The meaning of Islamophobia

Courier article

The word Islamophobic is being cast around quite a lot at the moment, and I thought it would be good to spend some time thinking about what it actually means, to see if we might be able to disentangle any truths from underneath the opprobrium.

The first point that I would like to make is about the ‘phobia’, which literally means fear, but which in current discourse principally means a fear that is unreasoned, irrational or rooted in an unacceptable prejudice. So arachnophobia is a fear of spiders, agraphobia is a fear of open spaces, whilst homophobia is not so much a fear of homosexuals as a dislike rooted in a particular view of the world. It seems that the word ‘Islamophobic’ is being used by critics in that latter sense; that is, the claim being made is that those who offer criticisms of Islam are doing so on the basis of a prejudice.

This prejudice is often rather confusingly called a racist prejudice, which is bizarre as Islam is not a race but an ideology, a religious faith – a way of understanding the world and organising personal and social behaviour in the light of that understanding. Which leads to the further point that it is indeed irrational to be afraid of an ideology – one might as well be afraid of theoretical physics or Tudor history – rather, the fear is about what that ideology might lead people to do.

Which means that we need to examine the evidence, to establish whether there are any grounds for the fear that this particular ideology (or, possibly, particular subsets of this ideology) lead people to behave in ways that would make it rational to fear Islam as a whole. Specifically, the fear tends to be a fear of violence specifically plus, more broadly, a fear that an existing culture will be displaced and then replaced by an Islamic culture.

So what might be the relevant evidence to consider?

If we look at the founder of Islam then we can see a remarkable man who was a capable and successful military commander. We can see that Islam was first established and developed, during Mohammed’s life, by military means. If we then look at what happened in the first few hundred years of Islamic life we can see that pattern repeating itself, as the Islamic armies rapidly and successfully expanded throughout the Middle East, developing a single Islamic culture. That culture rapidly displaced and replaced the existing Christian culture in those lands. Through the following centuries we can see continued military conflict in every direction, from Spain to India, as the Islamic culture expanded into new territory. I think this point is generally accepted.

Today, this association with violent conflict continues, primarily in the context of terrorist acts. Most major European cities have now had experience of this – London, Paris, Madrid, Copenhagen, Amsterdam and so on. This is a worldwide phenomenon, as a simple glance at the headlines can confirm. Those who perpetrate such violent acts explicitly claim that they are doing so as faithful Muslims, and shout ‘Allahu akbar’ (God is great) whilst perpetrating atrocity. It would seem undeniable that some of those who claim to follow Islam seek to express their devotion through violent, military means. This, then, is the rational ground for a fear of Islam – that there seem to be a great many followers who would wish to cause violent harm to those who are not such.

The question then becomes – is this a true representation of Islam or not? After all, we are assured by our political leadership (and they are all honourable men) that Islam is a religion of peace. We are also assured by some Islamic leaders in this country that those who carry out such atrocities are not faithful Muslims.

What can be done in such a situation? After all, it is very difficult for an outsider to fully understand the heart of an ideology. An outsider might consider that a division of the world between the ‘house of peace’ (dar al Islam – where Islamic ideology is dominant) and the ‘house of war’ (dar al harb – where Islam is in the minority) to be something that tends against peaceful co-existence, whereas an insider might justifiably respond, ‘this simply refers to the spiritual struggle’.

What is not in dispute is the actual behaviour that gives rise to the fear. We can discuss the precise nuances of technical language in academic terms but there comes a point when such debates are rendered pointless by the actions that are taken. What seems indisputable is that there are members of the international community, both nations and individuals, that claim to be Islamic, and that, as a direct consequence of that claim, are carrying out acts of astonishing barbarism.

How are we to respond to such a situation? Is it possible to respond in such a way as to reduce the risk of violence? After all, there is a little merit in the claim that the present violence has been exacerbated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps the question needs to be – can Islamic society so police itself that it is able to restrain the vicious extremists from causing chaos? Or is Islamic society so internally compromised that it doesn’t have the resources required to form itself as a peaceful participant in the world community?

