War and Peace and Islam

By Hobson, Theo | The Spectator, July 23, 2005 | Go to article overview

War and Peace and Islam


Hobson, Theo, The Spectator


Forget your mental image of a sociology professor. David Martin, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the LSE, is a softly spoken conservative Anglican. His critique of the concept of secularisation, begun in the 1960s, brought a new rigour to the study of religion in Britain, and established a flourishing conversation between sociology and theology.

Inevitably, we begin with the issue of the hour: Islam and violence. Professor Martin does not settle for the easy mantra that all religions are naturally peaceful. Instead, choosing his words very carefully, and pausing to ask whether his comments are printable, he tells me what he thinks.

'I wish that I could sound more positive, but the bombings don't come as any surprise to me. There is a deeply rooted ideology of violence in Islam - a military psychology. Of course most Muslims don't want to go around bombing people, but those few who do turn to violence are able to find a certain amount of justification in the Koran. I suppose that might not be the most helpful thing to say, but it seems undeniable.'

Is it not a religion of peace? 'Well, it seeks peace, but on its own terms. As Rowan Williams has said, it's a fine religion, but it places a high premium on victory. And I think that's right, and I fear that many young men will see violence as the means to that victory. There's a large enough mood of militancy in Islam for it to be a real problem. And that's not just a recent thing caused by resentment over Iraq and Afghanistan: it's been emerging over several decades throughout the Middle East and Pakistan.'

Does Islam find it harder than other religions to reform, to incorporate secular liberal values? 'The problem is that it came into contact with the modern world very fast, so it reacts with horror at the sheer range of options in secularism. That seems like confusion and chaos when your tradition is based on a single right way of behaving and strong warnings against the infidel. The Koran is a very "us and them" book. It's hard to see how a Muslim school dominated by the Koran can encourage assimilation, and can promote the idea of equality between the sexes, for example.

'But I'm not entirely pessimistic. Islam does have a strong peace-loving element and it's obviously a good thing when that's emphasised. A process of selectivity does go on in any religious tradition, and so it's good that Islam presents itself as a religion of peace that condemns the killing of the innocent. Another thing that emerges from the London bombings is the futility of trying to destroy the infidel - because some of the victims were Muslim.'

Martin had a strict Methodist upbringing, which evolved into radical pacifism. 'I came to see religion and politics as inseparable. For me the Kingdom of God and the pacifist wing of the Labour party were roughly the same thing.' But when he came to study this pacifist tradition he began to doubt it. 'I concluded that it just didn't work. I found that Reinhold Niebuhr's political realism made much more sense. Utopian visions end up in a mess. But that left me with the question of what the gospels were about; so I had to make sense of how the Utopian vision relates to the real world.'

He began teaching the sociology of religion at the LSE in the early 1960s, and quickly found himself at odds with the secular-progressive bias of the discipline, preferring the liberal conservatism of Edward Shils, S.M. Lipset and Daniel Bell. The student radicalism of the later 1960s confirmed his suspicion of the Left. …

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