[Awkward Disclaimer: I didn’t mean this just as a defence of Dawkins. Some New Atheists may or may not have a sectarian obsession with Muslims – but to dismiss every bland generalisation as another instance of racist bigotry is as flippant as it is frivolous.]
Much of the Left, very dazed these days, has turned to the puritanism that Right-wingers seem to have mostly abandoned. With it has come a tendency for the Left to assume that their rivals are driven by the most base, the wickedest, the absolutely worst motivations imaginable: Owen Jones moralising on the Tories is an odd example of this. If one is flippant, he must be callous; if one clarifies his terms only in rhetorical retreat, he is a bigot. Carelessness means racism.
A number of atheists – whose gravitational pull is still mostly liberal – are declaring in chorus their antipathy towards the anti-Muslim bigotry of which they accuse Richard Dawkins. If I might quote Alex Gabriel at the Heresy Club:
The last thing secularism needs is a clash-of-civilisations narrative. The problem with Islam, as with any religion, is that it makes unknowable claims; the problem with Islamism, as well as relying on those unknowable claims, is that it’s theocratic, violent, oppressive and inhumane. To object instead to either, even by implication, on grounds of being culturally alien, foreign, un-British, un-Western or ‘barbarian’ is to racialise the terms of discussion, accepting ahistorically that the so-called ‘Muslim world’ is theocratic by definitive nature, legitimising the U.S.-led militarism which fuels Islamism’s anti-Western appeal, and enforcing the idea those who leave Islam or refuse to practice it hyper-devoutly are cultural and racial traitors – that to be an atheist ex-Muslim or religious moderate is to be a ‘coconut’, brown on the outside but white within.
To illustrate his point he takes Dawkins’ January tweet:
Like Alexandria, like Bamiyan, Timbuktu’s priceless manuscript heritage destroyed by Islamic barbarians http://t.co/D15gFcya Vive la France
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) January 29, 2013
To the inevitable fury, Dawkins clarified on two accounts – first to accusations of selectively targeting Islam:
Xtian barbarians murder abortion doctors. Most Xtians are not barbarians. Stalin was an atheist barbarian. Most atheists are not barbarians.
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) January 29, 2013
And second to those who believed he was treating Muslims like an uncivilised homogeneous bloc:
English is my native language. By “Islamic barbarians” I mean those Muslims who are ALSO barbarians. I do not OF COURSE mean all Muslims!
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) January 29, 2013
Both are important.
To paraphrase Orwell – I think more democratically – to return to basic principles has become the first duty of all serious men; absolutes therefore mustn’t be relegated to the religious or the Utopian fantasist. Calling out those who exist to suppress and to suffocate the values underpinning decent society is the premise to internationalism – not its enemy.
The Incubation of Defeatism
… disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people …
Preamble to The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948
The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights may one day be ranked as the most powerful expression of liberty ever proclaimed, Eleanor Roosevelt famously dreaming it up to be the Magna Carta “of all men everywhere”. It was never expected to be a permanent guarantee of personal freedom, being neither legally binding nor politically enforceable; in a few short years not a single atrocity of note in Palestine, Egypt, Spain, Portugal or Hungary would be prevented with an invocation from the United Nations. What it neglects cries out for remedy, and its simplicity of statement, though a great strength, consistently struggles with the complexities of application. But at no other point in history have nations gathered together to express, however reluctantly, the unfalsifiable authority of personal dignity before fascists, theocrats, and the mass of blandly clichéd authoritarians floating between.
But the hangover throbbed with regret. Not many years after the UN’s proclamation of the “inalienable” rights of free individuals, intellectual anarchism masquerading as “postmodernism” was looking to undermine it. In an age of decolonisation cultural theorists rushed to denounce “humanitaranism” as imperialism for the mellow-minded, fuelling the isolationist rhetoric, to name but one instance, of the odious Ayatollah Khomeini whose government would dismiss the UDHR as the secularised transcription of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Self-doubt, cynicism, and flagrant sadomasochism blurred into one ungodly polygamous marriage striding over millennia of Western philosophy in the name of “relativism”. Its academia sank into a mid-life crisis.