I’m not sure that Western society is in a position to give an answer to those latter questions; I’m sure that, as a Christian, and therefore a definite outsider, I am badly placed to give advice. What I do think is that, if our own society is to defend itself against an aggressively violent and nihilist ideology, it cannot do so by becoming aggressively violent and nihilist in turn. That, in truth, would represent the most thorough abandonment of our own values. We need to model a better way, a way that, whilst still doing all that is prudent to protect ourselves in practical and military terms, makes our main aim one of extending hands of friendship and the fostering of community, at both local and international levels. Which is, I believe, what the overwhelming majority of Muslims here and abroad also desire.

Jesus once said that his followers were required to be ‘wise as serpents and innocent as doves’. This, I feel, is the right way in which to understand Islamophobia – that there are rational grounds for some fears, but that those fears need always to be placed within a larger human context, such that all individual Muslims are loved as those that bear the image of God. We need to be wise to the very significant dangers that some Muslims pose, whilst also being innocent enough to see them as God sees them. We cannot establish a Christian society with unChristian methods.

Defending the truth with holy foolishness

What does it mean to defend the truth? I ask this question in the context of the continued march of Islamic fundamentalist nutjobs, who seem quite clearly convinced that they are in possession of the truth. One thing that I am convinced of is that I would never want to be so certain that I was in possession of the truth that I end up behaving in the way that they are behaving!

Yet there is something in that description ‘fundamentalist’ that needs teasing out. One of the mistakes that fundamentalism makes is to see belief as something that people can choose. This is a mistake that really took root with the rise of secularism, especially the thinking of the English philosopher John Locke, who argued that our religious beliefs are subject to ethical constraints. What this approach misses is that no matter how much a person may desire to believe – and that belief might be in Christianity or atheism or anything else – our fundamental patterns of thought lie deeper than our wills. We can only change our perceptions if, not only are we conscious of major problems with our existing world view, but there is a much better alternative available for us. Without that better alternative, all the arguments in the world will not advance the discussion one whit. This is why Professor Dawkins has become such a caricature – he is himself a fundamentalist and lacks the necessary subtlety of understanding in this area.

The philosopher Schopenhauer once wrote “The truth can wait. For it lives a long time.” There is something important here, in that coming to an awareness of the truth is not usually a sudden moment of clarity, along the lines of Archimedes in his bath, or St Paul on the road to Damascus. Normally – as my favourite philosopher once wrote – ‘light dawns gradually over the whole’. The truth is independent of our own certainties; indeed, our own certainties can often get in the way of our perception of the truth. As the Buddhist teaching has it, if your tea cup is already full then there is no more room to pour fresh tea in.

In other words, one of the most essential elements needed in any genuine search for truth is to begin with the frank confession ‘Of course, I could be wrong’ and to empty our tea cups. This intellectual humility is the ground for any healthy intellectual pursuit not least that of science, when it is done properly. The scientific method, rightly understood, is a way of systematically addressing and then removing all the personal preferences and biases that get in the way of attention to how things actually are. As such it has clear origins in the Christian spiritual tradition which applies the same method to the whole arena of human life; and this is, of course, why science cannot be carried on apart from such a spiritual tradition. All the attacks from supposedly ‘scientific’ atheists are ultimately forms of intellectual suicide, for they are sawing off the branch upon which they sit.

One way of describing this intellectual humility is to say that the full truth is always beyond our comprehension. We will never be in a situation where we have a full knowledge and understanding; we are, to refer to one of the classic English spiritual texts, ultimately in a ‘cloud of unknowing’. As the circle of our knowledge expands, the circumference of our ignorance increases all the more quickly. This is why it is essential to hold on to a sense of mystery, and it is this sense of mystery that fundamentalism systematically eradicates. There are so many mysteries, and they are what make the world so fascinating and exciting, from the immensity of the heavens to the astonishing worlds that the microscope reveals, yet possibly the deepest mysteries involve our fellow human beings – that each person is themselves a storehouse of wonder and amazement, if only we have the eyes to see.

