Rebranding religion

by - 13th October 2008

Suddenly Reuters has got itself a Religion Correspondent; the BBC World Service has axed its religion strand and is integrating religion into all its current affairs output by appointing the savvy and penetrating current affairs specialist Christopher Landau - who broke the story of the Archbishop’s shariah speech - as their first Religion Correspondent.  And Newsnight staff, according to my source at Lambeth Palace, are falling back on religious language to discuss the reasons for the financial meltdown.

I found myself last week in Zurich breaking another taboo – presenting a paper on religion at a symposium of bankers, captains of industry and Chinese government officials.  Ninety 35 – 45-year-old high-fliers from around the world, meeting in luxury in Stein am Rhein, a little Swiss resort at the confluence of the Rhine and the Bodensee, to discuss environmental, economic and social futures.  And that evidently can’t be done any longer without a ‘values’ strand.  I shared a platform for one whole afternoon with Os Guinness (The Gravedigger Files) and Indian writer and polemicist Vishal Mangalwadi as we talked faith to leaders of Sony, Shell, BASF and others, all hosted by UBS Bank.  None of this would have been possible even five years ago.  To discuss religion anywhere but in the privacy of one’s home, among consenting adults, is still almost unthinkable.  Or it was.

The 9/11 effect is finally demolishing paradigms that were already being shifted by anyone who could read the signs. The predominant post-war, post-holocaust anti-racist agenda was already giving way in the 1990s to a new awareness that ethnic minorities had their own religious agendas, as anthropologist Roger Ballard said controversially in 1996, and not all of them were benign. 

The bombing of the Twin Towers may have symbolised the shattering of the liberal secularist hegemony – but it was already tottering from its own internal contradictions: its inability to limit tolerance of the intolerable; its inability to censor anything no matter how vile - except those very voices that could have warned them of impending social and financial catastrophe.  Christians like Professor Lamin Sanneh had been writing for years of the pragmatism of Muslim radicals disguising their supremacist demands within the rubric of racial victimhood.  Lesslie Newbigin had warned tirelessly since the 1930s of the dangers of the inoperability of any discourse of virtue or social purpose.  It is indeed a mark of the weakness of the church, and the dominance of  bullying secular demogogues like A C Grayling, that no one could hear them.  The anti-Islamic polemicist Ibn Warraq had to get his books published by the maverick Prometheus Books, for no one else would touch them.

The Bradford Commission Report tried to warn government about radicalism in 1995 after the country’s first religious riots – yet the local businessmen who commissioned it were rebuffed and had to fund it themselves.  Its warning was perhaps too stark, too terrifying:  ‘It is not the radical nature of the extremists’ beliefs . . . that is of concern to us . . . It is when the ideas and ideals are linked to the seizure of temporal power that freedom for all becomes endangered . . . It is one thing to say, as the adherents of many faiths would, that faith should guide societal, as well as individual, transactions. It is quite another to urge the destruction of secular society, the only possible basis for a multifaith city . . . Ignorance is the fertile source of extremism, and there is a lot of ignorance around’ (Paras 5.25.9, 10, 11).

We must repeat this slowly to ourselves because we still do not want to believe it.  Some Muslims, often funded by Wahhabi sources in Saudi Arabia, want to destroy our society.  The brave Maryam Namazie, co-founder of the Council of Ex-Muslims, launched today at the Conway Hall in Red Lion Square, London, wants to ‘re-brand Islam as fascist’.  Note the lack of any adjective before Islam.  Islam per se.  Not just extremist Islam.  I believe that’s going too far.  But these brave women are wounded by what is happening in Europe, and the lack of seriousness with which this fascism is being addressed even at this late hour, by western governments.  These women, and some men, are worried enough to allow their faces and names to be published and broadcast. Maryam’s co-founder Mina Ahadi said that when she told friends and neighbours in Iran, thirty years ago, that she was no longer a Muslim, no one took any notice.  Yet, when they started the Ex-Muslim movement in 2007 in Germany, most of them had to have police protection because of the threats they received.  To come out of Islam is a self-imposed death sentence in Europe – 20 years after I was the first journalist in Britain to write publicly about apostasy killings in Iran.

It is sickening and shameful to hear a brave woman, who has escaped death to live in the West, excoriating Western governments for their failure to take any sanctions against the Islamo-fascists.  Worse still is the lack of succour she and those like her have received from the Church which has become so infected with the disease of moral equivalence that its instinct for justice and truth has rotted to the core.

I attended a meeting of Newham clergy earlier this week, to discuss the so-called ‘megamosque’ proposed by the sinister Tablighi Jama’at sect next to the Olympic site. This is a sect – the biggest in the Islamic world – that is sending its women back to the dark ages; dressing them all in black, consigning them to a shadowy interior world without education – here on our doorstep.  And the local clergy – including women vicars - support it!

New Statesman writer and Muslim Ziauddin Sardar, in his new book Balti Britain describes TJ members as ‘moving like darkly clad ninja in the night’. Phil Lewis, the Bishop of Bradford’s highly regarded Interfaith Advisor, describes TJ’s ‘romanticisation of jihad’.  They are ‘embedded in a narrative of religious supremacism’ which ‘gives no space for the other.’  Their preaching manual teaches the confinement of women.  ‘Devils begin to accompany her as soon as she leaves the four walls of her home’ it says.  ‘She must be hidden more carefully that silver, gold and precious stones.’

As Stephen Protheroe has written in a new book called Religious Literacy currently selling out in the States, ‘religious illiteracy is foolhardy and dangerous’.  The religiously illiterate impose their own myopic narrative on all ethnic minorities, without bothering to understand anything at all.  Theirs is a paternalistic view of non-whites that purports to be progressive, yet is quite incapable of nuancing otherness.  This is in fact racism.  And it is deadly, for it relativises cultural inequities and says, Tablighi Jama’at women don’t deserve the same constitutional freedoms as other women do.

It was a young former Muslim politician from Holland, Ehsan Jami, who told the audience this morning – to jeers from white liberals around me – that those entering Europe must decide on a single focus of loyalty: country or ummah - or be required to leave.  He wasn’t interested in Muslim solidarity.  He wanted solidarity with the existing national constitutions of Europe.

‘Loving your country is the key to integration’ he said, quaintly.  And I thought, love is a religious word; the religiously illiterate won’t get it.