Islam: What Conservatives Get Wrong and Why They Need to Get it Right
‘Islamophobic’, an unfortunately vague pejorative, is one of the many slurs pitted against the Tory party by its detractors. The recent controversy caused by Boris Johnson’s burqa comments has focused the public eye on this, and only a month earlier, Baroness Warsi called The Conservative party’s treatment of internal Islamophobia ‘woefully inept’. While the debate can be had over this claim, what is clear is that there seems to be a distinct antagonism between Conservatives and their Muslim neighbours, in Britain today.
Our society rightfully allows the space to criticise any belief system, and the right to earnest critique of Islam should be protected in the name of freedom and democratic pursuit. Conservatives often view the political left that calling them Islamophobic, as being too scared of offending Muslims to acknowledge the obvious problems with some of their beliefs. There is truth to this. Liberals might accuse conservatives of perpetuating a culture of victim-blaming on many issues but are happy to engage it in themselves in their uncompromising denunciation of ex-Muslims like Hirsi Ali and Sarah Haid (Both prominent women’s rights advocates and vocal critics of Islam).
We should all be able to criticize Islam when it is a belief system that is used to justify oppression of women and religious violence. We must however remember that when we talk about Islam we are never talking about one thing. No religion is monolithic. While core beliefs and texts may be the same, interpretations and emphases can vary drastically. The case I want to make here is that British Conservatives have been listening to the wrong Muslim voices, and that if they were to listen to the right ones, they would not only be less antagonized, but would find things to love and respect.
When asked what conservatism is, political philosopher Roger Scruton often replies along the line of: someone who looks at the world and sees great goods that he wants to preserve; that the social order, political systems and institutions that mediate our relationships with one another are pieces of wisdom, if not open at times, to corruption. It seems to me that in the minds of most Conservatives, Islam is little more than an increasingly encroaching culture whose inheritance conflicts with that of the West. In fact, this is not just a modern phenomenon, but follows from a historical narrative of Western society being defined in opposition to an Eastern other. While today it may take the form of Western freedom and rationalism vs an Islamic totalitarianism and fundamentalism, it has not always been so. Aquinas for example saw Islam as a move towards carnal indulgence, as opposed to the holy restraint of Christianity, and Hagel saw the West as power and energy as opposed to Islam’s ‘oriental ease and repose’. Obviously neither of these interpretations would be found in the Spectator.
Conservatives who are concerned primarily with protecting their traditional identity, are thus drawn to focus primarily on the voices in Islam that emphasise the basic differences between Islamic and Western society in the most graphic way. They make for the biggest headlines, the best sound bites and the most impactful flashpoints. However, it is undeniable that Conservatives are often the first to point out the problems with certain Islamic beliefs as soon as the opportunity presents itself; for example, in their condemnation of the practice of Sharia Law in Britain or of communities or individuals who flatly refuse to make an integrative effort. These concerns are by no means unjustified or wrong, I am simply pointing out that it is mostly Conservatives who take issue with these perceived intrusions into British society; that it is unsurprising that they do so. While it is not often that blanket statements are made about Jihadists representing the whole of Islam, Muslims tend to be seen as being at their best when they give in to Western values and push their religion from their social outlook. If they can integrate into our society and not make too much noise, they can be accepted. However, I’d argue that as long as Conservatives see Muslims like this, they are missing out on an important ally. Islam has great potential to be a positive force in the consolidation of secular conservatism.
While the age-old tension between Islamic fundamentalists and those who want to preserve the fundamentals of Western society wages on, a far more important culture war is at hand; one in which Conservatives and Muslims are very much on the same side. The bigger problem that our society faces at this moment is the full-scale dismantling of all the things that gave life meaning, and their replacement with a worldview centred around power relations. Why has Jordan Peterson’s war against ‘postmodernism’ captured the imaginations of so many? People have the sense that all the meaning which used to enrich people’s lives, in the form of a religious world view, in the institutions of marriage and hierarchy, was a good that we have thrown out in the name of progress. Although there are obviously problems with these institutions as they were, a cultural mode has taken over that refuses to see the baby in the bathwater. More than a debate over how exactly our institutions should be conserved, we are faced with an attitude that sees no value in them at all; what Scruton terms ‘the purely negative approach to the status quo’.
