Friday, January 25, 2008

The Ibrahim Lawson correspondence

I have had a long dialogue with Ibrahim Lawson, head of an Islamic school, about faith schools.

Ibrahim had said on Radio 4 that in any good Islamic school "Islam is a given and never challenged". I said that such schools (Islamic, Christian, or indeed, atheist) should no longer be tolerated. He got in touch...

Here are links to the correspondence so far (which has become very spread out).

Nov 27th My Original Post, which provoked Ibrahim into getting in touch.

Ibrahim's original email to me, which I then posted.

The correspondence that followed this initial exchange can be scrolled through here (in reverse order). Note that some of Ibrahim's responses appear not as posts, but as comments on posts. To see the comments on a post, click on "comments" at end of post, or click on the orange title of the post. Scrolling backwards through these posts will give you the gist of the dialogue to date.

My latest response to Ibrahim is here.

24 comments:

Paul C said...

Mr Stephen, your link to the latest response appears to be a little broken!

Stephen Law said...

Fixed!

scott roberts said...

I think that Ibrahim has put his finger on the central reason for why this dialogue is at an impasse, and that is whether or not one sees the mystical as an advance or as a retreat. When a religionist refers to the mystical, the secularist sees it as a retreat from reason. When the secularist says it is a retreat from reason, the religionist has to give up, for the reality of the mystical is, for the religionist, a given.

But, says the secularist, one shouldn't be working from arbitrary givens -- isn't that the whole point of critical thinking? Well, no it isn't, from the religionist's point of view. After all, the mystic, if he or she is genuine, is not just claiming this or that mystical truth, but saying that that truth is Known (to the mystic) absolutely. And therefore, if one finds the mystic to be credible, one is saying that the mystic has advanced, and that to attempt to be rational without taking that promise of advancement into account, is to be irrational. It is our duty -- intellectually and morally -- to "work out our salvation with diligence" as the Buddha put it.

Thus, the secularist, in seeing an appeal to the mystical as a retreat, is invoking his or her own given, by in effect saying that all mystics are not genuine, that they are all either liars or in some way self-deluded. For if one hypothesizes that there is at least one genuine mystic -- even if one doesn't know who that might be -- then there is such a thing as mystical advancement, and that would trump all other considerations. It would then be one's primary intellectual duty to investigate the mystical. It is then seen that all these other considerations, like the political effects of religion, differences over how to raise kids, are secondary. Not unimportant, but not to be discussed except in the context of the reality of the mystical.

There might appear to be another possibility, that of the agnostic, who would say "there might be a genuine mystic, but since I do not know if there is, I just have to reason along as best I can." Having been an agnostic, I can sympathize, but now I see it as a false position. For in effect the agnostic is in practice not taking mystical teaching into account, which is to deny the mystical teaching, not just being undecided about it.

What this all means in the current debate is that Ibrahim has practice in thinking within a framework of the reality of the mystical and of thinking under the secularist viewpoint, while from what I've read here I would have to say his detractors only have experience in the latter. Unfortunately, there is no cure for the latter except to spend the time practicing to think while suspending disbelief in the mystical, so I doubt that there is a way to get passed the impasse.

For the record, I'll say that I differ from Ibrahim in that I am not absolutely certain in my beliefs. I find certain mystics credible, which is to say that I think it likely that they have absolute Knowledge. Me, I'm just assuming they are genuine, and letting that lead my thinking, instead of letting secularism lead it.

Steelman said...

I'm a secular humanist from the US, so perhaps I don't understand this issue of faith schools. Please bear with me.

As I understand it, Mr. Lawson is taking money out of the pockets of UK tax payers, and putting it into his own pocket in exchange for educational services rendered to certain members of the community. When asked if the services he is providing conform with the values and standards of those who are funding his endeavor, his response is that only mystics can understand the answer to that question, and any effort on his part to explain would only end in frustration, for both sides, due to the inability of his interlocutors (tragically) Western Minds to properly comprehend his Eastern Truths.

Now, even though I don't believe it has a supernatural basis, I don't dismiss the experience of religious mysticism out of hand as being without value; certainly to the individual who has such experiences, and to the culture at large which may benefit from whatever insight into the human condition that may be revealed in the art and poetry of the mystic. Also, I've known Buddhists and Muslims, and they seemed to think that my Western Mind understood their Eastern Truths well enough to have a conversation regarding the merits of such points of view.

