Saturday, June 17, 2006

To Believe is to offend

Arnold Wesker

It is difficult to resist the view that the Islamic protests against the Danish cartoons are the protests of an infantile mentality, that Islam is a loose cannon rolling around the world with a murderous inferiority complex looking for offence, and that it is time to explain that every belief involves offence to those who don’t share that belief. The religion of Islam as written up in the Koran would seem to be a prime illustration of this immutable law.
When in 1990 Salman Rushdie recanted and asserted his faith in Islam and the existence of one God, Allah, with Mohammed as his prophet the Ayatollah Ali Khomenei, Iran’s then spiritual leader, declared that the death sentence on Rushdie for alleged blasphemy “remains unchanged even if he repents and becomes the most pious man of his time.”
Khomenei went on to say: “The Imam’s edict ... and the Muslims’ commitment to implement it are bearing their first fruits on the scene of confrontation between Islam and world infidelity. Western arrogance, which had attacked the sanctities of a billion Muslims as a prelude to degrading Muslims and the Islamic renaissance in the world, has been forced to retreat in disgrace...”
That was sixteen years ago, the Muslims are still on the look out for offence.
It is difficult to think coolly confronted with such cruel and primitive madness. Nor, living in a Europe that not long ago vomited through one of its Christian states a systematic, barbaric slaughter of Jews and other ‘undesirables’, is it easy to claim the right to describe Khomenei’s utterances as ‘cruel, primitive, and mad’. But the right of any of us to criticise cannot be inhibited by belonging to a guilty group – ethnic, religious, or political. That right resides in our solitary existence in the world. Many of us claim allegiance not to a religion or nation but to a long line of individual and free thinkers who have stood out against human injustice, cruelty and pathological fanaticism since the beginning of time. Such men and women have come from different religions, cultures and nation states and they are the glory of the human race.
The world is not divided between Islam and the West as the crazed Ayatollah and his sad, unthinking followers wanted us to believe; the world is divided, as it always has been, between the rational and the irrational, the tolerant and the intolerant, the mindless and the thoughtful - divisions which can be found in every land.
There has flowed in the press since the 9/11 atrocity a deluge of – often brilliant – articles attempting to explain what could possibly have caused such an outrage. I question the concept of ‘caused’. Inhumanity is not ‘caused’ it is ‘released’. The difference is crucial. If you believe atrocity is ‘caused’ then you seek for what or who is to blame, and imagine that, once identified and dealt with, the atrocities will cease. If, on the other hand, it is understood that atrocity is ‘released’ then attention is directed instead to what needs to be ‘contained’. The one assumes the evil can be cured, the other accepts the evil is ever-present, and can only be minimised – though God knows, to minimise is to have achieved a great deal.
I believe this: that there exists beneath the surface of gentle humanity an ever- present inhumanity, just as beneath gentle landscapes there boils a devouring, burning lava; and just as the burning lava can erupt through flaws in the earth’s crust, so inhumanity can burst through flaws in the human crust.
Once there was a Catholic madness that erupted in Europe - it was called the Inquisition; in 1930s Germany there erupted a Nationalist madness that resulted in the holocaust; a madness called communism erupted first in Russia resulting in mass-murders and gulags, then in China where it was mis-named the ‘cultural’ revolution; a recent eruption that has been contained and dismantled is the racist one called apartheid. Is there a new madness threatening to erupt? Is the Moslem faith to become another flaw through which another human madness will burst and wreak destruction? Was 11th September a first rumble of the havoc to come, and which seems to have begun? Once again tolerant human beings within a faith, within the framework of a self-righteous, hypocritical doctrine, are losing out to the fanatics.
Khomenei’s words were not mere rhetoric. They had a desperate ring to them. He spoke like a man in love with his holy image rather than one loving holiness. And his language prompts the dangerous question: is Islam essentially a tolerant faith going through a difficult period of adjustment to the 20th century, or is it flawed at source. Is it suffering a massive but temporary inferiority complex or is an inferiority complex built into its writings? As with many after September 11th I felt driven to remind myself of the Koran. The first line that heads every chapter reads: ‘In the Name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful’. The death sentence remains said the ‘devout’ Ayatollah “even if he [Rushdie] repents and becomes the most pious man of his times”. Where is compassion? Where mercy?
