Carol Sarler

Don’t waste time courting ‘moderate’ Muslims

Enlisting the help of ‘moderate’ Muslims is pointless

Don’t waste time courting ‘moderate’ Muslims
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Enlisting the help of ‘moderate’ Muslims is pointless

Funny the difference a few weeks can make. When I went away for an extended holiday, the subtle but unmistakable consensus on the threat to life and limb was more or less as it had been for some years: that jihadists are rotten fellows, but only small in number when compared with the ‘vast majority’ of ‘moderate Muslims’ who are, of course, not culpable. At all. Of anything. Ever.

When I came back, the consensus had shifted. Now, it appears, they might be a teeny bit worthy of blame after all — not for the violence itself, but for failing to keep their hotheads in line. Headlines are thundering: ‘We need Muslims to do more’, ‘Muslims have to join this battle’ and ‘Muslims must raise their voices in anger’. It’s been the battle cry of the summer so far — we demand that moderate Muslims persuade, cajole and convince their radicals, for all the world as if they can actually do as we ask.

The fact is, even if they would, there’s not a virgin’s chance in paradise that they could; you might as well have asked Terry Wogan to rein in the IRA. And nothing illustrates the inherent difficulties better than, if you will indulge me, reflections on my recent sojourn.

To wile away time in the American Bible Belt, as I do for many months of each year, is to witness Christian fundamentalism at its fruitiest, nuttiest, rancorous best. On our little coastal Georgia island it is a proud boast that there are more churches than bars, while clever sleight of county planning ensures it will stay that way; no hard liquor licence may be given to premises within 500 yards of a house of the Gud Lawd and upon that all are agreed. They don’t, however, agree on anything else.

Episcopalians fight with Lutherans who tussle with Presbyterians who despair of Methodists; the First Baptists do not speak to the Second Baptists and neither is on terms with the First Free Will Baptists (jokes about the oxymoronic nature of which do not play well; you may trust me on that). At your peril shall you confuse the Church of God with the Church of the Son of God and we should be grateful for St Williams, up on Frederica Road, because at least the others can unite in their hatred of its Roman Catholic congregation.

Notably, however, nobody appears to have a problem with us. The unfamiliarity of our atheism stirs occasional curiosity, but beyond that there is nothing they can do with it; it cannot serve as a source of dialogue, for what would we discuss? Does God Exist? No. Life — at least for those of us unburdened by rumours of an eternity — is just too short.

The Sarlers’ interaction with the local people, therefore, is often a good deal more straightforward than they manage with each other. Without the possibility of a wrangle over the commandments of a deity, we seek common ground in a shared understanding of the more prosaic laws of Man; you do not, for instance, need to debate the evangelism of the snake handler to tell him that if that poor serpent is so much as a squished mouse short of a decent supper, you’ll call on animal welfare.

It’s not so much fun, of course, without the spice of scoring points — though to be fair, while it is easy to take the mick out of the fissures of faith in the Deep South, they are not unique. A few weeks ago news reached us even there of some tussle between British bishops wherein, and I hope I have this right, one pointed to the horrors of climate change while another claimed it was raining because God was cross; meanwhile, the Pope was making mischief with his declaration that Protestants aren’t ‘proper’ Christians.

All ideology is prone to such division. I once had friends in the Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist), membership of which never swelled much beyond seven — but all seven were in fervent accord that while we in the wider world deserved their disdain, their most visceral contempt should be kept for all members of any communist party that did not append the crucial, bracketed (M-L). In other words, it should be kept not for those who completely refused to share their doctrine, but for those who very nearly did.

When it comes to matters of faith and belief, it is not simply that the division tends to happen; it is that, surely, it must happen. As already declared, I come at this from the outside so, please, be gentle; still, it seems to me axiomatic that if you believe there is one god, and that this god has made available to you one scripture, then all beyond that — language being the inexact medium that it is — is interpretation. The inevitable problem, therefore, is that a thousand interpretations of one god’s one word mean 999 misinterpretations by people who read it and got it wrong; apostates could scarcely be worse! No wonder our First Baptists dine more easily with us than with their Seconds; he who has not read, let alone studied, the Holy Book cannot commit the offence (in every sense of the word) of traducing it.

But if this is clear instance of something that is observable worldwide — why should it not apply to British Muslims? If one man’s reading of the Koran instructs military jihad, it is absurdly presumptuous to expect that instruction to be overturned by those who read the same text but ‘failed’ to understand its message; few of us, after all, are inclined to be swayed by those to whom we feel superior.

There is a slew of young men currently writing in newspapers about how they used to be jihadists but have now seen the error of their ways and become ‘moderate Muslims’; each charts slow self-realisation of their own idiocy, rather than a peaceable conversion wrought by a sensible chat over a cuppa with an elder from a warmer, fuzzier mosque than their usual blast-happy haunt.

Whether the folly or the world will end first is not, at the moment, a happy bet. But if our time is to be limited, it would be nice to see less of it wasted on pleas for Muslim grown-ups — or anybody else — to get inside the heads of their militant mutineers with a view to gentle persuasion. The only understanding likely to be productive is of the kind needed for sufficient intelligence to catch them and thwack them; in short, as with the decision not to engage with the snake handlers, less of the word of God, with which one may disagree, and more of the laws of Man, with which one may not. At least we all know what they are and even (especially?) within the tension of terrorist threat, they are open to absolutely no interpretation at all.