Caveat: this is intended to stimulate discussion. I’m not an expert on Islam by any means; feel free to offer corrections.
NB: in this piece I use ‘universalism’ as shorthand for a religion’s claims to universal truth, validity, applicability, etc. I do not mean soteriological universalism.
Longstanding members of the Oriel Theology community will be aware of Tara Isabella Burton’s hugely successful apologia for academic Theology as a liberal arts discipline; we have also recently heard Ed and Ed’s respective arguments regarding the relationship between the study of Theology and various kinds of good for human being. A third consideration is the relationship between Theology (or, more accurately, particular theologies) and current affairs both domestic and foreign.
One of today’s major policy challenges for those responsible for our government is undoubtedly to be found in the apparent threat of radical Islam. You don’t need me to list the various cultural, political and literal battlefields on which radical Islam is a major (and often hostile) force. The UK government, and those like it elsewhere in the West, offers cobbled-together responses to various Islamist threats (perceived or otherwise), which can be criticised for shortsightedness both with regard to threatening civil liberties and the dehumanisation of Muslim minorities in the UK, and to various laws of unintended consequences in foreign policy.
The (largely) secular and (largely) liberal ruling classes of the UK, and no doubt elsewhere, are theologically illiterate. Religion and theological belief are seen as matters of private, personal conviction. Mr Cameron, who describes his own Christian faith as fading in and out “like Magic FM in the Chilterns”, belongs to a particularly pragmatic kind of economic and social (neo-)liberalism. It is easy to imagine (though I am not privy to the details of his personal history) that before winning the leadership of the then Opposition he had little need to consider, and still less direct experience of, those whose politics are not only grounded in but actively directed by their faith and theological convictions.
It is, of course, easy to overstate this. Britain has had religiously and theologically inclined leaders in recent memory. Blair and Brown, for all their differences, were united in being motivated by the embers of an historic Labour Party Christian Socialism; a look at their cabinets reveals significant political players of similar and stronger convictions. Despite Alastair Campbell’s denials, New Labour definitely did ‘do God’.
Yet the secularisation of British politics and the British political classes appears to have continued apace since 1997; witness the recent agonising spectacle of Tim Farron’s repeated media roastings on the relationship between his evangelicalism and liberalism vis-a-vis the legal recognition of homosexual relationships. Our rulers seem vaguely aware of a stronger kind of theologically-charged politics, usually overseas and usually Muslim. It is engaged with politically, but not, and crucially, theologically. The end result is vaguely akin to the polemics of Dawkins-style evangelical atheism: denunciation of the other’s beliefs without engaging with the premises and processes which motivate and justify those beliefs.
In this piece I will argue that the British élites (and by implication, for better or for worse, Oxbridge…) must be theologically literate so as to engage with hostile forms of radical Islam at home and abroad. But I also want to point to similar theological tendencies in orthodox Christianity. I do so (a) because singling out radical Islam can so often be grounded, consciously or unconsciously, in various kinds of post-colonial racism; (b) because understanding Christianity’s radical political claims renders Islamist claims more intelligible to those of us from a Christian background; and (c) because the relative growth of the Church’s evangelical wing within British Christianity, and the growth of Christianity in countries like China, renders it more likely that the twenty-first century will see the resurgence of popular political theology in both domestic and foreign Christianities.
The universalist claims of Islam – ‘extremist’ and otherwise.
Pictures such as the one just above have become emblematic of the ideological gap between mainstream Western politics and the theologically-grounded politics of radical Islamist minority groups. The posters held by demonstrators display slogans offering radical interpretations – “Shariah the true solution”, “Islam will dominate the world” – of claims to universal validity inherent in Islam.
The West is slowly familiarising itself with the basic contours of some of these universalist claims. The ideas of a universally applicable shariah, of a global community of Muslims (ummah), and of worldwide Islamic political system headed by a single Successor of the Muhammad (khalifah) have become part of our regular discourse. Lamentably, this has too often happened as a result of the activities and propaganda of groups like ISIS. Edwin has already shared helpful thoughts regarding the relationship between such groups and religion per se.
