Monday, 4 February 2008

Open Letter to Ibrahim Lawson

I am participating in an extended discussion on Stephen Law's blog with Ibrahim Lawson, the headmaster of an Islamic school. The debate started early in December, when Stephen questioned the propriety of Ibrahim teaching his pupils that Islam is to be unquestionably accepted as a given truth. The debate has ranged far and wide, and has been commendably good-tempered and mutually polite. However, Ibrahim recently called me a "pseudo-liberal bigot", and this prompted me to write the following:



Dear Ibrahim

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 Saudi Arabia or Iran wish to live under a clerical dictatorship, I claim no right to impose my preferred polity upon them; although I consider that I am entitled to criticise their governments for what I deem to be their mistreatment of women, and cruel punishments meted out to homosexuals, apostates, and criminals. What I cannot stomach is being told, in any society, by you or anyone else, that because I have not chosen, or been vouchsafed [you seem a trifle confused on that point], the ‘gift of faith’, I am an inferior being whose natural rights are deemed by you and your fellow-Muslims to be fewer than those of the followers of Allah. Who are the bigots in this instance?

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 Europe in the years between 1933 and 1939. We lived then in an atmosphere of darkening gloom. For me, the first decade of the 21st Christian century has an eerily familiar feel. One senses that, unless there is a determined mutual effort to bridge the yawning chasms of mistrust, insecurity and growing hatred, things are only going to get worse. But despite all the endless prattle about ‘peace initiatives’, there is no widespread will for peace if it requires compromise: only a lust for victory and dominance. I realise that these fears must be widespread amongst Muslims too, not least in Britain, and that they cannot be blamed for feeling alienated. But positive efforts towards greater common understanding and tolerance need to be made from ALL sides, including yours. There is urgent need for dialogue genuinely intended to defuse tensions, and not merely to score partisan points.

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,



Emmett said...

[Aunty, I've been asked to pass this on by a pupil of one of the acknowledged Sufis, Wook]

ONE Forms the impression that Mr Lawson is, perhaps, a Zahir, or Muslim devoted to the structure and motifs and commands and observations of the religion, may Allah assist him.

IN Precisely the same way, many if not most humanists, liberals and so forth, all /per/ necessity in our notoriously extravert & crass, miserably other-directed or 'co-dependent', set-up are trapped in the concern mainly with outward language-issues, inasmuch language is an affair /between/ physically separated persons.

HOWEVER -- As a matter of ongoing human development that /is/ carrying us all beyond the here-and-now, with all of its wretched unappetising deficits and stark impossibilities -- I can assure all involved that a host of inward workers, the so-called /Batiniyya/ or internalists (Allah assists them), in this as in every generation, /are/ holding the ring.

IT Is thus that the victory of humanity is assured, whilst "the raw" grow up one-by-one and. finally, join the gentle and benevolent ranks of the enlightened -- and effective.

ALL That falls short of this /is/ -- and must remain, by definition -- irreconciliable dispute, simply because of the constrained nature of physical reality, on our present molecular scale.

s/'abd al-'Abroo 'ibn al-Ghoosh abu Kedheeb

[As this chap's cognomen, in English, means 'Manservant of the Beyond, Son of the Swindle, Father of Lies, I am of course not entirely certain as to his /bona fides/ -- BW]

anticant said...

My personal belief is that, whether they know it or not, spirituality is an integral component of every human being's makeup. Some consciously develop this faculty along one or more of many different paths; others don't, but the potential is there in everyone.

What is needlessly and destructively divisive is when spiritually aware people presumptuously claim that their path to enlightenment is the only 'true' one, because their chosen deity or philosophy tells them they are 'right' and everyone else is 'wrong'. This is the root of all evil and conflict in the world. Such pointless divisions are tragic.

George MacDonald, himself something of a Christian mystic, said that "All the doors that lead inwards to the secret place of the Most High are doors outwards - out of self - out of smallness - out of wrong."

pela68 said...

I have to admit that I had to look up the word "Solopsism" but it was like an eye opener. I have for a long time now believed that the world did not exists before 1968 (or it can be 72-73 which is the earliest memories I have). All you lot are just a figments of my imagination, and that's why I really don't care about my misspellings in the English language. HA HA HA! (Evil laughter...).

Jokes aside. That was a very powerful and, well just excellent text AC. Spot on!

Emmett said...

/AU Contraire/, Mr pela68, we all(including Mr Lawson) would seem to abide in the sensorium of Mr 'abu Kedheeb, who just now says that the lot are giving him the headache!

anticant said...

Pela - two stories, which I've told here before. [Well, at my age there aren't many stories I haven't told before!]

