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Tuesday, 21 August 2007

The Question of Islam

An interesting discussion of Islam has been occurring at Kiwiblog. Up until now I have merely chipped in to correct inaccurate claims about Christian beliefs and practices. However, for what its worth I’ll add my two cents worth here.

Here is what I think the issues are.

We are familiar with Christian teachings on the morality of violence. The just war theory of Augustine, Aquinas, Gratian, Vitoria, Calvin, Luther and Grotius have been pretty much codified into international law and things like the Geneva accords. They are now at least held up as the correct rules ( even if they are not always followed in practice) by liberal democratic societies. We are also familiar with various other ideas which come from Christianity the idea that individuals have inalienable rights which the state cannot transgress. Those non believers should be tolerated. That Government should be limited. That Church and state are separate institutions with degrees of autonomy from each other. That the state should be concerned with the temporal welfare of its citizens and not their welfare in the life to come. While it’s fashionable for people to attribute to these things to the enlightenment, in reality, much of this in is found in Medieval Theology and even in earlier writers like the Church fathers. The basic premises of course come from the scriptures.

Now when we confront Islam we confront (a) a religion we know less about (b) a religion which historically has threatened parts of Europe with invasion and hence has been feared and (c) whose high profile practitioners seem to have very different understandings of these things. Some of them appear to believe direct killing of non combatants is permissible and they seem to not respect the Geneva accords. They appear to have more absolute governments. Have clerics exercising vetoing legislation and they seem to threaten people with death if they don’t convert etc.

I guess the question is this: does this historically feared tradition have the same moral teachings about these things Christianity does? And if it does not what does that mean for religious tolerance? How far can a religion disagree with our current consensus on these types of questions before tolerance is no longer acceptable? And finally, if we tolerate it and large numbers of the population embrace this religion how will that change the cultural values and assumptions which our liberal institutions are based on?

I do not know the answers to these questions. but I think they need to be asked and debated. Not dismissed as Islamiphobia. I also think that the debate should be informed not a banding about of stereotypes and caricatures about either religion.

This latter point requires emphasis. If we see the discussion as it occurs today one side dregs up stereotypes of Muslims and attempts to quote the Koran out of context without examining the tradition, critical commentaries that responsible study of this document requires. Another side dregs up stereotypes of Christians and argues they are the *real* problem and predictably do the same thing. They argue that the scriptures support rape, torturing heretics we are told. Any debate on the question of religious tolerance which relies on slander, ignorance and prejudice towards religious minorities scares me. The alternative to tolerance is supression; which involves violence. If it comes to that then lets make sure we have been informed enough to make the right decision.

I would also add that these questions are not new. Medieval Theologians like Aquinas supported religious tolerance for Jews and Muslims but and not for Heretics. This is because he perceived heretics to threaten the institutions of society whereas other monotheistic minorities did not. Latter, John Locke suggested that religious dissenters (what Aquinas would have called Christian heretics) should be tolerated provided they did not challenge the moral values essential to a free and just society. Locke advocated suppressing Christian groups that taught contracts could not be kept with heretics because that would undermine the co-operation needed to maintain a free and just society. He also supported the suppression of atheists because he felt belief in a moral law giver was a necessary foundation for such a society. Some contemporary Gay rights advocates seem to believe we should not tolerate evangelical Christianity because opposing homosexual conduct inevitably incites violence. Or is opposed to certain understandings of equality which they think justice requires. Libertarians draw the line at aggression, because they believe freedom needs to be based on everyone refraining from the initiation of force.

The irony of this, of course, is that many of defenders of one position view the others as being opposed to tolerance. As though tolerance did not come in degrees. Everyone is for tolerance of some religions and no one to my knowledge tolerates all religions. Because we have conducted the debate in this manner few people have been able to ask the real question : How far should tolerance extend?

Aquinas's question is still with us. When does error in Theology become serious enough for the state to step in?

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