“Good” and “evil” are great secular words. Their dichotomy has transcended many languages and religions, from village to nation, evolving separately in regions of the world that existed for centuries in isolation. I think it’s a mistake, and a great shame, that many atheists and agnostics have decided that we don’t need this sort of moral certainty; that we ought to leave it to the religious to express emotional outrages – because they might fall silent on crimes of which they approve. Secular space is not created; either it is offered by missionaries or it is fought for and captured.
But this rejection of absolutes has lined the mentality of those academics who believe they know better than the “civilised” – that the only true way of building a society is to accept, ultimately, that there isn’t one.
Perhaps this attitude’s most lasting apologia was Edward Said’s sweeping assault on the orientalist tradition in Western scholarship – it was both a symptom and a cause, he believed, that orientalism now only makes sense as the propagandist machine of the imperial project: in engaging in a conscious effort to misrepresent foreign cultures as backward and inferior, a colonial aggressor felt at liberty to “civilise” them. Everyone in the age of imperialism was a racist Euro-supremacist, Said claimed, which he sought to justify – to the disdain of imperial historian Bernard Porter, who has found little evidence in his Absent-Minded Imperialists – in tenuous literary imagery pre-empting paragraph after paragraph of claustrophobic “analysis” before the final write-off of the author in question as a stooge of foreign aggression. (In Culture and Imperialism there’s a very strange passage accusing Jane Austen – whose novels barely even mentioned the Napoleonic Wars – of promulgating labour exploitation through her silence on empire and the emotional withdrawal it apparently represented. See Unrepentant Jacobin’s blog for a brilliant and much more comprehensive post on Saidism.)
Nonetheless, for the all the deficiencies of post-colonialist thought it might still have seemed very reasonable that the earliest victims of Said’s argument were loaded phrases like “barbarianism”. After all, the horrors of African colonialism that some contemporaries justified in the name of “progress” now seem too absurd for serious scholarship; Rudyard Kipling’s infamous The White Man’s Burden charged the English with the ineluctable duty “to serve your captives’ need” and bring barbaric peoples “towards the light”, a path apparently lit by the intermittent fires of war, genocide, ethnic cleansing and enslavement for those who resisted the imposition of rule by gunboat, diocese, and caste. This so-called “liberal” justification for the atrocities – “civilising the savage” – managed to creep even as far as the socialist Fabians, whom Ramsay MacDonald was compelled to abandon when they refused to condemn the Boer Wars.
Considering the long history of “barbarianism” this should hardly have come as a surprise. It doesn’t come from a very politically correct ancient world: the Proto-Indo-European barbar – which pre-empted the Greek barbaros and Latin barbaria for “foreigner” and “foreign country”, respectively – mimics the unintelligible ramblings of an alien. St Augustine would write the lengthy polemic City of God in order to make sense of the fall of great Roman cities to the murderous Alaric; and though the European humanists swore adoration for Rome they never departed from their Gothic and pagan inheritance, understanding better than their ancient forebears that not all “barbarian” cultures could be dismissed without merit. Consider how the conquistadors – the Pope’s military muscle in the New World – saw it their first duty to conquer the native Americans whose immodesty of clothing apparently revealed an equal poverty of the mind.
Given this history and its tradition of merciless ironies, surely – just surely – we wouldn’t be so stupid as to invent our own savages?
Identifying the Barbarian
“Barbarian” and “savage” have not always been purely racial terms.
The reason that every colonial power got it wrong was because they all shared in the same ridiculous presumption: that an individual’s ethnicity made them a barbarian for the sole reason that they had not produced laws as “advanced” of those in whose judgement they sat. Through the adoption of customs originating in the land of the expansionists, they could they become “civilised”. In the classical world this racial link was only implicit, the Franks merrily absorbed into the Roman Empire while the Saxons continuing to appear to be wintry nomads for failing to see any virtue in Italy’s fading pyres. But by the 19th century technological industrialism had dwarfed whatever instruments the “barbarians” could offer; and with the advent of pseudo-sciences in the likes social Darwinism and phrenology this was codified into an explicitly racist set of assumptions about the genetic foundations of “alien” societies.
But in the 17th century there had been something of a respite to this thinking with John Dryden’s pitying indictment of the “noble savage”; although deeply condescending, only now does the phrase appear to be an oxymoron, contemporaries meaning the word “savage” as an equivalent for what we today would supply “person from another country” (though almost certainly with implications of skin colour). As a romanticism of the foreigner whose relationship with nature endowed him with values equivalent to the “civilised” virtues of England, it made a crucial point: foreign customs may indeed be “noble” but that is not a vindication of times in which they are not. Cultural toleration does not have to mean moral relativism. That points towards what today we would identify as religious and ethnic pluralism under a constitution constrained by moral parameters to human rights, and to the civil liberties they predicate.
