Sunday, February 19, 2012

Can Islam live with Christians?

Dr. Timothy Winter

The Right Debate?

February 7th, a debate was held at Keble College in Oxford on the question, Can the West Live with Islam?  The debate partners were Dr. Nigel Biggar and Dr. Timothy Winter, and frankly they bored me silly, and it seems some others in attendance.  Partly this is because they were asking an unreal question, and partly because both failed to give the right answer even to that. 

Winter, a British Muslim from Cambridge, began with a talk that essentially made two points: (1) Muslims are right to worry, because the West is doing a lot of worrisome things in regard to Islam, like wars in the Middle East and discrimination.  (2) It is true that Islam also concerns the West, but for a bunch of mostly paranoid and mistaken reasons.   
Keble College chapel; the debate venue was more
modern and less charming, off to the left, but this is
what caught my eye.

Nigel, a courtly Regius Professor of  then responded with a fairly milquetoast "We share some concerns with our friends the Muslims, but we also have concerns about some of them" sort of response. 

The debate went along in this unpromising and unreal manner, through a few questions, until a fellow from Nigeria (who came with us) finally asked,

"What about the Muslim terrorists who are trying to kill Christians off in Northern Nigeria?"

This introduced a stronger element of reality into the discussion, but did not, in my opinion, quite get at the heart of the issue.  I raised my hand to expand on this challenge, but was not called upon. 

Here is what (in retrospect) I would have liked to have asserted and asked:

"You're asking the wrong question!  The real question is not whether the West can live with Islam.  Of course it can.  Any Christian in this room, can convert to Islam tonight, and live peacefully here in Britain, or in America, for the rest of his or her life.  Nor are Western nations about to invade, threaten, sanction or in any way disturb any Arab or other Muslim country that acts in a civilized manner -- or, probably, those that don't.  Heck, we have hardly sanctioned the lunatics in Iran who want to nuke Israel.  Apparently we need their oil too much, and learned too little from what happened when we tried to appease Adolf Hitler.

"No, the real question is whether Muslims can live with Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, and especially, Jews.

"Let me concentrate on Christians, with whom I am most familiar.

"Historical Christian populations that have lived in Iraq since long before the prophet Mohammed, that ruthless cutthroat, was born, are now fleeing Iraq and Egypt.  The five million Christians in Pakistan are threatened, not infrequently murdered in sporadic attacks.  Millions have already been murdered or enslaved in southern Sudan, though that state has finally obtained independence from the Muslim north. Muslims in northern Nigeria are trying to institute Sharia law on Christians, and engage in frequent pogroms, also burning down hundreds of churches. If revolution succeeds in Syria, it is reasonable to fear the large Christian population there will be attacked, as well.

"And what about converts to Christianity?  All schools of Islam law lay it down that anyone who converts out of Islam must be killed.  This penalty has often been carried out.  An African Muslim convert to Christianity who is an expert in Islamic Law told me, as a Muslim, he would of course have agreed that converts should be killed. Yet Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

"Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."

"How can we, as believers in God, believe that the God who created the nebulae and the human heart, has to hold those who trust Him, not by conscience, nor even by persuasion, but by violence and murder?  This seems to feed directly into New Atheist talk about how the "faith meme" perpetuates itself by any means necessary.  Isn't it God who gave us freedom?  Or do Muslims, after all, worship so different a God?

"Are you so afraid that Islam is false, that you cannot allow your people to choose freely among religious options, but must use terror to keep your people in the fold?  Or will you work to allow people in Muslim countries obtain the same freedom of conscience and speech you enjoy here in Oxford?"  

Those are the questions I would have liked to address Dr. Winter, and would still like to ask other Muslims.


Brian Barrington said...

