(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Islamophobia and the suicide of the West

In our perverse desire to tolerate the intolerable we have succumbed to Christophobia

How is it that in 2020 an all-party parliamentary group of MPs appears to be more exercised by Islamophobia than the treatment of Christians? Why is a former chair of the Conservative party, that once considered itself the Church of England at prayer, “truly ashamed” of the party, not for abandoning the Anglican faith, but for its lack of empathy with Islam?

When the early modern English state first emerged from the chrysalis of medieval Christendom in the seventeenth century, no-one would have imagined that by 2019 more than half the population would say they have no religion and, amongst those that do, only 15 per cent considered themselves Anglican. At the turn of the twentieth century, it was almost one in three. And during the seventeenth century itself? Nearly 100 per cent.

Yet, this falling away from Christianity really began during the seventeenth century when the practice of individual freedom, tolerance and scientific inquiry freed from religious supervision, assumed a modern guise. The Enlightenment energized the quest.

It was the Promethean west that killed God in its quest for universal truth

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (1818) captured both the heady freedom of science and the anxiety concerning the growing irrelevance of God. Atheists saw God and, by extension, religion as a delusion. “How low has Christianity sunk, how powerless and miserable it has become. It is reason that has conquered,” Kierkegaard confided to his Journals in 1849. Matthew Arnold heard the sea of faith’s withdrawing roar on Dover Beach. By the end of the century, Marx, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky and Thomas Hardy all wrestled with what the death of God meant. “And who or what shall fill his place?” Hardy wondered. And so might we.

It was the Promethean west that killed God in its quest for universal truth. The Enlightenment replaced a Christian faith in a transcendent spirit with an earthly condition of perfected humanity. It assumed an ecumenical universalism leading to secular progress premised on tolerance and freedom of speech, including the freedom to speak sacrilegiously of sacred things.

What this created, however, was religious deformation. How different the western experience was from Hindu or Buddhist belief where the notion of killing God made no sense. Meanwhile the idea of killing Allah, or even caricaturing His prophet, invokes a fatwa for blasphemy like those received by Salman Rushdie in 1988, Theo van Gogh in 2004 and Charlie Hebdo in 2011.

Islamophobia is intolerable, but so too, it seems, is Christianity

Yet, paradoxically, and in a spirit of multicultural acceptance, post-Cold War progressives tolerated those acting in the name of Islam persecuting anyone its imamate found blasphemous. Indeed, whilst blasphemy against Christianity, still a statute, is never prosecuted, Islamophobia is in the process of becoming an offence. In April 2019, the Home Office even rejected an Iranian asylum seeker and Christian convert on the grounds that his claim that Christianity was a peaceful religion was inconsistent with Biblical violence. When the Bishop of Truro conducted a review of Christian persecution for the Foreign Office, he found it to be “at near genocide levels in some parts of the world”. Islamophobia is intolerable, but so too, it seems, is Christianity. In our perverse desire to tolerate the intolerable we have succumbed, it seems, not to Islamophobia, but Christophobia. How did this happen?

Providence, Progress and the Philosophy of History

Only the West killed God and they did it twice for good measure, once on the cross, and more recently via the Enlightenment project to transform the world through progress, secularism and science, rendering religion either rational or irrelevant. This evolution has a long history.

The philosopher of Order and History, Eric Voegelin, traced its origins to medieval Gnostic heresies.

Millenarian attempts, like those of the Anabaptists of Munster, to “immanentize the eschaton”, in other words, to bring the “beyond” into the here and now, assumed a secular and philosophic clothing at the Enlightenment. Kant, Hegel, Marx and later liberal progressive thinkers, like John Rawls, explored its implications.

This perspective warped the Christian idea of salvation and accounts for many forms of contemporary ideological distortion. The impulse is inherently Manichean, and sometimes violent. Moreover, the end community the ideologist aspires to has natural enemies, notably those who accept the world as it is, in all its messy pluralism. Dressed in modern garb, it assumes the past unenlightened, the present confused and corrupt, and universal Enlightenment achievable through rational and scientific progress.

A variation on this sensibility informed the secular third way version of the millenarian impulse at the end of history. Iraq and the financial crisis of 2008 undermined it and accounts for the current progressive identity crisis. A secular liberal society accustomed to understanding itself in terms of a universal purpose cannot lose faith in that purpose without becoming bewildered. Yet the desire for a socially just epiphany remains.

