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