29 October, 2018
As a student and researcher of religious studies, I’ve met and known a number of converts to different religions. So while I’ve become quite accustomed to hearing adherents of the Western “alt-right” (read, crypto-fascists) describe converts to Islam as traitors, I generally dismiss such insecure drivel as anti-intellectual nonsense. But if there is one thing Christian theologian John Milbank is hardly known for, it’s anti-intellectualism. And yet when the artist formerly known Sinead O’Connor ― now Shuhada’ Davitt ― made public her conversion to Islam, she was described by Milbank as a “civilisational traitress”
That kind of description represents but another expression of “clash of civilisations” rhetoric, posing as fraudulent wisdom. Which makes it, frankly, just one more dip into the foetid pool of anti-Muslim bigotry. And that bigotry has consequences, far beyond the abstract and into the real world of violence against vulnerable people in our midst.
Converts can sometimes be very public about their new-found faith. Others prefer to remain private. Over the years, I’ve known both kinds of converts to Islam. Take Timothy Winter(simultaneously known as Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad), the Shaykh Zayed Lecturer in Islamic Studies at Cambridge University and Dean of the Cambridge Muslim College ― he is a quintessential Englishman, who comes out of a non-conformist Christian tradition. And then there is someone like Cat Stevens, who became Yusuf Islam. I’ve known others, however, in Western academia who have chosen to keep their Islamic faith secret, presumably because of the penalty it would carry if public. Others, including in my own family, are quite demure and private about their religious commitment ― perhaps, in a way, they are simply exhibiting a very English, reserved sense of their relationship with God.
But these are all Westerners, and they never considered their conversion to be an act of “cultural apostasy,” as Sherman Jackson puts it. On the contrary, they saw their conversion to be a moral decision that could lead to the flowering of Western culture, not its destruction.
It seems that the likes of John Milbank and Roger Scruton, both Christian philosophers in a tradition rather suspicious of modernity, disagree. Milbank, upon learning of Sinead O’Connor’s conversion, denounced her in the following fashion:
Sinead O’Connor’s conversion suggest that Houillebecq has it right. Liberals will embrace an authoritarianism to escape their own contradictions if it is respectably other and non-Western. She is a civilisational traitress. And has no taste.
— john milbank (@johnmilbank3) October 26, 2018
This is a rather insidious choice of words to describe her conversion. And while I find the sentiment appalling, it is nonetheless unsurprising. Milbank is a noted theologian in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, and a strident critic of modernity. He appears to regard Islam within the West, and outside of it, as posing an existential threat to the recovery of a renewed European Christendom. And so, it is little wonder that he would regard conversion to Islam on the part of someone he regards as a Westerner to be anything less than an act of treason. Never mind that there isn’t the slightest evidence that O’Connor’s conversion had anything to do with the allure of radical extremism. On the contrary, her official conversion took place at the hands of an imam known for a great deal of interfaith work, both in Ireland and more widely in Europe. For Milbank, it seems, the very act of embracing Islam ― in any form ― is antithetical to belonging to Western civilisation.
(But to reiterate, none of this is in the abstract. We are continually reminded that we live in a time when rhetoric matters a great deal. The rise of anti-Muslim bigotry has had violent repercussions upon the lives of Muslim Westerners and their places of worship. Likewise, the mainstreaming of anti-Semitic sentiment cannot be decoupled from the violence that is visited upon Jewish communities, not least the veritable pogrom that recently took place in a Pittsburgh synagogue. On the contrary, all too often we see how pseudo-intellectual critiques of modernity are used and co-opted by bigots to make their bigotry appear somehow informed. That should never be given any quarter.)
The irony, of course, is that not only is Milbank’s an ahistorical position to hold, it is also ultimately self-defeating. Western civilisation is impossible to discuss without reference to Islam. Scores of historians testify to the multiple influences of Islam, from beyond the West, on the development of Western civilisation and culture. But history also shows that influence was exerted on Western culture from within, at the hands of Western Muslims.
This is not only evident in England: just consider Sicily under King Philip; or Muslim civilisation in Spain and Portugal; or Poland and Lithuania, with the integral experience of Tatars. Preeminent legal historians George and John Makdisi have published extensively on the links between Western legal theory and Islamic law. Columbia University historian Richard Bulliet has written widely on the links between Islam and Western civilisation, going as far to argue, persuasively, that Western civilisation ought to be considered as “Judeo-Christian-Islamic,” rather than simply “Judeo-Christian.” The development of the university as an institution is intrinsically related to the pre-modern madrasa system of the Muslims, as are the concepts of the degree and the ijaza of Islam. There is already a significant body of academic literature detailing the Muslim contribution to the West, in fields including science, medicine and philosophy. Whereas in 1918, academics in the West might have been permitted to propound certain views of Islam to promote the Western colonial project, this simply isn’t tenable in 2018.
