You can’t defeat religious fundamentalism with secular fundamentalism

Matthew Syed wrote an interesting article in The Sunday Times. I say interesting because, as with many of these kinds of articles, it lands on something true whilst baselessly extrapolating from that ground to things that simply aren’t true. It jumps from what is clearly true to assessments that don’t quite stand up to scrutiny and, in the process, ends up being fundamentally wrong.

The article is standard secularist fare. It is somewhat ironic in its premises. Its title largely tells you what you needs to know: Fanatics can be beaten — if we admit it’s their faith that motivates them.

The truth on which the article begins is that Islamic extremists cannot be dismissed as not really Muslim. The argument, frequently made by Western liberal types, is of the No True Scotsman kind. Anyone who departs from a form of Islam that the West determines is tolerable, is not a true Muslim. It doesn’t matter that they insist they are true Muslims, that they are inspired by the Qur’an and root their entire position in a long established tradition, they are declared not to be properly Muslim because they are not espousing views the West determines are acceptable. We find a Muslim scholar who holds to the kind of views with which the West are happy enough and, as if by magic, one scholar determines vast swathes of Islam lie beyond the faith.

Syed rightly notes the foolishness of this position:

All the evidence suggests that these men were acting out of religious motives. This is what they told the world and their comrades. The al-Qaeda manual speaks more about Islam than anything else. Indeed, terrorists often chant religious mantras as they embrace death: Allahu akbar! God is greatest!

And yet from the aftermath of 9/11 until today, we have colluded in the pretence that the motives of religious terrorists have nothing to do with religion. Barack Obama, talking about Isis, said that its creed “is not Islamic”. Tony Blair said that suicide bombers do not subscribe to Islam but to a “false” interpretation of it. Indeed, it is almost impossible to watch a debate on terrorism these days without it being patiently explained that it is to do with everything except religion.

Even in academic literature, you see the same surreal tap-dance, sociologists imputing surrogate motives for theological ones. They tell us that the 9/11 plotters did not attack the twin towers because they believed it was Allah’s will but because they were cheesed off with American imperialism, or lacked education, or hadn’t got laid enough. When it turns out that some suicide bombers are highly sexed or have degrees, new surrogates are conceived.

Call me naive, but I think we should take suicide bombers at their word. When they say that they are acting out of reverence for the often murderous language of the Quran, I suspect they are telling the truth.

I think, on this point, Syed is right. We can recognise that many Muslims simply do not share these positions – as Syed himself later does in his article (even if somewhat dismissively) – without pretending that religion has nothing to do with this. I have made the same argument myself here and elsewhere.

What is more frustrating is when Syed jumps from the question of violent interpretations of Islam to tarring just about every other believer of every stripe of faith with the same brush. He goes on:

This is about more than Islam, however. You might have noticed that the recent inquiry into child sexual abuse found “shocking failings” in the way UK religious groups — from Jehovah’s Witnesses to Sikhs — handle allegations. The most chilling finding was that crimes are not merely perpetrated by abusers but a wider group of insiders who cover them up. Not unlike Islamists willing to murder out of piety, enablers of abuse believe that protecting the reputation of the church is of higher moral value than the welfare of defenceless children.

Last week The Times reported that an ultra-orthodox rabbi had decreed that Jewish abusers should not be reported to police. Paltiel Schwarcz said that informing gentile authorities was “a severe sin”. This should come as no surprise given that Channel 4 revealed a few years ago that Ephraim Padwa, leader of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, had told an alleged child abuse victim not to inform the authorities.

Yet it is the excuses that astound me. Yes, but Schwarcz is a crank. Yes, but he is from an obscure branch of Judaism. Yes, but he isn’t a “real” follower of the faith. Yes but, yes but, yes but. What the apologists fail to acknowledge is that these fanatics could become the majority among Jews in the UK by the turn of the century due to a high birth rate (six to seven children per woman).

In relation to this story, John Stevens – National Director of the Fellowship of Evangelical Churches – makes this important point. But such nuance and subtlety seems entirely lost on Syed, who jumps from the abhorrent comment of one Jewish authority to the assumption that many others are basically doing the same.

Of course, Syed recognises that not every religious believer is doing this. He condescendingly dismisses those (the vast majority, it should be said) who disavow these positions as not taking their texts seriously, but then goes to lay the specific blame at the door of “fundamentalists”. He states:

The problem isn’t religion per se, for there are plenty of people who proclaim a faith while performing the mental gymnastics required to reconcile the violent passages of their sacred texts with the tenets of liberalism. Such people are happy to live and let live. They are often among our most dutiful citizens. Faith groups do enormous amounts of good work. We shouldn’t tarnish them with the same brush.

No, the problem is fundamentalism. It is the glint in the eye of absolutists who have privileged access to “truth”. These people are a menace because, once the virus of absolutism is internalised, they become oblivious not merely to reason but morality.

The problem with this position is several fold. For one, it seems not to distinguish in any meaningful way between the fundamentalism of different religious groups. The “fundamentalist” Jews (which, according to Syed, are just Orthodox Jews) are clearly not arguing for anything like that of the Salafi-Wahabbi Muslims. Having highlighted the atrocities of Jihadist Muslims, and the comments of a single Rabbi regarding abuse, Syed impugns Christians – without ever quite mentioning them specifically – by immediately following those comments with a reference to ‘protecting the reputation of the church’. The not so subtle implication is that all faith groups are equally bad in this regard. All have their fundamentalist streak that is just as bad as each other.

