- it seems childish, ironic and self-fulfilling. The reaction of some simply confirms the point of that original quote: "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." (Manuel II Palaiologos)
- it seems scary - Huntington's thesis being fuelled by blood-thirsty media
- it seems hypocritical: "we're" capable of mobbish overeaction irrationalism too - remember this?
Unfortunately these events - by their nature - are divisive, and our media aren't capable of representing the issue down the middle. On the one hand we have those who report that the Pope is placating all Muslims - and that Islam itself is responsible for the reaction. Then the voices of "moderate" Islam seek to distance themselves from the violence and terror, whilst sympathising with the motives. Both positions seem flawed to me - this is "merely" a subset of Islam, but it *is* a subset nevertheless. Therefore this isn't really about religion at all.
Owen made a good point (a while back) when he identified the real clash: "the battle of ideas is not between Christian and Islamic religions and cultures. The real battle of ideas is between rational, reality-based thought and religions of all kinds." This subset of Islam - those who murder non-members, declare war on non-believers, force conversions, and stifle debate by threats of violence, need an enlightenment, and religious tolerance is a keystone. At the end of the day, tolerance is all it takes to create peace.
But let me be clear: it is only this subset that i'm talking about - not Islam itself. It should be painfully and blindingly obvious that the most violent, irrational and disgusting reactions to the Pope's speech is occuring in countries without political freedom. We cannot complain that rational thought isn't met with reasoned debate within civil society (the proper channels of public discourse) if civil society is outlawed. If these people have little voice, violence is their only audibility. Again, this isn't about religion - it's about the social instruments of peace that make rational discourse possible.
Over the weekend I was asked to be a god father, and treat this role with thrill and honour. I've tried resolving this paradox, since I'm (somewhat) overtly atheist, and asked the childs parents why they chose me. Their reply is a true sign of the times, but flattering nevertheless - Should they become unable to take the child to church, they wanted to appoint someone who would take her - *if* she wants to go. They chose me because I have "an open mind" about that sort of thing.
It makes me think that Owen goes too far with his views on the clash of ideas, because according to him:
All religion is bad
in other words, he's not just an atheist, he's an anti-theist. This neat seperation between science & religion makes me uneasy, what would we have if we got rid of religion? (Clue: Only the USSR came close to achieving it), and the words of Vincent Ostrom still echo:
“We have the potential then of those who reject religion becoming the prophets of new secular religions"
Tim Garton-Ash has a wonderful line about the difference between being a Christian atheist and a Jewish atheist - the acceptance of this point undermines any neat rejection of religious influence. All ideas have a theological componant*, and there's an important interplay between vision and analysis**.
No, I don't think that "all religion is bad", because if it was I wouldn't be a god parent, and our grandparents - those who fought the war and now go to church to talk to God before they join him - aren't being bad. Religious people aren't bad, and in large part that's down to their religion.
To resolve this dillema, enter Friedrich Hayek, who can explain to us Why the Worst Get on Top. The village vicar and those s/he serves - like the local councillers - tend to be good, decent, honest people. It's their leaders who make a mockery of their efforts, by sucking power and serving their own agendas. The more authoritarian the system, the worse it gets - leaders trampling over their naive followers.
In politics, as in religion, as in life. The response? Preach tolerance, preach freedom, and reduce the advantages of office.
* See my paper "The Spread of Economic Theology: The Flat Tax in Romania" Romanian Economic and Business Review, forthcoming
** See "Analysis and Vision in the History of Modern Economic Thought"
Journal of Economic Literature, Vol. 28, No. 3 (Sep., 1990), pp. 1097-1114