Which is – to repeat the point once more – another inheritance from our Christian tradition. For Christians the ultimate truth is a person: “I am the way, the truth and the life” says Jesus, and Jesus is never under our control. We can never seize hold of Jesus and wave him around like a blunt instrument, he resists our vain schemes. What the Christian tradition also says is that every human being bears the image of Christ within them, which means that any defacing of a human being, up to and including execution by beheading or burning, is not simply an injustice but also a blasphemy. It is the Christian equivalent of ripping out pages from the Koran and burning them.

In our tradition there is a profound awareness that the full truth is elusive and mysterious; that, however far our understanding develops, it will always fall short of the ultimate truth; and that we therefore need to cultivate a sense of profound humility and respect for the individual human being, and their views, however strange or bizarre they may seem.

When I think of an image to sum up this tradition, my thoughts keep coming back to the tradition of the holy fool. The holy fool was a member of a Royal Court who had license to speak nonsense to the king. Of course, what was really going on was that the fool was the one person who could speak the truth unto power because he was immune to the consequences. All the courtiers were currying favour, and only the fool can ignore the social manipulation and power struggles in order to serve the truth – which is, of course, serving the realm. The role of the fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear is a good example of this. So too, I believe, was Charlie Hebdo.

Which is what I think we need to keep in mind as we contend with the nutjobs who wish to destroy our civilisation. We need to remember our sense of humour and foolishness, for these are the things that stop us taking our own opinions so seriously that we might end up – as we have in past centuries – doing horrible things to people in order to defend our views. Perhaps, rather than sending bombs and bullets, we need to send slapstick and foolishness to ISIS, to cultivate laughter and a recognition of how absurd they are. Of course, we could only do that if we stopped being fundamentalist ourselves, and reminded ourselves of our own spiritual tradition. That might take some time.

Piss Christ and defending the deity

Courier article

In 1987 the American artist Andres Serrano created a photograph that caused much controversy in Christian circles. The image was of a small plastic crucifix suspended in a glass of the artist’s own urine and it was, naturally, called ‘Piss Christ’.

When I first heard about this, and saw the image, my initial reaction was ‘yawn – someone else trying to get shock value from appearing radical’ and to move on to more interesting things. I didn’t think much more about it until I made a passing reference to Serrano’s ‘delinquency’ in an article. This provoked a conversation with a friend that made me look closer at the image and the levels of meaning that it contains.

After all, suspending a crucifix in piss is a rather apt image for the way that secular culture treats Christianity. The culture doesn’t take Christianity seriously enough to want to attack Christians with physical violence, so it just pours scorn upon it. The dominant culture feels that it has won the argument against Christianity and so doesn’t feel the need to engage with Christian claims at any depth. Christianity is simply something to be excreted along with the other rubbish that the body politic has digested.

More deeply than this, however, is the sense that the photograph can be seen as presenting a profound theological truth. That is, Christians claim that Jesus was the Son of God. The crucifixion, therefore, and everything associated with it – the beating and flogging, the insults and spitting, along with the execution itself – tells us something important about the nature of God, and how we human beings relate to the divine. What the crucifixion says (amongst many other things!) is that God cannot be equated with human glory. There was no more shameful way to die than crucifixion, and this presented a huge problem to the early church. How can the promised Messiah be someone hung up to die on a tree? Yet this is precisely the mysterious wonder at the heart of Christian faith – that our own notions of what is glorious are what need to be re-examined. We preach Christ crucified, a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.

One of the most important implications that flow from this is that God doesn’t need to be defended. If God can be glorified even in the cross, then what is left that God needs to be protected from? The whole notion is absurd. It would be rather like putting a giant wall up in space to defend the sun from attack by nuclear missiles. The Sun is perfectly capable of protecting itself.

Hence, for the first few hundred years of the Christian faith, when it experienced its greatest growth and ended up converting an entire Empire, there simply was no ‘defence’ of Christianity in any physical sense. The early believers allowed themselves to be thrown to the lions in the Roman arena rather than deny their faith – and taking up arms would itself be such a denial. Those early believers were called martyrs, a word that simply means ‘witness’, because they were pointing to the truth of the faith, a faith that did not, indeed could not, be advanced by force of arms.

