7C Islam in the 21C working people’s West.
We all find certain things embarrassing, ‘Chuggers’, Mormons, Scientologists, Hasidic Jews, “happy-clappy” Christians, and Morris men. But no one wants them to stop enjoying their lives. In the 21st century, we want everyone to enjoy their lives in peace. But we might shuffle away as they approach.
Islam, of course, goes back to the 7th century. Its values reflect a period in history when brutality and indifference to pain characterised much of the world. The difficulty of making money and creating capital in Arabia and in the rest of the Islamic world from the 7th century onwards limited its ability to progress economically and therefore it was unable to progress socially. We are economic materialists after all.
Modern social progress is a product of capitalist success. In a nutshell the ability of a new middle class to acquire capital from the labour power of others via contract’s rather than slavery or serfdom. This eventually gave the world the principles of Contract, Choice and Consent which in turn drove the demand for these economic principles to take on social character and form the 18th-century democracy that we still have today, and which has gone around the world via the British Empire.
Until recently in the West gender relationships were historically unequal. But male and female rights eventually succumbed to the democratising juggernaut of capitalism. Capitalism was back then, as the free market is today indifferent, to the background, sex and race, sexuality, gender identity and faith. Sexual inequality was required socially not economically. In capitalism, its only injustice is its inherent economic unfairness, rich or poor.
Workers of the western world who have lived in the capitalist system and seen their rights extended within it will have a solid grasp that whilst capitalism is an unfair system, some win and some loose, it has created a very broad and far-reaching equality. There is little discrimination in capitalism as the principles of capitalism have no role for discrimination. Discrimination is bad for business.
So, into this well established economic and social environment come a large group of people for whom the egalitarianism of capitalism is in some cases alien. Many harbouring a 7th-century belief system founded on their holy book the Koran, and the Hadith, which reflects the economic necessities of their day, for example, the different treatment of women, homosexuals or those of different faiths.
The penalty for breaking the rules in all simple agrarian and impoverished cultures is similarly harsh. Stoning, beheading, beating are all promoted in Holy books and by some of the followers of faiths and denominations today. The clash of cultures, therefore, can’t be more real between those who live by the experience of the liberal West and those who hold traditional “faith” based views. There is little to unite these groups culturally. If one accepts submission and control it’s difficult to grasp the role of contract, choice and consent.
It takes a while to compartmentalise and set aside one’s own irrational bias before one can come up with a possible explanation for this phenomenon of some in the West promoting what are largely un Western values. Once you reflect on the theology and psychology involved in dealing on a personal level with the traditional values in Islam, for example, it becomes easier to see that we are basically uncomfortable about the whole situation and don’t recognise the relevance of Islamic values in the 21st century. It is hard to see how someone who believes in equal rights for all with no discrimination on gender or grounds of sexuality can find any common ground within what is presented as the Islamic faith today. There will, of course, be people of the Islamic faith who accept the values of the Enlightenment but the Holy book and Hadith are claimed to be the infallible instruction from God and Muhammad, so the challenge can’t be underestimated.
The internet has examples of the faithful from all faiths explaining the approach to various issues from the vantage point of their faith. So it raises the question what can one really say to an earnest young man who would like to see girls married at the age of 8? or the dress code for men and women that is intended to set aside equality between the sexes and may indeed feed male entitlement? Or the issue of unofficial street praying or the publicly expressed demand for this punishment or that practice. It is uncomfortable having to make sense of these differences in opinion and perspective in the twenty-first century. When confronted by the unreformed value base of all faiths but specifically Islam it makes those with modern values behave in an oddly incoherent way, so we can avoid dealing with it.
The solution is not that difficult to imagine. At every social, legal and political level it should be acknowledged that some ideas are just basically incompatible with the modern world whether it be restricting reproductive rights for women or the demand for Sharia councils. Because these ideas are well out of date in the 21st century the advocates of these ideas make us feel uncomfortable and we shy away from a debate. We should not. The days of neo-colonial toleration of the sort that doesn’t challenge ideas must stop as under the auspices of faith and for some within the faith community, we find FGM, circumcision and other forms of harm. There is nothing wrong with feeling uncomfortable about someone else’s idea, it’s not illegal…..yet!
One final point is this. We are where we are because we too have out of date institutions on us namely our near-universal western 18th-century political system. This system will never reflect the rights of working people but whilst we must continue to shout to keep our 18th-century progressive values, of contract, choice and consent, we must fight to change the 18th-century political systems that are currently undermining these hard fought for values, once only enjoyed by the men of the bourgeois.