Multiculturalism and Disbelief
by Brendan Clifford,
Labour & Trade Union Review, No. 11
If Britain had, like the United States, citizenship tests for immigrants, the basic test as to whether an immigrant had caught the British spirit should be the answer to the question: Do you accept that the right to blaspheme is an inalienable human right?
Societies flourish in connection with their communal piety. Britain is the first society which has flourished through impiety.
A generation of multiculturalist propaganda and education has produced the Salman Rushdie affair. Multiculturalism is the last word in English impiety. It means that all gods are sacred, and that therefore none are sacred. Conviction in English belief gave way to respect for the beliefs of other peoples.
Disbelief is the ground of multiculturalism. England is the host which tolerates all because it believes nothing. Tolerance is not a form of belief but a form of manners. It is the good manners of the English to tolerate all forms of belief equally because all forms of belief are equally unbelievable.
The only English belief for many generations has been faith in the sceptical power of English manners to subject the Babel of beliefs which are equally respected. A thousand gods have been allowed to flourish in the medium of English liberalism so that all might wither. They open themselves to the sun, they are aesthetically admired for their decorative aspect, and the sap dries up within them—that is the English mission. It is the secret of the success of the Glorious Revolution. It has been implemented with thoroughness wherever the apparatus of English administration has reached. And it has exerted a powerful insidious influence on human affairs.
Its one great failure to date has been in Roman Catholic Ireland. It is now facing a second failure, in Muslim Yorkshire.
Islam in England
When manners fail to override conviction, multiculturalism ceases to be a recipe for harmony. The unspoken assumption of multiculturalism is that the imported cultures which are put on a par with the native culture are rendered impotent in the process, and that they themselves become participants in English manners. They are refined in the process of being tolerated.
But what is to happen if an imported communal religion proves to be immune to the insidious influences of English tolerance? What is to happen if Islam in England does not become an exotic variant on English manners, adding its colour to the already rich tapestry of English civil society? What is to happen if Muslim England refuses to go the way of Christian England; if it insists that it is not properly treated unless it is shielded from blasphemy?
Islam is not a progressive religion. Its values are eternal, and are set down in a book. A progressive religion—a religion postulated on change—is pretty well a contradiction in terms. The Protestantism of the philosophers of the late 17th century is the only progressive religion that ever was—or at least, that I know of—and that religion subverted itself very quickly.
Islam is what Islam has been for thirteen centuries. It cannot now be discovered that Islam is “really” something essentially different from what it has been for thirteen centuries. If English Muslims accept the idea that Islam is really something different from what they thought it was during all those centuries, that is a sign that they have begun to live in English manners rather than according to the will of Allah—and well and good if it happens.
But if that does not happen, and if Muslim England adheres to the view expressed by Shabbir Akhtar in The Guardian (February 27th), the problem can not be denied without basic intellectual dishonesty:
“Many writers often condescendingly imply that Muslims should become as tolerant as modern Christians. After all, the Christian faith has not been undermined. But the truth is, of course, too obviously the other way. The continual blasphemies against the Christian faith have totally undermined it. Any faith which compromises its internal temper of militant wrath is destined for the dustbin for history, for it can no longer preserve its faithful heritage in the face of the corrosive influences.”
A decorative ruin
I am not a believer and I am not English. Thirty years ago I was ejected from a society which was then as full of belief as Iran is now. That society has since fallen into confusion because it was not nationally in command of its own belief, as Muslim societies are, but was in its inner life subject to the despotism of the Pope. A few years after I was ejected for scepticism, the Pope, at the Second Vatican Council, gave new marching orders to the souls of Catholics. And the Republic of Ireland became the subject of a change which was not a development because it resulted from external causes. This is not something which could happen in an Islamic society.
I have found it very pleasant to live in England amidst the ruins of Christian belief. And if England succeeds in reducing Islam to a decorative ruin, good on it. The world cannot exist without scenery.
England, having overthrown aristocracy, preserved the great houses in order to keep the countryside interesting. And it preserves the inessentials of belief as a sort of immunisation against the essentials.
I have not read The Satanic Verses. I become hopelessly lethargic when confronted with novels by Booker Prize winners. Shabbir Akhtar has read it twice, and he says that “it is an inferior piece of literature”. I have no doubt that it is. There are things which I am happy to take on faith. Especially since the literary quality of the book is beside the point.