But the issue of faith schools doesn't seem to be about whatever warm, fuzzy feelings, or esoteric knowledge Mr. Lawson may be absorbing from the great beyond. It's not about his personal spiritual journey. It's about whether or not UK citizens are getting what they think they're paying for, yes?

Are there other recipients of public money in the UK who, when asked exactly what they're doing with the money their getting, answer, "You just wouldn't understand, but do keep paying"? And is such an answer acceptable to the vast majority of those providing the funds?

scott roberts said...

Steelman:

First, Ibrahim Lawson may not go along with all that I said, so this is my response, not necessarily his. As a correction, he did not say "only mystics can understand the answer...". I am not a mystic, but I can understand his answer. What it takes is practice in thinking within a framework of holding mystical truths to be credible to be able to understand his answer.

You said: even though I don't believe it has a supernatural basis, I don't dismiss the experience of religious mysticism out of hand as being without value.

There's the rub. You have a secular view of mysticism, and therefore value it differently than I do. That value which you do place on it I consider woefully inadequate -- you might as well be talking about sports, which also does some people some good. Unless you can appreciate the value I place in it -- which precisely is that it reveals the supernatural -- how can we have a fruitful discussion over, say, whether it is wrong for taxpayers to support faith-based schools? I might be wrong, or you might be wrong, so all we can say for sure is that we are starting from different assumptions. I know of no neutral stance between these two viewpoints.

Steelman said...

Scott said, regarding mysticism: "Unless you can appreciate the value I place in it -- which precisely is that it reveals the supernatural -- how can we have a fruitful discussion over, say, whether it is wrong for taxpayers to support faith-based schools? I might be wrong, or you might be wrong, so all we can say for sure is that we are starting from different assumptions. I know of no neutral stance between these two viewpoints."

The "proper" understanding of another person's mystical experience is problematic, and not just between mystics and non-mystics. These types of experiences are, by their very nature, entirely personal and cannot be shared in a way that allows public verification, even between mystics themselves. The spiritual experiences of Christian, Muslim, and Hindu mystics are bound to reveal "truths" that are at odds with each other. I don't see Hindu mystics inspired to build mosques, or Muslim mystics declaring the interchangeability of Christian theology with their own. Which is the "correct" mysticism? If there were only enough pounds available to build one faith school in a religiously diverse community, how would the mystics of the three faiths I mentioned find agreement? It would seem that mysticism may hold value as a personal experience, but it's not so well suited for deciding public policy.

Scott said: "You have a secular view of mysticism, and therefore value it differently than I do. That value which you do place on it I consider woefully inadequate -- you might as well be talking about sports, which also does some people some good."

It doesn't matter how much, or if, I value mysticism, or sports for that matter, when it comes to the issue at hand. Here's why:
Let's say, for the sake of argument, that I don't appreciate sports in the least. Standing at my front door is a rabid sports fan. Sports are his life. He plays them, watches them in person and on television, collects cards of his favorite players and knows all their statistics. He's at my door to encourage me to vote for a new sports stadium to be built, in part, using public money. He's come to the wrong house.

However, he tells me how this new stadium will create jobs through its construction and by creating an environment for new businesses, promoting long term financial growth and new and better public services for the community. The money from ticket sales will quickly generate revenue earmarked for a new public library, and the team that plays at the stadium will sponsor sports and reading programs for disadvantaged young people, keeping them out of trouble and promoting education. Later, after examining the details of this proposition, I'm won over to the sports fan's side and vote for the stadium. The value I placed on sports had nothing to do with my decision.

The discussion of Mr. Lawson's spiritual experiences continues to sidetrack the issue. It doesn't matter much if the general public appreciates, or even knows of, his completely personal mystical experiences; it's not about his spiritual motivations, it's about whether or not the free and open society which is providing his school with funds is being served by doing so. Mr. Lawson needs to be able to explain to a society that largely does not share his faith (and cannot possibly share his mystical experiences) just how they will benefit, directly or indirectly, from providing his educational institution with funds.

scott roberts said...

Steelman:

Which is the "correct" mysticism?

Ideally, one uses reason and conscience to decide, though that has really only become an issue since the coming of pluralist societies. Which, in my opinion, is a good thing. Peter Berger's The Heretical Imperative explores this issue.

