The dark mirror of Islam
There are many Westerners who will dismiss this event as belonging to the alien calendar of an alien culture. The impulse to characterise Islam as a foreign and even evil creed goes deep into our history. It was in 1213 that Pope Innocent III described Mohammed as ‘the Beast of the Apocalypse’ and in subsequent centuries the threatening reality of Islam’s military might was overlaid by an even more frightening fantasy in which Islam was perceived as a demonic force with Mohammed himself as Antichrist.
Over the past 18 months, partly because of the furore over the publication of The Satanic Verses, a small minority of liberal intellectuals has seemed intent on translating the vision of Pope Innocent III into modern terms. For, by daring to suggest that blasphemy should be outlawed, Muslims have themselves blasphemed against one of the sacred doctrines of ‘advanced’ Western intellectuals. Partly because of the way in which it has reacted to Rushdie’s book, Islam is now in danger of becoming the most important of all the West’s modern apocalyptic enemies, and of filling the vacancy left by the recent conversion of the ‘evil empire’ of the Soviet Union.
Such attitudes can only be sustained if we preserve the long-standing illusion that Islam is indeed the creed of an exotic and barbaric culture based on traditions which are quite alien to our own. Yet the Muslim calendar itself gives the lie to this view. The first great festival of the Muslim year, which takes place on its tenth day, is that of Ashura which itself began as the Jewish feast of Passover and which still celebrates the Israelites’ flight from Egypt.
Since the early Middle Ages Shi’ite Muslims in Iran and elsewhere have also used Ashura as the time to celebrate the anniversary of the martyrdom of Mohammed’s grandson, Husayn ibn Ali. But Islam’s deep links with Judaism and with Christianity are still preserved in its religious calendar just as they are in the Koran. In its fierce monotheism, in its patriarchalism, and in its very choice of patriarchs, Islam is nothing other than the offspring of Judaism and Christianity.
If we sometimes find ourselves puzzled or even enraged by its doctrines it is perhaps because we are puzzled and enraged by some of the doctrines which lie at the heart of our own religious tradition – so puzzled and enraged that we long ago set out to repudiate them.
The most significant revolution which has taken place in Christian doctrine over the past three centuries has been in relation to eschatology. The drama of the Last Judgment, which stands at the imaginative heart of the historical Christian faith, is now rarely alluded to by Christian preachers; the terms ‘hell’ and ‘sin’ are seldom uttered in Christian pulpits and even the notion of God’s ‘wrath’, which once thundered through Paul’s letters, has, by a process of theologically rationalised mistranslation, mysteriously disappeared from the New English Bible.
One of the results of this concerted flight from eschatology – and in particular from the doctrine of hell – is that Christianity now seems a much kinder, more generous and more reasonable religion than it once was. And we should not, perhaps, complain about that.
But there is another result which is far more worrying. It would seem that the more we have succeeded in emptying our own religious tradition of the cruelty and intolerance which characterised it throughout much of our history, the more we have destroyed our understanding of the historical process itself. Unable to come to terms with the violence of our own religious heritage, we have increasingly come to perceive the violence of other religious traditions as strange, alien, or even evil. In other words, Islam has become, as Judaism once was, a dark mirror in which we see and persecute the reflection of our own unacknowledged past.
It is time that we laid down that mirror and contemplated our own history more directly. If we could but bring ourselves to look carefully into the empty sockets of the scarred, gouged-out face which is the history of twentieth-century Europe, we might begin to recognise that cruelty, torture and terror are by no means alien to our own culture.
We might understand that the very forms of modern political totalitarianism which we have been taught to revile stand in an uncomfortably close relationship to a religious tradition which is still generally revered. We might even begin to develop a deeper insight into the nature of fundamentalism.
For by far the most remarkable feature of most Western discussions of Islamic fundamentalism, including the recent contribution to this column by the Archbishop of York, Dr John Habgood, is our seeming reluctance or inability to acknowledge that our own culture is itself the product of a fundamentalist religious revolution of unprecedented rigour and severity. This revolution took place in the sixteeenth and seventeenth centuries. It was carried through both by Puritan preachers and by leaders of the Counter Reformation with fanatical zeal and, at times, murderous cruelty. It has left deep scars upon our culture, and its heritage survives today in the rigour of the political and economic doctrines to which we are in thrall.
As the Muslim new year begins, the most helpful way in which we in the West could celebrate it is not by issuing more contemptuous and insulting denunciations of their fundamentalism, but by coming to terms with our own. For the task of escaping from fundamentalist doctrines is indeed urgent. It is a task which can be achieved only by cooperation and not by conflict. It is a task in which the West needs the help of Islam just as much as Islam needs the help of the West.
The Sunday Correspondent, July 29, 1990
© Richard Webster, 2002