This has had profound consequences for Christian culture, not least in terms of providing room for the growth of free speech. If a dominant religion does not need protection from being insulted – for it was born out of the greatest insult that human beings could offer – then there is no need to exercise such control over free speech that insults represent. A mature faith can simply laugh it off and move on, regarding it as like the babblings of a toddler, just beginning to appreciate the effects of words.

Wittgenstein once wrote: “Humor is not a mood but a way of looking at the world. So if it is correct to say that humor was stamped out in Nazi Germany, that does not mean that people were not in good spirits, or anything of that sort, but something much deeper and more important.”

What the Christian understanding of glory – and truth, and witnessing, and violence – allows for is room to laugh. Room for satire and absurdity, room for all the ways in which we can transgress and play, all the ways in which we can be queer and eccentric and odd – dare I say, room for the religious to wear silly dresses and make up and prance around on a stage? At the heart of the Christian claim is the faith that God has acted in the world to put things right, that we have been saved. The natural consequence of such salvation is joy and laughter, a release from an obligation to take things too seriously, for fear that if we don’t, those things that are precious to us will be taken away.

Which leads, of course, to the question that needs to be put to those of another faith, which may not have such confidence. Is it possible for a faith that was established through violent military victories, and which experienced its greatest growth as part and parcel of those military victories, and which raises up as the ideal man someone who was violent and led such military victories – is it possible for such a faith to co-exist with satire and absurdity, with comedy and pantomime? Is it possible for such a faith to detach itself from the identity that was formed and established through military victories in such a way that it can live in peace with those that it has not conquered? Or is it true what the Ayatollah Khomeini said, “There is no room for play in Islam . . . . It is deadly serious about everything.” Rather a lot depends upon the answer.

The nature of forgiveness and non-judgement

It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that the practice of forgiveness lies at the very centre of Christian faith. There is a caricature of Christian faith that suggests that the most essential thing is to be able to proclaim a ‘personal relationship with Jesus’, so that the possession and use of a particular vocabulary is what marks a Christian apart from the non-Christian. To my mind this is pernicious nonsense, and cuts directly across Jesus’ own teachings, most especially when he describes the separation of the sheep from the goats at the end of Matthew’s Gospel. There, Jesus explicitly teaches that it is not those who call him Lord who enter the Kingdom, but those who have acted according to God’s will, irrespective of the language that they have used in doing so. The language of ‘personal relationship’ isn’t even found in Scripture, which is rather ironic, all things considered.

So if it is the case that, as described in the Book of Revelation, that we will be ‘judged according to our deeds’, what sort of deeds are Christians called to carry out? Jesus lists several – to heal the sick, to visit those in prison, to clothe the naked and so on. I would argue, however, that underlying these specific commands is a more general one, which has the nature of a fundamental spiritual law, and which Jesus repeats in several different forms and on several different occasions. As such, I regard this teaching as the central element of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. If we get this right, then all the rest shall follow.

This central teaching is about forgiveness. This is the command to ‘turn the other cheek’, to ‘pray for those who persecute you’; it is the injunction to ‘judge not, lest ye be judged’; it is the warning that we are to examine the beams in our own eyes before we have the temerity to start pointing out the motes in the eyes of another. Why do I describe this as being about forgiveness? I do not believe that the orientation of the human heart towards non-judgement can be separated from the attitude of forgiveness. That is, I believe that the nature of forgiveness is essentially that of non-judgement towards another; it is the resolve to always have a heart which is open to reconciliation. Let me spell out two elements of this, so that the link might hopefully become clear.

Firstly, forgiveness is one element in the process of reconciliation, and that process runs through a number of stages. The classic understanding of sin – what Christians call those acts which cause us to become strangers to God and one another – is that sin involves the breach of a relationship. That might be a breach of our relationship with God, breaking the first great commandment that we are to love God above all things; or, it might be a breach of our relationship with our neighbour, breaking the second great commandment that we are to love our neighbours as ourselves. The question is: how might we overcome that breach? In other words, the solution to the problem of sin (a break in a relationship) is reconciliation (the restoration of a relationship). In order for a reconciliation to take place, there needs to be an acknowledgement from one party that they have caused a breach, and this we call ‘repentance’. This is the apology, the ‘sorry I got that one wrong’. There also needs to be an openness to reconciliation on the part of the one who has been hurt by the breach. This is the ability to forgive, to accept the apology. Where there has been a breach in a relationship, then when one party says sorry, and the other party accepts the apology, then there is a reconciliation. When this happens, this is what Christians call the Kingdom of God.

