Dan Hodges poses an excellent question in his Telegraph column today: what if the Paris terrorists had been Christian rather than Muslim?
He does this to make a point that should be fairly obvious, but which too many of us continually miss – that were the shoe on the other foot, or rather the other religion, it would be unequivocally expected and demanded of moderate Christianity to root out the fanaticism from within its base, without delay and with no excuses or exceptions.
The fact that we add so many caveats and exceptions when making this demand of moderate Islam is therefore, according to Hodges, prima facie evidence that we currently give leeway and grant concessions to Islam that we would not do for any other faith. In Hodge’s imaginary alternate universe:
Then came another attack. Two Christian gunman walked calmly onto the stage of the O2 arena, and machine-gunned to death John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin, as they performed their comeback tour. It was, their killers later revealed in a video-taped message, in revenge for the lampooning of Jesus in “The Life Of Brian”. Witnesses at the O2 claimed that as they ran from the stage, the assailants were heard to shout “We have just killed Monty Python”.
A day after the O2 attack, the BBC Today program sent a reporter to High Wycombe, to gauge the reaction of members of the local Christian community. It was “painful people had to die in this way” one interviewee conceded. But the Monty Python cast should not have mocked Jesus. “I love Jesus,” he said. “More than my mum, more than my dad, more than my children.” It was legitimate to insult individuals or people he added, “but not God, not Jesus. We will not allow that. If they are going to do that, that [the attacks] will happen again and again.”
It seems laughable on its face, and yet this is actually a fairly accurate flipping of the coin in terms of our expectations of how people of faith should respond to blasphemy or satire in a society that protects freedom of speech. And Hodges is right. We are holding the people of one faith (Christianity) to a certain set of standards, but those of another (Islam) to a much lower acceptable standard of behaviour, which is as patronising to the moderate Muslims of the world as it is an indictment of our failure to create a pluralistic society of people equal before the law.
If one considers the matter, do the world’s ultra-fundamentalist Christians (and they do exist) not have just as much a cause, in their own minds, to blaze a trail of terrorist destruction across the world as do their Muslim peers?
Consider: across the western world, gay marriage is being legally recognised against the expressed word of God as written in the Bible. Abortion clinics and assisted suicide facilities unnaturally end human life on a daily basis in nearly every industrialised country. Pornography can be found at the click of a mouse and immoral acts are gratuitously shown, even implicitly praised, in the popular culture. The president of France itself, the country so recently the victim of Islamist terror attacks, is a known and unrepentant adulterer.
And yet Charlie Hebdo was not decapitated by marauding Christianist fanatics taking vengeance for that magazine’s portrayal of the Christian faith and church leaders. The London transport system was not blown up in July 2007 by vengeful Lambs of God determined to prevent gay marriage or civil partnerships. And that greatest of all cesspools of immorality, the Babylonian United States of America, was not humbled for a day on September 11, 2001 by airplane-wielding soldiers of The Lord Jesus Christ.
Fundamentalism of the most devout kind exists across all of the major world religions. In fact, though mainstream believers may blush and prefer to ignore the fact (and for the record, your blogger is Catholic), fundamentalism only means the literal interpretation and action upon the words written in the scriptures that we claim to be the divine word of God.
Now most people of any faith, even the very devout, are not true fundamentalists by any stretch of the imagination. But Judaism, Christianity and Islam, taken literally, all instruct their followers to kill those who either do not believe, or those who do not follow the strict and often contradictory rules set down for the faithful.
So yes, of course the vast majority of Muslims worldwide are sincere, honest, charitable, good people. But at the same time, the vast majority of marauding fundamentalists spreading panic around the world today belong to one religion – Islam. We cannot honestly say that the problem does not originate from within that religion. And we patronise and condescend to the entire Muslim faith if we pretend that anyone other than a firm, unyielding majority of mainstream Muslims can take the lead in rooting out the problem.
Indeed, over the past few days it has been encouraging to see both the Culture Secretary Sajid Javid and David Cameron himself finally making this important acknowledgement. As the Telegraph reported yesterday:
Mr Javid told Pienaar’s Politics on BBC Radio 5 Live: “There is no getting away from the fact that the people carrying out these acts – what we have seen just horrifically this week in Paris, what has happened in London and Madrid – these people call themselves Muslims.
“The lazy answer would be to say that this has got nothing whatsoever to do with Islam or Muslims and that should be the end of that. That would be lazy and wrong. You can’t get away from the fact that these people are using Islam, taking a peaceful religion and using it as a tool to carry out their activities.”
[Sajid Javid] told the Murnaghan programme on Sky News: “All communities can do more to try and help and deal with terrorists, try and help track them down, but I think it is absolutely fair to say that there is a special burden on Muslim communities, because whether we like it or not, these terrorists call themselves Muslims.
“It is no good for people to say they are not Muslims, that is what they call themselves. They do try to take what is a great peaceful religion and warp it for their own means.”
This represents a bright spark of reason in a dark fog of nervous denial. For too long, too many senior politicians and community leaders have failed to baldly state this truth – that the cure or balm for Islamist terrorism must come from within Islam itself. For who else will take the lead? No government action alone can authentically and effectively reach into the communities where problems fester, let alone into the individual troubled hearts and minds of potential jihadis.
At best, we can adopt a twin-pronged approach, with government working on the left flank to create and implement policies to reduce poverty and ghettoisation, to increase integration and build a sense of shared collective national identity on the one hand, so as to reduce the potential breeding ground for radicalisation. But that will only lay the foundation. Beyond that, the heavy lifting must be done by those with deep connections and influence within Muslim communities themselves.
In the wake of last week’s horrific terrorist attacks in Paris, a determined core of wilfully ignorant people and groups have loudly decreed that now is not the time to ask questions about the root cause of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism (while simultaneously allowing the government to exploit the tragedy to further clamp down on civil liberties). These people could not be more wrong – now is not just a good time, it is the only time that we can face these difficult truths together.
It may not be fair that much of the burden of rooting out fundamentalist extremism must be borne by moderate and decent Muslims, just as it would not be fair if elderly parish priests and congenial bible study groups found themselves on the front line of the same battle. But pulpits were made for a reason, and people of faith are called to bear witness.
Now, more than ever, the many good Muslims of the world must stand up and assert the values of their religion of peace over the scattered forces of darkness in their midst.