Mr. Lawson needs to be able to explain to a society that largely does not share his faith (and cannot possibly share his mystical experiences) just how they will benefit, directly or indirectly, from providing his educational institution with funds.

Who is going to calculate the benefits, you, or a Muslim parent (who also pays taxes)?

Actually, on the original issue (teaching critical thinking in all schools) I tend to agree with Stephen, depending on what age we are talking about. That is, I think it is a good thing for people to question their beliefs, but that it is only a meaningful exercise sometime well into adolescence.

anticant said...

Surely there is no "correct" mysticism? Mysticism is a personal, subjective experience which rings true for the mystic but which by its nature cannot be extrapolated into an all-embracing, universal truth accessible to everyone.

In any case, mysticism is not the issue here. The point of contention is whether Ibrahim Lawson's teaching that "Islam is a given and never challenged" is acceptable in a state-funded school - or indeed, is a valid educational method at any age. Many of us would maintain that this is not education at all, but shameless indoctrination.

scott roberts said...

Anticant:

Well, the mystics I've read say that their truths are accessible to everyone. Just not by science, and not without a lot of discipline. And why can't a mystic be correct? If a mystic says that reality is fundamentally non-spatiotemporal, and if it turns out that reality is fundamentally non-spatiotemporal, wouldn't he or she be correct? (Which actually may be a more-or-less scientific question, given that some theorists in quantum gravity are investigating "background-independent" theories, that is, those in which space and time are derived, not assumed.)

In any case, mysticism is not the issue here.

Yes, it is convenient for the secularist if mysticism is kept out of the discussion. But since all religion has mystical roots, the religionist is not likely to go along.

The point of contention is whether Ibrahim Lawson's teaching that "Islam is a given and never challenged" is acceptable in a state-funded school - or indeed, is a valid educational method at any age. Many of us would maintain that this is not education at all, but shameless indoctrination.

Secularists would, wouldn't they? How do you respond to the point that, in the absence of religion, the kids in school are subject to the even more shameless indoctrination of modern, decadent society? (I am trying to give the Muslim parent's point of view, not necessarily mine). Don't your two points, taken together, amount to saying: "Secularists must decide this issue"?

Steelman said...

I asked: "Which is the "correct" mysticism?"

To which Scott replied: "Ideally, one uses reason and conscience to decide, though that has really only become an issue since the coming of pluralist societies."

If reason and conscience are the order of the day, what use mysticism? The three different mystics I described, and their followers, have three incompatible answers backed up by the absolute unquestionability of their religious experiences, and faith in those experiences, respectively. This is why a secular approach to government is essential to the resolution of differences among members of a pluralist society. There must be common reasons for action that can be shared by all parties, regardless of religious commitments. Those commitments may be motivating factors for those involved, but they cannot be their sole justification.

Regarding the possible benefits of Mr. Lawson's faith school to society at large, Scott said: "Who is going to calculate the benefits, you, or a Muslim parent (who also pays taxes)?"

See my paragraph above. This type of quandary illustrates why faith schools should not be publicly funded, but privately funded as they are in the US. By the way, I'm not against faith schools per se, just the practice of public funding. While I do agree with Stephen Law that they may teach doctrines that are culturally and politically divisive, that's not always the case. I attended two different church-run schools as a child and I turned out an atheist, so they must have done something right. 8^)

Scott said: "Actually, on the original issue (teaching critical thinking in all schools) I tend to agree with Stephen, depending on what age we are talking about. That is, I think it is a good thing for people to question their beliefs, but that it is only a meaningful exercise sometime well into adolescence."

No critical thinking skills until "well into adolescence", or just waiting until that age to employ those skills in the area of one's own religious beliefs? I prefer to start as soon as a child is able to begin understanding the concepts involved. My 6yr old already knows about the placebo effect and confirmation bias (on his level: how people can be fooled by coincidence and wishful thinking). As for religious questions, here's an example of how I answer:

Son: Daddy, are God and Jesus real?

Me: Different people believe different things about that. I don't know if there are really any gods or not, but so far I don't think so. You can ask your grandpa, though; he believes in God and Jesus.

Son: He does?

Me: Yep. That's something people have to make up their own minds about, and it's okay to change your mind about it, too.

anticant said...

