It is not a good time to be a Muslim in the Western world. Since 2001, the ‘war on terror’ has provided a narrative in terms of which anti-Muslim hatred can be justified. The racism and scapegoating that was one response to the 2008 financial crisis has made things worse, and the tragic situation of Syrian refugees has provided another opportunity for the intensification of hatred. Across Europe fascist movements have tapped in to this current. Within Britain these have taken the form of groups like the English Defence League and Britain First, along with – more recently – the German import Pegida.
Disturbingly, some Catholics are not innocent here. Talk of ‘Christian Europe’ and vague noise about ‘European culture’ is quite commonly thrown around in Catholic circles on the European continent. Apart from being a stunningly ignorant description of a religious tradition that, even in its Latin form, draws heavily on the African Augustine and the Islamic transmission of Aristotle to Aquinas, this is singularly unhelpful in a context where Europe is increasingly defined against an Islamic ‘other’, which its ruling authorities would seemingly prefer to see dead on its beaches than living in its cities. Altogether more pernicious, however, is Catholic flirtation with explicit Islamophobia. A number of examples spring to mind: I’ve seen inacurrate and offensive ‘translations’ of historic texts in Catholic bookshops which talk of ‘Moslems’ or ‘Mohammedans’. Following a trend from the more decerebate end of evangelical Protestantism, some have wondered whether Allah is the same as God – a question that is silly in the sense of being nonsense, rather than that of being a daft question*. Worse still one Catholic blogger – to whom I refuse to link, but who has a significant following – has more than once expressed support for Pegida.
I suppose I’m writing about this to draw it to peoples’ attention to the phenomenon. It’s imperative that we check it, for human, let alone Catholic, reasons.
It’s worth thinking about what’s going on here theologically. One very obvious point to make is that the Church is very clear what it thinks about Islam. Thus Lumen Gentium:
But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Muslims, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind.
Given that the Catholic Islamophobes are generally drawn from the ranks of the ill-described ‘traditionalists’ who will take as virtually new revelation anything a Pope once said about sex, their ability to sit lightly to an ecumenical council on this matter is striking.
More fundamentally, though, I see the issue as this: the whole unfolding story of the books of the Old Testament is the realisation by the people of Israel that there are no gods. The one who called them from slavery to freedom, and with whom they exist in covenant relationship, is not one god amongst many – one more local deity in whose name the pillage of rival cults and the suppression of internal dissent can be justified – but God the creator, a reality more universal, whose face we cannot behold and of whom there is no image, other than ourselves, created in God’s image. The mission of Israel is, then, universal – to be a sign of God to God’s creation. Now, the people forget this frequently: hence all those prophets. But this is the thrust of the story. And it is one the Church has inherited. Hence, properly understood, the Church also has a universal mission – to be a sign and instrument, a sacrament, of something more general and inclusive than its visible remit.
Catholic participation in the US ‘culture wars’, which I see as being at the root of the Islamophobic rot, at least in the English-speaking world was a kind of backwards step in respect of this narrative. The idea of ‘Catholic culture’, as something to be jealously guarded against a frightening modern world grew (there was more than a hint of albigensianism here as well). We had our god, who must be defended at all costs, and whose cult furthered in hostile territory. This is nothing whatsoever to do with the opposition John’s gospel describes between the Word and (what John calls) ‘the world’, nor with the kind of Catholic culture that exists in Britain, born out of a history of oppression (although, in the light of these trends, could be in danger of being appropriated for ‘culture’ of the damaging kind). The reactionary kind of ‘Catholic’ culture is born out of fear, and the message of the gospel is that fear is destroyed by love: “do not be afraid”. We do not need to defend our god, because there are no gods: there is just God who is love, and whose love is all-encompassing, more enveloping than our schemes, our loyalties, and our prejudices.
There are no gods, as our Muslim sisters and brothers would of course agree. They need our support at the moment. We should give it to them.
*Because, we could reasonably ask: the same what? Superman is the same person as Clark Kent. Tiddles is the same cat as the cat that is sitting on the mat. God is the same what as Allah? The error here is to suppose that we use the word ‘God’, or Muslims or Arabic-speaking Christians, use the word ‘Allah’ to pick out a thing of some particular kind (a god perhaps?) But whatever the word picks out (which we cannot know), it cannot be that. The question is, uncharitably, read as idolatrous in supposition, charitably read as a case of what Wittgenstein called ‘language going on holiday’. Of course, Christians, having already engaged in our God-talk, through the doctrine of creation, say that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are God. But by this we do not mean that they are three of a kind. There are not three Gods. And there are no gods.