Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Religion in the Service of the State: Schools of "Soft Islam" in Britain

I have suggested that one of the more interesting aspects of one of the current series of wars, first in Europe (Bosnia Herzegovina and then Kosovo), Afghanistan and then in the Middle East (Lebanon but principally Iraq after 2003) has been the contest between religion and the state for supremacy in the crafting of political culture. Indeed, the early twentieth century has seen the renewal of a conversation about the order of hierarchy of religious and political orders in the West in a style to which the West had been unaccustomed since the seventeenth century. That this conversation is now aided by force of arms--as well as the deployment of virtually all of the mechanics of cultural production--should come as no surprise. The stakes are quite high. In a sense, these wars are waged for the "soul" of religion (in these cases of "Islam") or of the "state."

The combatants on the Islamist side are well known through a certain sort of reportage in the American press. The religio-political discourses of Osama bin Laden and his allies are widely available in the West. For a popularizing version, consider for example, Ruel Marc Gerecht, The Gospel According to Osama Bin Laden, The Atlantic Monthly, Jan. 2002 and Janet Levy, Al-Qaeda Reader: The Writings of Osama bin Laden and Aiman al-Zahawari Show the True Face of Islam, Free Republic, July 17, 2007. More respectable alternatives, for example in the form of Saudi style Islam have been widely disseminated through a generation long project of establishing schools and sending teachers throughout the globe where Muslims are available for instruction. These movements, of course, are the tip of the iceberg of a long and rich conversation within Islam, one that is far from over. For an interesting Turkish secularist perspective, see Orhan Tarhan, The Root of Terrrorism, Voice of Ataturk.

But the West has also been trying to shape the character of Islam, even as Islam attempts to shape the character of the political-cultural state. And it has done so, not for the sake of Islam, necessarily, but for the sake of its own constitution as political sates at the top of a hierarchy of legitimate authority. It is for that purpose that the West has become, clumsily enough to be sure, to attempt the construction of a "soft" Islam which can be exported, Saudi religious foundation style, among Muslim communities globally. Larry Catá Backer, Of Political States and "Soft" Religion As the Basis for State Organization, Law at the End of the Day, July 17, 2007. It comes as no surprise to read, then, of the latest efforts to bend Islam to the needs of Western states in the United Kingdom. Jane Perlez, New Civics Class Asks, What Would Mohammad Do?, The New York Times International, Aug. 21, 2007 at A3. Special classes, aimed at mosque centered education, have been created as part of
a government-financed effort to teach basic citizenship issues in a special curriculum intended to reach students who might be vulnerable to Islamic extremism. In the long haul, the British government hopes that such civics classes, which use the Koran to answer questions about daily life, will replace the often tedious and sometimes hard-core religious lessons taught in many mosques across the land.

Jane Perlez, New Civics Class, supra. The approach is meant to insinuate itself into religion from the "inside":
Written by a Bradford teacher, Sajid Hussain, 34, who holds a degree from Oxford, the new curriculum is being taught in some religious classes here in a city that is increasingly segregated between South Asians and whites. The pilot effort in Bradford has the backing and the financing from the Labor government as part of a hearts-and-minds campaign that it hopes will eventually spread to other cities and help better integrate the country’s mainstream Muslims into British culture.
Jane Perlez, New Civics Class, supra. The government, quite consciously, has found a group within the Muslim community of Britain whose understanding of that religion the state will choose to subsidize. "One of the virtues of the curriculum in Bradford in applying Mr. Brown’s vision, according to his aides, is that it is taught by forward-leaning imams and is based on matching messages from the Koran to everyday life in Britain." Jane Perlez, New Civics Class, supra.

And from the state's perspective, rightly so. Religion, it has been understood in the West since the end of the endemic wars among Christians, is permitted a certain autonomy, as long as its values roughly coincide with that of the political community and as long as its methods do not overtly threaten the assertion of state power by individuals holding positions within the political apparatus of the state. This understanding, in its most crass form, is still alive and well in places like the People's Republic of China, which, like certain political leaders of the late medieval period in Europe, retains the power to appoint (or approve) the religious leaders assigned within its territory. Vatican Objects to Chinese Bishop, BBC News Online, April 29, 2006. But institutionalized religion has again sought to invert the modern European formulation of hierarchy. And the West has tended to defer. But having deferred, it has sought to capture. Thus the government's facilitation of an "appropriate" British Islam, to combat both alternative religious visions (also seeking legitimacy and adherence within the communities of the faithful) and those subsidized by other states.

For those who view the spheres of political and religious community as substantially separated, and autonomous within their own spheres, this development might be disturbing. In an inverted sort of way, it represented a return to the old conflation between state and "church" that caused so much discomfort in pre democratic ages. But religion has sought to involve itself more and more in political dialog--in both the East and the West. And so it makes perfect sense for the state to seek to intervene in religion. And religion will find it hard to have it both ways--protected from state interference and protected in its intrusion in political life. For some, in both the West and the East, this state of affairs represents a return to the "normal." But the West ought to remember, in its cultural "bones" the consequences of imperial involvement in religious affairs on individual conscience, a value still widely regarded within many political communities.

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