Scott, Ibrahim Lawson has asked [challenged?] me to articulate what I understand the words 'truth' and 'knowledge' to mean, and although I am not a professional philosopher, I shall attempt to do so after due thought.

Meanwhile, may I ask you to explain what YOU mean by 'reality'? You seem to be claiming that there is more than one kind of reality, and that 'non-spatiotemporal reality' is somehow more real than everyday mundane reality experienced through individual consciousness, and therefore trumps it. You may be right, but where is your proof?

And, anyway, such issues ARE irrelevant to whether or not public funds should be spent on faith schools. My answer to that is an uncompromising NO. Unlike Steelman, I am totally against faith schools in this day and age, because they are obviously and undeniably socially and culturally divisive.

As to your rather fatuous statement that 'in the absence of religion, the kids in school are subject to the even more shameless indoctrination of modern, decadent society', you will need to provide evidence of that before it is worth discussing.

What is most decadent about modern society is the widespread ignorance of logic and the terms of rational debate, as instanced by your posts.

Ibrahim Lawson said...

On the subject of the ‘correct’ mysticism, I have always found St Dilbert enlightening:

When asked the meaning of life St. Dilbert replied, "Ask rather the meaning of Hypnocracy". When asked the meaning of Hypnocracy, St. Dilbert replied, "It is not Hypnocracy other than the quest to discover the meaning of Hypnocracy!! ...... say, have you heard the one about the yellow dog?"

Have a Grateful Day.

Ibrahim Lawson said...

On the subject of state funding for Islamic schools:

I believe the pertinent point here is that Muslim parents pay taxes too. As citizens, they have a right to some element of choice in how their children are educated by the state using the tax payers’ (their) money. If a Muslim parent is not happy that their child receive a secular indoctrination (because ultimately, secularism is not rationally justifiable and just has to be accepted on non-rational grounds), then they should have the choice of sending their child to a school which delivers the indoctrination they prefer.

An advantage for the state in funding Islamic schools is that they get to have much more control, for want of a better word, over what goes on in such schools – for example, they can, and do, insist on employing only qualified teachers and providing decent resources for teaching and learning; at management level they can and do insist on their employees having suitable experience and further training; at governors level, they have control over school policies. I would have thought that this was a good argument in favour of state funding.

The alternative is either to insist that Islamic schools should be run on a shoe string via parental fees, thus being under-resourced with all the implications of that, or that there should be no Islamic schools – as is the case in France, for example, to all intents and purposes. Do we want that kind of state control in this country? Isn’t freedom rather more of an individualistic thing for us Anglo-Saxons? In which case, don’t we have to accept that people might do things with that freedom that we don’t necessarily approve of?

Cassanders said...

@Ibrahim,
I am sure there must be better paths to ontology, epistemology and morality than "Grateful Dead" :-)

Anyway,
have you read Raymond Smullyan?

As an appetizer you could perhaps try the essay: "Is God a Taoist?" in "The Mind's I" by Hofstadter and Dennett.
http://www.amazon.com/Minds-I-Fantasies-Reflections-Self/dp/0553345842
The Mind's I is BTW a wonderful book in itself, but as Smullyans books often are out of print, the essay is at least readily availalbe there

Cassanders
In Cod we trust

anticant said...

Thanks, Ibrahim, for at long last putting up a reasoned, and reasonable, case for state-funded Islamic schools. Your points about parents as taxpayers and state supervision are fair ones.

However, these don't remove the basic objection to 'faith schools', whether state funded and supervised or not, which is that they encourage segregation and social divisiveness.

Would it not be far better to adopt the suggestions in Stephen's post of December 13 on 'Religious education - some recommendations', namely that pupils in multifaith schools should be instructed about all the major faiths and philosophies by qualified practitioners of each, and allowed to worship as they choose?

Ibrahim Lawson said...

Cassanders - I enjoyed The Mind’s I too. I wrote this before re-reading the Smullyan article, so it’s kind of redundant, but anyway….

The ‘freedom’ of the will has always been recognised as a problem. If we take the ‘counter-conditional’ position, that this ‘freedom’ means that ‘we could have done something different’ to what we actually did, which is one version of the ‘common sense’ view, then it is not clear what this means, for if we had done something different then what difference would it make to say that we could have done something different? We did what we did, we are doing what we are doing and we are going to do what we are going to do and there is nothing other than that. We certainly have the sense that our choices are not predetermined, but what does this amount to in practical terms?

