Children are at the heart of the battle for Islam’s soul

Last week the home secretary boldly urged Muslim leaders in Britain to increase efforts to restrain the extremists in their communities whose teachings inflame racial tension.

A paper published by the Home Office said Britain needs “to break out of the cycle of ignorance and prejudice that fracture communities”. David Blunkett singled out Muslim leaders and called on them as well as the media to deal with the “myths and misrepresentation” that divide communities.

The day before, a public forum called Intelligence2 had held a debate in London to an audience of 700 on the motion that “Islam is incompatible with democracy”. The motion was carried, the majority swayed I suspect by some powerful arguments from Amir Taheri, a distinguished Muslim journalist. After heated debate it became clear how difficult it is, even for well meaning and well informed people, to deal with myths and misrepresentations.

There are serious problems in this country between some British Muslims and the rest of the population and a better accommodation must urgently be found. Some Muslims, particularly the less educated, find it hard to integrate here and to become British in ways that matter. Instead there are too many who are indifferent, contemptuous or enraged to the point of violence and conspiracy.

This sense of disengagement seems to be more marked and growing among the young, according to surveys. Hence the new insistence on the hijab, for example. (Of course there are many who have settled into being British successfully; they are not the problem but part of the solution.) At the same time there is suspicion and anger among the non-Muslim majority, among the educated as well as the uneducated. Anybody who dismisses this as Islamophobia is refusing to face the problem.

Here public discussion is long overdue, however provocative. And it certainly is provocative to suggest that Islam is incompatible with democracy. Belief in the virtue of democracy is a central article of faith in the West, so deeply rooted as to be hardly noticed. Anyone who dissents from belief in democracy is, in western terms, apostate (however much westerners try to avoid that sort of talk). It is to deny those western absolute values — equal rights, equality under the law and the sovereignty of the people.

Of the 57 Islamic states in the world today hardly any have a full democracy in the western sense. Many others are shameful tyrannies. This does not by itself demonstrate that Islam is incompatible with democracy — there could be many historical explanations for that, including interference by western colonialists — but it is suggestive.

Islam, according to the winning debating team, has traditionally not had the language for discussion about democracy. There was no word for democracy itself in Muslim languages until modern times nor even apparently a word for equality. Democracy depends on an idea of equality but, they argued, in Koranic teaching the idea of equality is unacceptable; an unbeliever cannot be equal to a believer. There are other inequalities. To this day Muslim women are not the equals of Muslim men, strictly speaking.

One of the speakers drew up an Islamic hierarchy, from Muslim free men at the top, followed by Muslim slaves and Muslim women, then Jews, then Christians and so on down. There is even a hierarchy for animals and plants. This does not mean inferior beings are to be treated badly, merely differently, according to Koranic teaching. Muslims have shown at some stages in their civilisation far greater tolerance (although not equality) to their subject infidels than have Christians.

However, sovereignty cannot be given to the people under Islam. That would be blasphemy because sovereignty belongs to God and he has laid down the law and the Koran is the last word.

If correct, these are all knock-down arguments. However, they are difficult to square with my experience of Muslim friends and acquaintances — pretty much secularised I suppose — who do not appear to think like this at all and who are clearly thoroughly at home in western culture. The problem seems to be not Islam but religion, and not just religion but religion in its most fundamentalist, literal-minded, proselytising forms.

“Once again wars of religions are ready to devastate Europe. Boheman, leader of a new sect of purified Christianity, has just been arrested in Sweden, and the most disastrous plans were found among his papers. The sect to which he belonged is said to want nothing less than to render itself master of all the potentates of Europe. In Arabia new sectarians are emerging and want to purify the religion of Mahomet. In China even worse troubles, still and always motivated by religion, are tearing apart the inside of that vast empire. As always it is gods that are the cause of all ills.”

That could have been written today, but it was in fact the Marquis de Sade in the 18th century, quoted by Max Rodenbeck in his magisterial piece “Islam confronts its demons” in a recent New York Review of Books.

There seems to be a trajectory in most religions — I won’t say development or progress, although that is my bias — from early dogmatic fundamentalism, through some sort of reformation and enlightenment to a period of tolerance made possible by a trickling away of faith — that long withdrawing roar of the sea of faith of Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach — so that in the end there are no articles of belief for which anyone is prepared any longer to kill or die.

In fact there is by then little common belief at all. The teaching of the holy texts, once sacrosanct, are reinterpreted metaphorically, personally, privately. Religion withdraws from the public space and so church and state can be separated, which is pretty much essential for true democracy, although we have interesting fudges here and there. Britain is technically a theocracy.

Believers in any faith, Muslim or other, hotly resist such “reform” and fight for their own “reform”, a return to the early certainties, like America’s Christian fundamentalists. All religions have seen long battles between the literalists and those inclined to metaphorical interpretations, tending towards humanism and finally secularism.

In the Muslim world today the literalists appear to be in the ascendant. In fact, however, among educated Muslims, particularly in the West, the metaphorists (or humanists) seem to be increasing. So much crucially depends, hard though it is for British post-Christians to understand, on the religious education of Muslim children here (and all across Europe).

RE is not a soft subject, a time to doze off; it is a matter of cultural survival, of life and death.

Blunkett should therefore take the advice of Lord Ahmed, the new Labour peer, and look as a matter of urgency into the training, recruitment and licensing of imams in Britain. The accommodation we all need is in their hands.