It is the tradition around Dryden’s sentiments – which seems to have ended before the African conquest from the 1880s – that we have and will build upon in the modern world. The UDHR rules on “inalienable” rights for the very reason that no individual in the world is foreign to them: they are universal, and people are at liberty to demand them if and when they please.
Anybody who therefore uses violence to deprive people of equality from birth, to suppress and fight freedom and preservation of culture and of thought – and to murder for these ends and without remorse – is a barbarian.
That’s not a racial term; it’s written in the preamble to the UN’s greatest cause on a morality that has no bearing on nationality. It doesn’t mean “un-British” or “un-American” but anti-human. The commitment to internationalism and universality that it makes necessary is the very definition of anti-racism.
Fighting the Barbarian
It’s for this reason that it’s so intensely patronising – and very eurocentric – to presume that it’s only privileged white atheists and Christians in the West who hold especial contempt for acts of Islamic jihad:
Horrific and barbaric act in Woolwich. My prayers and condolences go out to victim’s family. How do humans commit such un-human acts?
— Mehdi Hasan (@mehdirhasan) May 22, 2013
That “b” word again – and from a devout Muslim, no less.
The most numerous – and targeted – of all of the victims of Islamic barbarianism are fellow Muslims. It was not a “civilised” person who blew up the al-Askari mosque in 2006, one of the holiest – and most extraordinary – Shi’ah sites in the world:
Massoud’s assassination was an attack, to take but one target, on Afghan women; it would be Muslim Malians who would be deprived of international aid by fanatics objecting to the presence of women in the crowd; it is Syrian and Iraqi Muslims who are currently caught in a conflict all too attractive to clerical fascists leaching on their material poverty and surplus of pessimism. In every case, “barbarian” is the only word that could possibly be used to describe those willing to kill to impose a murderous ideology – one which is alien to fellow Muslims.
“Don’t fuel the fires!”
So why then did Dawkins, unlike Hasan, feel it necessary to add the unnecessary label of “Islamic” to certain acts of cruelty or barbarianism? I would give the following explanation.
It is impossible to imagine how sociology might have developed without the contributions of Max Weber. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit Capitalism posed an historical, and to a degree empirically answerable, question: why was it that Puritan religious countries, rather than their Catholic, Lutheran or Islamic foes, were the first to succeed in developing industrial capitalism? One cannot, he pointed out rather obviously, understand different historical trajectories undergone by societies and their religions without first addressing what distinguished them.
By today’s standards this academic – who wrote lectures stressing the importance of objective scholarship – is a racist.
It has become somewhat fashionable in recent years to dismiss all religions as inherently the same. The atheist sees them all to be false, and therefore always leading to a conviction in man-made ideas which, at their most extreme, can incite believers to commit horrific abuses driven by the presumption that God is on their side.
But are we really to pretend that all religions – and the followers of their respective deities – are the same? That they have neither been shaped nor shaped common social features and shared religious property? Is it racist not to presume that no one religious outlook has anymore tendency to evil than its rivals? Is it possible that the Islamic, or the Judeo-Christian, or the Hindu religions and their respective denominations vary in their general outlooks on the world? In this context, put this tweet:
All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) August 8, 2013
Is it possible that, in fact, it is partly due to common religious principles that Muslim societies have such poor records in education?
In his post, Alex spends some time talking about Dawkins’ connection – both implicit and acknowledged – with the English Defence League and horrid crackpots like Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer, Geert Wilders and Pat Condell. He writes:
It should be no surprise these people now claim the Dawkins name-brand in their support: a rhetoric which objects to Islam and Islamism as foreign, alien, un-British, at odds with Western values, barbarian and so on plays straight into their hands – and indeed into Islamists’, who trade on the idea democracy, freedom, human rights and secularity are Western notions, and that adopting them constitutes cultural betrayal.
