Religious moderates license extremists

by Ian McKenzie

Once when I was very young, my father was making me porridge. Seeing him raise a salt cellar I asked for sugar instead. “You’ll have salt”, he insisted, “or I’ll tell your grandfather”.

My grandfather was a Scot and, as any first-year student of philosophy knows, no true Scotsman would have sugar on his porridge. “I want sugar”, I countered, “or I’ll tell my grandfather you drink gin and tonic”. I ate sweetened porridge that day and have done so ever since, although now, in my 50s, I use slightly healthier honey in place of refined sugar. I also drink the occasional gin and tonic.

“No true Scotsman” is known as an informal fallacy, an attempted sidestep around the inconvenient fatal arguments of others. Religious moderates of all denominations use it to separate themselves from those at the other end of their religious spectrum who commit unspeakable acts of inhumanity in the name of that religion. (Yeah, yeah, atheists commit mass murder too, but they don’t do it in the name of atheism).

Many use the “No True Scotsman” defence when Islamists commit mass murder. Thus: no true believer would murder 2,000 men, women and children in cold blood by flying a plane into a skyscraper. No one properly religious would gun down a room full of cartoonists, or a theatre full of people or hack off someone’s head for the cameras, and do so in the name of god. Why not? Well, no true believer would do such a thing because Islam is a peaceful religion. See how it works?

Tony Blair says, “acts of terrorism are perpetrated by people motivated by an abuse of religion. It is a perversion of faith.” After the Charlie Hebdo murders, President Hollande of France said, “those who committed these terrorist acts, those terrorists, those fanatics, have nothing to do with the Muslim religion.” This side step has become the obligatory shuffle of politicians and most commentators, lest the religious be offended. The proposition froths down my Twitter feed after every fresh religiously motivated terrorist outrage. It may froth, but it’s a falsehood.

There are roughly a billion and a half Muslims in the world. A small, though significant, minority are Islamists, but that’s an awful lot of people. Hardliners actively working to achieve the caliphate – an Islamic State everywhere – are supplemented by a penumbra of tens of millions of sympathisers who profess a preference for the Sharia. Around them are countless apologists ready with the taunt of “Islamophobia” if one dares criticise the religion.

Yet more try to identify religion with race deliberately, or ignorantly, confusing epistemology and ontology in an attempt to render faith immune from criticism. For an especially mealy mouthed version of this see Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury.

“For some – and this is especially true for believers from outside the European or North Atlantic setting – religious belief and practice is a marker of shared identity, accepted not as a matter of individual choice but as a given to which allegiance is due in virtue of the intrinsic claims of the sacred.  We may disagree; but I do not think we have the moral right to assume that this perspective can be simply disregarded.”

Belief is propositional whether it is religious or not. A belief system is assent to a set of sentences that have truth-values. Belief is different from being. This is illustrated by the enthusiasm with which the evangelical religions of Christianity and Islam accept converts and the punishment for apostasy, execution, practised by hard-line clerics of all denominations.

If Williams is right and religious belief is not “a matter of individual choice but a given” then it would not be possible to become an apostate and run the risk of execution for it.

Radicalisation is difficult to define and therefore quantify the number of its adherents. Some estimate that Islamists number as many as half of all Muslims, or 800 million. Ben Shapiro thinks so. Channel 4 Fact made a good fist of saying he’d over estimated. Let’s agree.  Let’s say he overestimated not by 10%, or 50% or even by 90%. Let’s say he was out by 99%. That still leaves 8 million ardent followers of Unreason, a big problem.

In most respects, Islam and Islamism are dramatically different. Non Islamist Muslims, especially those at the rational and secular end of the spectrum, practise their faith by doing what moderates in all religions do: they cherry pick the divinely inspired text, taking the bits that are consistent with civilised 21st century human behaviour and leaving the medieval gobbledy-gook to the nutters at the other end.

It is as preposterous and offensive to blame these moderate Muslims for the barbarism of Islamism as it is to blame Jews for the excesses of right wing, Palestinian-oppressing Israeli governments, or all Christians for, say, the bombing of abortion clinics, though plenty of bigots do those things.