These words from the commentary of Ibn Ajiba on the ‘Hikam’ of Ibn Ata’illah, one of the greatest masters of the sufi way:

One of the excellent men was confused by the words of the Almighty, "Enter the Garden for what you did" (Qur’an 16:32) since the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, "None of you will enter the Garden by his actions." The answer to that is that the Book and the Sunna go alternate between the Shari'a (outward law) and the (spiritual) reality, or you could say prescription and realisation. They prescribe in some places and speak of the reality in others regarding the same thing. The Qur'an may legislate in one place while the Sunna gives the reality, and the reverse also occurs. The Messenger, peace be upon him, explained what Allah revealed. Allah says, "We have sent down to the Reminder to you so that you can make clear to mankind what has been sent down to them.." (16:44) His words, "Enter the Garden for what you did" is legislation for the people of wisdom, who are the people of the Shari'a, and the words of the Prophet are realisation for the people of power, who are the people of the reality. The words of the Almighty, "But you will not will unless Allah wills." (81:29) is reality, while the words of the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, "When one of you has a good action, a good action is written for him" is Shari'a.

In short, there are two domains: the outward (law) and the inward (reality). In the outward, people are responsible for their actions and are rewarded or punished for them accordingly; in the inward, Allah is responsible for everything and can reward or punish arbitrarily, which makes the whole concept meaningless. Sometimes the Qur’an gives the outward position and the prophet the inward reality; other times, vice versa. This is why the prophet said both “None of you will enter the Garden by his actions" and "When one of you has a good action, a good action is written for him (to be rewarded)"; and also why Allah says both "Enter the Garden for what you did" and "But you will not will unless Allah wills."

So, knowing what you do of zen Buddhism, how would you interpret the above contradictions?

BTW, I think it is important to note that both zen and Taoism arose in social contexts where there was a corresponding tendency to rigid formalism and social regimentation. The last thing the liberal, secular, materialist, western consumer needs to be told is ‘don’t worry, just hang out and enjoy yourself, there is no effort to be made!’ In our society, what could be the balance that needs to be redressed?

On Smullyan – if there is no logical alternative to free-will in a conscious being, then the term itself surely becomes misleading? Free-will as opposed to, or distinct from what? A round circle as distinct from what other kind of circle?

Cassanders said...

@ Ibrahim Lawson
nice to hear that you appreciate the writings of Hofstadter, Smullyan (and even Dennett ? :-))

However, I will not claim to have any in-depth understanding (or feel any urge to reach it) of neither Zen nor Taoism.
I appreciate some (simple) bits of both, but have not found them convincing as a larger and coherent thought-building. It could well be me who's incapable, I might be to lazy, or I just don't feel the need ....Which BTW might be slightly Tao'ish ? :-)

In fact my appreciation of Smullyan is simply due to his playful ways of presenting flashes of insights through paradoxes and puzzels.

Re "free will", you wrote:
....
We certainly have the sense that our choices are not predetermined, but what does this amount to in practical terms?
....

Unfortunately, I don't recall neither the authors nor the journal, but there have been some neurophysiological experiments shedding quite some light on some of the processes involved in what we call conciousness and "free will" , published rather recently. (Just to indicate that "hard sciences" now are probing some of the ares previously kept almost exclusive for philosophers, psychologists and "religionists").

Anyway, I find some of the contemporary theories in evolutionry psychology to have rather high explanatory power also in normative matters. The language instinct (-module) sensu Pinker" is one, a "moral instinct" is another. (I would consider empathy to be the immediate expression of the latter instinct).

I think protomorality and morality can fairly convincingly be demonstrated in a number of non-human species (Check e.g. "Good natured" by Frans de Waal")

Returning then to your point: I would think (in practical terms) perceiving that our actions are not predetermined, supports and aids our value judgements, and allows for a wider, more sophisticated set of normative rules by social training (If you like a more elaborate "moral toolbox" than simple rules for cooperation and defection).

