Liberalism vs responsibility: what's their beef?

The London News Review asks why liberals seem to have a problem with Islam, pointing out in the leader that generalising about Islam is wrong – but then falling into a worse trap, that of attempting to be balanced yet coming off as critical of Islamic writings and practices. In the context of such an emotional topic, this is a bad mistake – and is it any surprise that Robert Kilroy-Silk, backed by half the readership of the Daily Mail, shoots his mouth off and offends half of the Muslim world when reasoned, intelligently-written articles themselves come off as barely-checked criticism?
Generalising about Islam – about anything – is wrong. But dwelling on certain actions carried out in the name of Islam, while ignoring similar actions claiming ties to Christianity, or any other religion, is worse. For instance, most of the LNR article focuses on the attitude to women in some Islamic states, and while it is true that to Western liberal ideals the treatment of women in, say, Saudi, falls short of (the Western liberal definition of) acceptable, it is important to remember that Islam is not the only religion whose teachings have been used to ground this sort of culture. Indeed, Islam is the new kid on the block of monotheistic religions; the limitation, oppression and even persecution of women was prevalent in Western society long before the birth of Muhammed.

There’s not much point in trying to do a blow by blow comparison of passages of the Koran and the Bible; any attempt to show that the scriptures of the two religions are equally restrictive and abusive of women and their rights would either be incomplete and open to criticism, or unreadably long. However it is worth noting that Corinthians, one of the most-quoted parts of the New Testament, has the following:

Women should remain silent in the churches … if they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.
1 Corinthians 14, 34-35

Few Christians would, I hope, argue that this passage should be followed literally these days. Women’s position in society has changed since the time of St Paul, and to deny women full participation in congregation on the grounds of this passage would no longer seem an appropriate interpretation of the teachings of Jesus. Society has moved on since then, and so has the religious interpretation of scripture.

However it isn’t valid to argue that Islam’s youth compared to Christianity means it will in time ‘mend its ways’ as it co-exists and develops alongside other religions; for hundreds of years after the birth of Islam, the Christian church’s hold over state in Europe prevented women appearing on the stage, and could give hold over a woman to her husband, father or brothers; later, Christian scripture was used to justify apartheid, anti-semitism, and continues to be used to give a moral grounding for wars all around the world. Christianity may be founded on an all-encompassing and unconditional love, but that will never stop people hijacking its name. Throughout the history of humanity, people have invoked positive, respected ideas and ideals – be it Christianity, Islam, Science or whatever – as a justification for all manner of actions that are neither acceptable to the rest of the world nor, in truth, countenanced by the religion or movement claimed to back up those actions.

This, then, is the crux of the problem. Making a link between any extremist and his claimed religion should no more tarnish the religion itself than John Hinkley’s attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan should make us suspicious of people who like Jodi Foster – but, in the case of religion, and particularly in the case of a religion of which many Westerners still are fairly ignorant, that link can have a very negative effect.

We should not blame Islam that its popularity makes it a target for people looking for a moral justification, but rather we should be condemning the nutters, psychopaths and others who claim its backing yet deviate from its tenets as understood and practiced by the majority. Focusing on the religion is about the most dangerous thing we can do right now; the danger of inadvertently generating another Kilroy-Silk, another little racist, a bigot by misunderstanding rather than by choice, is too high.

Perhaps it is true that ‘progressive Muslims should openly admit that Islam lends itself to unsavoury interpretations’ – but more urgently, liberals (and everyone else) should openly acknowledge their responsibility to clear and accurate communication.

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