It seems to me that the political left has generally got its thinking about religion badly muddled. Too often people on the left adopt the role of religious apologist, both attacking critics of religion and defending religion itself. I think they have misunderstood the nature of religious criticism; misunderstood the aim of religious criticism (namely a secular state in this case); and probably misunderstood the nature of religion itself along with it.
It is indeed necessary when criticizing religion to emphasize that freedom of religion is a basic human right. It’s abhorrent, stupid and self-defeating, for example, to see all Muslims as potential terrorists. But the left seems to be so fearful of even appearing to make this mistake, that it ascribes any negative aspects of religion to fanatics alone, as if their religion had little or nothing to do with it.
This approach stifles an important debate about secularism: the separation of religion from the power of the state.
Such a broad accusation like the one I make here is in danger of being too vague, so for the sake of clarity and brevity I’ll focus on one example of what I’m talking about.
This article from Jonathan Freedland, a senior editor at the Guardian newspaper, deals with the Islamo-fascist group ISIS, (now calling itself the Islamic State). The headline and sub-heading explain Freedland’s intentions:
This Islamic State nightmare is not a holy war but an unholy mess
It isn’t religious zeal but the collapse of state power that makes the clash in Iraq feel like a return to the dark ages
It is a typical and convoluted piece of religious apologetics from the Guardian. And typical for the left in being swift to blame all conflict in the Middle East on the US and neo-colonialism, while denying that religion plays any role much at all. Rather than making excuses here, they should step back for a moment and look at the phenomenon of religion as a whole.
All the main religions of the world are a system of ideas that grant special status to some people, and negate the rights of others. While the majority of religious believers may not always abuse the powers their system implicitly grants them, it is still a readymade system that can be swiftly utilized by those who seek power over others.
The sudden rise of ISIS is an obvious example of this. Cutting off hands, stoning adulterers, declaring war on Shiites, Jews and Infidels… Although their success has clearly been enabled by a power vacuum, they are religious in character from start to finish.
Freedland, however, sees it differently:
Yet neat though it is to see return to holy war as the motif of our age, it might be wrong… According to Toby Dodge [scholar of Iraqi politics], what’s driving IS, or at least making its phenomenal success possible, is not pre-modern religious zeal so much as a pre-modern absence of state power.
Let’s look a little more closely at the wording here. First, he implicitly accuses critics of religion (“enlightenment types” as he calls them) of resorting to “neat” or simplistic explanations. Well, in what way is an openly declared Jihad not a holy war? And the insistence on the term “pre-modern” is also rather curious. Who is Freedland targeting for criticism here? As if these “enlightenment types” are rushing to write off the whole of Islam a mere relic from the dark ages. As if criticism of religion amounts to nothing more. Also, why not refer to “religious fanaticism” instead of “pre-modern religious zeal”?
But most importantly, it’s a false dichotomy. There is no reason for it to be either religious “zeal” or the break down of the state that has brought about the rise of ISIS. Could it be any more obvious that it’s both? But the whole point of the article to deny the obvious.
And there is no reason why the collapse of law and order is necessarily “pre-modern” either, so why insist on it? We may find out when we read further:
The state structures of both Iraq and Syria have all but collapsed. The result is a power vacuum of a kind that would have been recognised in the lawless Europe of seven or eight centuries ago – and which IS has exploited with the ruthless discipline of those long ago baronial warlords who turned themselves into European princes.
Such is the fear of sounding like a bigot when discussing Islamic fanaticism that ISIS must be compared to “baronial warlords who turned themselves into European princes.” Why “European” specifically? Why not Chinese? Or, for heaven’s sake, the old imperial warlords of the Caliphate, who ISIS are so keen to emulate in word and deed?
And why specifically “lawless Europe of seven or eight centuries ago”? Doesn’t a more recent analogy spring to mind? Like pre-Nazi Germany, with German society standing for Iraq and Syria, and Nazism for ISIS. The similarities and differences would be revealing if Freedland or Dodge would allow them.
Nazism was hate-driven, with a racial/religious hierarchy built in to its ideology. The same with the ideology of ISIS. Both of course are deeply anti-semitic and equally committed to the obliteration of their rivals as well as their enemies.
One important difference, howener, is that ISIS comes complete with a highly detailed and ferociously strict set of pre-installed rules to govern every aspect of the daily lives of its subjects, carried over directly from the Koran. It was a bit different with Nazism. While being broadly determined by Christian anti-semitism, Nazism was in fact rather vague about most matters of public policy, especially at the start. Hitler often decided policy disputes by letting the various factions fight it out for a while and then simply back the strongest, suborning policy to political expediency. This would be unthinkable for the ISIS leadership. All the rules are already there in the Koran (more or less), commanded by God, and rolled up and ready to go. This fact is too uncomfortable and inconvenient for Freedland and most of the left. The totalitarian nature of these rules needs to be criticized and openly condemned, regardless of whether or not the left deems Muslims likely to enforce them or not.
The point of all this is not for people like me to smugly gloat over the “pre-modern-ness” of Muslims, as Freedland seems to think. There is an important argument to be had here, about the separation of religion and state. I don’t care how “moderate” or trustworthy any member of any religion is. The most effective way to prevent the spread of ISIS and their followers is to close their door to state power and nail it shut with clearly worded legislation.
There would be no need to decide who is moderate and who not. How absurd. But it would mean reducing the powers of all those who have gained it by virtue of their religion. The only religious “moderates” who are upset by this idea are the ones who are in power (permanently installed in England’s House of Lords, for example), or who benefit in other ways (the state-collected Church Tax in Germany, for example). And of course it would anger those groups who are not currently thus privileged but would like to be — like religious fanatics, for example!
The left has failed to comprehend this and has thus ceded important ground in the struggle for civil rights. And, incidentally, once you agree to grant “moderate” religious institutions a hand in government, you have simultaneously granted yourself the power to decide what a “moderate” is – a back door to the very kind of neo-colonial arrogance the left is trying to avoid.
Update 18 Aug ’14: Perhaps I should have referred to “many in the secular left” rather than just “the left”. I do know that not every single person on the left shares the perspective of Freedland, but I didn’t feel the need to add other examples because I’m not “accusing” the left holding such views — many hold them quite openly, especially at the Guardian. I am simply arguing with those who do hold such views, and arguing that we can avoid looking like bigots by focusing on separation of religion and state, for all religion. That also allows us to avoid getting tangled up in the question “Is it religion or politics” like Freedland does. If it happens in public and affects others, it’s politics. Religion is often politics.
Posted by Yakaru