I won’t condone any support for these people – but that is not say that they have never uttered a word of morally-palatable sense. Just because the right-wing press says it’s true doesn’t mean it isn’t, as Orwell said, which he then explained more fully:
Whenever A and B are in opposition to one another, anyone who attacks or criticises A is accused of aiding and abetting B. And it is often true, objectively and on a short-term analysis, that he is making things easier for B. Therefore, say the supporters of A, shut up and don’t criticise: or at least criticise “constructively,” which in practice always means favourably. And from this it is only a short step to arguing that the suppression and distortion of known facts is the highest duty of a journalist.
The postmodern assumption that religions are “without fundamentals” is an utterly pointless remark: if the corollary that all of a given religion’s followers therefore share nothing in common – rituals, practices, holy sites, books, parables, folk tales or gods – is not then made, then there remains an imperative to identify what is broadly common. Weber looked for the “ideal-type” – the abstract projection of a religious follower from which every actual believer would deviate it some degree, but which would and can be necessary to make empirical arguments.
And demonstrating how these broadly common factors might or might not condone barbaric actions should not be suffocated in case nationalists seize upon them to denigrate entire communities. One can and should point out that parts of the Koran can lead to “barbaric” acts without then endorsing anti-Muslim (and by implication anti-Islamic) sectarianism. If one rejects every point in Wilders Fitna simply because they were intended to justify racist policies, then one leaves some of the most important moral criticisms of religion in the hands of nationalist thugs. That is how the issue is polarised; that is how one stokes a “clash of civilisations”.
Did foreign criticism of the old Tutsi monopoly on Rwandan government cause the Rwandan genocide? Did our disgust with the small number of atrocities committed by Bosnian Muslims mean that we could not also oppose the ethnic cleansing carried out by Serbian forces? Does the evolving – or devolving, perhaps – of the Free Syrian Army into sectarianism prevent us from sending aid to the civilians there, or mean that we have to support Assad’s government?
Indeed, we are above naming any war a “class of civilisations”. It is to elevate atrocities to a level of which they are undeserving: barbarians would replace a society allowing for freedom of conscience with whatever tyranny might arise from their blood-soaked totalitarian insurgency. Most Muslims are on the right side – and it’s a nakedly perverse paradox to say that this was a war initiated by humanitarian principles.
It was not on Dawkins’ orders that Boko Haram – whose name means “Western education is sinful” – declared war on every manifestation of what they see to be “foreign” philosophy, elements including the rights to education sought by most Nigerians, who in turn become traitors for whom the punishment is murder or detonation. Add to these Islamic imperialists the Malian Ansar Dine whose expansionism under the guise of Sharia has hijacked whatever rights the Tuareg might have ever had to self-determination, adding eschatological justification to the region’s still deeply-ingrained problem with slavery. It was the anti-fundamentalist Ahmad Shah Massoud whose assassination at the hands of the Taliban would occur two days before the fall of the Twin Towers; his support for the rights of Afghan women and cultural freedom would allow Islamists to put him as a stooge to “the West”. They have embraced the status of “alien” since it confers religious exaltation.
Nor would any decent New Atheist claim, just as Dawkins does now, that barbarians are all Islamic. The Christian white supremacists of the Ku Klux Klan, torch in hand, murdered and pillaged in aversion to the very first article of the UDHR; the slave labour of High Stalinism was just as evil as that authorised by Tuareg Islamists; say nothing beyond the probable claims of cannibalism within the ranks of the Lord’s Resistance Army; and Orthodox (or perhaps simply highly masculinised) Russians who assault gay pride protesters are, indeed, manifestly wicked. Savagery might be everywhere; but it is not racist to ask whether some religions or non-religious ideologies, more than others, warm to it, and not imperialistic to decry those who embrace it.
“For the union makes us strong!”
So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot.
‘Inside the Whale’, George Orwell
I didn’t intend this post to be so long; congratulations if you made it, for thou art a noble savage (and damn you to hell if not). But the problems with New Atheism are not simple-minded instances of bigotry and racism. Dawkins is a clever and eloquent academic who does not need prattling teenagers like me defending him; if he is careless with his language, or if he endorses the bigots rather than whatever few decent points a bigot may have to offer, then he is being provocatively flippant.
It is perfectly possible to conceive of evils as barbarian; it is the first imperative of the internationalist to do so, irrespective of the religions and societies with which he is confronted. The methods of Islamic fanaticism are as alien to the moderates who share their faith. As the clash between Mehdi Hasan and Irshad Manji showed, some Muslims accept that the Koran can incite violence, while others do not; but, as with any decent New Atheist, no moderate would consider extremists “civilised”.
