanjani told the press of 'the future war between the religious and the materialists. Collaboration between religious governments in support of outlawing abortion is a fine beginning for the conception of collaboration in other fields.'

Rafsanjani did not say what 'other fields' he had in mind, but I can think of some. Blasphemy, for instance. Under the influence of the godless project known as the Enlightenment, Western governments have become deplorably remiss in relation to the punishment of blasphemy and sacrilege. How much better they order these matters in Islam] But this new ecumenical alliance has the capacity to close the gap between Islam and the West, with regard to the punishment of offences against religion.

Why should a writer who shows disrespect for the Virgin Mary not be treated in the same way as one who shows disrespect for the Koran? 'The future war . . . between the religious and the materialists' need not be just a metaphor. There are opportunities for the real thing. Tehran could help, for example, with the funding of attacks on abortion clinics, and the execution of doctors who have performed abortions.

Some years ago Dr Jeremiah Newman, Bishop of Limerick - an ecclesiastic clearly in advance of his time - preached a sermon in praise of Islam. He told his probably bemused flock that it was their duty 'to catch up with Islam'. The particular aspect of Islam which Dr Newman thought most deserving of emulation was respect for the clergy. I think the Pope has a rather wider agenda than that in mind, and one which the Economist might well approve. The project is nothing less than the repeal of the Enlightenment, with the aid of Islam.

If we are not very careful we shall find ourselves 'catching up with Islam' indeed - on the way back to the Dark Ages.

(Photograph omitted)

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