Yet there are Muslim voices highlighting this exact issue. One such Scholar is Abdal Hakim Murad, the Dean of the Cambridge Muslim College. A Western convert, he was not only educated at Westminster School and Cambridge, but at Al Azhar University Cairo, and has sat at the feet of many scholars throughout the Muslim world. Unlike many Muslim speakers who either spend their time zealously condemning all who would oppose ‘God’s religion’ or defending the image of Islam as being corrupted by ISIS, Murad focuses on the meaninglessness of Modern society and how Islam should be a force against this. In his lecture entitled ‘Riding the Tiger of Modernity’ (after the work by Julias Evola), he describes how there is a genuine anxiety over ‘what and who we become when all of the traditional constituents of our identity; monarchy, district, pilgrimage, the sacred, priesthood, going to church, everything has been taken away’. In fact, he has called for an ‘alliance of conservative believers’, seeing that though there may be differences over doctrine, Muslims and other conservatives share an opposition to some more liberal stances. He often refers to scholars like Evola and Rene Guenon, of the ‘Traditionalist School’, who have advocated for the universal wisdom of the worlds traditional societies. Especially in the wake of the Peterson phenomenon, I think this appeal to the wisdom of ancient worldviews is something many conservatives can really get behind.
But who am I to make this argument? If my observations are not enough to convince, perhaps Sir Roger Scruton’s will be. Though the philosopher has often spoken critically of Islam and its antagonism with Western society, in June, he took the time to sit down with a prominent Western Muslim academic, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf. In this fascinating conversation, Yusuf pointed out that Islam is fundamentally in alignment with Scruton’s understanding of conservatism. It is based on the idea that what has been inherited is essentially good, even if it may have degraded. Scruton’s reply effectively summarises this whole piece: ‘You’re someone who has found in Islam, something which gives you the foundation you need to confront this gradual degeneration of things all around - I respect that. If one can find that foundation, one can start building again’. Briton’s most eminent conservative philosopher evidently sees the values espoused by himself and Hamza Yusuf as being on the same side of a battle.
Similarity however does not only exist on an abstract, fundamental level. It seems to me that when this basic alliance between Islam and European conservatism is emphasised, more and more specific parallels tend to show themselves. More than just comparable family values and a shared Abrahamic heritage, agreements exist in perhaps more unanticipated places. Scruton and Yusuf found that their respective traditions both had a reverence for cultural features that have seen decline. Proper use of language and grammar is something that has been obsessed over in Islamic civilisation, and Scruton was quick to describe its importance as part of England’s inheritance. Yusuf also found truck with Scruton’s love of customary manners and how they guide person-to-person relationships; seeing in this a parallel with the Arabic concept of Adab. Although Scruton has often voiced criticism of the Islamic legal system, he respected the Muslim desire to find legal solutions to social ills rather than the ‘bullying solutions’ that he often sees on the left.
While a conservative reader might agree so far, he or she might still have in mind the issues with Islam that are so often pointed out. What about all the oppressive Islamic practices, what about women’s rights? What about freedom of speech? It is worth considering then that scholars like Murad and Yusuf are keen to highlight many places where a more traditional Islamic viewpoint can be ostensibly more tolerant than what we find today. Murad points out that in the Ummayad caliphate, Christians were permitted to criticise the prophet if that was what their faith called for. St John of Damascus was appointed minister of finance despite also being a spurious polemicist writer. When it comes to gender issues, although both endorse the Hijab as part of the religion and not just a cultural item, they also call for it never to be something which is enforced. It is only valid if it comes from an individual’s own expression. I am not trying to say that there are no differences, there are; my suggestion is not for all European conservatives to take the Shahadah. What I do believe is that the faults and differences that might be found in Islam as a religion, should not be enough for Conservatives to reject an allegiance.
It seems to me that Conservatives are missing a trick when it comes to Islam. In figures such as Murad and Yusuf, I think there is a huge amount for Conservatives to admire. Not only do they share a love for tradition, but they are extremely erudite speakers. At the colleges that they’ve founded, you will come across lectures that are as willing to quote from Hemingway and Jung as they are from Al Ghazali. In the current culture war that rages, Conservatives must stop seeing Islam as a threat, but instead recognize that in many ways, it shares concerns over what is most pressing. When Muslim voices that are most contrarian are picked as targets, these voices become louder. By engaging with the real Muslim intellectuals of the West, European Conservatives may not only help to change people’s perceptions of Islam, but perhaps find in it an invaluable friend.