The liberal multicultural dilemma requires liberals to tolerate non-Western minorities in the name of diversity

We have a problem. The progressive mind assumes that all values are ultimately compatible. However, its projects of inclusivity at home and interventionism abroad confronts an uncomfortable fact. The tolerant endorsement of human diversity becomes very confused if one realizes that many past and alien visions have been internally inclusive, intolerant and ethnocentric. If we, in our tolerant way, endorse them, we thereby also endorse intolerance at second hand. This is the liberal multicultural dilemma. It requires liberals to tolerate non-Western minorities in the name of diversity, but the minority need not adapt to the values of their country of adoption.

Yet such tolerance, when acted upon, leads only to chaos. To say, as the liberal does, that our sole protection against war between societies and within society is reason, and that according to reason those societies and individuals who find it congenial to their system of values to oppress and subjugate others are as right as those who love peace and justice, means to appeal to reason in the very act of destroying reason. This is the confusion that currently drives Momentum, Extinction Rebellion and the Zombie Left more generally.

Islamophobia and World Purificationism

Since the 1990s, leading Western university departments promulgated theories of world politics that supported non-governmentalorganizations (NGOs), and social movements that questioned the politics of fear that, they alleged, Islamophobic Western governments and their security agencies practiced. An anti-anti-Islamism informed this new left thinking.

Like the liberal progressivism it feeds off in order to take the end of history to its final emancipatory stage, this world purificatory project prefers rule through supranational structures and global forums advancing world government by judicializing conflict. Its central instrument expands treaty commitments to human rights and international criminal law.

Emerging at the end of the Cold War as a radical rejection of the liberal democratic market state order, an Olympian transnationalism advocated instead cosmopolitan rule through “post-national constellations” like the United Nations and the EU. After the 2003 Iraq War, this cosmopolitan idealism further identified a world historical struggle between redemptive social movements and a US inspired global capitalism.

This dialectic informs the world purificatory movement against the western security order and its state based, democratically accountable, institutions. In this melodrama, the United States and its allies function as the concrete enemy, whilst Israel plays a special role as its demonic accomplice.

In the early twenty-first century, world purificatory activism moved from the political fringes to shape international debate. At the end of the Cold War, liberal western elites had assumed that the liberal international order would reshape the globe through its soft cultural and commercial power. After Iraq and Afghanistan, a progressive end of history appeared unlikely. Government bailouts of banks too big to fail further revealed the limitations of globalization and the rational market.

A transnational cadre of NGOs will eventually serve as the globe’s humanitarian enforcers

The financial crisis instead legitimated anarchist-inspired movements like those that occupied Wall Street after September 2011. This alter globalization movement, consisting of transnational networks, sympathetic academics, indigenous peoples and environmental activists, seeks to overthrow a western capitalist imperium. Those committed to it lead militant groups and NGOs, conduct seminars and hold marches at international conferences, receive support from governments and eleemosynary institutions, enjoy various despots as their cheerleaders, and are woven into the fabric of the UN, the EU and the mainstream media.

The movement pursues an environmentally clean, culturally harmonious, socially just and sustainable world, liberated from both capitalism and carbon. It assumes that international rules will replace national laws. As the nation state order weakens, a transnational cadre of NGOs will serve as the globe’s humanitarian enforcers.

Christianity, but not Islam, is collateral damage in this latest ebullition of the revolutionary pursuit of utopia. Rendering God an impotent thought, Protestant and Catholic theology, as Kierkegaard anticipated, has reduced faith to “mere humanism”. The contemporary Anglican church instead embraces the new purification that contrasts a corrupt present with a redemptive future. Consequently, progressive theologians follow in the wake of the alt-globalization clerisy and explains Anglican and liberal indifference to the plight of those who still practice their Christian faith in the middle east and Africa.

Transnationalism is post-democratic. It considers mainstream political parties and representative democratic institutions oppressive. It favours instead direct action where grassroots activists raise consciousness and expose the toxicity of capitalism. The new utopianism thus posits a world on the cusp of a globally just order achieved through the effort of like-minded idealists.

Liberation and Resistance

In its melodramatic interpretation of international politics, the global evil that a US-led capitalist system perpetuates justifies global resistance. Although this loosely structured global network embrace pacifism, it nevertheless empathizes with the grievances that motivate the resistance of the IS inspired, leaderless variety. Demonizing the West, whether actively engaged in Afghanistan or Iraq, or passively indifferent to sectarian conflicts in Syria and North Africa, the movement relates all “subaltern” violence to colonial grievance.