Mind you that I don't have a strong opinion on the ontology there, I would think "believing" or "pseudoexperiencing" free will be sufficient :-)

I am sure you find rewarding moments when you read islamic mysticists. (Probably not too differrent from from me when reading Smullyan)? However, if your motives to a larger or lesser extent are driven by an urge to reconcile opaque or contradictory passages in the Quran, I don't have any such needs.
To me, the Quran (as the Torah and the Bible) are texts created by several authors, over a substantial timespan, -and despite later attempts to edititing, They will of course have lots and lots of errors, duplications, etc. Hence for me, the apparent contradictions are simply what they are ....contradictions.

I do agree that the creation of Zen and Taoism should be viewed in a historical and societial context, however, we might differ when I would think that all religions should be treated the same manner, including the three abrahamittic ones.

Finally I would like to return to some possible practical ramifications of "the inner paths to incontrovertible "truth(s)".
What do you think would prevent e.g. a devout Inca mysticist for being utterly convinced that he need to cut out the thumping heart of a child to ensure that the sun rises every day?

Cassanders
In Cod we trust

Ibrahim Lawson said...

I have written a lengthy reply to Stephen – as I have done before and then not posted – which I will post soon probably.

In the meantime and reading all your posts, this thought. We have spent a lot of time on the liberal rationalist paradigm and hardly any on the Islamic, which has been largely dismissed as nonsense, illusion, dangerous rubbish etc, thus dismissing over 1000 years of richly diverse religious tradition at a stroke on the basis of a few simplistic but stubbornly persistent objections mixed with a large amount of ignorance about Islam and a lack of understanding of the role of ‘mythos’ as some call it.

So we haven’t penetrated really at all into my ‘Alice in Wonderland’ fantasy life, or spiritual experience as I prefer to call it. Here’s a basic principle:

As conscious subjects we normally have three requirements: a sense of identity, a sense of location, and a sense of the basic modalities of this. In our western european tradition of these things, we experience them as ‘I am me and no one else’, ‘I am here at this point in time and space and nowhere else’, and ‘I am sane and free’.

It is a common experience of mystics however to doubt some or all of this (that’s because they’re mad! You are thinking). Be that as it may, once you start to become sceptical about the taken for granted reality that grounds normal everyday social life and individual experience, you start to look for some possible avenues of research into this issue. One major problem is that if you start to mistrust your own awareness and thinking and so on then how do you know if you are on the right track? Well there are answers to that and so on into the world of mystical experience in all its varieties.

Now I suppose I am right in thinking that for most readers of this, all of what I have just referred to is ‘subjective’, ‘psychological’, ‘pathological’, ‘imaginary’, ‘false’, or whatever, as distinct from ‘objective’, ‘rational’, ‘sane’, ‘real’, ‘true’ etc.

This is why more sensible people than me have said that it better not to speak about this thing publicly; because either people will not understand and so reject it, or they will think they understand when they don’t. In either case, only harm can ensue.

The only way forward from this point is to begin to practice a spiritual discipline under the guidance of a teacher. From the point of view of an outside observer, a non-initiate, this process will be interpretable only as folly and its pedagogic processes as akin to ‘indoctrination’.

I believe though that the western tradition is beginning to critically question itself and that this can provide a ‘trade language’, if you like, with which these two worldviews, (logos and mythos?) can communicate, hence my cautious optimism about the possibility of dialogue.

anticant said...

Ibrahim, what interests me is whether or not the basic tenets of Islam and the devotional practices you espouse produce better people.

As a non-believer, I can only form my own judgement by observing the behaviour of those who profess themselves Muslims.

"By their fruits you shall know them."

So far, I am not favourably impressed.

Ibrahim Lawson said...

Anticant - my experience has been the opposite of yours. Are you quite sure you have rules out other variables in your analysis of the data? There are all kinds of Muslims out there.

Ibrahim Lawson said...

Cassanders, I thought that by recommending the Smullyan essay you were indicating an interest in the themes he touches on, specifically Taoism and zen. I admit I was puzzled at first, but then leapt to the conclusion that you had more than a superficial view of these matters and felt I wanted to explore this common ground with you by referring to sufism. I see now that I was mistaken.

As for the hypothetical Inca ‘mysticist’, I imagine no amount of empirical argument would convince him that human sacrifice was unnecessary or immoral. What has that got to do with Islam? Muslims don’t condone child sacrifice any more than you do.

anticant said...

