Charlotte Leslie is a member of the Health Select Committee and MP for Bristol North West.
In The Times last week, David Aaronovitch wrote a fascinating column asking a sensitive question: where are the voices of Moderate Muslims? That quiet, vast majority for whom Islam is not in anyway at all about rampaging about as an amateur soldier with an AK47. Muslims who view groups like Al Quaeda and ISIS with a special fear, for the damage they do to the image of Islam, and the threat they pose to the integration of peace-loving Muslims into their home communities.
It is a good question. It has been partially answered by a joint letter from Imams, urging young Muslims not be tempted to heed calls to go to the Middle East and fight. Groups like Quilliam pose answers, and it is being answered by groups across the country such as “Building the Bridge” in Bristol.
But in asking this question of Muslims, our secular and Christian society risks pointing out the speck of sawdust in another’s eye, whilst ignoring the plank in our own. The fact is that nowhere, across the market place of faiths, secular philosophies or religions, has any that we would call “moderate” (in that it teaches love and tolerance for others is supreme) even begun to compete with what an angry young man, looking for meaning and identity, might see as the exhilarating sense of mission and call for complete dedication that is offered by dangerous extremist groups.
This is a point I had the chance to put to the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. (I managed to point out that I was only here as an MP because the Church of England quickly turned me down in my youthful quest for ordination. I think I then went on to demonstrate exactly why my bid to make holiness a career came a bit of a cropper…)
Many people, especially but not exclusively young men, I said, have a burning desire to be part of a mission – to channel their belly-fire into something hard, requiring loyalty, dedication, and a brand of discipline; Something that will make them part of a “family”, giving them a proud sense of identity beyond their own individuality.
This is what so many young people seek when they join gangs, and why, for example, joining a boxing club can prove such an effective way to fill these needs in a very constructive way. It is also a completely natural instinct, and probably what won us two World Wars.
But in the market place of faith, only the extremist versions of religions offer any of that. What we would call the “moderate’” versions all too often seem wishy-washed over with a tame aura of tepid “niceness”. Many religious institutions and thought-leaders have committed the cardinal error of confusing the “nice” with the “good”. They have confused Moderation of Message with moderation (or luke-warmness) of delivery.
The fact is that it is very much harder to be Good than not to be. To use a phrase from the Bible, it is very much easier to lash back at someone who has hurt you – whether it is with an AK47, a punch in the face, a bitchy retort or a cutting “reply all” email – than to “turn the other cheek” and respond with unmerited kindness.
Animals lash out at those who hurt them. That’s easy. It’s often near impossible to calm that build-up of anger and respond with compassion. If you want to get “macho” about it, fighting back, bitchy emails, or even “covering Big Ben in Blood”’ as one wanna-be soldier put it, is for sissies. But restraint and compassion is for “Real Men”. (Ex-gangland boxers say that what the sport really teaches them is to be tough enough to walk away from a fight.) But where is that ever articulated in ‘moderate’ Christian or secular institutions?
“Ah,” the Al Quaeda devotee might say, “we practise complete self-sacrifice in martyrdom. That makes us supreme in our faith.” But again, our “moderate” Christianity remains oddly silent on the uncomfortable, un-middleclass truth that our national religion of Queen and Country is based on martyrdom. The exhortation of its leader, one Jesus Christ, was to “take up your cross and follow me”. (Or in modern parlance: “Set your eyes on a lethal injection and the electric chair and follow me’.”) That’s rather a long way from pompous robes, a sanctimonious voice, and some bumbling words about love. That’s a call to Strictly Non-Violent arms.
Being a martyr is not about using your body as a weapon of mass destruction – that happens in wars everyday. That’s not especially big and not especially clever. Being a martyr in allowing your body to be burnt, crucified or beheaded, without hurting others, in a declaration of your commitment to a faith that says “love others, spread a message of peace, even as they kill you” – now that’s pretty tough. Again, to be macho, that’s for the “Real Man”.
Moderate Muslims are beginning to fight back against the extreme elements of Islam. We must support them, and they must do more. But it is not just Islam that has a lot of work to do. If we as a society are to begin to stem the dangerous flow of angry young men to extreme Islam, we too must promote a revolution of ‘Muscular Moderation’. Yes, it is tough. But it has to happen. And it is testament to just how far we have to go that it has taken a backbench MP, in a political blog, to have to say it.