I have been away from this space emotionally unable even to peer into it for three weeks. My father, aged 90, went into hospital in England, and died there. In between a wonderful week at my fathers side, in which he and I were able to say goodbye, and my return to England with my wife and son for his funeral, we spent the American holiday of Thanksgiving with my wifes parents in Florida: her mother has a severe neurological illness. Now we are back in our home and jobs in New York State. What can I say? This story marks us as privileged people able to afford plane tickets and our parents as among the worlds fortunate, in the sense that they have had long healthy lives, and good medical care. But death is no less a mystery to us.
My father was confused as to time and place, but he knew his friends, his family, and his God. And he was ready to die. He had no visible doubt that he would be going to a better place to rejoin my mother, whom he had loved with tender, vigorous, and sometimes argumentative delight for over fifty years. He saw the positive wherever possible, though he also worked incessantly to make it happen. He was a man who stood with his face to the sunshine.
In his memoir, The Hour of the Helicopter, he wrote of the time at university when he lost his faith: At politest I was an agnostic. In practice I was an atheist, and like all atheists I was locked up, I thought for ever, in the prison cell of my own nature, my own heredity, my own manifest shortcomings. It looked like a life sentence. He knew I called myself an agnostic, and loving me right well, he was concerned that for the agnostic, life and the cosmos were meaningless, random; worse still, the agnostic could never find the divine lift (as in the helicopter image) that would enable them to change their life. His was the movement out of which Alcoholics Anonymous grew, and you can see the same practicality, and the same single solution. For AA traditionalists it is the Higher Power alone that can lift you out of alcoholism, which you are otherwise powerless to escape.
So I come back to openDemocracy and am delighted to see the letters posted in the Discussion area responding to my columns, and to Omair Ahmads article. Delighted, because so wide a span of religious and agnostic response is covered in these few letters, from people with whom I have never corresponded before.
Omair Ahmad perhaps has something in common with my father when he writes that secularism is only a form of disaffection and disengagement. In context, he is arguing that his own people, Muslims, should be engaged with changing their own religion, not abandoning it.
Dane Clouston, on the other hand, eloquently expresses the intellectual difficulties many modern people (whatever their religious origin) have in believing in anything supernatural. He celebrates the cosmos as revealed by science. He emailed me since then to wish that he had entitled his letter Is there more to God than the Universe or a collection of ideas in the minds of human beings?
Many people today dont just have intellectual difficulties with believing in God. They dont see a need to try. Unlike my father, they think the practicalities of life are manageable just fine without Him or Her. Nowadays, there are agnostic versions of AA, after all. Just as Dane Clouston calls God an unnecessary idea, Simon Hudson argues that, it is not necessary to have faith, as defined as sure and certain belief, in anything. For him the feeling of certainty is itself a warning that he may be about to make a wrong decision. This is strikingly far from the common religious view, sometimes echoed by sociologists, that relativism of belief and morality will lead to collapse, anarchy and despair.
It was no accident that we called this section Faith & Ideas. I floated the idea in my first column that all of us, even the non-believers, need faith of some kind. In a separate email, Simon Hudson took exception to that. When I tried to explain to him that the idea of faith I was putting forward was what you need when you do not have certain belief, he said I was talking more of courage. I would not object, except that I still find faith a useful word, maybe because it connects me with my father and traditional religion.
I find it inspiring that so many social reformers, anti-slavery campaigners, hospice-creators, and other servers of the poor and marginal have pursued their work as a result of their religious faith. But, of course, as Dane Clouston implies, many non-believers or unconventional believers have also performed selfless and insistent work, driven by their individual faith. Is there some point of connection among these well-doers, some source of compassion and also of imagination which sees that things could be better, and of commitment to make it happen?
I am not against the secular argument which finds that pure and simple source in human nature: at least in the better aspects of human nature. Arent we all - Muslim, Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Hindu, Pagan, agnostic, atheist - in the same game in some sense, despite our very different beliefs?
Compassionate acts, social changes, and religious reforms are always harder to effect than we think they should be. They often have to be undertaken against the odds and reasonable opinion. Thats another reason why I like the word faith. It suggests something beyond the ordinary (without, for me, implying an intellectual certainty). Thats also why youth is needed, to imagine and start, unburdened by the wisdom that it cant be done. Maybe in the end it cant, but getting halfway can be a lot better than not starting. So I hope Omair Ahmad takes Frank Gellis strictures about youth with a few pinches of salt.
As an Anglican priest, Frank Gelli supports Ahmad in disparaging secularism, which he links with Western self-interest. He dislikes any talk of Islam needing a reformation, not just because the word is an import from Christianity, but because such talk is transparently driven by an arrogant Western desire to domesticate that culture and religion. Like Parimal Desai, Gelli is highly sensitised to any attempt to impose Western culture on other cultures.
This is a deep wisdom, achieved by many sensitive people today. But like any light that is shone, it may cast its own shadows. One appears to be this: if we are hyper reluctant to criticise another culture, we may fail to support the people inside that culture who are themselves criticising its leaders and may even be asking our help. Do we join Londons Observer newspaper in labelling as Islamophobes women like Hirsi Ali who are bravely standing up against patriarchal abuse of women and children in their own communities? When there is evidence of domestic violence, do we stand aside and let fundamentalist Muslim patriarchs take care of their own, rather than sending in the police to protect the women and children concerned, as we would with any other family? This is what I meant by our needing to have the courage to impose universal rights: it involves listening to everyone, not just the cultural leaders. Sensitivity to the unheard and oppressed necessarily brings conflict with the heard and the oppressor. As always the challenge is not to avoid the conflict, but to engage with it non-violently: with free speech, vigorous debate, sensitive enquiry, humility and conflict resolution processes.
If openDemocracy is about anything, it is about hearing each other. I was rather stunned to be, as I saw it, strikingly misheard by Parimal Desai, who saw me as a classic left racist, denying Muslims their humanity, and trying to impose my culture. I suppose it was my use of that word impose that did it. I think Desai was too quick to assume that I was using the term universal rights as a cover for Western culture. The whole point and challenge of the idea of universal rights is that they are universal, with the key point being self-determination. They challenge my Western prejudices as much as anyone elses other prejudices. As Sarah Lindon argues, homophobia, for example, is as deep in the Western, Christian religious tradition as in the Islamic (maybe deeper, but thats another discussion).
I agree with Desai that our understanding of human rights develops, as more people even women, even gays, even children, even enemies are brought into the fold of the human, with the right to self-determination. And yet, what happens when one persons self-definition obliterates anothers, as in the example of domestic violence above? Ultimately, if no conflict resolution works, then either partial or universal rights are imposed.
Frank Gelli thought I was confusing the categories of race and religion. I thought I was confronting that confusion, which seems to exist in our society. I am with him, in wanting to be clear that the two are entirely separate: it is in no way racist to criticise a religion. So it is obviously not white, but nor is it necessarily Western, to criticise the way Islam is being interpreted in any one time or place. The Islamic tradition includes a wide diversity of opinion and approach, from which we can all learn. The Islamic scholars and believers who put together the excellent book Taking Back Islam agree with Gelli that reformation is the wrong word. Instead, for them, it is a matter of taking back their faith from the Islamists who have distorted it. Anyone who wants to support or understand those within Islam in the West who are trying to reclaim their tradition in its full complexity, could do worse than reading this book.