From Milton to Morsi: The Puritan’s Test for the IslamistPosted: December 24, 2013
When the Egyptian President Morsi was ousted from office back in July, various commentators assumed that those who denounced him were simple-minded ignoramuses unable to distinguish between political Islam and jihad. Here was a man who had been elected by the popular will; it was undemocratic not to stand with him, it was said. Consistent equivalents were drawn with Western leaders – was Bush never so unpopular, and was the elderly accused Belusconi not in need of expulsion, of a Mussolini if you will?
Morsi overruled the democratic process. Individual freedoms were claimed for the government; it became policy to target those minorities whose unity threatened the Freedom and Justice Party, from Coptic Christians to liberals. He was, in short, the figurehead of a (at the risk of sounding tautological) deeply anti-democratic theocratic movement. His supporters have been sure to carry on his legacy on the streets, however stirred by the coup that has so stupidly and irresponsibly itself pitched against them.
This question of Islamist movements is a worrying one for a democrat. You see, I find anticipation of a coming “Enlightenment” for Islam a little embarrassing, almost – dare I saw – a little Orientalist in its armchair intellectualism. Islamist movements are a reality across the fresh painting on the Arab political world, be they sectarian, moderate or sponsors of terror. There’s Irshad Manji, sure – but it seems to me that it is in the schooling of some very basic, visceral instincts that will be the prerequisite for change in Islamic communities in Africa and the Middle-East, where they are invariably not ruled by a First Amendment or littered with secular schooling. The deeply religious in these places must first come to know a confidence sure enough to grant tolerance and patience: as searches for social movements go, it’s a patronising one – but it does identify something beyond progress’s very modest starting line.
Here, then, is my new test for the Islamist – raised from the voices of English Puritanism. Pass it and you scrape the modern test for what is palatable to a democrat; fail it and my sympathies go.
John Milton. Far from some whitewashed commodity of English Puritanism, to his name being the epic Paradise Lost, Milton nevertheless found himself alienated by the Presbyterian Parliament that rose against Charles I; he remained what we might term a “political Christian”, looking for moral guidance in the inspiration that so readily lay behind his poetry, but he stood firm against the desires of the later republic to forge oppressive laws from the contents of their halo-fashioned minds.
This is the poem with which he eviscerated these Presbyterians:
On the New Forcers of Conscience under the Long Parliament (1646)
Because you have thrown off your Prelate Lord,
And with stiff vows renounced his Liturgy,
To seize the widowed whore Plurality,
From them whose sin ye envied, not abhorred,
Dare ye for this adjure the civil sword
To force our consciences that Christ set free,
And ride us with a Classic Hierarchy,
Taught ye by mere A. S. and Rutherford?
Men whose life, learning, faith, and pure intent,
Would have been held in high esteem with Paul
Must now be named and printed heretics
By shallow Edwards and Scotch What-d’ye-call!
But we do hope to find out all your tricks,
Your plots and packing, worse than those of Trent,
That so the Parliament
May with their wholesome and preventive shears
Clip your phylacteries, though baulk your ears,
And succour our just fears,
When they shall read this clearly in your charge:
New Presbyter is but old Priest writ large.
At Cromwell’s funeral procession, Milton walked blind alongside his fellow Christian poets Dryden and Marvell. I don’t like to call anything inevitable in history; but one has to ask how such an awkward religious tolerance might have appeared in England without that first popular victory over divine rule, the dethroning of Charles I. It happened in France nearly a century and half later, and its failure in Russia after 1917 has allowed the Orthodox Church to fantasise in perspex once again.
Milton represented the germination of secular thought: a consideration of diversity, and uncertainty, pumping through a deeply religious mind. That’s a line that would upset many academics. But the same must surely be true of some of today’s political Islamists.
If they would sympathise with Milton’s poem for freedom of conscience, then they surely become that which is just about tolerable in the 21st century: the morally-charged religious who, though guided in their politics by Islam, will nevertheless prepare themselves to let go of others’ corporeal and spiritual fates. I do not think I will live to see same-sex marriage legalised in Saudi Arabia, but this is a trajectory in which a distant hope, if generations away, might find an ally.
It is the difference, in other words, between deep conservatism and reactionary theocracy. And Morsi was on the wrong side.
Always solidarity with socialists, liberals and those blunt-speaking people struggling for their democratic rights today and who rightly refuse to wait for the decades that I fear they may need; but the result of this has to be that those “Islamists” who respect them, and who hold their stomachs not to pass Medievalist laws, must be tolerated by democrats.
There’s my test. Take it.