If Christians and Muslims are going to live together in reasonable peace it will require a critical mass of moderate, liberal, humanists on both sides. A lot of the smartest young Muslims (and Muslims from influential families) go to places like Oxford and other European universities. Many if not most of these smart young Muslims are already Humanists and Liberal Elitists, at least in private. It is vital to co-opt as many of these Muslims as possible, since they will have a massive influence on how Muslim civilisation develops in the future. Obviously, the worst possible approach would be to demonise Muslims and engage in vulgar anti-Muslim bigotry and anti-Arab racism – that would be enough to send even the most moderate young Muslim running into the open arms of the Jihadists. A much more subtle seduction strategy is required, and that is what you were observing during this debate at Oxford.

On a somewhat unrelated note, David – I have always thought that you yourself would make an excellent Liberal Elitist. You clearly have the required intelligence, learning, open-mindedness, and temperament. To join, you wouldn’t have to “renounce Jesus” or partake in any kind of ceremony. We Liberal Elites have subtle ways of recognising who is a member of our secret society. In fact, membership of the Liberal Elite is AUTOMATIC for anyone with the required intelligence, learning, open-mindedness and temperament. Indeed, by these criteria, David, you are ALREADY a member of the Liberal Elite. Your role (I’m sure you already do it) would be to encourage your Christianist friends to avoid extremism and irrationalism, and to embrace moderation and reasonableness.

David B Marshall said...

Ouch! At least you didn't say I'd make a good Elite, EUROPEAN Liberal. I enjoyed watching my boy's soccer, but am not sure I could bring myself to seeing it as sufficient grounds for murder. :- )

I can see your point about strategy, though I'm not sure it's a working one. How can a few foreign students who fall afowl of their own cultural matrix influence the vast multitudes of Cairo or Baghdad? From my experience, I tend to think people who hold strong beliefs often respect those who dispute them forthrightly. Also, by the time the liberal or secular humanist or quasi-Christianized few begin influencing politics in Egypt, I'm afraid there might not be many Copts left to protect.

Mind you, a day or two later we were debating this very issue ourselves. A theologian from Pakistan, a very striking fellow, who I admired for the bravery of such communities he represented, presented a paper about an eminent 19th Century Muslim who converted to Christianity. One of his points was that confrontative debate between Christians and Muslims probably did not play a role in his conversion, as it is sometimes claimed.

Meanwhile, I hope we'll see you as a good Presbyterian some day, perhaps after reading Alvin Plantinga's Warranted Christian Belief.

Brian Barrington said...

A small group of people can have a big influence, especially if they are clever or educated or wealthy or powerful. The recent uprisings in Egypt were disproportionately caused by the “facebook generation” of young, relatively secularised, relatively middle-class, urban Egyptians. Admittedly, they are currently a small minority in Egypt, but Elite Liberals are always a minority, and overtime their views become fashionable and they filter down to the rest of the population.

As Steven Pinker puts it “Attitudes toward women, homosexuals, and racial minorities, and the tolerant attitudes that we celebrate of not beating up your kids, tend to start among the most educated strata, and you can see the rest of the country being dragged behind. With a lot of these statistics, the red states today have attitudes that the blue states had 30 years ago—toward women, towards spanking, towards homosexuals, towards animal rights, and so on.

What starts out at the universities and the pundits can trickle down and become conventional wisdom. That probably happens worldwide as well. This is another thing I'll probably get flak for saying, but very roughly you can see a continuum in the world in a lot of variables related to the decline of violence: Western Europe, then the American blue states, then the American red states, then Latin America and Asian democracies, and the Islamic world and Africa pulling up the rear. We can look, say, at the criminalization of homosexuality in Africa, or human trafficking, and say the world is in a terrible state, which of course it is. But the historical trend is that the other parts of the world eventually catch up. Slavery is a concrete example: just fifty years ago, slavery was still legal in Saudi Arabia.”

David B Marshall said...

Brian: You sound like a liberal philosopher on about 1910.

This is a bit off-topic, though -- it richly deserves a response all its own.

smarter than you said...

“You clearly have the required intelligence, learning, open-mindedness, and temperament.”

Brian I think you've been visiting Amsterdam too much. You must have been smoking a little too much pot to make such a stupid comment. Either that or you were being sarcastic. You seem too intelligent to have said something so stupid.