Summary of First Thursday, February 5th 2015
We continued our discussion of the “Charlie Hebdo” killings from last time. An e-mail to us had argued that the magazine’s constant insulting of Islam should also be criticised, as this was no good example of “freedom of speech”. But why does Islam regard depictions and criticisms of Mohammed with such fury? In the past blasphemy and heresy were punishable (sometimes by death) in “Christian” societies, but this is no longer the case (in fact some Muslims would criticise Christians for being over-tolerant today).
The experience of the 30 Years’ War (1618 to 1648), in which Germany was devastated by the unending conflict between Protestants and Catholics, forced Europe to accept toleration of different denominations. Philosophers then began to see toleration itself as a virtue which, as humanism began to develop, should even be extended to non-Christians. We were uncertain whether anything similar had happened in the histories of Islamic countries.
“Christian” Europe therefore developed a separation between religion and politics. Jesus said “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”. But what did he mean by that? [Frederick William I the King of Prussia 1713 to 40 said “One must serve the King with life and limb…. and surrender everything except salvation. The latter is reserved for God. But everything else must be mine.” The consequences of that view can be clearly seen in modern European history].
Islam has never separated religion and politics in that way- though alongside its original distinction between Islamic countries (dar-al-islam) and countries where Muslims are in conflict with the State (dar-al-harb) there has also developed a concept of countries where Muslims, as a minority, are free to practice their faith in peace (dar-al-sulh) and should therefore respect their “host” country.
In modern times there is a range of opinion in the Islamic community about how to respond to European modernisation, “enlightenment”, secularisation, missionary expansion, colonialism and capitalism (with its support of authoritarian rulers who may be nominally Muslim but are seen as primarily serving Western interests). Some say that elements of modernity are compatible with Islam and should be welcomed, while others resist strongly, insisting that Islam “is already enlightened”. Part of this second reaction is “Salafism”, which believes in following strictly the early definitions of the Qu’ran and the followers of Mohammed, rejects later developments, and holds that a just and peaceful world will only be achieved when everywhere is brought under the Law of God (Sharia).
Conflict arises when people of different faiths claim specific territories as under the control of their own faith- whether of Islam, Zionist Judaism or Christianity. Even though faith itself cannot be imposed, some believe that a faith-based society should be. This contrasts with the “modern” commitment to secularisation, that is the belief that the State should respect all faiths and seek to involve them all in the creation of a just and plural society (distinct from “secularism”, which says that religion must be confined to people’s private lives and should play no part in public life or politics).