To deny the contribution of Islam and Muslims to the growth and development of the West, from within the West, is thus to deny a considerable portion of the West’s own identity. This, of course, is what fascism does: in order to use the levers of the modern state to transform society, it reifies and essentialises the identity of “the West” in such a way that excludes or slices away the parts of that identity that prove too uncomfortable to its self-understanding. To try to imagine Western culture, legal systems or philosophy without Muslims is to engage in a breath-taking form of historical revisionism. Thankfully, neither Milbank nor Scruton are interested in using the modern state’s levers of power in this fashion ― but who is to say that they are not the exception that proves the rule? After all, many in the past have justified the most egregious exceptions in “times of emergency” ― are we to wait much longer before others in the future take up Milbank’s or Scruton’s anxieties to justify using the nation-state’s own coercive processes vis-à-vis Muslims in the most appalling fashions?
It is not hard to see the point of airbrushing Islam from the history of the West: to delegitimise Muslims and deny that they have any belonging in the West. But again, for someone who is highly critical of modernity, this is an astonishing sleight of hand on the part of Milbank. Paradoxically, it is also immensely self-defeating. As a student of philosophy myself, I share many of Milbank’s concerns with secularist modernity. I likewise note with some sympathy Roger Scruton’s apprehensions of the way the modern world denies value and demeans virtue. But then these anxieties, which could constitute common ground or the basis for a healthier type of modernity, are immediately grafted onto a pernicious kind of anti-Muslim bigotry. That kind of marriage is one that I, in good conscience, could never advocate ― neither as a scholar (it represents a type of historical amnesia that is immensely dishonest, and, I would argue, is used to hide bigotry behind an intellectual façade), nor as a Westerner (I reject any such attempt to chastise those who refuse this bigoted imaginary, because the undercurrent of anti-Muslim bigotry places the ethical fibre of our societies in further jeopardy, and invites us to sacrifice ourselves on the altar of “civilisational defence”).
It is thus distressing to hear Roger Scruton insist, in no uncertain terms, that because secularisation represents “something which will be fundamentally disorientating” to so many, it cannot be sustained and hence must “eventually give way to another religious experience, maybe Islamisation” ― which, he says “would be a disaster.”
Isn’t it ironic, then, that some of the very most insightful work into the pitfalls of modernity, notwithstanding certain flaws, has been done by European philosophers who embraced Islam. They saw in Islam a way to renew Western civilisation by reminding it of its own perennial wisdom. Even Prince Charles echoes this sentiment, when he declared:
Islam can teach us today a way of understanding and living in the world which Christianity itself is the poorer for having lost … A comprehensive philosophy of nature is no longer part of our everyday beliefs. I cannot help feeling that, if we could now only rediscover that earlier, all-embracing approach to the world around us, to see and understand its deeper meaning, we could begin to get away from the increasing tendency in the West to live on the surface of our surroundings, where we study our world in order to manipulate and dominate it, turning harmony and beauty into disequilibrium and chaos … This crucial sense of oneness and trusteeship of the vital sacramental and spiritual character of the world about us is surely something important we can re-learn from Islam.
How alien these words must sound to philosophers and theologians like Milbank and Scruton. But one need not agree with Prince Charles, nor what I argue here. That is not the point: intellectuals have different views, and that is part of what makes the intellectual life of great worth. To debate, even rigorously, from alternative or seemingly incommensurable viewpoints can be profoundly rewarding. But as we engage in such debates, let us be keenly aware of how we engage in them ― because these debates are not taking place in a vacuum, or in the sometimes sterile conditions of the academy. No, they occur against a backdrop of intense anti-Muslim bigotry throughout the West. It is a bigotry that ofttimes leads to outbursts of hatred and violence, and it is ripe for exploitation by political opportunists like Donald Trump or Viktor Orbán.
As a committed Englishman ― and, dare I say it, a European, and a Westerner ― I would just as soon remember our history and recall how such rhetoric against minority populations led us down the path of civilisational devastation. I wouldn’t describe the purveyors of this kind of hate as the “true” civilisational traitors, because that would be to generalise in yet another direction. But without question, they would deprive us of the very openness toward “the Other” we desperately need in order to truly understand ourselves. Because “the Other” is very often not at all “other” at all ― it is Us.
Dr H.A. Hellyer is senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute, and a visiting professor at the Centre for Advanced Studies on Islam, Science and Civilisation in Kuala Lumpur. He is the editor of The Islamic Tradition and the Human Rights Discourse, and the author of Muslims of Europe: The “Other” Europeans, A Revolution Undone: Egypt’s Road Beyond Revolt and the forthcoming A Sublime Way: The Sufi Path of the Makkan Sages.