Except, of course, that statement simply isn’t true. Even before we get into the vexed question of who the fundamentalists actually are – which in Christian circles almost always means anyone to the right of me; the liberals all lie to my left – Christian fundamentalists (if that term carries any real value these days) do not advocate violent Jihad. Nor would any of them argue that informing the authorities of abuse is a matter of sin. That isn’t to say churches have always done what is right on that front, but it is notable that when they have attempted to cover such things up, it has never been argued it was right to have done so even by the people doing it, let alone any uninvolved who share their theological convictions. It is simply ludicrous, then, to suggest all fundamentalisms are the same and equally dangerous (if they are all necessarily dangerous at all).

This has been a point of contention for me for many years. My foray into Northern Irish history and politics traces its root back to this very discussion. One history teacher – a man whom I loved and had the utmost respect for – began making similar comparisons post the 9/11 terror attack. His comparator was the Rev’d Dr Ian Paisley with the Jihadist attackers. His claim – like Syed’s – was that fundamentalism was the problem and they are all equally dangerous. Only, as I remember pointing out at the time, Ian Paisley has never been implicated in terrorist activity and never supported or endorsed it either. As far as I could see, he was being labelled a danger because he happened to be a Christian who believed the Bible literally, with no concern for where his literalism actually took him in practice. I felt compelled to defend a man whose politics I abhorred and didn’t share because I felt he was being unfairly maligned. Thus an academic career was born, leading me to two dissertations at Undergrad and MA level on Evangelicals and Politics in Northern Ireland and into become a Religious Studies teacher for a bit. It seems to me Syed is making exactly the same mistake as my teacher did 20 years ago and lacks credible grounds for his position.

Worst of all, Syed argues that the main problem with fundamentalism (which, as I note, he assumes is identical across religions) is to do with its certainty about everything. The irony being, Syed is pretty certain about his argument. In fact, he is certain he has the answer to it as well: liberalism. He argues:

Some commentators have worried about the ticking time bomb of high fertility among many fundamentalist groups. They warn of an inexorable, almost invisible threat to free societies. But while we should heed these warnings, we should note that the threat assumes that the children of fanatics will themselves become fanatical.

Free societies worthy of the name should have the capacity to sever this link. We should be more confident in combating online madrassas, extremist schools, and other forums of indoctrination. Education should not be about propaganda, religious or otherwise, but liberation from it. Children should not be taught to conform but to question, debate and embrace that emancipator we call doubt.

For the greatness of liberal societies is predicated not upon dogma but pluralism in values, a willingness to live alongside those who disagree, and to embrace the paradox that our most cherished opinions may one day be superseded. If we cleave to this vision, we will win out over the fanatics, even with their higher birth-rates and moral absolutism.

The absolutist rhetoric of Syed’s own position is pretty clear here. It seems he is only concerned with religious fundamentalism as he judges it; liberal fundamentalism is no problem. What, for example, makes Syed so certain that Western values are the best ones, except for a dogmatic certainty of his own? If education isn’t about propaganda, what makes him so certain that most children of the fundamentalists he derides will buy into the values he believes are best? When we teach, we do not teach from a position of absolute neutrality; we do have to impart knowledge and make choices as to what we will teach and why. That isn’t a wrong thing to do, by any stretch, but let’s not pretend we are merely laying out the options and allowing people to make choices about them if for no other reason than we simply don’t have the time to teach like that! There are no neutral teachers and our curriculum is anything but. That is no comment on how good or bad it is, just an obvious point that anyone who has studied history 101 – teaching isn’t neutral because it cannot be.

Syed, however, seems to argue that liberal teaching will certainly win out. He doesn’t seem to acknowledge that, whilst teaching isn’t about propaganda, it inevitably does involve leading pupils towards conclusions at some point and cannot possibly merely lay out all options for children to assess. But, being as he does assume that, he also assumes that fundamentalism will be seen off, once and for all, merely by the weight of logic and reason inherent in Western values. It is an assumption of moral superiority worthy of any fundamentalist!

He doesn’t seem to recognise that a belief in the greatness of pluralism is, itself, an absolutist moral position. He simply assumes that the values to which he subscribes will necessarily be adopted by the children of religious believers. But he fails to recognise both that religious fundamentalism has been around much longer than Western values and, likewise, those values did not form in a vacuum but have derived principally from Christian values. Of course, if you reject the whole basis of Christianity – say, for example, if you are a Muslim – you may not make the same logical steps. The reason Western secular humanists view our values as superior is because, though they pretend it isn’t so, they are steeped in Judeo-Christian values that have long been embedded in our society and, as the saying goes, want the fruit without the root. The values seem good to them because they flow from the positions our society has long held which all come from a Christian root. To assume that our pluralistic society will lead all people toward our values, no matter where they come from and what traditions and cultures they hold to, is simply to ignore the reality of why Western values exist at all. And a baseless belief that it is so seems, to take Syed’s own inferred description, remarkably fundamentalist.