Popular and mass-media responses to this phenomenon have tended to fall into two categories. Some, rightly judging violent Islamism to be beyond the pale, divorce its extremist ideology from the legitimate sources of Muslim doctrine, and in so doing pretend that there is nothing Islamic about radical Islam. Others, perhaps also fuelled by less-than-pure or less-than-objective motives, consign Islam itself to pariah status, portraying virtually all Muslims as routinely hostile and habitually irrational. One might playfully suggest that here the Western world needs to recover the concept of heresy. More seriously, I actually suggest that we need to engage with the theological premises underpinning Islamic universalism. Failure to do so is a double mistake. It prevents properly theological criticism of inherently theological movements. It also prevents recognition of theological features of ordinary Muslim belief which are neither ‘extremist’ nor dangerous, and which have Christian counterparts.
Both ‘extremist’ and ‘moderate’ universalist theologies are built upon the same basic truth-claims of mainstream Islam, e.g. that Muhammad is the greatest and final prophet, that the Quran supersedes all previous revelations, that orthodox Judaism and Christianity are based upon corruptions of earlier, purer monotheistic revelation. Belief in the ultimate superiority of Muhammad’s supposed revelation, and of the theological, socio-political, and jurisprudential systems built upon it, is the basis of all different kinds of Islamic univeralist theology. Both moderate Muslims who hope for the peaceful conversion of non-Muslims and those set on violent jihad operate from the same premises. Only when the West is conversant in these relevant Islamic theological premises will we able properly to argue against radical Islamism’s particularly noxious brand of theological world-shaping politics.
Yet, as I intimated above, it is helpful to consider similar pretensions to world domination within Christianity. Indeed, they are often directly related. One of the Quran’s explicit predictions of Muslim world domination, found in Surah 21 ‘The Prophets’, foretells that “The righteous among my servants shall inherit the earth.” This is actually a direct quote from Judeo-Christian scripture, Psalm 37.29.
If all this talk of Islamic supersessionism, theological supremacy and world-conquering rhetoric sounds bizarre and foreign to you – well, it shouldn’t. Its fundamental bases are very similar to orthodox Christianity’s own claims to world domination. Before we look at some of the relevant theology, look at the picture above. One day in 1953, our Sovereign Lady, the woman whom our coinage tells us reigns over the United Kingdom Dei gratia, the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, was handed this object as a symbol of the context, the worldview, in which she holds power. The orb symbolises the world, dominated by the Cross of Christ. Its message is utterly triumphalistic: present and eschatological Christian supremacy. The slogans are implicit: “Christianity the true solution”, “Christianity will dominate the world.”
Several basic theological tenets inherent to any remotely orthodox Christianity tend towards world domination: the conviction that Jesus is King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Rev. 19.16); the command to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28.19); the belief that before the end of time all creation shall bend the knee and confess Jesus as Lord (Philippians 2.9-11). Basic orthodox Christianity entails a political theology which calls for – though which perhaps need not enforce – a society in line with the teaching of the Gospels. Christianity assumes that it is the vocation of each and every human creature, and therefore of each and every nation or society, to live under the yoke of Christ. This is a submission parallel to that demanded by orthodox Islam (in Arabic, lit. ‘submission’). We’ve forgotten this to the extent that we’re surprised when we see an English translation which properly renders Paul’s Paulos doulos Christos Iesou (Rom. 1.1) as “Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus”.
At this point, we should recognise that these claims, while extreme and all-encompassing, do not amount to a call to violent conquest or the implementation of a Christian world-government. Nobody seriously thinks that the Queen, by all accounts a devout low-Church Anglican, harbours secret fantasies of subjugating non-Christians. What our government would regard as violent extremism is manifestly not inherent in political theologies which tend towards, aspire to, or assume the inevitability of world domination.
Whither world domination?
One of the major challenges facing those opposed to radical Islam – including both orthodox Muslims and non-Muslims – is to articulate a theological framework in which inherent claims to religious world domination are balanced against inviolable and inalienable human rights. Classical Islam possessed such balancing acts – the Pact of Umar is perhaps the best known – but they are unsuited for the modern era, clearly relegating Jews and Christians to an intolerably inferior status, while offering no such space for other groups. The major theological issue for modern orthodox Islam is not therefore the question of world domination. As with Christianity, this is a given, and need not be harmful to others. Rather, our focus ought to be on the other side of the equation. A theological account of human rights is needed to persuade our enemies to abandon violent extremism, and to dim its lustre in the eyes of potential defectors to groups like ISIS. In the wake of the Second World War the Roman Catholic Church developed and popularised such theologies, particularly with respect to non-Christian religions, in Nostra Aetate. Our theological, if not ideological, allies in the world of orthodox Islam must be those who have made, are making, or can make similar moves. In Christian-Muslim dialogue, and in foreign and domestic policy, this is not a corner which we can cut.