The second element that needs to be clarified is that when Jesus teaches ‘judge not, lest ye be judged’ he is not recommending a lifestyle of radical imprudence. If there were to be a serial killer abroad in our society, it is not a breach of Jesus’ teaching to say that such a person needed to be caught and locked away for a long time. There is a distinction that needs to be drawn between judgement as condemnation and judgement as discrimination. In other words, what Jesus is teaching us is that our hearts must always remain open to the possibility of relationships being repaired. The serial killer might come to their senses and repent of their sin – in which case, the Christian path is to accept that forgiveness and enable a relationship to be restored. That relationship might well mean that the serial killer remains behind bars for the rest of their life – that is what a right discrimination on the part of the authorities might mean. Yet this is also why Jesus says that we are to visit those in prison, to ensure that they are not lost from human contact.

For this is the essential teaching – that no human being is to be cast aside. We are not to reduce those human beings who hurt us to the state of ‘less than human’. We can see this human tendency repeating throughout history, when the enemies of a society are reduced to an ‘other’, to a ‘them’, which makes the hatred and murder of ‘them’ legitimate within a particular society. It is happening now with respect to those human beings who are part of ISIS in the Middle East. When they are chopping the heads off from journalists or aid workers, they are engaging in acts which are barbaric and evil, and they must be opposed. Yet the challenge for the Christian is to oppose them without reducing them to the status of ‘less than human’. We are to always remain open to the restoration of a full relationship. We might also, of course, ponder our own culpability in creating the situation in the Middle East that has led us into this situation.

In the end, the spiritual heart of Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness and non-judgement is, for me, the teaching that ‘the measure you give will be the measure that you receive’. In other words, if we harbour judgementalism in our own heart against those who have wronged us then that judgementalism will itself cripple our own ability to experience an abundant life, a life in all its fullness. Forgiveness does not benefit the one who is being forgiven, it benefits the one who is doing the forgiving. It is the setting down of a burden, a setting down of hurt, a setting down of the desire to be God and to weigh the soul of another human being in our own scales. We are simply not capable of that divine discernment, and the prideful pursuit of righteous condemnation leads only to greater and greater suffering. We need to let go of such things, and leave them to God.

One of the most moving things that a priest can ever do is to hear a confession, when a penitent comes to a “discreet and learned minister of God’s Word” in order to “open his grief” and be relieved of the spiritual burdens that they have been carrying. For me, the most important part of this service, however, comes at the very end, when the priest says “The Lord has put away your sins. Go in peace, and pray for me, a sinner too.” I’m not sure it is ever given to a priest to say something more truthful than that.

The contours of an Unafraid Anglicanism

What might it look like if the Church of England stopped being afraid of death, held captive by the principalities and powers, and simply allowed the gospel ‘as the Church of England has received it’ to animate its life?

It would start from the glory of the resurrection, through which all the powers of death have been defeated, and would proceed with the assurance that death has no dominion over us, and is therefore an object of pity or ridicule, not a source of fear.

Therefore, all actions which have as their premise the need to grow the church, or face up to the decline of the church, or seek to enable the ship to sink in good and orderly fashion – these are all beside the point. They are the ministrations of the death cult. They have no value.

The premise of an Unafraid Anglicanism is, rather, the unbounded joy and freedom from fear that is the authentic mark of Christian witness. We are called to be so caught up in the exuberant Spirit that we see the bleatings about ‘growth’ as the diabolically destructive distractions that they are.

