Magazine article The Spectator

Fear, Loathing and Respect

Magazine article The Spectator

Fear, Loathing and Respect

Article excerpt

Of all the many fashionable phobias that we are meant to reach inside ourselves and disavow, Islamophobia is the most stubbornly resistant to expulsion. Islamophobia, we might argue to ourselves and to others, is an entirely rational state of mind. After all, why should we not have a 'morbid fear [of] or aversion' to something which, at its most extreme, at its most crass, wishes us all dead? How could we not be averse to a religion which seems to provide the ideological legitimacy for the following chilling and triumphalist statement from alQa'eda: 'You want to live: we want to die'? That's a pretty alien concept for us, wanting to die.

If we are going to be phobic, here is something that we have a right to be phobic about. Fear of and aversion to Islam is as good a description of the mindset of our Western, Christian-lite societies as it is possible to get. Perhaps more than anything else, we are averse to the numbing certitudes and absolutism of Islam, something absent from most Christian doctrine (even from mainstream Roman Catholicism) for the best part of a century. Not so long ago, I rang up the (moderate) Islam Information Centre and asked what would happen to me, an unbeliever, when I died. 'You will go to hell,' replied the friendly and helpful young press officer, 'where you will be continually doused with boiling water.' There was no malice in his reply, it was simply a matter of fact. I asked the same question of the Church of England and its response was, 'Umm, sorry, haven't a clue. We can't be sure, mate. It's all a bit of a mystery, death.'

Similarly, Sheik Abu Hamza al Masri, the hook-handed cleric of Finsbury Park - a man who, wrongly, perhaps, personifies the image of Islam for many British people - tells me whenever we meet, 'Rod, you are going to hell.' Again, there is no malice. There is no malice when he tells me what will happen to homosexuals, either, or to Jews remiss enough not to convert to Islam. It is, sadly, what will be. 'It's not my fault,' says the good Sheik. 'It's all down to Allah. May his name be praised, etc.'

The Western, intellectual response to such unyielding, unquestioning absolutism is usually frank and outright derision. We have learnt to mistrust closed belief systems, ideologies which, like communism, brook no argument with non-believers and seem to us aloof to the critical intelligence. The controversial French writer Michel Houellebecq got into trouble with the race-relations industry for describing Islam as 'stupid', but I suspect he was summing up the views of a good many, if not a majority, of his white Christian compatriots. Houellebecq's philosophical conundrum, though, is that he retains an affection for the Roman Catholic Church. Roman Catholicism, he asserted in his fine novel, Platforme, is less stupid than Islam because Islam is monotheistic, whereas Christianity at least posits the notion of a tripartite deity. I must admit I'm not sure why this makes Islam stupid and Christianity clever.

My suspicion is that lurking behind our phobia is a deep ambivalence. Phobias, of whatever kind, usually have ambivalence kicking around somewhere at their root. And I think that this particular ambivalence towards Islam is primarily political and economic in its essence. Never mind the religious absolutism; it is Islam as a political force which both frightens and attracts us.

Islam began life in the seventh century AD as a political movement designed to unite (in the umma) the dispossessed and disparate Arab tribes who were at that time the subject of mass exploitation by the great regional powers. And it was spectacularly - and unexpectedly, even to Mohammed - successful in doing so. But it left behind a religion that was primarily socialistic in outlook and which demanded of its adherents a requirement to reproduce God's benevolence by creating a just and equitable society on earth, where the poor and the vulnerable are treated decently. As Karen Armstrong attests in A History of God, two of the five essential pillars of Islam are alms-giving (zakat) accompanied by prayer (salat). …

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