The AGE of UNREASON
Despite one hundred and fifty years of post-Darwinian scientific enquiry and discovery, vast numbers of the planet’s citizens are as bewitched as their ancestors ever were by the absurdities, fantasies and mendacities of supernatural superstition. I have argued before that the delusion that its sufferers call “faith” is the source of far greater suffering in the world – suffering through personal guilt and self-hatred, deprivation and oppression, persecution and mutilation, murder and genocide – than all the other abstractions – nationalism, tribalism, politics and ideology – put together. Paradoxically, the dominance of religious bigotry as a force for evil seems to grow ever stronger as the world becomes smaller and liberal education spreads further.
In an editorial of 1941 for Life magazine, the Time-Life publisher Henry Luce described his era as “the American century”. At different points in that time-frame, other candidates for the accolade briefly arose, but hindsight shows that Luce got it right: more than any other global player, the United States shaped the century. How will the present one be known? Already, there seem compelling arguments to dub it “the Muslim century”.
The millennium had barely begun when, “out of a clear blue sky”, the most profoundly world-shaking challenge was made to the confidence of American power, a challenge made specifically in the name of Islam. There are Muslim apologists who fend off the connection between the central tenets of Islam and the 9/11 atrocity, but they are confounded by the words of the Qur’an that I found and have quoted before: “Allah has bought from the believers their selves and their possessions against the gift of Paradise; they fight in the way of Allah; they kill and are killed; that is a promise binding upon Allah in the Torah and the Gospel and the Qur’an” [from Arthur J Arberry’s translation for OUP, though I have changed his own term ‘God’ to ‘Allah’]. It is, of course, no accident that the book of the Qur’an from which this passage comes (which is called, in English, ‘Repentance’) is book number 9 and the verse number is 111.
Islam has been at the centre of the world’s flashpoints in the first 163 months of the present century. A prime mover in the spread of Muslim fundamentalism has been the Deobandi wing of Sunni Islam. Deobandis are devotees of Sharia law, the most proscriptive interpretation of the Qur’an. This wing of Islam is, in every sense, the most aggressive. If it has not already become the dominant force in the Muslim community in Britain, it will do so before you know it. The Taliban are adherents of Deobandi practice. The word “Taliban” means “students”.
Western forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001 in an initially successful attempt to overthrow the Taliban whose activists had dominated the country for five years. The pretext was “to keep the streets of America and Britain safe”, but the notion that the Taliban (rather than al-Qaida) was responsible for terrorist attacks in the west was never remotely credible. In any case, as everyone knows but no politician will acknowledge, the Taliban will again be ruling Afghanistan within a maximum of three months after western troops have finally withdrawn.
The American and British governments muddied the water and overstretched their own resources by adding an irrelevant invasion of Iraq to their military commitments, for no better reason than that George W Bush wanted to complete what he took to be “unfinished business” left over by his father following the Gulf War of 1990-1. Anxious to establish his profile on the world stage, Tony Blair joined this vain exercise.
Ten years on, Iraq is riven by inter-faith strife. This week, there have been more than 250 casualties of car bombs in Baghdad, at least fifty of them fatalities and almost all of them Shias, which means that the bombers were certainly Sunni Muslims. If that sounds a lot, consider that there have been fifty times that number of fatalities in sectarian attacks in Iraq in the past three months. So much for the west’s legacy.
The Shia are also Muslims and they form the government in Iraq, where they make up the largest demographic (the most dominant Shia representation anywhere in the world is in Iran, where about two-fifths of the world’s Shias live). Shia and Sunni Muslims have been in conflict for many centuries. Do not expect reconciliation any time soon.
The renewed struggle between Iraqi Shia and Sunni is wholly a product of the western invasion. Saddam Hussein was a Ba’athist. The Ba’ath Party, though Islamic, is notably liberal – it may be surprising to note – and opposes Muslim fundamentalism and Sharia law. In some ways, Alawite Islam parallels Ba’athist Islam. Bashar al-Assad of Syria is an Alawite. Like Saddam, he has been more exercised by Arab nationalism than by Islamic orthodoxy. If he falls in Syria, there must be a strong possibility that some form of Islamic fundamentalism will succeed him in that benighted country. This is the dilemma that stays the hand of the international community under pressure to intervene in the brutal Syrian civil war. Unthinkably, intervention might produce a result that had worse consequences for the Syrians, for the Arab world and for the wider world even than the reign of Assad.
After all, there is the precedent of Libya as well as that of Iraq. Muammar Gaddafi’s regime was again far more concerned with Arab nationalism than with Islam – Gaddafi was raised as a Bedouin Muslim. Islamist factions infiltrated the anti-government forces in Libya as they have done in Syria. The present prime minister of Libya, Ali Zeidan, is a Sunni Muslim.
