“I think Islam hates us. There's a tremendous hatred… There is an unbelievable hatred of us.” – Donald Trump, 9 March
Islamist extremists certainly hate us. But exactly who is ‘us’? The ‘Christian West’ would be a common answer especially in the US, but it’s not a very satisfactory answer – there was little ‘Christian’ about the twin towers and even less ‘Western’ about the victims of the Lahore atrocity last week.
And who is the ‘hater’? To take ISIS or al-Qaeda or the “Taliban splinter group” (as the BBC called them) that carried out the Lahore bombing as being representative of Islam as a whole is akin to taking the Ku Klux Klan as being representative of Christianity as a whole. You can’t generalise about the mainstream by back-extrapolating from the fanatical fringe. Indeed a great many Christians don’t accept the Christian label for the Klan, and a great many Muslims don’t accept the Muslim label for the extremists in their camp.
Birds of a feather, but neither represents most of its own flock.
The orthodox Islamic ‘People of the Book’ doctrine posits Jews, Christians and Muslims to be fellow members of the Abrahamic religious family. Islam regards Abraham and various other personages in Judaism to have been prophets, and they regard Jesus to have been one too. In this sequence of progressive revelation, Mohammed was the last prophet and superseded those who had come before him. Islam regards followers of earlier prophets to be misguided, but they are religious cousins nonetheless.
There have been Christian (and Jewish) communities in Muslim countries for many centuries. On the whole, the coexistence has been peaceful and prosperous, and the rights of those communities were respected and upheld, including their right to live according to their own laws and traditions pertaining to such civil matters as marriage and inheritance. Yes, of course there are stains on that record – big, ugly ones, even – but they were aberrations that were usually recognised as such and rectified.
What about the ‘clash of civilisations’ that we have heard so much of over the past few years? The last Islamic empire that posed a direct military threat to Europe was the Ottoman, which the combined forces of ‘Christendom’ decisively dealt with in the 16th century (once they managed to set aside their differences for long enough to present a united front). By the late 19th century, the [Islamic] Ottoman Empire had forged strong links with the [Christian] German Empire which it was allied to in WW1. It was no Muslim vs Christian ‘clash of civilisations’ that was going on a century ago.
Muslim and Christian fought alongside one another on both sides in WW1
To speak of a Christian vs Muslim ‘clash of civilisations’ today is absurd, at least in the Western European context. Western Europe is aptly described as a post-Christian civilisation as Christianity is no longer of any but residual relevance to systems of governance and is no longer the basis of most people’s personal ideology. The intellectual maturity gap of 100+ years between Western Europe and the US is pronounced in this regard. Still, to claim that Christianity is at the root of any ‘clash of civilisations’ between the Muslim world and ‘the West’ is to hark back to yesteryear.
There is a ‘clash of civilisations’ going on today, but it is secularism and not Christianity that is the antagonist. That’s ‘secularism’ as used by educated British English speakers, not the ‘secular’ of Americanised pop-speak. Secularism isn’t about everyone claiming to be an atheist and constantly slinging mud at religion. It’s about removing religion from government and law. Plenty of people who harbour profound religious beliefs are secularists in this sense. Some regard it as demeaning for religion to stoop to the profane rough-and-tumble of politics. Many realise that bringing religion into politics and law turns the instruments of governance into sectarian arenas.
While one can comfortably be both Christian and secularist, though, being both Muslim and secularist is a much harder act. Modern Western Christians realise that government and law are products of human endeavour rather than of divine revelation. But Islam comes with its own supposedly divinely prescribed schema of governance that has set rules for everything from conducting your morning wash to intergovernmental relations. For a Muslim to embrace secularism is to ditch a sizeable chunk of the teachings of the Quran and the Hadith.
Most Muslims can fathom the ethical norms and mores of other ‘People of the Book’. What they can’t fathom is those of ‘People of No Book’. Firmly entrenched in the Muslim mindset is the assumption that there is a religious basis on which ethics and law must rest, which in the case of secular ethics and law there isn’t (they share that blind spot with fundamentalist Christians – see my article “The non-religious origins of law”, Breaking Views 5 December 2015). That is where the rub lies, not with any lingering Christian influence in our societies (I’m speaking as a Western European – it’s a slightly different story in Amurrica, bless their cotton socks).
The good news is that many ‘westernised’ Muslims are starting to tumble to the fact that secular law is their interests. Under our system, they are free to abide by their own customs insofar as those do not contravene the law of the land. This includes the observance of many aspects of Islamic law. For instance, a Muslim man in the UK can marry one, two or three additional wives in a British Sharia court, although these additional marriages are not recognised by English law (hence there is no prosecution for bigamy). After all, any man in our societies can have any number of willing female consorts, so why would we treat a Muslim man any differently? (And of course the converse applies equally….)
We need to get this right for everyone’s sake. Islam as such does not ‘hate Christianity’ or ‘hate Christians’. Islam is, however, inimical to secularism – as is fundamentalist Christianity, which similarly yearns for a return to theocracy. But we, the ‘People of No Book’, are now in charge – and everyone had better hope it stays that way, for only then can we ensure that everyone is treated equally under the law.
Barend Vlaardingerbroek BA, BSc, BEdSt, PGDipLaws, MAppSc, PhD is associate professor of education at the American University of Beirut and is a regular commentator on social and political issues. Feedback welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org