Yes, I'm sure there are, but we don't hear much from the ones who could reassure us that their version of Islam is not antipathetic to our British non-Muslim culture and way of life [which you yourself have described as 'degenerate'.]

anticant said...

OPEN LETTER TO IBRAHIM LAWSON

From ANTICANT


Dear Ibrahim

Like all theists, you use reason to defend unreason. For you, reason is the handmaiden of faith, to be prayed in aid when deemed useful and summarily dismissed at a whim when no longer considered to serve a useful purpose. When theists reach the limits of reason, they take the great leap of Faith. When nontheists reach the boundaries of their reasoning powers, they are modest enough to say “I don’t know”.

You have dubbed me “a pseudo-liberal bigot”, and this has set me thinking about the nature of both my liberalism and my bigotry. As to the latter, I gladly accept the charge: I am a lifelong bigoted upholder of PERSONAL FREEDOM – freedom of thought, freedom of speech, and freedom of behaviour. Always with the caveat [need I say?] that these freedoms are responsibly exercised and don’t impinge upon the equivalent freedoms of others. This limitation rules out freedoms exercised in a reckless, aggressive, wilfully hostile, or destructive way: the freedoms I am speaking of are benign freedoms.

I don’t know what your definitions of liberalism are, but I suspect that you consider it an inferior philosophy to authoritarianism, whether religious or secular; and that you dislike a society organised along liberal lines, however imperfectly these are realised. Because a theocratic world-view such as that of Islam has nothing in common with liberalism; it is by its nature intolerant of dissent and seeks to impose its ‘divinely inspired’ vision of the world upon everyone, believers and ‘infidels’ alike.

Indeed. It is this notion of the ‘infidel’, and his inferior status in an Islamic society, which strikes a liberal such as myself as so dangerous and repugnant, and is the cause of our unwilling preoccupation with Islam.

As I have repeatedly said, I am content for people to worship a god or gods, or to disbelieve in gods, in any fashion they wish. If Muslims in Saudi Arabia or Iran wish to live under a clerical dictatorship, I claim no right to impose my preferred polity upon them; although I consider that I am entitled to criticise their governments for what I deem to be their mistreatment of women, and cruel punishments meted out to homosexuals, apostates, and criminals. What I cannot stomach is being told, in any society, by you or anyone else, that because I have not chosen, or been vouchsafed [you seem a trifle confused on that point], the ‘gift of faith’, I am an inferior being whose natural rights are deemed by you and your fellow-Muslims to be fewer than those of the followers of Allah. Who are the bigots in this instance?

As a liberal person in a tolerably free society, I should be free to choose my own interests and pursuits – religious, academic, occupational, and any other. But I am increasingly aware that I am not thus free - because other, more illiberal, voices intrude upon my personal space, threatening me with dire consequences if I do not heed them. May I make this clear to you, Ibrahim: I am not spontaneously interested in Islam. As an intellectual topic for discussion, the more I read and learn about it the more tedious I find it. Your Muslim mental world is as unconvincing to me as the over-elaborately constructed mythical universe of Tolkien.

If I could exercise unconstrained free choice, I would not devote five minutes a week to contemplating the doctrines of Islam, or the spiritual claims and worldly discontents of its followers. This may strike you as selfish and complacent; and perhaps it is. In any case, that is beside the point, because we do not live in a world where such an insular attitude is possible for any politically aware and socially concerned person. Certainly since 11th September 2001, which was a brilliantly successful exercise in consciousness-raising for whoever perpetrated it, daily bother about Islam and Muslims has been a staple diet of the West. Much of the attention paid to them is, I agree, ill-informed, ill-conceived, and ill-mannered – but it is the inevitable outcome of what was clearly a declaration of war against the West by Islamic persons who, however misguidedly, believed they were carrying out the Will of Allah.

So all of us, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, are stuck with the consequences. You, and the vast majority of Muslims throughout the world, may well have been as horrified as I and millions of others were by the 9/11 atrocity; but you, like us, have to live with its still unfolding effects. And these are ultimately unforeseeable, even to the most earnest tea-leaf readers. The most horrendous scenarios – widespread civil disturbance, sporadic outbursts of violence leading to bloodshed, ceaseless wars throughout the world over religious and cultural disputes, and the ultimate threat of nuclear Armageddon – inhabit, if only intermittently, the sombre imaginings of even the most sanguine temperament. More and more people on all sides of the divide are feeling increasingly despondent and some are becoming paranoid. However inflamed, there is always a smidgeon of reality in paranoia.