Many new Islamist factions have appeared in Libya since the war and several of the militias formed to fight Gaddafi have declined to disband. It was an Islamist cadre that attacked the American consulate in Benghazi last September, killing several people including the ambassador. Abdelsalam al-Mosmary, a critic of the Muslim Brotherhood’s activities in Libya, was assassinated just this week. Sporadic exchanges of fire and regular car bombs, particularly in Benghazi and Tripoli, continue to imperil the stability of Libya.
Through patient infiltration, al-Qaida has established itself in Pakistan, Kashmir, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan, Mali, Nigeria, Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco and Turkey. It is al-Qaida that still represents the most effective and most ruthless armed expression of Islamic fundamentalism. President Obama has been assiduous in concentrating on pre-emptive strikes against al-Qaida – controversially, more in Pakistan than anywhere – rather than diluting this effort with speculative engagements elsewhere.
But terrorism, guerrilla warfare and the fomentation of uprisings against secularist regimes are not the only methods by which Islamic fundamentalism exerts its muscle. Sharia rule profoundly circumscribes personal freedoms that citizens of liberal democracies take for granted. The judiciary wholly or largely imposes Sharia law in Afghanistan (even without Taliban rule), Pakistan, Muslim parts of India, Bangladesh, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Gaza and the West Bank, Saudi, Qatar, much of the UAE, Bahrain, Oman, Brunei, the Maldives, Muslim parts of Sri Lanka and Singapore and Indonesia, Sudan, Mauritania and for Muslims in Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Tanzania, Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Gambia, Djibouti and Comoros.
Restrictions imposed by Sharia apply to everyone, including visitors, as unguarded tourists are apt to discover. Visiting a Muslim country is like staying with vegans: they serve you vegan food but, when they visit you, they expect you to serve them vegan food. So Islamists in non-Muslim countries go on demonstrations carrying placards on the theme of “death to the infidel”, but any reciprocal tolerance is unthinkable. How long would you stay alive if you brandished a poster with the legend “Death to Islam” in downtown Khartoum, Riyadh, Mogadishu or Islamabad?
More than any other issue, it is sexuality that brings out the feudal in Sharia law and Islamic fundamentalism. Sharia strictly interprets the Qur’an, so anything in that text that already seems oppressive is made more so by its application. This comes from the section on ‘Women’: “Men are the managers of the affairs of women for that Allah has preferred in bounty one of them over another, and for that they have expended of their property. Righteous women are therefore obedient, guarding the secret for Allah’s guarding. And those you fear may be rebellious admonish; banish them to their couches, and beat them” [book 4 verse 38]. Needless to say, the courts will always favour a man’s testimony over that of his wife.
The world knows of the case of Malala Yousafzai, the Sunni Muslim who, at 15, was the object of an assassination attempt by the Pakistani Taliban in the Swat Valley. Malala – her name means “grief-stricken” – had had the audacity to advocate full rights of education for girl pupils, an offence against Islamist views on the subjugation of women. Malala made a remarkable recovery and addressed a convocation of youth delegates at the UN on her sixteenth birthday. She has become a figurehead for women’s rights under Islam and was named by Time magazine in April as one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World”.
The brutal, iniquitous and unyielding nature of Sharia law is sufficient cause for opposing the spread of Islam in any of its guises. Hence the European Union’s continuing difficulty with the long-standing application to join made by Turkey, a nation that, while very nearly entirely sited in Asia, occupies a tiny area of southeastern Europe.
Though Turkey’s population is almost wholly Sunni Muslim, it is formally a secular nation. Several days of unrest in Istanbul in May were centred on the perception of encroaching Islamisation by Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government. Informing this perception was an attempt by Erdogan to reduce the power of the army, widely seen as a significant force for secularism (like the army in Egypt). Several other recent government restrictions were read as Islamist.
The wearing of the hijab has been banned for the entirety of Turkey’s modern existence, a lot longer than in France, where the wearing of the burqa was addiitionally made illegal in 2010. France has a rapidly growing problem with Islam, which now counts a tenth of the country’s population among its supporters. It has been estimated that Muslims could be powerful enough to determine the outcome of presidential elections within thirty years.
Wherever you look, even in Europe, there is evidence of the encroachment of Islam on the very different philosophies, cultures and traditions that have survived strife and oppression in the past. It may be that Islam, that most proscriptive and intolerant of dogmas, is stronger than the rest and will eventually hold sway across the world. It won’t be in my lifetime and perhaps not in yours either, but the need to stem the tide is urgent now.