The moderately religious are mistaken, but provided they keep their grand fictions to themselves and don’t try to murder anyone on the instructions of a heavenly commander or one of its earthly corporals claiming to speak for it, or make us live in a country where we are required by law to agree with them, they are no more menacing a political force than, say, the Greens, Nats, or UKIP, and probably less of a threat to our way of life.

I’d take a benign religious type over the body politic toxins of a Natalie Bennett, Nicola Sturgeon or Nigel Farage any day.

Islamists are a whole dimension apart. ISIS and Boko Haram are just two of the many gangs of modern-day Islamists. They want to recreate the caliphate, a religiously underpinned state, everywhere, forcing us to live under Sharia, the code of so-called god-given Islamic law.

Let’s spare ourselves here any descriptions of the stomach-churningly inhuman excesses of that particular code. God gave us those laws, you see, since we mere mortals aren’t up to law-making. For an Islamist, trifling concepts such as democracy, political tolerance, equality of the sexes and sexual preferences are man-made affectations, abominations to be scorned. As Hilary Benn MP put it in that speech, “these people hold us in contempt.”

For many years, our otherwise laudably benign liberalism fostered a dangerous moral relativism with complacency as its safe house. Home-grown Islamists were treated as a bit of a sad joke. They were Dan Hannan’s petty criminals and saddoes, Boris Johnson’s wankers or Simon Jenkins’ those to be ignored. Whichever, they deserved and received our ridicule, pity or dismissal.

Times have changed and for me the new order arrived suddenly. In April 2010 I was in a General Election campaign office in East London when half a dozen Islamists stormed in waving a black flag, ranting and filming the whole episode. The Lord High Ranter told us that they wouldn’t rest until the Black Flag of Sharia flew over Downing Street.

It was frightening while it was happening and we called the police in to advise on security, but I didn’t fear for my life at any stage. Three weeks later, three miles down the road, Stephens Timms MP, while conducting his advice surgery, was stabbed in the stomach by an Islamist and almost died. I approached the 2015 general election as election agent to the same candidate with genuine fear.

Islamists are waging war on Reason. It is not war in a conventional sense; you can forget the Geneva Convention, for a start. That’s man-made law, don’t forget, so the almighty does not approve. Their objective is to kill as many people as possible, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, in the most shocking, illustrative and memorable ways to take advantage of the terrorists’ multiplier effect.

They like to paint a picture for us, do this lot, mostly with blood and body parts, sometimes with their own, sometimes with those of 10 year-old girls to whom they have strapped high explosives. No concession short of capitulation could ever satisfy them. “Convert or die” is their war cry. Talk of negotiating with such people is for the criminally insane or the Far Left in British politics.

Religious apologists hope that the sheer distance on the behaviour spectrum between the cuddly, civilised, faithful-though-secular, and the brutally irrational extremist means that no one will notice that it’s a continuum; they claim instead evidence of the clean break of separation. “No true believer would” etc, like I said.

But religious extremism is a subset of religion, a small, though significant and growing bubble inside the larger one in a Venn diagram. The religious moderate and the religious extremist are clearly connected in one important sense: they are founded on the same unreason.

To deny that is worse than the normal polite unwillingness to offend the faithful, though it is often that too. It is also often a mendacious attempt by the faithful to deflect blame from their own unreason. Tony Blair and others’ “perversion” of a peaceful faith, and the last Archbishop of Canterbury’s expression of solidarity with Islam over the concept of blasphemy when cartoons of Mohammed were published in Denmark, are two examples of the former. And behind both good manners and self-regarding attempts to hide one’s own unreason, lies fear.

The apologists may well be right that our fury is not only wasted it is the exact reaction the barbarians seek. Our disproportionate reaction is their lottery win. How else can they attract followers? But to ignore it and employ ridicule is to cede the field and guarantee our own defeat.

Liberal democracy is under attack and, far from trying to protect itself, has gone into a frenzy doing what it does best: attacking itself. Furious rows have broken out about whether Islam should apologise for Islamism (of course it shouldn’t), whether otherwise editorially acceptable religion critical cartoons should be published in solidarity with murdered journalists (of course they should), whether the security services should receive much more funding to counter the threat (of course they should), whether to slide a little way along the security/liberty scale towards safety is to “let the terrorists win” (of course it isn’t).

