by Abdal Hakim Murad
Muslims looking at the West with a critical but compassionate eye are often disturbed by this absence of old-fashioned self-scrutiny. We note that no longer does the dominant culture avert complacency through reference to past moral and cultural excellence; rather, the paradigm to which conformity is now required is that of the ever-shifting liberal consensus. In this ambitiously inverted world, it is the future that is to serve as the model, never anything in the past. In fact, no truly outrageous (“blasphemous”) discourse remains possible in modern societies, except that which violates the totalising liberalism supposedly generated by autonomous popular consent, but which is often in reality manufactured by the small, often personally immoral but nonetheless ideologised elites who dominate the media and sculpt public opinion into increasingly bizarre and unprecedented shapes.
The debate over the status of the family lies at the heart of the present ideological collision between the bloated but “decadent” North and the progressively impoverished South, a collision in the midst of which our community is attempting to define itself and to survive. This culture clash is so vital to the self-perception of each side that it is now all but inescapable. It seems that each time we switch on our televisions and sit back, we must observe northern prejudice and insecurity being massaged by an endless, earnest-humane diet of documentaries about the ills of the rigidly family-centred Third World, and the wicked reluctance of its peoples to conform to the social doctrines of the liberal democracies. To the average Westerner this one-way polemic seems satisfying and unarguable, confirming as it does assumptions of superiority which allay his nervousness about problems in his own society. It shapes the public opinion that goes on to acquiesce in the liquidation of Palestinians, Bosnians or Chechens with only the mildest (but self-righteously proclaimed) twinges of guilt. In fact, it is hard to resist the conclusion that the social doctrines of the modern West have been forged into the imperial ideologies of the closing years of the century, as polemicists use orthodox feminism and homosexualism as the perfect sticks with which to beat the Third World. A hundred years ago, white Christians interfered with everyone else for the sake of theological dogma and commerce; now they do so for reasons of social dogma and commerce. But the underlying attitude of contempt has remained essentially unchanged.
Muslims living in the West are perched in an interesting vantage point on this question. While many Islamic theologians have written on the “westernisation process” in the Muslim world and its nefarious effects on family life, the reality, as some of them have noted, is that this process is being championed by obsolete secular elites whose cultural formation was the achievement of the old imperial powers. The family lifestyle of the average secular Syrian or Turk is not that of a modern European, despite his outraged claims to the contrary. His clothes, furnishings, marriage rituals, and most details of life are more redolent of the 1940s and 1950s than of the present realities of Western existence. And so the mainstream Muslim debate on changes in the family, led by such thinkers as Anwar al-Jindi and Rasim Ozdenoren, tends to be of only slight relevance to our situation here in the heartlands of the “liberated” West.
As we attempt to theorise about our own condition, we are at once confronted by the irony that the country to which many of us migrated no longer exists. Back in the 1950s and early 1960s, British family values were still recognisably derived from a great religious tradition rooted in the family-nurturing Abrahamic soil. While the doctrinal debates between Islam and Christianity remained sharp, the moral and social assumptions of the “guest-workers” and their “hosts” were in most respects reassuringly and productively similar.
That overlap has now almost gone. Even the Churches no longer claim to be the coherent and convincing voices of absolute moral truths, as an increasingly spongelike rock of ages finds itself scoured and reshaped by the libertarian sandstorm. Cardinal Hume, the usually clear-headed spokesman of Britain’s Catholics, has recently made conciliatory remarks about homophilia; while an Anglican bishop, resplendent in tight jeans and leather jacket, has openly announced his relationship with another man. So far from representing family values to their flock, 200 out of 900 London priests are said to subscribe to homosexual tendencies. The number of Christian and Jewish organisations and individuals eloquently singing the virtues of Sodom seems set to rise and rise, cheered on by the secularists, until the remaining voices of tradition are finally shouted down.
All this means that the Muslim community, already marginalised in terms of class, race, and economics, is now having to confront a further and potentially far more drastic form of alienation. As newcomers who are the sole defenders of values which would be recognised as legitimate by earlier generations of Britons, we are in a disorienting position. The temptation to panic, to retreat into factions and cults which excoriate the wider world as impure and evil, will claim many of us. Already such movements are making headway on the campuses. But such a sterile and facile temptation should be resisted, and, if our faith is really as strong as we and our detractors like to believe, it can be resisted easily and in favour of a far more mature and fruitful grasp of our relationship with the “host community”.