The metaphor of erupting lava through the earth’s flaws ceases to help when the question is asked: what causes the flaws? A shift in the earth’s surface is a natural phenomenon - it just happens. Flaws in the crust of civilisation can be traced and sometimes accounted for. I am not an authority on comparative religions but something must account for that dreadful and portentous image: “the scene of confrontation between Islam and world infidelity”. Where does such an image come from? What are its implications? Consider how power-packed is the rest of Khomenei’s statement: “...western arrogance ... attacked the sanctities of a billion Muslims ... a prelude to degrading Muslims ...”
What ‘western arrogance’? Which ‘Muslim sanctities’ have been attacked? The unsurpassed wealth of Moslem nations rests on the application of western technology. The presence of oil beneath your land is an accident of birth but technology is the result of human ingenuity and effort, it is an achievement that commands respect. There is a saying: ‘No good deed goes unpunished!’ Is the accusation of ‘arrogance’ the punishment for the good deed of sharing ‘achievement’, or do the roots of this declared confrontation go back further?
Central to the accusation of ‘offence to Islam’ is a disturbing hypocrisy, for The Koran itself could be described as an offence to Judaism and Christianity. I have never believed that anti-Semitism was due to that internal conflict within the Jewish community resulting in one of its members, Jesus of Nazareth, being crucified. The crucifixion has always seemed to me an alibi for centuries of Christianity’s hatred of Jews. The eruption of anti-Jewish pogroms throughout the ages has, I have long suspected, to do with being the second-born. The Jews were there first with their monotheistic concept and the teachings that followed, and the first-born is always resented - especially if he is clever as well. How much more resentful must be the third-born – Islam, and does the evidence of that resentment reside within the Koran?
Consider the first chapters: The Earthquake, The Cataclysm, The Cessation. All seem to be written by a man who, like any prophet, is warning of the bad times ahead if people don’t behave themselves. But in them Mohammed uses the first person only once. His warnings come through him from: ‘I swear it’ to ‘the Lord of the Throne’.
From then on two changes occur in the text. In the fourth chapter ‘Man’ there begins to appear the pronoun ‘we’. ‘We have created man from the union of the two sexes so that we may put him to the proof ...’ Mohammed is now speaking as the embodiment of Allah. The second change is the most extraordinary and can only be described as a kind of verbal sleight of hand. Instead of talking like the prophet who is third in line after Abraham (father of the Jewish religion) and Jesus (the inspiration of the Christian religion) Mohammed speaks as though he was there before them both and had bestowed upon them their powers. In claiming to be the only true prophet of God he assumes primacy:‘We sent forth Noah to his people ... ‘ ‘We raised a new generation and sent forth to them an apostle of their own...’‘We swept them away like withered leaves...’‘After them we raised other generations...’‘Then we sent Moses and his brother Aaron...’‘We made the son of Mary and his mother a sign to mankind...’ And so on.
In the chapter called The Proof begins what could be interpreted - if they had the ill-will to so do - an offence to Jews and Christians: ‘Nor did the People of the Book disagree among themselves [i.e. they all continued to believe in their God] until the Proof was given them ... The unbelievers among the People of the Book [presumably those who do not accept Allah] ... shall burn forever in the fire of hell. They are the vilest of all creatures.’ And further on in a chapter called ‘The Believers’: ‘We have revealed to them the truth, but they are liars all. Never has Allah begotten a son, nor is there any God besides him ... Exalted be Allah above their falsehoods.’ If I were a believer in either the Jewish or Christian faith I would find that extremely offensive.
Of course extracts can mislead, and there is much in The Koran that is generous and wise, echoing Jewish and Christian teaching. Nor must these observations, and the quotations used to illustrate them, be misunderstood as an incitement to anti-Muslim sentiment - that would be an horrendous consequence. I simply wish to argue the rational case that it is not possible to declare a belief without at the same time implying the erroneousness of other beliefs, and to point out that sometimes, as in The Koran, the language used can be vituperative. Further, it must be asked: did Khomenei’s pitiless rage against Rushdie and the West stem from a deep rooted complex of imagined inferiority and neglect that revealed itself at the very birth of Islam? Insisting that ‘we’ - Mohammed and Allah - were there first renders The Koran a curious work, characterising Islam as a faith elbowing other faiths out of the way and jumping to the head of the queue like an insecure bully.
“The confrontation between Islam and world infidelity” to which the Ayatollah referred is the same as that of which Mohammed wrote. At its best the declaration is presumptuous; at its worst it is the expression of an awesome envy for having been left behind - held back, I suspect, by their priests.
Whether presumption or envy it rests poisonously in the hearts and illiterate minds of that “billion”, and makes us all feel that a dreadful lava is waiting to erupt and engulf us all.

Arnold Wesker, 2006