Islam, Western Civilization & the Nation State

By Johnson, Daniel | New Criterion, January 2007 | Go to article overview

Islam, Western Civilization & the Nation State


Johnson, Daniel, New Criterion


The relationship between Islam and the West is profoundly, multifariously, inescapably asymmetrical. In an attempt to resolve the cognitive dissonance this creates for a Western mentality schooled in the less complex oppositions of the Cold War, I have tried to distinguish ten types of asymmetry. This list does not pretend to be exhaustive or original. Taken together, however, these ten antitheses chart the extent of a confrontation that is still unfolding before the eyes of an intellectual elite that is astonished and affronted by the resurrection of religion as the defining factor in the future of humanity.

In 1888, a century before the advent of David Cameron, the Liberal politician Sir William Harcourt declared: "We are all socialists now." As self-fulfilling prophecies go, this was one of the more memorable. I wonder whether, early in the twenty-second century, people will look back on the Prince of Wales's speech to Al Imam Mohammad Bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, earlier this year as Britain's "We are all Muslims now" moment.

As the first Westerner ever to address the clerical elite of Wahabbi Islam, the future supreme governor of the Church of England appeared in the robes of an Islamic scholar and even spoke in the first person plural, as though he were one of them: "I think we need to recover the depth, the subtlety, the generosity of imagination, the respect for wisdom that so marked Islam in its great ages," he said. "What is so distinctive of the great ages of faith surely was that they understood, as well as sacred texts ... the meaning of God's word for all time and its meaning for this time.... [I]t was Islam's greatness to understand this in its full depth and challenge. This is what you ... can give not only to Islam but by example to all the other children of Abraham." So Jews and Christians should learn how to interpret the Bible from the most fundamentalist scholars of the Koran?

It is a pity that the Prince was not present at the papal summer retreat in Castel Gandolfo in 2005, when Pope Benedict XVI reportedly explained why Islam cannot interpret its sacred texts in the way that Jewish and Christian theologians routinely do. The Koran, Muslims believe, was the word of Allah--"a transcript of the eternal book in our keeping," as the Koran puts it (43:1). Jewish and Christian scriptures, however, are mediated by human beings, and actually require interpretation to allow their meanings to evolve, while Islamic scholars reject anything other than the most literal interpretation of the Koran. The hermeneutic inflexibility of Islamic theology has had and will continue to have incalculable political consequences. It is the first, and logically most important, asymmetry: between the uncompromising demands of Islamic leaders that others should adapt to their divinely ordained laws and the fatal tendency to compromise of those entrusted with preserving the Christian identity of European civilization.

It is a truism that Muhammad does not meet mountains halfway. This immovable fact of political theology is unlikely to deter the future King of England from pursuing his romantic dream that Muslims, Christians, and Jews can all be "children of Abraham" together. As we now know, Prince Charles overruled Archbishop George Carey of Canterbury by letting it be known that on his accession he would alter the royal title "Defender of the Faith" to "Defender of Faith" out of deference to Islam.

You need to be a Hindu nowadays to defend the special status of Christianity in Britain. The Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, for example, declared that he was "actually absolutely appalled" by the British government's decision to fund Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh faith schools to provide parity with the much older Christian ones. "It overlooks the way Christian schools have evolved and often provide a much more tolerant atmosphere than a purely religious school would," the former Master of Trinity College, Cambridge told the Daily Telegraph. …

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