But almost no one ever addresses the real issue, namely the contribution irrational faith itself makes to the problem and how to combat it. And to raise it is to invite on one’s head the patronising dismissal that agreeing with the Four Horsemen of the Non-Apocalypse – Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Christopher Hitchens – attracts. One suffers a pincer movement: angst from polite, selfless religious types, and howls from the Dawkins-hating liberal fellow travellers who shield them. That last lot includes my favourite Professor of Politics. He knows who he is. He’s a lovely man and has been a good friend for over 30 years, but he’s wrong on this one.

Every monotheistic religion is built on four cornerstones: a supreme being, a divinely inspired text with addenda, the promise of an afterlife, and fear. Remove one, some or all of those foundations and the superstructure crumbles.

It is true that many religious terrorists are petty criminals, saddoes and weirdos and that if you took away the mysticism, and therefore the fear, they would simply find something else to underpin their fanaticism. But it would be something of this world, something that could be stated, understood, countered, refuted and defeated. Religion draws its only strength from the mystification of god being on everyone’s side. With Dorothy, we need to draw back the curtain and show the Wizard perpetrating his artifice.

Undermining those foundations isn’t possible with warfare, that’s only good for stopping the inhuman excesses temporarily. The war on ISIS won’t rid us of Islamism; it merely stops them murdering people.

Changing cultures requires education and a lot of time. “Religion poisons everything”, said Hitchens. Faith schools, whether Christian schools segregated in the North of Ireland or madrassas in rural Pakistan, are delivery mechanisms for that poison.

The antidote is secularism. Powerful religions are almost always protected by a state apparatus. Remove religion from the public arena; leave them to fend for themselves and they wither. That threat is well understood by the religious; that is why they deliberately seek state approval and robustly defend their unchallenged indoctrination of the young.

A defence of Enlightenment gains is urgently required. For this to be successful, secularism need not be evangelical for religious contradictions should do Reason’s job for it.

The monotheistic “faiths” are inconsistent with each another and there has been huge fear and enmity between them over the centuries. Wars are still fought over holy scraps of land, buildings or texts. Yet in this modern age when the defence of the enlightenment started to become necessary, some of them realised that the threat was not from each other but from Reason reasserting itself. That is why every religious outrage triggers reaction not only from moderates of that religion but also from adherents of other religions quick to condemn the outrage while employing the No True Scotsman defence at every turn.

A sustained attempt to reverse centuries of enlightenment and terrorise us into a new age of barbarism is well underway. The forces of darkness – let’s not call them evil for that would be to surrender territory – have entered the gates and are hand-to-hand with us. Not all of us, though.

The barbarians have a Fifth Column of useful idiots who wear their innate decency (I’m feeling generous) like spectacles, filtering out common sense yet allowing through a numbing moral relativism. They cannot see the peril ahead. Not even when it has gunned down a theatre full of young Parisiens enjoying a night out.

As long as enough well meaning liberals remain complacent we will continue to live under this threat. It doesn’t matter whether what we face is naive decency or mendacious moral relativism, if its net effect is tolerance of the intolerable we will still end up being over-run by those who believe that God created the universe, that there are immutable laws written down in divinely inspired texts, and that they are going to an afterlife. Avoiding being prematurely dispatched with them requires that we stand firm and resolutely counter irrational religious faith in the public sphere.

As I wrote elsewhere: the barbarians are inside the gates and we have battalions to form.

Ian McKenzie was a Special Adviser to Ann Taylor MP and John Prescott MP

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17 Responses to “Religious moderates license extremists”

  1. Bobby says:

    A great article, but Labour has to stand up for secularism and support an inquiry into sharia courts in Britain and oppose Islamism in all its incarnations Is Labour able to do that? Or is it a taboo because of misguided desires not to offend?

  2. Tafia says:

    A great article, but Labour has to stand up for secularism and support an inquiry into sharia courts in Britain

    You are just a cheap amateur joke until you condemn Beth Din and the people that believe in it, just as pubicly and just as volubly and in the same breath. And stick two fingers up to he anti-semitist accusations you will incur.

    if you aren’t prepared to do that, then there is no point to you as person. Sorry (I’m not really – I don’t apologise for irrelevance.).

