Thursday 26 August 2021

Do we want to import Afghanistan here?


There are many aspects of Islam that I admire. Theologically I like the strict monotheism of Muslim thought. Allah is one. By contrast Christianity allowed God to be both one and three. Christianity of course is not polytheism, but there is a tension in Christian thought exemplified by Jesus asking “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” which depends on Jesus being both different from God and the same. The incarnation, which involves Jesus being both fully human and fully God stretches thought as does the concept that God can be eternal but live in time, mortal like the rest of us. The radicalism of Christianity is the idea that God can live among us die and rise again.

If I had lived in the Middle Ages, I would have found a more pleasant society in Baghdad or Damascus than I would have found in London. Here was squalor, intolerance and persecution. In the Middle East in those days was often to be found enlightenment, science, medicine and cleanliness. If I as a Christian had migrated to Baghdad, I would have been treated with respect so long as I accepted that I lived in a Muslim society and followed its rules.

Today I can admire that Muslims often have a stronger faith than we do in the West. While we have discarded Christianity as something incompatible with modern science and our desire to live as we please unconstrained by morals or theology, Muslims have kept their love of Allah and faith in the holy texts of Islam.

I am not therefore someone who wholly shares the negativity about Islam which is commonly met here. But this gives rise to a question:

If Islam is so wonderful why do people flee it?

In Afghanistan the Taliban want to introduce a strict form of Islam which punishes those who break Islamic law. The Taliban may have various faults, but among these faults is not devotion to Islam. They wish to be good Muslims who follow Islamic rules to the fullest extent possible. I can think of no Muslim theological principle that the Taliban break. Indeed, everything they do can be justified by something written in the Quran, Hadith and Sunnah. The Taliban are trying to create a fully Islamic society. Like all rulers they no doubt have faults, but there is little doubt that their intentions are to conform as fully as possible to what they interpret as their Islamic duty.

If we survey the Muslim world today, there are some countries that seem to us more preferable than others. I might consider going on holiday to Morocco, Jordan, Malaysia or Indonesia. In the winter I might wonder if a couple of weeks in Qatar might not be pleasant. I would not consider going to Saudi Arabia or Iran. But what I am doing when I am making such choices is to go to those places which are more liberal and avoid those places that are stricter. I can drink alcohol in Morocco, I probably don’t need to wear Islamic clothes, but in Iran or Saudi Arabia I have to follow Islamic rules. But what this means is that liberal Muslim countries are in some respects less Islamic than strict ones.

But surely the ideal of all Muslims is not to be less Muslim, but rather to be as Muslim as possible. The ideal society for a Muslim ought not to be Quatar or Indonesia, but rather Iran or Saudi Arabia. But so too Muslims ought to prefer Afghanistan under the Taliban to Afghanistan under its previous regime, because the previous regime was less Islamic. It permitted things that were contrary to the Islamic laws found in the Quran, Hadith and Sunnah.

But if Afghanistan is now more Islamic than it was previously, why are Muslims fleeing it? Perhaps they don’t wish to be Muslims any longer. But this is not the case. When they arrive in Europe the vast majority of Afghans will continue to be Muslims. Indeed, many will continue to hold beliefs which are almost identical to those in the strictest Muslim countries including Afghanistan.

Large numbers of migrants and asylum seekers coming to places like Britain are from Muslim countries. But what we discover when they have lived here for a while is that they continue to believe almost exactly what the people living in the country, they were fleeing from believe. We discover that they wish to continue to dress as they did previously. They want their families to follow a strict version of Islam. Not only this ideally, they would like everyone else to follow these strict rules too. Thus, they want people in Britain to be punished if they insult Islam or if they show cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. This means that they don’t merely want Islamic rules to apply to themselves, they want them to apply to everyone living here.

What would happen if they had their wish? If Britain were somehow turned into the ideal society for Muslims, then all of the Islamic rules would apply to everyone strictly. But this would turn Britain into Afghanistan, Iran or Saudi Arabia. But there is an obvious contradiction here. If your wish is to turn Britain into Afghanistan, why flee Afghanistan in the first place as it is already obviously your ideal society.

Clearly if migrants wish to take advantage of Britain’s liberalism, standard of living and wish to wear what they please, marry who they please and do as they please, it is understandable that they wish to flee somewhere like Afghanistan. But if the vast majority of Afghans genuinely wished to live like we do in Britain, the Taliban would not have been able to take over so quickly. Or are we to conclude that the whole Muslim world is forcing its inhabitants to be Muslims and to follow the rules of Islam. Would the people of Iran and Saudi Arabia prefer not to follow Islamic rules and only do so because they are scared to be punished? But that cannot be because surely Muslim faith is underpinned by piety rather than dread. This indeed is our experience where Muslims continue to follow their faith in Britain when they have the choice not to do so. The problem is that while having this choice they would prefer not to have it, and would prefer no one else had it too.

But the difficulty for Britain then is that a significant proportion of Muslims who arrive here from places like Afghanistan don’t merely wish freedom of religion for themselves because they continue to admire the strictest form of Islam from which they have fled and continue to wish it to become the dominant faith of Britain forcing us to live as they do. They wish therefore to bring Afghanistan with them, even though they preferred not to live there themselves.

But if Afghans no longer wish to live in Afghanistan, it is reasonable that we should not wish to live there either. We must reflect that if enough people who wish to live in a society with a strict form of Islam succeed in arriving here, then they will also succeed in recreating the society they fled from. But in that case where do we flee?