Monday, 10 September 2012

From a letter to a Quaker

We have just returned from a few days in Northumberland. We visited Lindisfarne (I looked out for the Miss Shells’ B&B), Bamburgh (we went to The Copper Kettle Tearoom which I think we visited) and Dunstanburgh. I haven’t been to those places since we walked the Northumberland Coast. Now that is a few years ago! It all looked much as we found it – thankfully!  I was reminded of the plight of the early peoples on that coast, largely defenceless and ill-prepared for an invasion they never expected. Similarly, in the sacking of the monasteries, economically powerful but militarily weak communities, wiped out by superior force. I dare say the philosophical outlook of these people was not that different to the religious left of today. The coastline is still breath-taking and though there was a sea fret drifting in and out we had splendid views. We had a lovely pub supper in Alnmouth that evening. I couldn’t remember how you and I crossed the river there.

We also visited “Cragside”, the home of William Armstrong the shipbuilder, water-engineer and armaments manufacturer of Newcastle. I’ve never heard of him before but he was an amazing man. Born 1810 and of rather sickly constitution he spent a lot of his childhood at home experimenting with weights and strings and water containers. He became a lawyer but was drawn more and more to engineering. He invented hydraulics and improved the efficiency of water powered systems. His hydraulics were installed in Tower Bridge to lift the roadway.

The house at Cragside was the first to use electricity to power the lights. Armstrong set up a hydro-electric generation system by creating two lakes on the moors above the house and directing it to a turbine. His wife, whom he fell in love with when he first visited the engineering works near the law firm he worked at when young, was responsible for designing the grounds and gardens. They planted over 7 million trees on the estate, the largest number planted in Britain before the advent of the forestry commission! We saw some really impressive Douglas Fir which are over 200 feet tall. But as well as creating this amazing estate, pioneering labour-saving devices and creating jobs for over 28,000 people, they funded all kinds of other projects almost too numerous to mention. He even bought Bamburgh Castle when it was in decay and transformed it into a convalescent home. The Bamburgh Castle that we see today is really his creation.

A couple of weeks before Northumberland we went to Corfu for a week as Susan was in Leipzig with the orchestra and Tim was up in Durham preparing for resits…(oh dear!)

Corfu was roasting hot but very enjoyable and the hotel we stayed at was amazingly friendly. It was family-run and they all worked so hard to make all their guests feel special. It was fabulous. Lots of places of interest on Corfu and so much history. Not only Classical civilisation but Byzantine, Venetian, Napoleonic, British colonial and traditional Corfiot. They managed to repel Muslim invaders on 3 separate occasions from Kerkyra but the people in the countryside suffered badly with 50% taken away to be sold into slavery.  The impressive defences built by the Venetians made all the difference to keeping the city safe. It is not well-known just how many slaves were captured by Muslims from southern Europe: Greece, Italy, France, Spain all suffered millions of losses. It might go some way to explain the relative underdevelopment of these regions. The raiders even came as far north as Ireland and Cornwall too.

We visited Lawrence Durrell’s house and spent a cool half hour sipping beer on the terrace of the “White House Restaurant” which is what the Durrell’s family home now is. Plenty of swimming of course and also walking on the shady side of Kerkyra’s narrow streets.

I am disappointed you haven’t read the book I gave you. The reason I wanted you to read Mark Durie was to at least get an understanding of how Islam fits together; to see its internal coherence and the durability of its core messages. I’ve always seen you as a person of moral authority and courage. Someone who can cut through a lot of the pretension, fantasy and posturing and see what’s really there. By the way, Mark Durie is not a hostile person at all. He’s an Anglican minister in Melbourne, Australia. He is a human rights activist and reads classical and modern Arabic. You’d be hard pressed to find someone with more compassion and moral integrity. 

One of the problems that one finds when trying to communicate with people about Islam is that Islam itself is so extreme and has a very different way of looking at the world. When telling the truth about Islam one can easily be tarnished with its extremism. People think you’re just making things up to malign it because you have some hidden agenda based on racism (even though Islam is not a race).