Bertrand Russell received a letter from a lady announcing that she was a Solipsist, and saying she was surprised there weren't more of them. Russell replied: "Dear Madam, I am surprised by your surprise".

And the famous Dr Samuel Johnson, when told by another lady that she was an extreme sceptic, enquired if there was anything she DID believe in, to which she replied "Yes, I believe in the Universe". "By God, Madam," the doctor retorted, "you'd better!"

You see, so much of these sad squabbles are over the meanings of words. If you believe you are more real than anyone or anything else, your relationship with the Universe is most likely to be contemptuous and dismissive. If you believe that the Universe is the creation of a 'supernatural' God who commands us to worship him and to do a variety of things "in his name", your relationship with the Universe is likely to be self-righteous, bossy and controlling. If you believe - as I do - that the Universe itself is the sum total of reality, and we are all part of it, your attitude towards it is much more likely to be enquiring and humble, and you are less likely to seek to dominate your fellows because of your beliefs.

Perhaps Ibrahim would like to comment on these "bigoted" notions of mine?

Emmett said...

AS A self-adverting American and therefore extraverted ass, and as a convert to Islam through the guidance of a Sufi teacher, I pretty pretentiously started in on something elaborate here, on the nature of /solipsism/; and, its physical corollary, namely a fullness of expectation physically to be felt just behind the breastbone; and, how, as one sorts out the pushful play of /egotism/ at such times, one realises it is an experience common to exalted Nazis gunning down victims in pits, drugged rock-and-roll dancers, and other more elevated religionists such as mr Blair on his way to the Vatican; whereas, then, if one can but set aside if only for a moment something like 'all' of this devilish I-ness, then it is that certain important other things can happen...but there was then a fortuitous mis-stroking of a key; and, it all then disappeared in a wink into the void of exhausted electrons of cyberspace. My teacher thirty years ago, when in a weak moment I actually had enough flickering actual awareness and wit to ask, 'so what if I go to work and make a damn fool out of myself with this stuff as with so much else?' replied that the secret indeed knows very well how to protect itself. And so perhaps, I think, none of us in this discussion are terribly at risk of anything really awful happening. That is because the only /bad/ thing is to miss the next step in life, as old Jung (pbuh) said so often. But if it is not there in front of us, we /cannot/ miss it, and as much as we may cross and re-cross the public square of shouted insult and obloquoy everyday, the hidden doorway positively will not be revealed by the old carpet-seller from Midelt until we are one-by-one ready to step through. This may be said to be 'a manifestation of the mercy and compassion of Allah,' but the ability to assert that comes only with the courage founded in true love, to set aside /texts/. The jackass of observance has brought you to the doorway, oh man, now leave the donkey behind with someone kindly still on Earth and step through "quick like a rabbit...BEFORE the sonofabitch snaps shut again, God damn it!" as they say in rural Eagle Lake in Squawbunion County, in southern Minnesota, amid the corn-rows and the reeking un-mahometan hog-farms.

Jose said...

A masterwork of English literature - may I say so? - the contents of which deserve ample diffusion because they are, in my view, worth being read and understood.

Liberalism in present times has been purposefully discredited, as have been the terms Right, Left and the relatively newly-coined Centre; in politics it seems a day-to-day practice that those terms which do not suit the incumbent leader in a given moment, be altered to give him/her pleasure when his/her credibility could be in question because of deviations in his/her up-to-then clear career.

That these political terms be used by religious leaders speaks ill of those religious leaders' own credibility.

Please understand that I am not referring to religions, I am only referring to persons, who as I am, are liable to very human mistakes.

Exercising a religion in freedom cannot be prejudicial. As Anticant says spirituality is inside each and every individual, and as happens in our daily routine, it is subject to individual interpretations and feelings as corresponds to human beings that we are.

zola a social thing said...

Fuck me I feel like dancing around the totem pole.
Meet my social maker I will.

Emmett said...

Moving right along, here's what's going on here:


pela68 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
trousers said...

A great post, and a worthy sight for these tired eyes (no I'm not talking about world-weariness, at least not this time: I'm always tired this time on a Friday afternoon).

Thanks for pointing us in this direction anti, I haven't been over to the arena as often lately. I may go over and have a look at the debate which has resulted in you writing this. Fine, thought-provoking stuff.

zola a social thing said...

The book of Anticant seems to lean towards a certain Leibniz but also tends to a kind of Goethe.
I kind of like that.

And those security demons, you know the kind of xchntpg stuff, is very difficult for me to read.
OK get new glasses you say.
But YOU pay? Yes?