Thus, at the same time as the world purificationist denounces western colonial hypocrisy, it minimizes the crimes that occur in regimes it considers somehow victimized by the west. Exposing failings in open democracies entails excusing the crimes of despots. Humanitarian terms become weapons to attack democratic flaws. These contortions of the purificatory mind stem from its discovery of victims everywhere.

After the Cold War, this new ethical imperialism rejected any western nation charting a unilateral course that contravened internationally agreed rules. Yet, its judgments are far from impartial. It finds Brexit, or Trump’s independent approach to international agreements, deplorable, whilst Russia or China’s breaches of international law are overlooked. In a similar vein, opprobrium greets any Israeli action in the Gaza strip, whilst the savagery of Islamist terrorists or military despots towards Christian communities evokes only mild disapproval. What accounts for such relativism?

Ignored for two centuries, Kantianism now pervades the world purifying left

One plausible answer is that like all ideological grand narratives, the new Olympian left assumes that world history follows an inexorable trajectory towards utopia. In its post-Cold War, idealist manifestation, it anticipates a teleological progression from barbarism to the triumph of reason culminating in a universal state. Before the Second World War such idealism traded at a political discount. This changed after 1945. Post war, and particularly after 1990, Western progressives maintained that peace and progress required a paradigm shift, dismantling the states in which they lived for the rule of an international or post national order. Such a world state responded to pure reason and the union of nations, that Immanuel Kant anticipated in his Perpetual Peace: a philosophical sketch (1795).

Ignored for two centuries, an academically reinvigorated Kantianism now pervades the world purifying left. History, from this perspective, proceeds through three stages: from tribal barbarism; through the intermediary stage of the nation state to the ultimate realization of Kant’s “eschatological hope” — a world state. During the intermediary nation state stage, more advanced states would “renounce their savage and lawless freedom, adapt themselves to public coercive laws and thus form an international state, which would continue to grow until it embraced all the people of the earth”. Those who advance this hope form an enlightened vanguard.

The problem this version of the end of history encounters in practice, however, is that nations and cultures move along the path from barbarism to the rule of universal reason at different speeds. Whilst western European and North American progressives are well advanced on the path to moral and political maturity, less developed peoples in the Middle East, Asia and Africa remain stuck in political prepubescence.

Consequently, the moral standards applied to the advanced West cannot apply to Turkey, Syria, Iran, or ISIL whose murderous behaviour suggests a state of infantile savagery from which virtually nothing morally may be expected. Cosmopolitan idealists assume these moral adolescents will eventually grow up, but the process may be long and require great tolerance.

At the same time, they evince an uncomprehending antipathy for those they deem to have apostatized from their Olympian faith, or, in the case of Christianity, are irrelevant to the realization of the purified global vision. Thus, world purificationism excuses a Daesh style management of savagery in Raqqa, whilst condemning Israeli conduct against Hamas or Hizbollah. Rebooted Kantianism subjects Israel to a higher moral standard than more primitive Arabs and Palestinians, because Israel is really European. This perspective explains Momentum style anti-Semitism and the otherwise bizarre comparison of Israel with Nazi Germany.

The Israel case demonstrates the capacity for progressive tolerance to turn to intolerance, or, in the case of middle eastern Christian communities, indifference, to those who dissent from its purificatory mission. Intolerance and the proscription of Islamophobia is a direct consequence of the aspiration to attain universal order. Hence, new left idealist zealotry reserves its contempt for any movement, with a nominal European heritage, that severs its connection to this transformational emancipatory project.

There is a curious affinity between the new transnational social movements, the anti-political paths they follow, and the politically religious certitudes they embrace. The different components of this axis share a Gnostic belief in a corrupt past, a decadent present, and the necessity for resistance and, if necessary, clarifying acts of violence to bring about a harmonious and purified new order.

Such movements have no moral or historical justification to imagine the end of history. However, that is the only justification for the sacrifices they demand of humanity in its name. It has no other basis than a fallacy which introduces into history a value foreign to history. Since that value is, at the same time, foreign to ethics, it is not, properly speaking, a value upon which to base conduct. It is a dogma without foundation that can be adopted only as the desperate effort to escape, of a mind stifled by solitude, or by nihilism. It is in fact, a value imposed by those whom, despite their claims to an ethical purpose, the dogma profits. The end of history, that informs the new idealism is not an exemplary or perfectionist value. It is an arbitrary and ultimately terroristic principle.

It would seem that the Promethean quest to kill God and end history has left us Europeans not on the road to utopia, but on a darkling plain, where ignorant armies clash by night.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover