I have been following the discussion — if you can call it that — prompted by Al Stefanelli’s post “Taking the Gloves Off.” That post is, essentially, an expression of alarm. As Miranda Celeste Hale points out in her response to it:
Throughout his rant, Stefanelli fails to provide any actual evidence in support of his assertions, instead relying on generalizations, stereotypes, assumptions, anger, and arguments from personal experiences. He wants his audience to believe that his rant is a legitimate argument that should be taken seriously, yet the combination of its extreme nature and his refusal to engage in civil, rational, and evidence-based argument results in a thesis that is ultimately indefensible.
And Stefanelli’s piece is, to be sure, in the nature of a rant. What he is saying is that there are some kinds of belief which, by their very nature, are so extreme, so intolerant, that no tolerant society can afford to tolerate them. And that seems, on the face of it, to be a contradiction, so that Stefanelli’s ”argument”, such as it is, does not accomplish what it sets out to accomplish.
Russell Blackford also has an extended comment on Stefanelli’s post, and he also points out the many confusions there are as to the reference of Stefanelli’s concerns, whether beliefs or individuals or groups. But, as I will point out, what Stefanelli is trying to do is almost impossible to do in the present climate. Everyone is being so diffident about criticising the threat that religions pose for our freedoms, especially Islam, that in order to criticise religion one is almost bound to end up speaking in so allusive and circumlocutary a way that the real point that one wants to make is often lost in ambiguity. This is a result of the very liberal toleration that Stefanelli wants to highlight as a problem in these circumstances. I think Stefanelli is right to bring this problem to our attention. I wish he had made his point more directly and less vaguely.
One of Stefanelli’s problems is that the links together two uneasy bedfellows, fundamentalist Christianity and radical Islam. As Miranda Celeste Hale points out:
For example: fundamentalist Christians and radical Muslims are not the same. Their differences outnumber their similarities.
And that is true. But I think Hale misses the point, and she also misses something else. It’s hard to do what Stefanelli is trying to do. He perceives a threat to tolerant, liberal societies. The threat comes mostly from radical Islam, but I suspect he doesn’t want to single radical Islam out for negative treatment alone, so he yokes radical Islam with fundamentalist Christianity. That way he can’t be accused of being an Islamophobe, at least not quite so easily as it would have been had he confined himself to criticising radical Islam.
However, Stefanelli still has a problem. Anything he says about radical Islam or fundamentalist Christianity is going to sound as though he is talking about groups which are, in fact, extremely complex, and what he says is not going to apply to everyone in those groups equally. In fact, Stefanelli is so ambiguous about what he is referring to that Hale can continue to say that she’s not quite sure what the target of Stefanelli’s ire really is. Is it directed only at beliefs, or does it apply to whole groups, some of whom may not hold the radical views which Stefanelli is really trying to attack? She says that she’s not sure.
But I don’t think the ambiguity in Stefanelli’s article is so very great. It is clear that he is talking about beliefs and doctrines. As he says almost at the beginning:
There are frequent cries of “foul” when the more polemic amongst the atheist community make negative sweeping, generalized statements about fundamental Christianity and radical Islam. There are demands made for tolerance and respect for the religious beliefs of all people and that nobody has a right to condemn someone based solely on their religion. Those who spout these cries of foul and who call for tolerance toward these two very dangerous ideologies are speaking from ignorance.
In other words, he intends to speak about dangerous ideologies, and if what he says seems ambiguous, that is because there is always a problem of reference when we are talking about the beliefs of groups. Which group did you have in mind? Who is a member of that group? Do you mean Ms. So-and-So who lives across the street from me? She certainly doesn’t want to see anyone dead. Well, if she doesn’t then what Stefanelli says doesn’t apply to her. But is there not a group to whom Stefanelli’s “argument” applies?
