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Faith and reason

September 23, 2006

I HAVE a theory about riots: those out on the streets often don’t have a clear idea what they’re rioting about. And invariably, they have a lot of time on their hands.

After all, how often do you find an employed person asking for leave to join the demo of the day? But when you have time to kill, you’ll join any crowd that’s out to protest, no matter what the cause. When Salman Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses’ inflamed the Muslim world, how many people demonstrating had actually read the book? I must confess that neither had I, but it wasn’t for lack of trying: struggling manfully, I ploughed through the first hundred pages before admitting defeat. So I never actually read the passages that gave rise to the famous fatwa. But I doubt very much if the people who rioted even saw the book.

The same is true for those now up in arms about the Pope’s address at the University of Regensburg. I have printed out the speech, and must confess that it’s heavy going. The offending section is a tiny part of the paper, and it remains a mystery why Pope Benedict needed such an obscure quotation in his discussion of faith and reason. Having said that, he has addressed an issue that needs to be debated: how should believers reconcile their faith with the dictates of reason? According to him, modern Christianity has bridged the gap, while Islam hasn’t.

We can debate his conclusion, and criticise his choice of supporting material, but we can hardly deny his right to hold an opinion. When Muslims demonstrated their opposition to his views, many of them carried placards threatening the Pope with death. In fact, the London police are seeing if they can prosecute some demonstrators for inciting others to violence. It seems that our stock response to the slightest provocation consists of death threats and violent demonstrations. These undignified protests reinforce the worst prejudices others have about Muslims. After all, why should some cartoons in an obscure Danish newspaper, or a papal address at an unknown German university, send hundreds of thousands pouring into streets around the world?

When we were children, when somebody said anything offensive, we would chant: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” As we grew older, we learned that some words are deadlier than any sticks or stones, festering long after bruises and wounds have healed. But we were also taught to be stoical, and not to complain.

In a letter to the Guardian of September 20, San Cassimally of Edinburgh writes: “As a Muslim, I am much more saddened and shocked by the murder of the Somali nun than by what the Pope said in Regensburg... even if he knew exactly what he was doing.”

I would add that I am far more horrified by the endless Muslim-on-Muslim killing going on in Iraq than by anything the pontiff could possibly say. According to UN estimates, an average of a hundred Iraqis are being killed every day, almost invariably by other Iraqis. And all too often, many of the victims are tortured to death. When Israel killed a thousand Lebanese civilians in a month of senseless bombing, Muslims (and others with a conscience) around the world were rightly incensed. But approximately the same number of Muslims are being killed by other Muslims every 10 days in Iraq, and there are no protests anywhere. Before the invasion of Iraq, when Saddam Hussein tortured and gassed his own people with impunity, I do not recall any Muslims condemning him publicly.

Applying these same double standards, when Nato forces accidentally kill Afghans, we are furious. But when the Taliban kill innocent Afghans in suicide bombings, and assassinate teachers for teaching girls, we look the other way. Similarly, when the Iranian authorities rig elections and suppress their own people, we are silent spectators. But when President Ahmedinejad is seen as standing up to the West, we applaud him loudly.

This kind of moral inconsistency is reflected in the treatment non-Muslims generally get in Muslim countries. For instance, while the 300,000 Iraqi Christians were treated as equal citizens in Saddam’s secular regime, two-thirds of them have fled the increasingly Islamic nature of the present government. In Pakistan, we are regularly and correctly pilloried by human rights organisations for the wretched social and legal status of our minorities. Saudi Arabia, while funding Wahabi mosques across the West, refuses to permit non-Muslims to build their places of worship on its soil.

I am often asked why Muslims in Pakistan get so worked up about Bosnia, Chechnya and Palestine. I try and explain in terms of the ummah, and the feeling of connectedness between, say, Indonesian Muslims and Turkish Muslims. But I fear this is only a small part of the real answer. The truth is that the problems we face in much of the Muslim world are often so intractable that we escape reality by looking abroad. Matters like poverty, disease, political instability and institutional meltdown are too difficult to be tackled by the inefficient and corrupt elites much of the Muslim world is cursed with. To deflect blame, they fulminate against the West for its perceived anti-Islamic attitudes.

It is this mindless, knee-jerk anti-West sentiment that sustains the jihadi groups, and is now propelling us to a very real ‘clash of civilisations’. As Islam becomes more heavily politicised, it is evoking a strong reaction in the West. More and more, the Muslims who have migrated to Europe and America, as well as their children, are being seen as a fifth column. The sight of perpetually angry Muslims from London to Lahore, marching with placards calling for the death of somebody or the other, is moving normally liberal people to anger.

For me, the really worrying part of the Pope’s address was his demand for the subordination of reason to theology:

“Modern scientific reason quite simply has to accept the rational structure of matter and the correspondence between our spirit and the prevailing rational structures of nature as a given, on which its methodology has to be based. Yet the question why this has to be so is a real question, and one which has to be remanded by the natural sciences to other modes and planes of thought: to philosophy and theology.”

Sorry, but I’m not buying this, Your Holiness. This is precisely why I don’t think faith and reason can ever be reconciled.