  3. JV says:

    Utter bunkum from an anti-religious bigot.

    Religion has improved the lives of billions. It ran the only educational establishments for more than a thousand years, it kept science and reason alive during the dark ages, it provides hope to a dark world and essential charity to those who need it.

    People who are religious are more likely to give to charity, they are happier, they are more likely to have stable family lives, they are more content, they are healthier, and they live longer.

    No discussion of religion is complete without identifying and discussing the positives religion brings – to refuse to even discuss that turns your article into an anti-religious polemic.

    I expect better from LU.

  4. Mike Stallard says:

    This is shallow.

    For a start, why attack your natural allies? “There’s Methodism in their madness.” That used to be a joke about the Labour Party. Methodism used to provide a way up for the bright young lad (and lassy) who had missed out on his/her education. A good thing.

    Secondly where is all this socialism coming from? Why should I be nice to other people if there is no God up there looking at me when nobody else is? There is absolutely no reason at all. Ask anyone who has not been exposed to Christianity, Islam, Judaism or many other religions which believe in the golden rule.

    Religion of all stripes provides an answer to life’s basic questions. It is the natural ally of the Labour movement. Don’t blindly dismiss it. That is, frankly, very shortsighted.

    (PS I know about religious – and atheist – idiots. To me the atheists have the edge, but I would say that wouldn’t I.)

  5. Eddie Clarke says:

    Not much to say. You are convinced only you know the Terewth, and we other 99% are benighted. You seem to have no awareness of the Christian communities who built, and sustain, our democracies, along with secularism, mostly by reference to the words and deeds of a Palestinian journeyman. How you can hope to come to a secular accommodation with people you so obviously pity or despise I don’t know. You are a big part of the problem. Thankfully, you are a minority that perverts the truth of secularism.

  6. paul barker says:

    This article has much of the same emotional flavour as any piece by religious or political bigots, like Dawkins the author makes a religion out of atheism. Of course religion forms a sort of continuum, just as political activism forms a continuum between me, say & a faschist pub-bomber. Light forms a continuum with darkness but thats not a very useful thought.

  7. Touchstone says:

    People are entitled to believe whatever they want, however ridiculous their beliefs appear to others. They are also entitled to attempt to persuade others to adopt their beliefs. Their activities become illegal when they start using compulsion or violence – in other words, when they commit illegal acts. So no, there is not a continuum from moderate religious believers to genocidal nutters, just some people are criminals and others aren’t.

  8. Bobby says:

    Tafia, I will happily condemn Beth Din courts. Unfortunately too many in Labour are shills and apologists for the most vile and discriminatory sharia courts that proliferate our society now and are growing, and subvert our secular law. You should read Elham Manea’s recent book on the subject. The liberal Left in Britain, caught up in the moral relativism of multiculturalism are silent and even supportive of this. Its time the racist and hateful bigotry of sharia and islamist extremism was challenged. If Labour doesn’t do it, it will pay in the long term dearly and be seen as colluding with this moral and ethical dysfunction.

  9. Bobby says:

    Lots of hostility to Ian’s article misses that without the secularising impulse of critique, religion in Britain would not now be the relatively benign thing it is, staying out of our lives, oppressing gays, oppressing women, demonising non believers, persecuting blasphemers. It is because of secularism that Christianity made peace with the values of tolerance and genuine compassion. It is important to maintain secular vigilance of the kind Ian asserts. Even if you don’t agree with all he says, the alternative is blindness to malignancy that is advanced in the name of religion.

    Anti-secular bigotry is the first step to the imposition of theocratic values on our society. Bravo to Ian for reminding us of this!

  10. Eddie Clarke says:

    Secularism is not atheism,for God’s sake! The critiques of specific religious beliefs and practices mentioned were and are a natural part of Christian and Jewish life and led to social progress. Atheism has had zero impact on social progress. God save us from all fanatics!

  11. Tafia says:

    Tafia, I will happily condemn Beth Din courts. Unfortunately too many in Labour are shills and apologists for the most vile and discriminatory sharia courts that proliferate our society now and are growing, and subvert our secular law.