The paragraph of literary appreciation is the only weakness in Shabbir Akhtar’s article. From the viewpoint of belief, blasphemy whose literary quality is excellent differs from blasphemy whose literary quality is poor only in being more effectively blasphemous. The literary eloquence of Tom Paine’s The Age of Reason was a black mark against it in the eyes of the faithful.
Shabbir Akhtar says that Islam makes space within its parameters for “the sceptical temper”, and that it includes a genuinely sceptical literature of much higher quality than The Satanic Verses. I take that to be true since the article has the signs of being written by a strong and honest mind. But again it is beside the point. A scepticism which is allowed for is not blasphemous.
The Satanic Verses may be poor blasphemous literature. Salman Rushdie may be a commercially minded sensation-monger who produced a pot-boiler designed to make himself richer through safe and profitable notoriety, never imagining that the pot could boil over and scald him. His half-baked apology certainly indicates that he is not a conscientious blasphemer like Tom Paine was. But, for all that, he has published what turns out to be a genuine work of blasphemy. And England, having subverted its own God, doesn’t quite know what to do about blasphemy against this alien God who has somehow acquired naturalisation.
The bishops protect Allah?
The leaders of the Christian remnants—of the religion which felt a deadly enmity towards Allah before the virus of tolerance was injected into it by the Glorious Revolution—those redundant but decorative Archbishops demand that blasphemy now be extended to Allah. And by implication they demand that the blasphemy law be reactivated. Allah would be better off without it if it protected him in the way it has protected Jehovah and Jesus.
But it is inconceivable that Christian England should recover its “militant wrath”. Its natural power is spent, and it cannot be reconstituted by laws. In effect what the Archbishops are demanding is that England should become a confessional state in which Christian infidels blaspheme or sectionalise over the memory of Jehovah while the community of Allah is accorded the legal power to punish apostates who succumb to English manners. And Shabbir Akhtar clearly does not think it impossible that England should be redeemed from liberal chaos by Islam.
Foot defends nothing
Michael Foot’s reply to Shabbir Akhbar (Guardian, March 10th) is flat and incoherent. It includes this nonsensical statement:
“Indeed there is a twisted measure of sense in the Doctor’s analysis (that Christianity allowed itself to be undermined by blasphemy): the survival of Christianity has been due in part to its new-found mildness, its tolerance of other creeds, an ending or at least a mitigation of the old rivalries, say, between Protestant and Catholics”
If Christianity had not been made to be tolerant in England three hundred years ago, it is a virtual certainty that we would all be Christians still, and that all our disputes would still be theologically conceived as they were then. There is no objective inevitability about progress—and least of all in progress from theological to secular modes of thought. Religious tolerance was established by the deliberate and sustained activity of a ruling class—the Revolution aristocracy—which had ceased to live in religion. And religious tolerance was achieved at the expense of religion.
Most people in England today are Christian only in the sense that if they had to fill in a form listing a choice of religions they would tick the “Christian” box. And most people who think of themselves as Christians conceive of Christianity as a benevolent sentiment rather than a theology. Very few indeed believe in the theology.
If God made the world, there is nothing improbable in the supposition that he put a Heaven and a Hell in it, and that he made known fairly precise instructions about how to avoid Hell and get to Heaven. And on the supposition that there is a God, that he did make the world, and that he did give precise instructions about the way to Heaven, the principle of “tolerance”, of indifference as to the contest of the different theologies, would be the ultimate sort of lunacy. And in societies where the world is conceived of in those terms, tolerance is treated as a form of lunacy.
In England it is the practical implications of belief rather than the practical implications of disbelief which are treated as lunatic. And the culture of the transition from belief to disbelief—from Cromwell to Locke, from Locke to Paine, and from Paine to Bradlaugh—was everywhere in evidence when I came to London in the late 1950s.
If the Muslim immigrants had been subject to the full influence of that culture it is unlikely that the present state of affairs would have come about. But the Leninist upsurge which was then beginning, and which came to dominate academic and publishing circles in the late 1960s, applied a scorched earth policy against the traditional culture of England. English Leninists behaved like the Christianity which when it came to power in Alexandria burned the great library there, in which the literature of the ancient world was collected.
Traditional England, in which disbelief was made effective as a form of belief, survived in the manners of the people. But in the sphere of concentrated thought it scarcely exists now. Perhaps the obvious helplessness of Leninism in the face of militant Islam will cause the mind of England to connect up with Locke once again.