I’ve been reading some of the Quaker contributions to this area and I’ve found that Quakers are falling into the trap of trying to find the most favourable view of Islam. Frequently, they seize upon Sufism and treat it as representative of Islam in general. But Sufis make up about 1% of Muslims worldwide. They seize on the most conciliatory passages in the Koran and treat these as the most important, which they aren’t. They take words like “peace”, “justice”, “charity” at face value, assuming that they have a similar meaning to what they mean in a non-Muslim context, which they don’t.

I know that Quakers are against bearing false witness. Presumably this means not misrepresenting ideas or people to others. But by looking for the most favourable view of something and treating it as the truth is to bear false witness, surely? Not only this but where Muslims are in conflict with others in the world (as they are in about 40 conflicts worldwide) to start with a misrepresentation of Islam will frequently lead to bearing false witness against those who are the other parties in those conflicts. The word “conflict” itself is problematic because it suggests a situation where both parties have the same degree and type of hostility towards each other. This is very frequently not the case where Islam is concerned as it contains a theologically sanctioned mission of persecution. It lacks a live and let live mentality.  See what I mean about sounding extreme?

I notice that Quakers are generally supportive of the economic boycott of Israel. This, though well-meant, is misguided. This position is based on many of the fallacies I’ve referred to above. Quakers are bearing false witness against Israel because they do not understand Israel’s enemy; they look at the conflict and generally take the side of whoever looks like the weaker party; they assume that the enmity on both sides is of the same order and they frequently take a morally patronising attitude towards the Palestinians (and their many allies) by not holding them to the same moral standards as Israel. So, while Hamas and Fatah refuse to recognise Israel’s right to even exist, Israel is supposed to engage in meaningful dialogue with them; as Hezbollah boasts of the tens of thousands of rockets that they have stockpiled under the noses of the UN peace-keepers, rockets they claim can reach any part of Israel; as Syria gradually disintegrates into another Muslim Brotherhood stronghold; as the Muslim Brotherhood controlling Egypt makes ready to deliver on the Muslim mobs’ demands for the death of the Jews; yes, as all this is going on, the religious left is organising economic boycotts of Israel in order to pressurise it into suicidal negotiations with genocidal “peace partners”. This is the fruit of trading truth-seeking for politically correct platitudes and empathic outreach. It’s as if they looked at the parties to the conflict and said, “who’s the most hostile and intransigent party? Answer: the Palestinians. OK, we’d better focus our efforts on getting Israel to make concessions.”

The Quakers I’ve read online approach the subject of Islam with a whole set of unfounded assumptions and are predisposed to find the good in it. This might seem perfectly reasonable and laudable but it renders them far too ready to accept a “positive sales pitch”.

One Quaker who wrote an extensive pamphlet on the subject of Islam after 9/11, “Islam from a Quaker Perspective - Anthony Manousos”, started going through the motions of being a Muslim in order to gain understanding and as a gesture of outreach. Seeking out the most flattering commentaries on the subject and observing Ramadan and saying Muslim prayers, he really made himself look ridiculous. He quoted the Muslim prayer that he participated in approvingly, noting its spiritual beauty. What he didn’t realise was that this prayer ends with the lines:

lead us on the straight road

ihdina s-sirata l-mustaqim

the road of those you have given to whom

sirata l-ladina an'amta `alayhim

not those with anger upon them

ghayri maghdubi `alayhim

not those who have gone astray.

wa la d-dalin

Those with anger upon them are the Jews; those who have gone astray are the Christians.  Devout Muslims will repeat these denunciations 17 times a day; that’s over 6000 times a year. Feel the love!

What these people are engaged in is not interfaith dialogue; it’s more like obedience training. If Quakers pursue this path they will lose all connection with their plain-speaking forebears. This stroking of the Muslim ego is neither honest nor in the interests of peace, though it might well serve the cause of cultural surrender.

I sense that your views and mine are diverging considerably these days. I wanted give you a chance to see things from a different perspective. Mark Durie’s book is the best on the subject. Unless you study Islam from a theological perspective you don’t get an appreciation of its deep base. Hence, you also do not get an appreciation of which Muslims are more closely aligned with that deep base. Without this appreciation it’s impossible to gain any clarity about the multiplicity of Islams and the multiplicity of Muslims. One view seems just as valid as another except that Western assumptions lead to a favourable bias.

I could go on but I’ve probably said enough. If you’re not interested in the subject or just can’t face it then by all means send it back to me.

With love,