If we are animated by the conquering of death, then all the structures and patterns that shape our common institutional life can be assessed from that standpoint. How far does this institutional arrangement serve the sharing of joy, and how far does it simply subsist in its own inertia? The inertia is not neutral, of course, and it can be assessed by its fruits. Does this institutional inertia lead to a spirit of compassion and enthusiasm, of healing and hallelujahs, of laments and laughter? Or does it instead lead to a deadening of the soul, a letting out of the air from the balloon, a crowding out of the heavenly chorus in favour of the bureaucratic bathos? What is the definition of a Deanery Synod? A collection of Anglicans waiting to go home.

What of unity, that bugbear of our time? Is this not also, if not primarily at least substantially, yet one more sacrifice offered up to death? For if we do not have unity, then we shall die, and the rumour of Anglicanism shall fade from this world… Is the unity for which Christ successfully prayed (how could his prayer not be successful?) captured by an institutional form? Is not the friendship between brother and sister Christians across denominational divides precisely the unity for which he prayed, and about which he taught? Is not the Good Samaritan, who exercised compassion across sectarian division, held up as the very model of love of neighbour?

Why not set our manifold Anglicanisms free? Why not have an Anglicanism that preserves the catholic and orthodox understanding of women’s ministry? Why not have an Anglicanism that preserves the Reformed understanding of Scripture? Why not have an Anglicanism that is oriented towards social justice, that seeks out the lost and the marginalised and assures them that Christ’s love is for them just as much as for those who are so certain that they have it right?

As free and unafraid Anglicans, sharing a parentage of faith and rejoicing in a friendly sibling diversity, recognising that what holds us in common in Christ so far surpasses what separates us – then we can cooperate together on unmasking the death cult that animates our wider society, the systems that reduce human beings to units of economic value, the cultivation of systematic blasphemy as the image of God is so routinely effaced. Would we not then be properly obedient to our Lord’s commands, bearing the fruits which he promised, and finally and freely pursuing the fidelity which is our vocation as his disciples?

Surely, were we to be so unafraid, the marks of the Spirit will anoint the different Anglicanisms according to their distinctive gifts, so that by being all things to all people we might indeed help to save some. We would do this for the sake of the gospel, not for the sake of the institution, that we might then share in its blessings.

TBLA: reading list on sexuality and related issues

I’m planning to get back to my TBLA sequence as time permits – hopefully once a week on Fridays, as that is now my day off again! This post will be regularly updated – and where I identify gaps, I’d be grateful for pointers from the better-informed in the comments. Some of these are in my ‘to be read’ pile. Please note that I am trying to be comprehensive in my reading and studying on this, and do not assume that I agree with all that is described or linked to. In the nature of things, some of these are distinctly non-Christian. You have been warned.

Questions relating to homosexuality specifically
A question of Truth, Gareth Moore
Strangers and Friends, Michael Vasey
All of James Alison’s writings

Feminist writings
The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer
Sexual Politics, Kate Millett

Alternative sexuality
Spiritual Polyamory, Mystic Life

‘Manosphere’ writings
Married Man Sex Life, Athol Kay

An evangelical perspective
Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth, Wayne Grudem

Secular philosophical aspects
The Sex Code, Francis Bennion
The Puzzle of Sex, Peter Vardy

Traditional philosophical/theological
The Bible
Aquinas

Anthropological
Sex at Dawn, Christopher Ryan and Cecilda Jetha
Sex at Dusk, Lynn Saxon
The Myth of Monogamy, David Barash and Judith Lipton
Strange Bedfellows, Barash and Lipton
The Sex Myth, Brooke Magnanti

Historical
Marriage: a history, Stephanie Coontz
Uncommon Arrangements, Katie Roiphe

Church of England
Some Issues in Human Sexuality
The Way Forward, ed: Bradshaw
An Acceptable Sacrifice?, ed: Dormor and Morris

Other theology
Touching the Face of God, Donna Mahoney
Sex God, Rob Bell
The Education of Desire, Tim Gorringe

Selected novels, films and other culture
Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein
Fifty Shades of Grey, EL James
Diary of a London Call Girl, Belle de Jour
Shame, Steve McQueen

Interesting blogs
Dalrock
Sunshine Mary
The Free Northerner
Donal Graeme
Chateau Heartiste
Married Man Sex Life
The Rational Male
Women for Men