And of course this is just where Stefanelli’s article falters, because, as Hale says, it simply doesn’t deploy enough detail for us to know exactly who he is referring to. Who is he referring to? What beliefs does he have specifically in mind? And all he has said in answer to those key questions is: fundamentalist Christian beliefs, and radical Islamist beliefs. Only he never uses the word ’Islamist’, and it is probably not true that most fundamentalist Christians want anyone dead. They’ll argue with you, and they’ll condemn you, but, aside from their chief bugbears, like gays and abortionists, Christian fundamentalists are not really set to go on a murderous rampage. They want to convert you to the truth, and they want a pure Christian society, and they’re willing to agitate for laws which will make the things that they are most opposed to against them.
Radical Islam is another issue altogether, and, if Stefanelli had been careful, he could probably have delimited the field enough so that there would have been no uncertainty about whom he had in mind. There is a subset of Muslims — it’s hard to say how many — who are completely intolerant of the societies in which they have come to live, and who want to destroy the kinds of open societies that we in the West have tried to create, societies in which people can be truly free to live the lives that seem best to them, liberal societies in which the only, or almost the only reason for limiting freedom lies in the fact that certain choices will lead to harm to others. As the old adage says: Your freedom to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.
I think, though, that Stefanelli is trying to say something important, and I have no doubt that he feels rather ill done by, because of the reaction to his earnest piece on the American Atheists website. American atheists, says, Ms Hale, are an embarrassment to atheism. However, I think she might have given Stefanelli a bit of leeway. I also think that she should have tried to read between the lines, instead of being very pedantic over whether Stefanelli was referring to beliefs or people. One thing that is important to remember is that if we condemn certain beliefs and their consequences we correspondingly condemn those who hold them. I think it is obvious from Stefanelli’s post that he meant to talk not only about beliefs, but about the specific people who hold those beliefs. Where he went most wrong was in trying to say what he really wanted to say by bringing together two groups which are in many ways so different that there is scarcely a similarity between them. Extreme Christian fundamentalists are Puritans. They think that a society which does not uphold “God’s values” will be punished by God, and therefore they want to restrict people’s freedom in ways that will cause God to withdraw his wrath from his people and restore the nation (whichever nation is in mind, though mainly America, I think) to God’s favour.
Radical Muslims are quite another thing. It is quite obvious that there is a sizeable minority of Muslims who think that the way of life proposed by the Qu’ran and the other founding documents of Islam provide a blueprint for the perfect society, and they are prepared to go to practically any lengths to achieve that end, so that finally the whole world will live under the sway of Islam. I believe — and have commented to this effect before — that there has always been a minority within Islam which is prepared to go to practically any lengths, and to use any violence, just so that they achieve this end. All Muslims are called to this jihad, so that eventually Allah will reign over all, but there are a number of escape clauses, so that jihad has scarcely ever been carried out by the majority of Muslims, Muslims who are therefore content to live peaceably, to conduct their affairs with honour, and to live on terms of reasonable amity with their neighbours.
However, there will always be a minority who will actively prosecute the jihad which is to bring about the final aim of Islam, namely, that all nations be brought to submission to Allah. This minority will be almost invisible, because it will blend in with the Muslim community, a community which, while itself wanting to live in peace with its neighbours, also accepts that the aim of Islam is to impose the rule of Allah wherever they may be. This is one reason why, for example, the will of the Muslim communities in Western societies is, for the most part, unclear. That is why Dale and Co can ask: “Why Are British Muslim Leaders Silent About Yusuf Nadarkhani’s Death Sentence?” The reason for this silence is, I think, not far to seek. It lies in the fact that it is the minority within Islam that is prepared to use violence on their own people in order to enforce Islam’s aims and goals. There is no question about this. Islam’s goal is, ultimately, to see Islam imposed on everyone, and so it is quite prepared, through however small a minority of those called to jihad, to do this by means of violence, violence first of all directed towards the Muslim community, which must remain silent, and then violence directed towards the surrounding infidel society, until it submits — which is its religious duty (if they only knew it).
