Ed West

The Left’s blind spot with Islam: opposing bigotry does not mean liking a religion

The Left’s blind spot with Islam: opposing bigotry does not mean liking a religion
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I agree with something Owen Jones has written, a confluence of beliefs that will next occur on September 15, 2319.

Addressing the subject of Christian persecution, he argues in the Guardian: ‘It is, unsurprisingly, the Middle East where the situation for Christians has dramatically deteriorated in recent years. One of the legacies of the invasion of Iraq has been the purging of a Christian community that has lived there for up to two millennia. It is a crime of historic proportions.’

Most people have rather ignored this crime, as they have other incidents of anti-Christian persecution across Africa and Asia, for as the French philosopher Regis Debray put it: ‘The victims are “too Christian” to excite the Left, and “too foreign” to excite the Right.’

But in particular the issue of Christian persecution has been ignored because the Left feels uncomfortable discussing Muslim-on-Christian violence, and Muslim bigotry generally. Muslims, as (generally) non-European minorities in the West, excite their need to protect the vulnerable. Yet outside of the West, the men of Islam are far from vulnerable or weak – quite the opposite.

And the problem for the Left is that once you look into religious freedom around the world it becomes very hard to sustain the idea that Islam is a tolerant faith, as they would like to believe. There are tolerant versions of Islam, now and historically, and it’s right that the Islamist version of history is countered by appeals to more progressive traditions of the faith, but the religion has had trouble adapting to pluralism and liberalism.

Indeed the very idea of secularism is a western invention that came (slightly inadvertently because medieval Church leaders did not wish to cede authority) out of Christianity. The happy result of this separation of earthly and sacred powers was eventually the idea that the state should play no part in enforcing religious norms. By the late 18th century this started to find concrete form in legal religious freedom.

But one of the basic principles that made this possible was the idea that we should defend the rights of religious minorities without having to approve of their religion. The early liberals who proposed allowing Catholics civic rights largely disliked Catholicism as an oppressive, illiberal religion; yet today people on the Left are expected to defend the civic rights of Muslims and protect them from bigotry, while also having to admire and respect Islam, a faith that is far more conservative than Catholicism and, in all but its few tolerant variants, stands for everything they should oppose.

This is partly politeness, I imagine, but it negates the whole point of liberalism, which is about defending people’s freedom even when we don’t agree with their worldview. Richard Dawkins lives by this rule, showing open contempt for Islam and Catholicism without wishing to trample on the rights of its believers. I’m a Catholic, and Dawkins doesn’t bother me – he’s free to think what he wants and I’m free to think what I want and we’re free to criticise each other’s beliefs without having a hissy fit; that’s the point of a secular, liberal democracy surely?

An example of this problem is the neologism Islamophobia, which conflates bigotry against Muslims with hostility to Islam. This was exemplified this week by a spokesman for Hizb ut-Tahrir blaming ‘Islamophobia’ for the Sydney Opera House withdrawing an invitation.

Personally I see nothing wrong with an institution inviting people to suggest moral arguments that most people find repulsive; that’s what a free society is about. But if opposing the belief system of Hizb ut-Tahrir makes one an Islamophobe, what possible meaning does that word have, and what use is it to liberals?

Ed West is the author of The Silence of Our Friends: The Extinction of Christianity in the Middle East.