Philosopher Piers Benn argues the case for questioning all religions
The act of hatred that destroyed the World Trade Center in New York led, unsurprisingly, to anti-Muslim feeling in both America and Britain, and the suspicion that it was carried out with the blessing of Islam. George W. Bush and Tony Blair hurriedly tried to counter this impression. They denounced anti-Muslim feeling and taunts and attacks on Muslims. Blair stated that the principles of Islam do not support the deliberate killing of innocent civilians 'Islam', he announced, means 'peace' and claimed that Muslims who support terrorist attacks are out of line with the authentic teachings of their religion. In one way, Blair was right. Social psychology and everyday experience show us how easy it is to dehumanise an opponent and project onto him all our worst fears and fantasies. This primitive tendency appears on all sides, whether in the intractably paranoid world view of Osama bin Laden, or in the suspicion that all Muslims are somehow implicated in the attacks. It is unacceptable that the hatred of out-groups in this case, 'infidels' that led to the original horror should show itself, on the other side, in hatred of Muslims.
At the same time, the attack provided various pundits and politicians with an excuse to reiterate their concerns about 'Islamophobia'. We often hear that Islamophobia is widespread in the British media and culture. As a result, considerable efforts are made to counter the image of Islam as an intolerant religion a faith that supports terrorism, cuts off limbs, and subordinates women. 'Moderate' British Muslims are regularly summoned onto the media to represent Islam's acceptable face and to challenge these stereotypes among them academics like Zaki Badawi and Ali Akbar, and well-known journalists such as Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Rana Kabbani and Ziauddin Sardar.
Furthermore, many politicians appear reluctant to say anything critical of Islam. In an edition of Radio Four's 'Any Questions' last Autumn, the panel was asked to respond to former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi's reported claim that Western civilisation was superior to Islamic civilisation. The panel, which included Charles Kennedy and Chris Patten, was unanimous in pouring scorn on Berlusconi's remarks. Such an outburst, in their opinion, exemplified ignorant, crude, racist cultural imperialism.
All of this raises two matters of concern. One is about the definition of Islamophobia, and the sloppy way in which the term is used. The other concerns the general indifference to intellectual matters of religious doctrine, truth and justification.
'Islamophobia' is a negatively loaded word. Not many people would admit to being Islamophobic, any more than they would admit to being homophobic. Indeed, there is an interesting parallel between the two concepts. Although 'homophobia' really means fear of homosexuals, it is now widely used to refer to any criticism of homosexuality. Many who use the word appear oblivious to the distinction between the fear (or hatred) of homosexual individuals, and disapproval of homosexual behaviour. Of course, one might argue that language evolves and words change their meaning. But this misses the point. There is a real distinction to be made here, which needs to be reflected in language. With Islamophobia, the same applies. It is essential to distinguish criticism of Islam both from fear of Islam, and from fear, hatred or contempt for Muslims. But all too often, moral criticism of Muslim practices, or scepticism about doctrines, is dismissed as Islamophobic.
What would be a rational response to this? There are at least two strategies. One, as just suggested, is to deny any necessary connection between criticism of Islam on the one hand, and fear of Islam or contempt for Muslims, on the other. Another, more direct one would be to ask squarely whether Islamophobia, understood as fear of Islam, is wrong after all. After all, if Islam really does advocate jihad to achieve world domination (as is claimed, for example, in a Christian website devoted to rebutting Islamic doctrines: www.answering-islam.org), if it really does say that the testimony of a woman in court is worth half that of a man, and that Muslims should not befriend Jews or Christians, then why wouldn't fear or other negative reactions be entirely reasonable?
The usual counter-argument is to deny the factual accuracy of these claims about Islamic doctrine and practice. Islamophobia is said to manifest itself in ignorant and prejudiced ideas of what 'true' Islam really teaches. And it is here that the debate gets interesting, and leads to the second worry I mentioned, about public and media indifference to solid issues of truth and justification in religious matters.
Indulgent theological relativism
The consensus against Islamophobia call it 'Islamophobia-phobia' often appears oddly unconcerned to inform itself of Muslim (or even Christian) theology. In place of informed tolerance we have an indulgent and ignorant theological relativism call it 'religious correctness' if you like disseminating the platitude that all the major world religions are more or less the same, with the same basic values.