This community of radical Islam is, I believe, an integral part of Islam. It’s not a hijacking of an otherwise peaceful religion. There is not one thing in Islam or its history which could possibly lead one to think this. It’s holy book, the Qu’ran, is deeply stained by a violent tradition. Mohammed himself is the model Muslim, and Mohammed was a warlord, who profited by mercenary raids on caravans and local tribes. Islam grew in the same way, and as it did it absorbed, by fair means or foul, the civilisations that surrounded it. Islam has the name of a great civilisation. Islamic lands were intellectually sophisticated when Europe, because of the depredations of Christianity, were sunk in darkness and internecine strife. But the period of Islamic civilisation was relatively short, and soon the Qu’ran and the other founding documents of Islam began to rule over, and to bring to an end, the flourishing of thought and science in Islam. The only reason for the contemporary efflorescence of Islam is due principally to the oil revenues of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, which has enabled Islam to penetrate to practically every nook and cranny of the world. And this dispersion of the Ummah has brought normative Islamic violence along with it.
Liberalism has no idea what to do with it, and therein lies a serious problem. Toleration of Islamic violence and jihad will not bring it to an end. This violence, which is mandated by the Qu’ran and the Hadith, will continue as it has in ages past. It will probably never grow into a full-scale war. It will simply endeavour to take over by stealth what it could never take over by main force. It will express itself by isolation, by creating, within host nations, small enclaves of true Muslims, and it will maintain its purity by violence, by the threat of violence to those who refuse to abide by the norms of Islam. The violence will be carried out only by a small group, but it will be no less effective for this reason. It will start small. It will impose its own law on its communities, limiting itself, at first, to family matters. People will think that this can do little harm; but it will gradually take over more and more jurisdiction of its own affairs, punishing criminal matters in its own way. And no doubt people will be impressed by the order that the threat of violence can achieve in Muslim enclaves in the great democracies of Europe and in the English-speaking world. But by slow, steady growth it will carry out its mandate to bring more and more people under the rule of Islam. It won’t happen overnight, and we will scarcely see it happening, but it will nevertheless — this is, at least, I believe, the conception — by means of liberal tolerance — spread imperceptibly, until it will be a force that cannot be controlled.
That, I say, is the hope and the plan. The plan is a part of Islam’s core doctrine, and, as Stefanelli is, I think, trying to say, toleration will be the end of us. It may even allow the eventual rule of fundamentalist Christianity. The signs are certainly there in the Republican election campaign. The intolerance shown for anything that does not explicitly express its Christian goals is a telling sign that something about American democracy is very sick. I agree with Stefanelli that this is a problem. But the problem of Christian fundamentalism and the problem of Islam are two entirely different problems and should not be forced unnaturally together. Liberal tolerance is a problem in both cases, and we need somehow to think through this problem so that it is not, in the end, the undoing of the freedom that people have fought and died for. Some of them thought they were fighting and dying for Christian civilisation, but they weren’t. Religion is fundamentally antithetical to freedom, and will destroy it if it can. We know what Europe was like under the church. The church has not changed; it has adapted; and given the chance it will be just as tyrannical as it ever was. Islam, in this respect, is no different. It’s founding documents are theocratic, just like the founding documents of Christianity. And in some of its most virulent forms almost any religion will seek to subvert freedom and toleration. Wherever religion is strong today that is precisely what it is doing. There is no evidence that Christianity or Islam intend to live at peace with the freedom that liberal society provides. We need to rethink liberty and its foundations before the religions have gained the upper hand. That is my firm conviction. Religions never respect boundaries. They are always on the lookout for ways of regaining lost power. They are not to be trusted. Liberty must take this into consideration. John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty was written at a time when liberal freedoms were valued, and, for the most part unquestioned. This is no longer true. The sinews of liberty need now to be strengthened. Whether we will be able to fend off the religious threats to liberty, and especially the threat of Islam, is, I think, a story yet to be told.