Let’s stop calling legitimate criticism of barbarism – Islamic or not – “racist”. This is very, very important.
In case the origins of Wadjda were found to be inspiring a little too much liberal wish-wash about the present situation in Saudi Arabia, here’s a brief reminder of how its authorities deal with actual dissent:
A Saudi court sentenced on Monday a rights activist to seven years in jail and 600 lashes for setting up a “liberal” network and alleged insults to Islam, activists said.
“Raef Badawi has been sentenced to seven years in jail and 600 lashes,” lawyer Waleed Abualkhair wrote on his Twitter account, adding that the judge ordered the closure of the website of the Saudi Liberal Network.
He said Badawi, a co-founder of the Saudi Liberal Network, was charged with criticizing the religious police, as well as calling for “religious liberalization.”
Change in Saudi Arabia is going to require more courageous activists – and international support for them – like Badawi if they are to succeed in remolding their society, as Al-Mansour implied in the post linked above. Although the process at the grassroots will take longer, an object of protest can very easily be found in the clerics and officials surrounding the monarchy.
Take Salwa al Mutairi, an ex-politician whose abhorrent obsequiousness to the Medieval traditions is fortunately anomalous in Kuwait; her call for men to be free to “purchase” female sex slaves – if necessary, from refugee camps – was, she says, verified by a number of Saudi clerics:
Mutairi said that during a recent visit to Mecca, she asked Saudi muftis – Muslim religious scholars – what the Islamic ruling was on owning sex slaves. They are said to have told her that it is not haram.
The ruling was confirmed by ‘specialized people of the faith’ in Kuwait, she claimed.
‘They said, that’s right, the only solution for a decent man who has the means, who is overpowered by desire and who does not want to commit fornication, is to acquire jawari.’ Jawari is the plural of the Arabic term jariya, meaning ‘concubine’ or ‘sex slave’.
One Saudi mufti supposedly told Mutairi: ‘The context must be that of a Muslim nation conquering a non-Muslim nation, so these jawari have to be prisoners of war.’
Concubines, she argued, would suit Muslim men who fear being ‘seduced or tempted into immoral behaviour by the beauty of their female servants’.
The most hideous evils are, to better eyes, as ludicrous as they are sterile.
Someone should invite King Abdullah in on the joke.
Two equally flippant extremes on the recent violence in Cairo and Alexandria:
Unsurprisingly, neither standpoint is unfounded. On the one hand, we have evidence of unarmed civilians shot by passing Egyptian security forces. Then again, we have pro-Morsi supporters pouring petrol over the entrance to Cairo International airport. Both sides are large, and come both peacefully and with their violent edges. General Sisi’s call for populist rallies to legitimise his coup would, a few days later, stoke further rallies in support of the deposed president.
In any deeply divided society, populism is its greasiest but most dangerous political lubricant. Why, after all, should you bother acting democratically – or even constitutionally – if you can deafen the streets with those chanting your name? The revolution continues; though, it might be said, in two ominously different directions, under two undemocratic banners – each trying desperately to show the least care for the other side.
When in power, the Muslim Brotherhood banned any future president from being either Coptic or female (that’s 60% of the population right there). In a recent interview with Mada Masr, Freedom and Justice advisor and MB spokesman Gehad el-Haddad expressed no regret for this: to the contrary, Morsi’s biggest failing was not to go far enough:
The big mistake that the president made was not to carry the revolutionary spirit into governmental reforms…We literally allowed this coup to happen because he wasn’t as forceful as he should have been…The president made a decision early on to [rule] by the book. Many objected to his decisions, even inside the Brotherhood. He decided to respect the corrupt heritage that was left for him, and that includes a corrupt constitutional court, a corrupt judiciary, and a corrupt set of regulations and laws that are literally designed to trap anyone in office.
For “corrupt”, replace with “secular”. It leads to the same conclusion: that the dreamy air of Muslim Brotherhood HQ would have raced for a Turkish-style army coup in order to prevent them from doing the same. The free election of 2012 had already been subverted beyond recall by 3rd July when Sisi took the reigns. But that does not justify legally questionable methods to remove Morsi’s supporters from the streets, nor his unofficial, unknown detention (nor the raids – none of it).