But a strategy for the articulation of such a stance must be grounded in the knowledge that Muslim traditionalism does not appeal to the sort of comforting essentialist “metanarrative” whose claims to objective truth are less important than its status as a definer of cultural identity. Such has been the emergent error of the twentieth-century’s rival essentialisms, particularly nationalism and fascism; and it is all too often the error of Muslim activists whose alertness to spiritual realities is subordinated to, or even replaced by, the quest for the pseudo-spiritual solace of authenticity. The narrative of Muslim civilisation, inspirational for the Muslim Brotherhood and neo-Ottoman revivalists until the 1970s, has suddenly given way to the utopian narrative of “the Salaf”, on the problematic claim that the Salaf followed a consistent school of thought; but among the adherents of neither position do we find an immediate and responsive type of faith that yields, as true faith must, an ethic rooted in compassion and concern rather than a chronic obsession with purity.
What this means is that unless Muslims in Britain can counteract the impoverishing and exclusivist “ideologising” of Islam that has taken place in some Muslim countries, and return to an image of the faith as rooted in immediate and sincere concern for human welfare under a compassionate God, we will continue to fail to contribute to the national debate on this or any other question of real moment. It is not enough for the exclusivists to shrug, “But who cares what the unbelievers think”. For Muslims are directed by the Quran to be an example to others. We cannot be an example, or successfully convey the message that God has revealed, if we hide in cultural ghettoes and act abrasively and arrogantly towards those we take such exquisite pleasure in considering beyond the pale. Instead, we must take the more difficult path of understanding the real dilemmas of this society, and then the even more difficult one of gently suggesting a remedy that may be of real assistance.
The time for such an advocacy is now. In recent weeks, several religious figures in Britain have offered their thoughts, often anguished, generally cogent, on the tragedy of the progressive decay of the family. The Bishop of Liverpool and the Chief Rabbi have both summarised the process with the usual statistics: 34% of British children are now born outside wedlock; a similar proportion of adults suffer the heartbreak of divorce; within twenty years fewer than half of the nation’s children will be brought up by their own two parents; and so on. Few doubt the practical catastrophes which ensue: in the United States, it is said that over half of prison inmates are from broken homes, while men and women are known to suffer deep psychological harm from parental divorce even in middle life or old age. Sheppard and Sacks lament together that in a rapidly-changing world where the family haven has never been more needed by children and adults alike, it should have been wrecked by that most basic of all sins: selfishness. Nobody likes making a sacrifice: bowing at the idol of personal freedom we all shout for our rights and chafe under our duties. The lesson is irritating but clear: the Thatcherite egocentrism which posed as the apotheosis of Adam Smith’s advocacy of competitive self-interest as the key to collective social advancement is claiming so many casualties as to endanger the whole undertaking. Greed creates rich men and happy Chancellors, but it now appears to come at a long-term price. Gigantic social and economic bills are now rolling in for extra policing, prisons, social workers and a growing blizzard of DHSS cheques. The socialist revolution has already failed; it seems that capitalism too may ultimately choke on its own contradictions.
So far, so good. It is unarguable, and not just to religious people, that greed has been a culprit. And yet the pleas for a return to selflessness have been heard so often in past ages, and with so little manifest effect, that they cannot be seen as holding out a believably sufficient solution. If religions are truly to have the capacity to overcome the worst consequences of human sinfulness then they must acknowledge that simple appeals to “be good” rarely have much impact, and must be accompanied by a practicable paradigm for reform. Neither the bishop nor the rabbi seem to have much to offer that is practical and concrete; which is perhaps why they have been tolerated and even platformed by politicians and the liberal media. But as Muslims, possessed of a religious dispensation granted through an intermediary whose status as “a mercy to the nations” was manifested in a concrete social as well as moral programme, we know that the present plight of society will never be reformed through homiletics. Structural changes are called for as well: and, given the gravity of the problem, we should not be surprised to learn that they can be painful.
