Friday, September 22, 2006

I wish I didn't live in Europe

It's all right for Gerard Baker, writing his blog from the safe distance of the United States. For those like me who live in the UK, his observations of Europe's collective loss of will are truly terrifying:

It is apt that Pope Benedict should have received such European opprobrium for his remarks. His election last year looked like a final attempt by the Church to revive the European spirit in the face of accelerating secularisation and cultural morbidity.

But the scale of Europe’s moral crisis is larger than ever. Opposing the war in Iraq was one thing, defensible in the light of events. But opting out of a serious fight against the Taleban, sabotaging efforts to get Iran off its path towards nuclear status, pre-emptively cringing to Muslim intolerance of free speech and criticism, all suggest something quite different.

They imply a slow but insistent collapse of the European will, the steady attrition of the self-preservation instinct. Its effects can be seen not only in the political field, but in other ways — the startling decline of birth rates across the continent that represent a sort of self-inflicted genocide; the refusal to confront the harsh realities of a global economy.

It may well be that history will judge that Europe’s decline came at the very moment of its apparent triumph. The traumas of the first half of the 20th century have combined with the economic successes of the second half to induce a collective loss of will. Great civilisations die not in the end because of external force majeure but because internally the will to thrive is sapped.

The symptoms of this moral collapse may be far away from the affluent and still largely peaceful cities and towns of the old continent — in the mountains of Afghanistan, the diplomatic reception halls of Tehran and the angry Pope-effigy-burning streets of the Middle East. But there should be no doubt that it is closer to home where the disease has taken hold.

Someone get us a green card!

Quote of the week

The award for quote of the week goes to the blog drinking from home:
Today is the international Day of Rage against the Pope. Funny, looks like any other Friday to me.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Is America too religious? It depends who you ask?

Europeans who are polled generally regard Americans as too religious, but is that such a bad thing?

Whilst far more Americans are practicing Christians, they are also aggressively tolerant of religious differences and of public displays of faith, which means that religious minorities feel a lot more at home. Europeans by contrast are pretty ambivalent towards Christianity, but it also colours their attitude towards organised religion altogether. Any tolerance towards religious minorities has more to do with paying lip service to multiculturalism than to any admiration of religion.

In America, faith based initiatives have become a major force in public life, and I don't just mean Bible thumping evangelists supporting Israel. It also means Christians fighting to protect the environment, Jews campaigning for action on Darfur, and Muslims providing essential social services in LA. It goes a long way towards explaining why Islamism hasn't taken off in the way it has in Europe. American Muslims may resent secular life but in the United States at least, there is a religious counter culture. In Europe by contrast, the Islamists are the counter culture.

The most peculiar thing about Europe's perception of Americans is that in countries like Pakistan, the public think the complete opposite, that Americans are too secular. It reminds me of Mark Steyn's comment about America and religion:
The fanatical Muslims despise America because it's all lapdancing and gay porn; the secular Europeans despise America because it's all born-again Christians hung up on abortion; the anti-Semites despise America because it's controlled by Jews. Too Jewish, too Christian, too Godless, America is also too isolationist, except when it's too imperialist.

Too Christian, too Godless, too isolationist, too imperialist, too seductive, too cretinous, America is George Orwell's Room 101: whatever your bugbear, you will find it therein - for the Continentals, excessive religiosity; for the Muslims, excessive decadence; for Harold Pinter, excessively bleeding rectums.

Why is no one taking any notice about what's happening in Darfur?

The slaughter goes in Darfur, and still, no one takes any notice. As Desmond Tutu put's it:
This summer, after 30 days of war between Israel and Hezbollah, and a thousand dead, the international community rightly intervened and dispatched UN peacekeepers. After 3½ years, and an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 dead in Darfur, it is still unclear if a United Nations force will be sent. We Africans conclude that double standards apply to our continent.

The Pope's comments provide an opportunity and should not be seen as a threat

The Pope may well have opened up a can of worms by quoting the passage that he did, but hopefully he has also ignited a long overdue debate about the role of violence in religion. Many Muslims insist that theirs is a religion of peace. Instead of silencing their critics, they should use the opportunity to state their case.

There is an excellent article by Lord Rees Mogg in today's Times that makes this point:
Violence is a fault from which no major religion has historically been free. St Patrick’s conversion of Ireland is sometimes given as a unique example of the conversion of a nation without the loss of a single life. It is one of the great scandals that so many persecutions have taken place in the name of Jesus.

This has been more or less true of all the great religions: human beings are the most savage of beasts, and they will kill each other in any cause, however noble.

Yet nowadays Islam is the only major religion in which violence is a serious doctrinal issue. It is true that tribalised Roman Catholics and Protestants in Ireland have only recently stopped killing each other and vengeful Sikhs assassinated Indira Gandhi in India, but neither the Catholic nor the Protestant churches believe in terror; nor do the Sikhs.

A significant proportion of the Islamic community does believe that suicide bombers are martyrs carrying out a religious duty. Suicide bombing causes Islamophobia. There are varying degrees of authority and uniformity in different religions; rather low in most cases. This pluralism has its own virtues, but in Islam they are outweighed by the disadvantages. Those imams who preach al-Qaeda’s view of the duty of jihad are not required to answer to any authority, even the authority of reason.

Islam has only partially experienced the modern process of enlightenment and reform, which was, after all, resisted by a number of pre-Vatican II Popes. Pope Benedict will have done Islam a service if he has started a debate within Islam and between Islam and the critics.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Freedom of speech is having the right to say what people don't want to hear

As the storm continues to rage over the Pope's recent speech, there is a danger that the violence that occurred over the Danish cartoons may be repeated.

This however is no "clash of civilisations". As the Sunday Times editorial puts it:

The clash of civilisations is not between Christianity and Islam, it is between nations that encourage religious diversity and those which practise religious intolerance. It is between those who favour open debate and those who think free speech is anathema. The Pope may or may not have known what a hornets’ nest he was stirring up. Even if he did, there was nothing inappropriate, within context, in what he said.

The Vatican has said he is very sorry his speech caused such offence to Muslims. That is fine but it should not go further than that. He should certainly not be pushed into withdrawing his remarks. As in the case of the Danish cartoons, Muslim zealots are trying to impose their restrictions of free expression on the West. Mindful as we should be of religious sensitivities, that cannot be allowed to happen.

It is a fair argument to take issue with the Pope's claim that Christianity, unlike Islam is a religion of peace. Such a claim rings hollow when you consider the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition. But as long as there is interfaith dialogue, we can challenge such claims.

Sadly, many of the Pope's critics seem to think that interfaith dialogue is about going out of your way not to offend others. Genuine interfaith dialogue if it is to mean anything is about discussing issues of substance, not just about expressing platitudes. This means being open and frank, asking difficult questions, and expressing your religious differences as well as your similarities. By threatening the Pope instead of taking issue his comments, Muslims have merely proved his point.