Last year’s narrow election would realise the undemocratic realities of a majority-ruled democracy for a polarised electorate; it might be hoped that the coming election will not result from the very same failures. Without a solid constitution – guaranteeing the place of the military, basic human rights and a secular framework in which a civil bureaucracy might operate – the realities of those Egyptians who demand a peaceful and economically stable nation will never be met.
Unfortunately, whether this will emerge from a bloody dialectic between Mubarak ghouls and the vainglory of would-be theocrats only time can tell.
If you’re looking for insight into Saudi culture – optimism included – you might enjoy this interview with Haifaa Al-Mansour, the writer and director of Wadjda:
I am really looking forward to watching this film – about a Saudi girl’s determination to buy the bike of which her relatives deprive her. A few things stand out for me:
Al-Mansour states, explicitly, that her objectives were never intended to be political, or even polemical. Although she is conscious of the inevitable stirring she will cause in her home country – once it finally reaches the TV sets, cinemas being illegal – her central image is the innocence of childhood, not its corruption; by its nature it contends with something universal to the memories of all other Saudi women. Why is this significant?
It’s together with Al-Mansour’s rather warm appreciation of the ironic that I think justification for optimism might be found:
The post-9/11 Saudi government – suddenly conscious, as if surprised, that Wahhabi Islam might encourage jihadism – has introduced some token reforms to its systems to appease the White House, which though churned turgid by clerical conservatism might anticipate “giant steps” yet to come. Now, one wouldn’t expect subtle developments in how Saudi women view themselves to be recorded – not if, as she implies herself, women feel as invisible as they are.
But here we have a writer – of a comparatively “liberal” background, admittedly – who sees no real importance to a film exploring instances in which humour stands independent from the primitive, totalitarian background that produces it. Does this point to something wider, something shifting? Al-Mansour’s first film depicted a criminal who wore a burka to escape the law, for example, very much in contrast to the likes of Persepolis in which a girl comes of age under the regressing forces of the Islamic Revolution. Tragedy and satirical detachment arise from pessimism, decline; but comic irony is the signal fire of reformism and the nuance of cultural consciousness.
Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer – critics of “Islamization”, as they call it, as well as founders of various anti-Islam foundations – were recently banned from entering the United Kingdom. It is the conviction of the Home Office that they are much worse than those who would overthrow the very constitution of this country.
In its letter to the duo, they invoked the “Unacceptable Behaviour Policy” as justification for barring them from British territory – that is, actions of speech that might foster inter-communal division; despite the long-established tradition in which stability is almost always hostile to liberty. Consensus is democracy’s most vicious opponent – and it’s patronising and degrading for parliamentarians to be making the arguments of decent Muslims for them.
“Freedom of speech” can’t ever be absolute, legally, because many existing laws can be broken through verbal and written communication: contempt of court, plagiarism, incitement to murder and breach of confidentiality to name a few. “Hate”, though, can only ever be a thought crime – the definition and origin of all totalitarianism governance.
That Geller and Spencer are irritants incapable of separating “moderate” Muslims from their fascistic counterparts should have no bearing on whether or not they are allowed entrance into the UK.
A year ago, I suspect the blogosphere was in fits over Egypt. The army had allayed the fears of those suspecting an army takeover and two candidates were in the run for the presidency: Morsi, sponsored by the Muslim Brotherhood, and Ahmed Shafik as the spectre of the Mubarak government.
Religion has a habit of screwing over the political spectrum. For many secular Egyptians, a vote for progress paradoxically became a vote for radical Islam; meanwhile Shafik bled nostalgia for the very system that the elections were intended to reject. What a caricature – a revolutionary is meant to be spoiled for choice!
There was a quiet wonder, though, which seemed to skip over foreign commentary like a pebble on the sea – waiting to drop. Morsi proved to be the first real triumph for Islamism, even by the eyes of the West; Sharia nestled into the ballot station, and it did so unarmed. It won a free election. But today the paradox proved to be unraveling.
The thousands marching in Tahrir Square and outside the presidential palace tells us that last year’s polar election was not as theatrical as we might be led to believe: it was not interpreted as a choice between theocracy and militarised oligarchy, but on principles which seem both secular and moderate. The army deflected Morsi’s Islamic dreams from the law and revealed his poverty of solutions to the economic crisis.