Hardly less obvious than the causes of family decline are the reasons why establishment ideologues refuse to recognise them. The politicians are the most flagrant instance: last week’s sorry resignation by Social Charter minister Robert Hughes in order to “repair his marriage” after an illicit fling is simply the latest in a string of by now frankly boring incidents which show the political establishment (and not even the moralising Mr Ashdown, the leader of the UK Liberal Democrat Party, has been immune) as largely incapable of leading a moral life. And yet tucked away in the office of every MP are all the clues we need. There before his desk, adding spice to his every tedious letterwriting moment, is that anarchic presence which unless he is very buttoned up indeed may prove his undoing. The number of MPs who have secretaries as second wives is second only to the number with surreptitious concubines. Only aberrant idiocy – or complaisance – can ignore the fact that if a politician, charged with that eroticism which power seems to generate, works late hours with a member of the opposite sex, a conflagration is probable rather than possible. Under such conditions the system offers no protection whatsoever for suffering children and spouses, who will be traumatised even to the point of suicide. Again, the disastrous notion that individual rights take precedence over the rights of the family has resulted in degradation for both.
But politics is merely the most notorious example of an environment in which, as the Iranians say, “fire dwelleth with cotton”. As the current anguished debate over sexual harrassment reveals, there remains hardly a public space into which private desires do not obtrude. Never before has there been a society in which men and women mingle so casually, and where the radically increased opportunity for temptation and unfaithfulness is so patent that even the most anti-moralising journalist, politician or social strategist must see it.
In Tom Wolfe’s popular novel Bonfire of the Vanities, a young financier commits adultery, destroying his wife and daughter, simply because New York is a city “drowning in concupiscence” and he is its child. It is not simply the routine mixing of the sexes that brings about his downfall. Everywhere his eyes wander he sees advertising, pornography, news stories and squeezy fashions that grasp at him and shout aloud the charm of duty-free sex. Wolfe’s adulterer is an ordinary, not a fundamentally evil man: he is simply living in a world in which most human beings cannot behave responsibly.
New York is not yet London – but the Atlantic grows narrower all the time, and the eroticising of the public space has become part of our culture. Middle-aged men with middle-aged wives once had little to tempt them, short of an unhealthy adventure with a Piccadilly tart. Now, with a superabundance of flesh reminding them painfully at every turn of what they are missing, they are unlikely to remain loyal unless they are either stupid, or belong to that category of powerfully moral human beings which always has been and always will be a minority.
A radical diagnosis, although obvious enough: but is there a cure? Islam recognises as a major misdemeanour a crime unimaginable in the West: khalwa, or “illegitimate seclusion”. Moral disasters always have preludes; Islam seeks to reduce the social matrix in which such preludes can occur. Thus our commitment to single-sex education. Not for us the absurd desperation of the Clackmannan headmaster who last month introduced the rule that boy and girl pupils may not be closer than six inches from each other, because ‘spring is in the air.” But schools are the merest starting-point. The workplace, too, while not obstructing female advancement, should ensure that the rights of spouses are protected by denying all possibility of illegitimate seclusion in the office. Politicians and business people who insist on employing a personal assistant of the opposite sex should explain their reasons. Pornography and sub-pornographic advertising should be carefully censored as intolerably demeaning and as an incitement to marital infidelity, the task of censorship being entrusted to those feminists who so rightly object to such portrayals of their sex.
The tragedy for Britain is, of course, that this remedy, while as self-evidently worth implementing as the sex drive itself, will be brushed aside with amazement and scorn by passing journalists and politicians. Convinced that Islam implies discrimination by its policy of gender separation, and privately depressed by the prospect of diminished sexual interest at work, the same liberal establishment which bewails the fragility of modern relationships will continue to encourage and live in the public environment which is at the root of the problem. But Islam by its very nature takes the long view, and we should not be disheartened. The process of family collapse is proving so radical in its economic and human consequences that the time must ultimately come when the decadence will be recognised for what it is and radical solutions will be considered. Then, quite possibly, the principled Muslim conservatism that is so derided today will come into its own.