Time for a global Enlightenment


Facts are irrelevant in a catharsis. Though it is perfectly clear that Newsweek’s 9 May report that US interrogators of Muslim suspects in Guantanamo Bay had flushed a Koran down a toilet was crap, fifteen Afghanis have so far died in riots over the supposed desecration and scores more have been injured in Pakistan, Indonesia and other Muslim countries; a group of Afghan clerics have demanded a holy war against the US unless it hands the malefactors over, and there is to be a global day of protest on 27 May, involving twenty five leading Islamic organizations including Hammas, Hezbollah, PAS of Malaysia and the Muslim brotherhood of Egypt.

The surge of rage and violence has frightened even the Pentagon and Condoleeza Rice. Newsweek has said sorry, but, ‘By insulting the Koran, they have challenged our beliefs,’ according to Jafiz Hussain Ahmed, a top official of the religious alliance at a protest rally in Islamabad. ‘It has happened due to the liberal and progressive policies of Western-influenced Muslim rulers.’

Time for a global Enlightenment, or we’re all doomed.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Religion is an institutionalised system of ritual, myths and behavioural requirements, which derives its power from being bundled up with quasi-historical events. It is the story of faith, not faith: a knot of metaphors and symbols and institutionalised traditions. Religion enables individuals to share their indescribable, numinous encounter with a divine presence, and its power is vast. I understand these riots. I’ve been in mass meetings in Pune and Perth, London and Rome and, my most recent numinous experience, in a Melbourne crowd (yes, it’s our religion) watching Collingwood kick ass “ and they were scary, unbearably exciting, and well nigh orgasmic in their exhilaration of oneness. Covenantors must have felt like this as they slaughtered papists in Scottish glens, and crusaders as they chopped heads and burned cities “ and indeed, those thousands of good Germans caught up in the spectacle of Nuremberg.

Desecration of the Koran is especially inflammatory to Muslims because it is a unique record of the revelations of a real, historical Mohammed, in his lifetime, of the faith that existed before Islam became a religion: that is, before it was interpreted by scholars, and before the religion became an institution. It demands respect.

Nonetheless, it demands reason too. It has to be interpreted. Religious scholars seek to establish a workable interpretation of religious tradition, using reason and historical research about the times in which its myths arose, for modern circumstances. I was taught, as a Presbyterian kid, that though the Bible was holy, it was not a ‘paper Pope’. That’s why, despite respect for Exodus, most Christians don’t stone adulterers, kill blasphemers, enslave their enemies’ children or abstain from pork, today.

Every religion evolves. Mohammed’s revelation of egalitarianism and moral accountability was revolutionary for the tribal society of his day. Religion is always redefined by following generations. Orthodoxy and divisions come too, along with competing interpretations, ideas, and communities of faith. When these are associated with war, dispossession, colonisation and cultural upheaval, not surprisingly religion becomes a rallying point of political and social definition. It becomes fixed. It becomes politically useful.

After September 11 2001, we slipped into the fearful view that this was a war between the modern democratic societies of the West, and barbaric, autocratic societies of the Middle East. It is has become greater, a confrontation between fundamentalisms and the progressive, pluralistic ideals of democratic government.

To some, democracy’s failure to ‘stick’ in the Middle East is because Islamic culture itself is supposedly incompatible with enlightenment virtues such as liberalism, pluralism, individualism and respect for human rights. Islam is still being misused to rationalise totalitarian regimes, it is true, but it is also true that Western civilisation, supposedly secular, has a religious underbelly. One glance at the church-going proclivities and rhetoric of political leaders in the US “ and here, too “ should tell us that Protestant evangelism is still at work. And there are fundamentalists there, too.

Keith Windschuttle recently argued (in Which Enlightenment, a book review published in New Criterion on 23 March 2005 ), that understanding how religion, moral philosophy and egalitarian assumptions shaped the enlightenment in the English-speaking world is still important today, to help make sense of the blind forces tearing societies apart. He suggests that we have unconsciously assumed a British form of Enlightenment into our political philosophy. John Wesley, founder of Methodism, once wrote that, ‘It is a fundamental principle with us that to renounce reason is to renounce religion, that religion and reason go hand in hand, and that all irrational religion is false religion.’ To overcome prejudice, passion, bigotry and wickedness, Wesley said, religion and reason must join. So the Methodists “ and many other Protestant sects of the late 18th and 19th centuries “ got stuck into education, science, medicine, literature, servicing the poor and prisoners, seeking to incorporate these conjoined values into what we now call civil society. This unacknowledged value set underlies much of modern democratic governance today.

It may be hard for Westerners to imagine an Islamic democracy. We must not abandon the ideal. The western model is avowedly secular, but respects and does not eradicate, religion in public life. So did early Islam. What democracies do is secularise “ that is, identify certain responsibilities as belonging to political, not theological, institutions. Australian anti-discrimination law, which I work with every day, is a good example. It both protects religious minorities from prejudice and injustice, and also exempts religious institutions and practices from most of its prohibitions as well, even if they excuse women’s subjugation, privately advocate religious intolerance, and limit those who may participate in religious rites or the privileges of priesthood. Both protection and provision are essential elements of secular government.

In democratic societies, objection or disobedience of a law may not be blasphemous. In Australia, blasphemy and incitement to religious hatred are unlawful only because of their potential for violence and disorder. But it is a religious duty, too, not to force religious beliefs down others’ throats: the Koran, for instance, explicitly directs that ‘there can be no compulsion in religion.’ Democratic societies are pluralist, even if they are shaped by religious traditions, whether Christian, Hindu or Islamic or something else. Civilised societies do not eradicate religion, but secularise their administrative arrangements, by thoughtful analysis and distinction between disparate civil and religious domains, on the one hand by government, and on the other by religious leaders who must acknowledge that, since religion arises out of a community of beliefs and practices that change as the community does, they too must constantly and rigorously re-evaluate their religious practices and the conduct of its adherents.

Religion is a kind of mirrored window into the realm of unknowing which in part reflects back those with interpretive authority who look into it. No wonder, then, those newly visible women surprise and offend the men who have dominated the prospect for so long. The (male) editor of Newsweek is still alive and working, as no doubt are those who wrote the story, and its source. But in Nigeria in 2002 when a young, female, British-trained journalism graduate called Isioma Daniel filed a story for ThisDay newspaper about the Miss World beauty pageant, she had a different experience.

Noting Muslim objections to the pageant as both insulting to women and offensively begun during Ramadan (in a Christian part of the country) she wrote, and her editor published: ‘What would Mohammed think? In all honesty, he would probably have chosen a wife from one of them.’

Hundreds of youths promptly went on the rampage, burning cars, buildings and attacking anyone thought to be Christian; more than 200 people were killed, thousands were left homeless, the newspaper and her government blamed her and only her, she copped a Fatwa and is now living in exile, somewhere in Scandinavia.

For God’s sake!

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.