    Again you talk utter bollocks. there are no “most vile and discriminatory sharia courts”. By saying that you are saying that some aren’t vile and discriminatory. That is wrong – they all are. And again ” I will happily condemn Beth Din courts” But you didn’t though did you – why have you written an article solely about Sharia courts with no mention of Beth Din.

    The people whop practice Beth Din are just as vile and discrimnatory and unacceptable as the people that practice Sharia. Theere is no difference and both should be made a criminal offence in this country and both should be condemned in the same breath and in the same article. Exactly the same as Dharma and other religious pretend legal bodies.

  12. “Yeah, yeah, atheists commit mass murder too, but they don’t do it in the name of atheism“? Yes, they do.

    Who does McKenzie think founded the Labour Party, and why does he think that they did so?

  13. Tafia says:

    Britain would not now be the relatively benign thing it is, staying out of our lives, oppressing gays, oppressing women, demonising non believers, persecuting blasphemers.

    Rubbish. Why do you think Northern Ireland has different marriage laws and different abortion laws to the rest of the UK. And look at the state of Northern Ireland anyway – the violence might be largely died down but the secularism is very much in evidence. Then there’s faith schools in the UK in general, nativity plays at Xmas, citing God in State official ceremonies, the fact the head of State is the Monarch and the Monarch is also the head of the Church of England (which is also the UKs official state religion). Trading restrictions on Christmas and Easter mottos such a Dieu et mon driot, the churches legal status and exemption form things, prayers before council meetings, state symbology and even down to the the latest bollocks of muslim care home staff at one location in Bradford refusing to give their charges bacon butties because they themselves don’t touch pork or pork products (should have been sacked on the spot).

    We are not secular. We aren’t even mostly secular until all trappings, symbols and allowances of religion – aggresive and benign, are removed from the state apparatus from top to bottom and no allowance is made for religion at all in laws or any other day-to-day life and no overtly religious clothing or jewellry (including crucifixes, St Christopher’s etc) is worn openly in public.

  14. Tafia says:

    Typo:- but the secularism is very much in evidence.

    should be but the secterianism is very much in evidence.

  15. Ydoethur says:

    Atheists don’t do it [mass murder] in the name of atheism.

    I stopped reading at that point. This author either knows that is not true, or is so ignorant their opinions would not be worth reading anyway.

    This line is very popular among proponents of secularism/atheism/anti-clericalism, but its roots can be traced to Dawkins’ The God Delusion, an anti-religious polemic infamous for its sloppy research and dogmatic approach, based on earlier work by the far-right journalist Christopher Hitchens. The claim, for example, that there is ‘no evidence’ Stalin’s atheism had a bearing on his conduct in office appears to be based upon ignorance of the activities of the League of Militant Godless. Rather typically, this author overlooks as well the strongly anti-clerical nature of the Cultural Revolution, although as few people in the West know much about that and there were other ideological currents flowing at the time which makes it difficult for those who have a passing acquaintance with the subject to understand it.

    Is this an argument against atheism? No,because actually it is irrelevant to the truth or falsity of atheism, as it is for any religious position. That should be argued on facts, not actions. To pretend otherwise is intellectually sloppy, at best, and is typical of the lazy moral superiority of the evangelical secularist movement in this country. A moral superiority that is richly ironic when you remember that despite the frantic denials of amateur philosophers like Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, Carrier and this one, atheism has undoubtedly caused more death and suffering than all religions put together despite its comparatively short intellectual life.

  16. Tafia says:

    Ydoethur – I have been in the Police, the Armed Forces, local government. I’ve even had my own business and employed over a dozen people.

    I have read some pointless garbage in my life – mainly from the state sector it must be admitted , but your little contribution takes some beating.

  17. Andrew Old says:

    What it must feel like to believe that most of the human race, including some of the greatest philosophers and best regarded logicians, are irrational and you aren’t.

    What it must feel like to repeat a slogan like “atheists commit mass murder too, but they don’t do it in the name of atheism” without the obvious counter-examples springing to kind.

    What it must be like to believe that the failings of religious extremists are ones that only the religious can fall prey to.

    Actually, I can imagine what it must be like. It must be pretty much like holding to any extreme belief without doubt, humility or thought. And there’s an irony in that.

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