Simon Barrow

How Islam can challenge those who abuse it from within

By Simon Barrow
July 14, 2007

There's a really interesting and important piece in a recent edition of the International Herald Tribune, Only traditional Islam can do it, by Phillip Blond a senior lecturer in philosophy and religion at the University of Cumbria (also an established Radical Orthodoxy luminary) and Adrian Pabst, lecturer in theology at the University of Nottingham.

What they are essentially arguing for is a strongly tradition-rooted resistance, from among Muslims, to the legitimation of terror within present, politicized Islam. Contemporary Islamic fundamentalism is, they point out, modern and heretical rather than 'traditional' - contrary to the mistaken assumptions of many commentators and a superficial reporting culture. (I think it's inevitably more cloudy than that, but in the final analysis they are correct.)

So, they write, "given that we are losing the battle of hearts and minds, we would be well advised to chart a different path. By encouraging an Islamic renaissance and reviving traditions that the fundamentalists have so violently suppressed, Muslim youth might be diverted from their present course." By contrast, trying to make Islam less Muslim (as if it was all corrupt, and non-religious modernity is all benign) is unworkable and counter-productive. Read it all here.

This is clearly related to the recent news stirring about who gets to be imams, how they are formed and equipped, and where they come from. That has actually been a Muslim (and inter-faith) concern for many, many years. And those like Philip Lewis in Bradford, and others, who have tried to get it recognised have often been ignored or misunderstood. So good on the BBC for finally getting there, courtesy of the University of Chester. But the media and government are only just coming up to speed with these things - and they still have no idea about how behind they remain and how much they don't know.

Witness, in contrast to Blond and Pabst, Robert Piggott's simplistic meme-transmission that imams just need to be more modern and less foreign if they are to be any good. In other contexts this would be seen as deeply patronising and even racist, and not without warrant. Piggott is a good reporter and probably knows this, but the pressure to dumb down 'religious issues' is strong at the moment.

So I'm essentially in agreement with Blond and Pabst. What will stop Muslims, Christians and other religionists (as well as humanists, atheists and non-believers) from developing into bigots, murderers and haters is not trying to tell them that they must become less Christian or Muslim (say) if they are to be civilized "like us". It is the recovery of deep traditions of compassion within each of these ways of believing, becoming and behaving.

I am really only qualified to talk about Christian faith here, which I am personally convinced offers a vital path to transformation and change - in spite of the distortions and crimes that have often been committed in its name. But the liberating message of the Gospel can only be surfaced by simultaneously identifying and combating the many corruptions of that message theologically (at the core of its intellectual and spiritual imagination). This requires active communities committed to 'the other way' which is, we will discover as we walk it, the way of Jesus in his filial relation to God and others; a way which has been obscured by numerous attempts to co-opt a Christ figure into the designs of imperial religion and the religion of imperialism.

Here I probably have a bit of a different emphasis to my Radical Orthodoxy friends. It seems to me that their narrative is so over-determined by the "tradition is good, modernity is bad" paradigm, that it is in danger of becoming yet another kind of Romanticism (with a huge Catholic cloak). That is, either a plea by an elite to let them civilize others, or a cosy smoothing of tradition and a dismissive abrasion of the contemporary. I don't think that's quite what they intend, but the presenting rhetoric moves in that direction.

According to St Matthew, Jesus spoke a more interesting, realistic and paradoxical truth about bringing things old and new out of the storehouse. But aren't "new things", by definition, found outside storehouses? Yes and no. It is the courage of deep convictions (ones that can't simply be dreamt up out-of-the-blue by heroic individuals) which enables us to embrace the best of the new, to innovate faithfully, to hope for change, to be grounded as we move into excitingly uncharted territory. (I love the here-and-now, in spite of its many warts, warps and weals!)

But this process is also continually reciprocal. Encountering goodness in the contemporary (think of the rightful pressure of feminism and the women's movement on the patriarchal assumptions of church polity, say) enables us to discover those elements in our tradition (the ekklesia of equals) which were actually way ahead of their time. It's just that we didn't get them. The newness of the kin-dom of God is startling. These 'traditional' recoveries can, in turn, challenge the excesses and corruptions of the present (the idea that either biology or gendered culture are destiny, say, which have been problematics within feminism throughout its history).

To make this kind of thing possible, we need living moral communities (congregations, networks, associations) which are also interpretative communities - those who take conscious and collective responsibility for carrying the past into the future in ways that free us, unite us, and respond to visions of humanity and the world which are enriching, compassionate, non-violent and expanding. This is a massive task, I know. The alternative belief in some round-the-corner political fix, or the temptation to seek a new piety (some current secularism has an unhealthy belief in its own inherent goodness and the evil of that which it contends, say) may look overwhelming.

But, being a Christian, I really do believe that the resources of an unlimited, fathomless, unbargainable, wholly non-competitive love can re-make us and enable us to be re-makers - if we start to help each other behave with the humility and commitment which is, in fact, a true life of prayer. (Prayer means "living beyond our means" as fallible creatures graced by God, rather than people who have to rely just on willpower).

What's depressing is that many Christians appear not to believe this at all, to judge from their public behaviour. They appear to believe that the Gospel somehow warrants them to compel others, to seize 'right' by might, and to defend their interests with every weapon at their disposal. Those convictions are the core of the US religious right, and of the newer UK "we are being persecuted" lobbies, sadly. And their distorted definitions of what is 'right' and what 'interests' really matter are, of course, central to the problem. Jesus suggested that those who seek to defend life to the death end up losing it.

'Christian ideology' fails to see this in any way. Thus it becomes part of the problem (essentially 'Christianism') rather than part of the solution the Gospel helps us to imagine.


This piece is slightly adapted from

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