Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Islamic Enlightenment

I missed this when it first came out, but there's a Guardian long read purportedly about Islam and the Enlightenment. It's a slightly odd read, because its title, and presumably its intended point is:
Stop calling for a Muslim Enlightenment
The basis in the article itself for this is as follows:
Whenever jihadi groups carry out an atrocity, or – as is happening a lot these days, western foreign policy failures lead to large areas of the world coming under the sway of oafs who claim to be acting for God – the call goes up for a Muslim Enlightenment. The imputation of Védrine, the French schoolteachers, and thousands of other commentators is that various internal deficiencies have excluded Islam from this indispensable cultural and intellectual event, without which no culture can be considered modern. Such views cut across political borders; they would find sympathy at the BBC as well as in the editorial offices of the Sun. Islam needs to get with the programme.
This call, ubiquitous as it is, is wrongheaded, de Bellaigue argues, because Islamic countries have in fact embraced modernity, on their own terms, at least since the 19th century. In support of this he enters into a (genuinely) very interesting discursion into the paths towards modernity taken by Persia, Iraq & Egypt, including early travellers to the West and later innovations like newspapers and street lighting, munitions factories and nascent rights for women. To the extent that modernisation failed it was thanks to Western imperialism (and the establishment of Israel, natch). The article makes a point reasonably well - that countries in the Middle East have adopted the trappings of modern life.

But that's not what the article set out to argue. The intended argument was that Islam is in no need of an Enlightenment. Throughout the piece, Enlightenment and modernity are treated as synonyms. They are not. I am no philosopher, still less a theologian, but although the Enlightenment is seen as a precursor to the modern era in the West (the 18th century is often known as the Early Modern Period), it was a distinct philosophical movement with two key ideas: that reason and empirical observation should be preferred to deference and divine revelation; and that being human itself brought inalienable rights, distinct from traditional divisions of nationality or religion.

How is this relevant to Islam? This was, I think, best put by the Pope Emeritus in his speech at Regensburg in 2006 (about which I wrote this, 9 bloody years ago). The Pope was discussing the role of reason (more strictly, of the interplay of Christianity's hellenistic roots with Enlightenment thinking) in religion. He noted that the central plank of the Gospels is from the first verse of John. "In the Beginning was the Word". Logos, which means both 'word' and 'reason' is the essential nature of God. As the Byzantine Emperor Manuel Paleologus put it "not acting reasonably (σὺν λόγω) is contrary to God's nature". This does not, however, read across to Islamic theology:
But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazm went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practise idolatry.
The argument that Islam (not Muslim countries, but Islam itself) needs an Enlightenment is based on the perception that Islam requires submission to faith (that's what the word means), not engagement with it. Its Holy Book is seen as direct divine revelation and therefore incapable of error (whereas Christian texts, albeit divinely inspired, are the work of men). While the direction of travel within Christianity has overwhelmingly been away from literalism, within Islam Quranic literalism is mainstream. Reason, which is so central a part of the 'Judaeo-Christian tradition', needs to play a much greater part in Islamic theology. If it did, then the more murderous aspects of Islamism would have an antipathetic force within Islam.

This may or may not be right (it's an argument for a theologian to make not me), but it is not an argument that can be refuted by the presence of street lamps in Cairo, or munitions factories (or centrifuges) in Tehran.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Yellow Cards

Zoe Williams has a piece up about Angela Eagle's idea to:
Introduce a system into the house to combat uncivilised behaviour: yellow cards, hour-long bans rising to three-session exclusions for more serious offences.
Barracking – being often sexual in content – discourages women from seeking election in the first place, and this lack of representation then alienates women from the political process.
 And she notes that Angela Eagle was
Once memorably told by David Cameron “Calm down, dear” to indicate that, being female, she was stupid and hysterical and should defer to people who, having penises, were better than her.
The first thing that struck me about this was that David Cameron said that to her because she was barracking him - was shouting from her seat to try and disrupt his answer at PMQs - and shouting so loudly that it distracted him enough to tell her to shut up. Hansard also notes that he said "calm down to dear" to Ed Balls to, doubtless to indicate that he too is in a state of penislessness. Equally, the reason that both sides barrack each other has less to do with a gendered desire to disenfranchise women, than a partisan desire to derail opposing MPs. You just grab whatever stick you can.

The second thing it triggered was a very faint recollection of a sketch about the House of Commons in the 19th Century. Usually descriptions of barracking and heckling in the House is accompanied by po-faced mutterings about how far we've fallen, and how much more serious we were once upon a time. After a bit of googling, I found what I had half remembered in a book called "Random Recollections of the House of Commons by One of No Party" - God knows where I read it:
A Scene from the House of Commons
I shall allude to only one more scene of this kind. It occurred towards the close of last Session. An honourable member, whose name I suppress, rose, amidst the most tremendous uproar, to address the House. He spoke, and was received, as nearly as the confusion enabled me to judge, as follows :
I rise, Sir, (Ironical cheers, mingled with all sorts of zoological sounds), I rise, Sir, for the purpose of stating that I have... ('Oh! Oh! Baa!’ and sounds resembling the bleating of a sheep, mingled with loud laughter). Hon. Gentlemen may endeavour to put me down by their unmannerly interruptions, but I have a duty to perform to my con- (Ironical cheers, loud coughing, sneezing, and yawning extended to an incredible length, followed by bursts of laughter). I say, Sir, I have constituents who on this occasion expect that I...(Cries of ' Should sit down," and shouts of laughter). They expect, Sir, that on a question of such importance... ('O-o-a-a u-' and loud laughter, followed by cries of 'Order! Order!' from the Speaker).
"I tell honourable gentlemen who choose to conduct themselves in such a way, that I am not to be put down by... (Groans, coughs, sneezings, hems, and various animal sounds, some of which closely imitated the yelping of a dog, and the squeaking of a pig, interspersed with peals of laughter). I appeal... ('Cocke-leeri-o-co!’ The imitation, in this case, of the crowing of a cock was so remarkably good, that not even the most staid and orderly members in the house could preserve their gravity. The laughter which followed drowned the Speaker's cries of 'Order! Order!') I say, Sir, this is most unbecoming conduct on the part of an assembly calling itself de-" ('Bow-wow-wow!, and bursts of laughter).
Sir, may I ask, have honourable gentlemen who can... ('Mew-mew!, and renewed laughter). Sir, I claim the protection of the Chair. (The Speaker here again rose and called out “Order! Order!” in a loud and angry tone, on which the uproar in some measure subsided). 
If honourable gentlemen will only allow me to make one observation, I will not trespass further on their attention, but sit down at once (This was followed by the most tremendous cheering in earnest). I only beg to say, Sir, that I think this is a most dangerous and unconstitutional measure, and will therefore vote against it." The honourable gentleman then resumed his seat amidst deafening applause.
Maybe the po-faced mutterers are right - the standards of heckling really have deteriorated since those lost glory-days.