When people found poverty they did not turn to extremist Islam, but judged it by what it delivered and found it wanting. Islamism fought the election, and won; but then it realised it had chosen to answer questions on which it had little to say. Unsurprisingly, Morsi’s popularity has plummeted from 79% last autumn to a mere 32% today.
A lingering fear does of course persist: the Egyptian army now holds more authority there than Turkey’s did under Atatürk. Protesters in Tahrir Square demand Morsi step-down; it’s not the constitution to which they are opposed. Rhetoric, though, screams revolution – worryingly fitting given a military presence forced to live up to the expectations it has set itself. (There is currently speculation that the presidential palace is being left unguarded.) 32% is a low approval rating, but one not a lot lower than David Cameron’s in the UK.
So where does the revolution lie? In the pockets of benevolent army officials, the footsteps of Cairo, or the grim calm of the ballot office?
Everyone thinks they have power but only time will tell who is able to assert it.
Andrew Sullivan argues that Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev – Boston bombing suspects – were motivated by religious terrorism:
We know full well that Tamerlan had become a total extremist in his religion. He was thrown out of his own mosque for being a bigot; his family complained about his obsessive religiosity; he berated others for not being sufficiently devout; he had archaic notions of women’s role in society; he gave up his beloved boxing because of Islam. His YouTube account is full of Islamist extremism. And he deployed terrorist violence because of it. That’s Jihad, Kevin. It’s religion in its most toxic form – as the AP finally acknowledged last night. It doesn’t need a foreign terror group for it to be Jihad; it’s obviously not Chechen nationalism – because that would mean attacking Russia, not the Boston Marathon, a symbol of co-ed multi-cultural secularism. I think some liberals who have never experienced religious faith find it hard to imagine how faith alone can spur someone to mass murder. They need to get out more.
There’s more than a whisper of racism about: irony seems lost on the latest edition of The Week, its cover portraying the – Caucasian – brothers as brown-skinned caricatures of the extremist the Islamists know and love well. It’s outrageously stupid and falls right into the net of the harpies capitalising on the moment to bang on about “Islamophobia”.
Running alongside this theme is one more troubling, though: we’re told that that the visceral portrait the media inevitably paints after these is itself a defeat. Long coverage, extended panic, flashes of photography flicking through our nightmares vindicate the terrorists whose aim was only ever to leave us feeling vulnerable and defenseless. None of this is justified given so low a death toll. Apparently. Peter Hitchens tell us:
In many cases they save us the trouble of killing them by doing it themselves. But if they survive, they deserve a fair trial and then a swift vertical journey through a trap door with a rope round their necks.
Yet instead, we do exactly what they hope we will do. We act as if they are important. We turn our countries upside down to take useless precautions against them. We give the police special powers. We make travel into a silly palaver of searches and checks of obviously harmless people. We destroy half our ancient liberties as we tramp and stamp about. Then, later on, we give in to the terrorists anyway.
None of these precautions works. They are as futile as the toy golf-ball detector which a cunning fraud successfully sold as an explosives scanner, and they work on the same principle. The client is so scared that he has stopped thinking, and will gullibly accept almost anything he is told.
The distinction between horror and hysteria is a pivotal one, since however slight the difference the repercussions are serious. The story that Hitchens outlines – of unwritten racial profiling, of written control orders, of treating every air passenger like a violent child – is the ultimate capitulation, making a suspect of everyone and a citizen of none. The same is true of those driven mad by the prospect of an Islamic community centre at Ground Zero as though all Muslims were agents of the Satan they saw in the smoke.
But not all horrors are hysterical; indeed it’s the rational nightmare that is the most truly terrifying. That, if nothing else, is what terrorists want us to abandon. Faces chilled by apathy are like broken instruments; because the terrorist want to stop the music, not just kill the musician. If we try to hide the disgust we feel towards murder then they win on both accounts. Consider the saying of the French when the Germans stripped them of Alsace and Lorraine in 1871: “Always think of it. Never speak of it.” Their rationale was impotence; and despair sealed their defeat. Western armies might never be able to stop lunatics grabbing bombs, but: religious terrorism assaults a culture to which arbitrary slaughter should forever be alien. In making that normative we sell off those very principles that they fear.
No one really knows who told us that good men who sit in silence allow for the prospering of evil. I suspect the reason is because it’s so obvious a dictum that attributing it to one person would be to sacrifice the integrity common to every decent person.