OPEN LETTER TO IBRAHIM LAWSON
Like all theists, you use reason to defend unreason. For you, reason is the handmaiden of faith, to be prayed in aid when deemed useful and summarily dismissed at a whim when no longer considered to serve a useful purpose. When theists reach the limits of reason, they take the great leap of Faith. When nontheists reach the boundaries of their reasoning powers, they are modest enough to say “I don’t know”.
You have dubbed me “a pseudo-liberal bigot”, and this has set me thinking about the nature of both my liberalism and my bigotry. As to the latter, I gladly accept the charge: I am a lifelong bigoted upholder of PERSONAL FREEDOM – freedom of thought, freedom of speech, and freedom of behaviour. Always with the caveat [need I say?] that these freedoms are responsibly exercised and don’t impinge upon the equivalent freedoms of others. This limitation rules out freedoms exercised in a reckless, aggressive, wilfully hostile, or destructive way: the freedoms I am speaking of are benign freedoms.
I don’t know what your definitions of liberalism are, but I suspect that you consider it an inferior philosophy to authoritarianism, whether religious or secular; and that you dislike a society organised along liberal lines, however imperfectly these are realised. Because a theocratic world-view such as that of Islam has nothing in common with liberalism; it is by its nature intolerant of dissent and seeks to impose its ‘divinely inspired’ vision of the world upon everyone, believers and ‘infidels’ alike.
Indeed, it is this notion of the ‘infidel’, and his inferior status in an Islamic society, which strikes a liberal such as myself as so dangerous and repugnant, and is the cause of our unwilling preoccupation with Islam.
As I have repeatedly said, I am content for people to worship a god or gods, or to disbelieve in gods, in any fashion they wish. If Muslims in
As a liberal person in a tolerably free society, I should be free to choose my own interests and pursuits – religious, academic, occupational, and any other. But I am increasingly aware that I am not thus free - because other, more illiberal, voices intrude upon my personal space, threatening me with dire consequences if I do not heed them. May I make this clear to you, Ibrahim: I am not spontaneously interested in Islam. As an intellectual topic for discussion, the more I read and learn about it the more tedious I find it. Your Muslim mental world is as unconvincing to me as the over-elaborately constructed mythical universe of Tolkien.
If I could exercise unconstrained free choice, I would not devote five minutes a week to contemplating the doctrines of Islam, or the spiritual claims and worldly discontents of its followers. This may strike you as selfish and complacent; and perhaps it is. In any case, that is beside the point, because we do not live in a world where such an insular attitude is possible for any politically aware and socially concerned person. Certainly since 11th September 2001, which was a brilliantly successful exercise in consciousness-raising for whoever perpetrated it, daily bother about Islam and Muslims has been a staple diet of the West. Much of the attention paid to them is, I agree, ill-informed, ill-conceived, and ill-mannered – but it is the inevitable outcome of what was clearly a declaration of war against the West by Islamic persons who, however misguidedly, believed they were carrying out the Will of Allah.
So all of us, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, are stuck with the consequences. You, and the vast majority of Muslims throughout the world, may well have been as horrified as I and millions of others were by the 9/11 atrocity; but you, like us, have to live with its still unfolding effects. And these are ultimately unforeseeable, even to the most earnest tea-leaf readers. The most horrendous scenarios – widespread civil disturbance, sporadic outbursts of violence leading to bloodshed, ceaseless wars throughout the world over religious and cultural disputes, and the ultimate threat of nuclear Armageddon – inhabit, if only intermittently, the sombre imaginings of even the most sanguine temperament. More and more people on all sides of the divide are feeling increasingly despondent and some are becoming paranoid. However inflamed, there is always a smidgeon of reality in paranoia.
I am old enough to remember the 1930s, and the darkening forebodings of inevitably approaching war which transfixed
I am not a pacifist. I believe strongly, not least as a result of my wartime childhood, that in the last resort aggression and violence have to be resisted, however high the cost. If any Muslims are ever so misguided as to seek to impose the yearned-for Caliphate upon the British people, the outcome would be disastrous for ALL sides. I am a temperamentally peaceable person, and I abhor physical violence and verbal aggression too. I debate strongly, but never, I hope, personally or hatefully. I believe that the prime need for human societies throughout the world at the present time is to reduce the actual level and social acceptability of violence. I was the principal author of the Global Petition Against Violence which I have already asked you to encourage your fellow Muslims to sign:
You have asked me to articulate what I understand the words ‘truth’ and ‘knowledge’ to mean. As to the first, I am not well read in the minutiae of epistemology, but my own working definition of ‘truth’ is that it is related to actual states of affairs which can be verified by relevant evidence [leaving aside the extreme scepticism of solipsism], and that it is also inextricably related to the honesty of the subject. That is to say, unless I believe, rightly or wrongly, that I am telling ‘the truth’, my words are insincere and lacking in integrity. I may be completely mistaken in believing that what I say is true, and my sincerity does not make it true if it is not. But intentional veracity is an essential component of ‘truth’ statements, whether factually valid or not.
Knowledge is an integral aspect of subjective consciousness. We all mediate our awareness of ourselves and the world through our imperfect and variable physical senses, whose powers of perception change through time with increasing age, poor health, etc. So what you and I are aware of and believe we ‘know’ depends upon the current capacity for sense-data processing by our embodied mind. [See G. Lakoff and M. Johnson: “Philosophy in the Flesh, 1999.] This is not to say that there is no reality external to ourselves, but each person’s capacity to perceive it is always variable and inevitably far from comprehensive. That is why there is a duty incumbent on us all to recognise the limits of our knowledge, and not to claim the proven existence of unverifiable truths, whether physical, mental, or ‘supernatural’.
Much religious utterance consists of mere assertion. You teach your pupils that Islam is a given ‘truth’ not to be questioned, while the Archbishop of Canterbury says – as he has just done in his lecture on ‘Religious Hatred and Religious Offence’ – that Christianity is “unequivocally true”. How can these two equally unverifiable assertions ever be reconciled? Either one, or the other, or neither, are valid.
To sum up, my liberalism consists of the wish to live in a society where these and all other differences can be openly expressed and discussed without rancour or threats or violence, even if their respective merits can never be conclusively resolved. This is not merely a sentimental wish – it is an imperative worldwide necessity if we are to survive these next few perilous years and emerge into a sunnier, more peaceful global community where all have some chance of prospering .
I hope you agree.
Yours in human solidarity,