Why do people believe this? Partly because all religions that sustain human communities through the joys, sorrows, and uncertainties of life are likely to share certain values. For example, respect for life and property, the maintenance of retributive and distributive justice, and a concern to regulate sex will probably be found in most successful religions. Moreover, if, as many non-religious people say, it is morality that gives rise to religion rather than the other way round, we would expect the best (as well as the worst) elements of human motivation to find religious expression. So it is not surprising that Muslims who are naturally civilised and humane, like the Principal of the Muslim College in London, Zaki Badawi, tend to select the most compassionate elements in Islam as examples of its essential nature, and share many values with reflective and tolerant non-Muslims.
But the idea that all religions are essentially the same is one that is rejected by clear-thinking Christians, Muslims (and others) alike. Of course, many secular people look upon internecine theological wrangles with amused condescension. However, it is of great importance both to Christians and to Muslims whether or not Jesus was divine and died for our sins, whether he rose from the dead, or whether the Koran was dictated by God. For these are issues about which orthodox Christianity and Islam are in fundamental disagreement. Their claims contradict one another; it follows that they cannot both be entirely authentic revelations.
The liberal British media, anxious to distance itself from 'Islamophobia', plays these logical problems down, partly because it cannot be bothered to understand them, and partly because it cannot believe that some religious people are less wishy-washy than they are themselves. As a result, the intellectual debates we should be having get a woefully inadequate hearing.
The most fundamental problem is that of the claimed status of the Koran as the infallible, revealed word of God. All Muslims are committed to this claim, although there are disputes about interpretation and emphasis, just as there are about any other sacred book. The Koran has frightening things to say about the fate of those who do not believe in God and the Last Day, and there is considerable stress on hell: God is 'stern in retribution'. Of course, if these teachings are true, then we have very good prudential reasons for trying to acquire the beliefs in question, to avoid a truly terrible fate. But as students of Pascal's Wager know, this does not settle the evidential question of whether these claims are true. Indeed, Pascal, who famously advocated acquiring Catholic beliefs for reasons of prudence, would no doubt have judged Muslims susceptible to a similar fate, and Dante placed Mohammed in the lower circles of the Inferno, among other false prophets.
Suppose one asks the simple questions: what grounds are there for believing that the Koran is an authentic revelation? How likely is it, that if there were a God with an extremely important message to deliver to humanity, he would have chosen to reveal it to one man, in the way he is said to have done to Mohammed? Why not, indeed, reveal it to a large number of people, who could then compare their revelations and agree on their content? And how easily could Mohammed's belief that he was a prophet have arisen, if he was not, in fact, a recipient of divine revelations? There is no obvious difficulty about this; apart from anything else, he is far from unique in believing himself the recipient of special revelations. Think of Joseph Smith or Sun Myung Moon.
Of course, Christians have been familiar with similar challenges to their scriptures for nearly two hundred years, and have developed various apologetics. In any case, apart from some 'fundamentalists', most Christians (at least outside the USA) do not believe the Bible was dictated verbatim by God, though they do believe it is divinely inspired. Indeed, Christian 'fundamentalism' of the sort we see reported, especially in connection with 'young-earth' creationism, is a largely modern phenomenon, born as a reaction to the secularisation of Christian societies and the challenge of the Enlightenment. Islamic nations have barely been secularised, and there was no Islamic equivalent of the Reformation.
Many who fear the rise of Islamophobia veer away from critical analysis of Islamic claims and practices, perhaps for fear of what they might find. They denounce critical scrutiny of Islam as somehow impolite, or ignorant of the religion's true nature. This is not intellectually or morally healthy. The real lesson of tolerance is that disputes should be settled by reasoned dialogue rather than abuse or violence, and that we should always accept that we may have much to learn from people whose beliefs initially appear strange. But these virtues are a far cry from the sentimental pretence that all claims to religious truth are somehow 'equal', or that critical scrutiny of Islam (or any belief system) is ignorant, prejudiced, or 'phobic'. By all means let us be well-informed about Islam, but let us not assume that once we are, we shall altogether like what we find.