Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is How we invented Freedom and why it matters.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is the latest public figure to call for an Islamic Reformation. The faith of her fathers, she believes, needs to be purged of its violent and intolerant tendencies, made compatible with contemporary values. Many others, Muslims and non-Muslims, have made similar arguments; but the brave and brilliant Somali refugee has, so to speak, earned a special right to be heard.
What, though, do we mean by “Reformation”? Most people mean that they want a more modern Islam, one which accepts the separation of church and state, the equality of women, the supremacy of Parliament and so on. This, though, is very far from what the Christian Reformation was about. Its architects were not seeking a cuddlier, more ecumenical version of their faith. On the contrary, just like today’s Salafists, they wanted to purge and purify, to go back to an older and more demanding template, one more closely tied to the Scriptures.
Martin Luther was no apostle of toleration, at least not as we understand the word today. Some of his writings on Jews uncannily resemble the conspiracy theories of the more deranged Islamist groups:
“They are our public enemies. They do not stop blaspheming our Lord Christ, calling the Virgin Mary a whore, Christ a bastard, and us changelings or abortions. If they could kill us all, they would gladly do it. They do it often, especially those who pose as physicians – though sometimes they help – for the devil helps to finish it in the end. They can also practice medicine as in French Switzerland. They administer poison to someone from which he could die in an hour, a month, a year, ten or twenty years.”
Sure enough, Protestantism had its jihadis, as parodied by Samuel Butler in the 1660s:
“Such as do build their faith upon
The holy text of pike and gun;
Decide all controversies by
And prove their doctrine orthodox,
By Apostolic blows and knocks.”
Instead of a Reformation, we might do better speak of an Enlightenment. The reconciliation of Christianity with secularism and pluralism owes less to Luther and Calvin than to Milton and Locke. The West, over the centuries, became less cruel, more intolerant of torture and violence, readier to see other points of view, keener on individual rights and on democracy – and, as it did so, certain religious strictures dating from the Iron Age fell naturally into desuetude.
The abolition of slavery, for example, was a process largely driven by evangelical Christians. Not because they had suddenly discovered Biblical verses condemning servitude – there are none – but because their understanding of their faith had adapted as their world became kinder. Likewise, the reintroduction of slavery in ISIS-held territory revolts most Muslims, not because of any Koranic injunctions – again, there are none – but because the institution belongs to an older, uglier epoch. We have, as the saying goes, moved on.
Now at this stage, some people like to quote the bloodiest and most bellicose verses they can find in the Koran. And, to be sure, such verses exist. Like all revealed religions, Islam can be read in more than one way – necessarily so, since it seeks to express transcendent truths in earthly language.
I’m no expert in Koranic exegesis, and I’ve always found it odd that, online at any rate, so many non-Muslims presume to tell Muslims what their faith really means. I’d simply make the observation that almost all practising Jews and Christians manage to live with Biblical verses that, taken at face value, can be read as ordering slavery, concubinage, torture and even genocide (“Thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee,” Deuteronomy 20:17).
These verses have not been excised from the Bible. Rather, as the behavioural psychologist Steven Pinker argues in his magnum opus, The Better Angels of our Nature, most religious people have learned to compartmentalise their faith. Passages that are utterly removed from modern experience – when’s the last time you had cause to smite an Amalekite? – have lost their relevance.
For those still grumbling that Islam is qualitatively different, consider the following. The punishment of adulterers by stoning is not to be found in the Koran; but it is mentioned in the Old Testament (approvingly) and the New (where Jesus tells the crowd “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”) Most practicing Christians will tell you that the Bible is divinely inspired, yet will shudder in horror at the idea of stoning adulterers. Most Muslims, as is obvious when we look around the world, do the same.
Ah, you say, but then how do I explain ISIS? Why do we take it for granted that Muslims take up arms in Bosnia, Kashmir, Chechnya and Yemen, but that Anglicans don’t rush to fight alongside their coreligionists in Nigeria? If I’m right about religions adapting with wider societal mores, how come middle-class boys from Western democracies are attracted by the abominable savagery of the desert badmashes?
Well, the disproportionate number of converts among their ranks – including the perpetrators of the sickening murder of Lee Rigby – should give us pause for thought. Something is attracting a certain kind of young man to violence, and that something has only the merest connection to mainstream Islam.
One observation made by those who study Western-born militants is that they fit the profile of the terrorist down the ages: male, typically in their twenties, with some education, narcissistic, lacking in empathy, lonely, unsuccessful with women, often with a history of petty crime and drug abuse. Michael Adebolajo, the Woolwich murderer, is a textbook case, as is Mohammed Emwazi. Neither man can exactly be called pious.
Plainly there are several factors at work, not least the uncertain sense of identity common to many second-generation immigrants. But it’s worth at least glancing at what the experts say. Here, for example, is the anthropologist Scott Atran, one of the leaders in his field, giving evidence in Washington:
“When you look at young people like the ones who grew up to blow up trains in Madrid in 2004, carried out the slaughter on the London underground in 2005, hoped to blast airliners out of the sky en route to the United States in 2006 and 2009, and journeyed far to die killing infidels in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia; when you look at whom they idolise, how they organise, what bonds them and what drives them; then you see that what inspires the most lethal terrorists in the world today is not so much the Koran or religious teachings as a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends.”
A leaked MI5 report makes the same point:
“Far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practice their faith regularly.”
Indeed, most security officers believe that the surest route out of extremism, for many of these young men, is through religion. And they have a point. Earlier this week I met, for the first time, the hugely impressive Ed Husain, who was radicalised as a young man, but later turned away from extremism, and worked to help others do likewise. I couldn’t help noticing that he was now religious in a typically British way – that is, quietly, diffidently, awkwardly but sincerely.
Ayaan, in her book, calls on the rest of us to engage with Muslim reformers. Actually, I’m not sure there is much of a role for non-Muslims one way or the other, provided we are not so foolish as to vindicate the Wahhabi contention that you can’t be a good Muslim and a patriotic citizen of a liberal democracy – an argument which anti-Islamists like to make, and which sustains the world view of the jihadi fruitcakes.
But there is one thing we can do. We can be assertive in defence of our values. We can stop presenting our history as a hateful chronicle of racism and exploitation. We can celebrate the million Muslims who took up arms for Britain – every man of them a volunteer – against the Nazi tyranny. We can help the disoriented children of immigrants feel that there is something they want to belong to, something that obviates the need to grope around for alternative identities. We can, in short, offer something better. And what, in the end, could be better than British freedom?