I am old enough to remember the 1930s, and the darkening forebodings of inevitably approaching war which transfixed Europe in the years between 1933 and 1939. We lived then in an atmosphere of darkening gloom. For me, the first decade of the 21st Christian century has an eerily familiar feel. One senses that, unless there is a determined mutual effort to bridge the yawning chasms of mistrust, insecurity and growing hatred, things are only going to get worse. But despite all the endless prattle about ‘peace initiatives’, there is no widespread will for peace if it requires compromise: only a lust for victory and dominance. I realise that these fears must be widespread amongst Muslims too, not least in Britain, and that they cannot be blamed for feeling alienated. But positive efforts towards greater common understanding and tolerance need to be made from ALL sides, including yours. There is urgent need for dialogue genuinely intended to defuse tensions, and not merely to score partisan points.


I am not a pacifist. I believe strongly, not least as a result of my wartime childhood, that in the last resort aggression and violence have to be resisted, however high the cost. If any Muslims are ever so misguided as to seek to impose the yearned-for Caliphate upon the British people, the outcome would be disastrous for ALL sides. I am a temperamentally peaceable person, and I abhor physical violence and verbal aggression too. I debate strongly, but never, I hope, personally or hatefully. I believe that the prime need for human societies throughout the world at the present time is to reduce the actual level and social acceptability of violence. I was the principal author of the Global Petition Against Violence which I have already asked you to encourage your fellow Muslims to sign:

http://www.petitiononline.com/mod_perl/signed.cgi?John1948

You have asked me to articulate what I understand the words ‘truth’ and ‘knowledge’ to mean. As to the first, I am not well read in the minutiae of epistemology, but my own working definition of ‘truth’ is that it is related to actual states of affairs which can be verified by relevant evidence [leaving aside the extreme scepticism of solipsism], and that it is also inextricably related to the honesty of the subject. That is to say, unless I believe, rightly or wrongly, that I am telling ‘the truth’, my words are insincere and lacking in integrity. I may be completely mistaken in believing that what I say is true, and my sincerity does not make it true if it is not. But intentional veracity is an essential component of ‘truth’ statements, whether factually valid or not.

Knowledge is an integral aspect of subjective consciousness. We all mediate our awareness of ourselves and the world through our imperfect and variable physical senses, whose powers of perception change through time with increasing age, poor health, etc. So what you and I are aware of and believe we ‘know’ depends upon the current capacity for sense-data processing by our embodied mind. [See G. Lakoff and M. Johnson: “Philosophy in the Flesh, 1999.] This is not to say that there is no reality external to ourselves, but each person’s capacity to perceive it is always variable and inevitably far from comprehensive. That is why there is a duty incumbent on us all to recognise the limits of our knowledge, and not to claim the proven existence of unverifiable truths, whether physical, mental, or ‘supernatural’.

Much religious utterance consists of mere assertion. You teach your pupils that Islam is a given ‘truth’ not to be questioned, while the Archbishop of Canterbury says – as he has just done in his lecture on ‘Religious Hatred and Religious Offence’ – that Christianity is “unequivocally true”. How can these two equally unverifiable assertions ever be reconciled? Either one, or the other, or neither, are valid.

To sum up, my liberalism consists of the wish to live in a society where these and all other differences can be openly expressed and discussed without rancour or threats or violence, even if their respective merits can never be conclusively resolved. This is not merely a sentimental wish – it is an imperative worldwide necessity if we are to survive these next few perilous years and emerge into a sunnier, more peaceful global community where all have some chance of prospering .

I hope you agree.

Yours in human solidarity,

ANTICANT

anticant said...

And, Ibrahim, to get back to the original bone of contention which sparked all this off: I believe that the two most essential ideas that every child should be taught are firstly, that every human being in the world, no matter what their race, sex, creed, or culture, is as real, important and [if you like] sacred as everyone else; and secondly, that we should never treat anybody else in ways which we ourselves would not wish to be treated.

If I knew that you and your colleagues taught those two principles in all your Islamic schools, I would be far less worried.

But I anticipate you will tell me that, even if not bigoted, they are wishy-washy pseudo-liberalism.