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Radicals and Moderates: Faith, Reason and Islam

In recent years, Muslims in the West have come under increasing pressure to practice “moderate” Islam – i.e. an Islam that embraces the various legacies of the European Enlightenment, which include secularism and a certain kind of rationality. But is a moderate or “reasonable” religion one that sells itself short?


David Rutledge: On RN, it’s time now for this week’s edition of Encounter. Welcome to the program and the second in a three-part series looking at faith and reason. Last week we explored some of the tensions between rational thought and practical faith in Christianity. This week, Islam, where those same tensions are running particularly high these days. We’ll be looking back to a time when the Arabic world was frontrunner in scientific and technological development, and taking stock of the present, where questions around the proper relationships between Islamic faith and intellectual labour and modernity are far from settled. The program’s produced by me, David Rutledge.


When we talk about reason, we tend to think we’re using a culturally neutral term, reason being just one of the functions of the human brain, which is more or less the same no matter where in the world you go. But today we’re asking if reason in the West is, in fact, not so much a product of neurobiology as a product of that set of historical circumstances known as the European Enlightenment. We’ll be hearing that for many Muslims living in the West, reason comes with a certain amount of post-Enlightenment baggage. When we say ‘reason’ we also say ‘modernity’ and when we say ‘modernity’ we also say ‘secularism’.

We hear again and again that from a modern, secular perspective, religion, particularly Islam, is dangerous, because it operates outside of reason. And the response to this claim from many Muslims is that their faith is perfectly reasonable and—to use a very contested term—‘moderate’. Whether that means religion can be comfortably modern is a vexed question, and one that we’ll be exploring in today’s program.

As to the relationship between faith and reason, well, nobody’s got that one straight. But nor should they, according to Mona Siddiqui, who’s professor of Islamic and interreligious studies at the University of Edinburgh.

Mona Siddiqui: I think one of the appeals as to why religion still has such a strong public hold in so many parts of the world—even if it doesn’t have that public hold in many parts of the West—is precisely because we are looking for something that is beyond us. Even if people can demonstrate and choose to demonstrate that there is nothing beyond us, I don’t think that stops the human spirit for being spiritually hungry.

And, for me, the biggest questions of life cannot be necessarily answered by reason. The reasons why we love, the reasons why we have friendships, the reasons why we think certain things are good for us and certain things are bad for us—there’s an element of rationality to it, but actually the best relationships, the best emotions, are beyond reason. So, and I think religion actually fits into that. If you take away the doctrine and the dogma and centuries of intellectual erudition over religious reasoning, actually when it comes down to personal faith there is a human hunger for it.

And I don’t think any amount of debates by the new atheists or any other person who says that religion is a force for something that is anti-human, anti-reason, is actually going to work for most people.

Yassir Morsi: One of the greatest challenges facing a minority is to be able to reorganise the coordinates of the existing debate along lines where we are not continually sites of suspicion. And so we shouldn’t respond to questions that blatantly point the finger and make, on the surface, what is a ludicrous claim that religion is a dangerous element and is somehow causally responsible for the violence and that we see in the background. I think the debate should change somewhat, but, you know, minorities don’t have that luxury of being able to change the coordinates.

David Rutledge: Yassir Morsi is a research associate at the International Centre for Muslim and Non-Muslim Understanding at the University of South Australia.

Yassir Morsi: Beings in the world are not always rational. We are intuitive, we are governed by desire and drives and passions and they are ultimately stitched into the fabric of society. And we’re told… I mean, look at our consumption patterns, the way we consume products, the way we shop—they’re not rational. So it’s only when it’s politicised that it becomes a certain issue, when it’s tied to the social ills of the world.

And it’s often racialised along these Orientalist lines, the idea that there is some part of the world that has triumphed and championed reason and that’s the reason why they’re civilised, another part lags behind. That’s the broader debate.

Uthman Badar: Setting religion against reason is not something peculiar to atheism or new atheism. I think it’s part and parcel of the project of modernity, part and parcel of secularism, because the secular assertion at its essence is that religion, in particular, needs to be relegated to the margins, away from the public domain.

David Rutledge: Uthman Badar is media representative for the group Hizb ut-Tahrir in Australia. Hizb ut-Tahrir is a political organisation that advocates the establishment of a unified transnational Muslim state ruled by Islamic law.

Uthman Badar: So to make such an assertion and to seem reasonable whilst doing it, you need some grounds. You can’t just make an assertion like that. Why should religion be put to the margins? And to sort of substantiate that there is this understanding that religion is irrational, it’s backward, it’s medieval, it’s superstitious—that ‘You guys, you can believe in it if you want, you can go to the church on the weekend, but just keep it away from, you know, the parliament and keep it away from our enlightened public society.’

So, I feel so far the response from people of faith has been very defensive. I think there’s a need to be more assertive, and what I mean by that is to interrogate the claims, to show… not just to say that, you know, ‘We are reasonable’ and to try and prove that God exists, or this or that, but to try and show that what’s been passed off by those in power, by the dominant discourse, as reason is in fact ideological. It’s a hard-core empiricism, it’s a scientism, it’s a materialism.

David Rutledge: It’s interesting you’re making a distinction there between reason and science, or reason and scientism—what do you mean exactly by ‘scientism’?

Uthman Badar: Well, scientism is a belief that science is the sole means of ascertaining truth and ascertaining reality, and that the scientific method is the only method by which you can know truth. And you’ll hear things like saying, ‘Well, God can’t exist. Where is he? I can’t see him. I can’t touch him. I’ve never got any notes from him.’ Because you can’t directly sense-experience, sense-perceive something, therefore it doesn’t exist.

And beyond that there’s various things that everyone accepts—scientists themselves, atheists themselves accept—the existence, for instance, of the consciousness of the mind, which we can’t touch or put under a microscope, but we can see its effects. And that’s why we affirm that it’s there, although there’s a big debate amongst philosophers, amongst scientists about what it is, where it rests, and how it interacts with the material and so forth. But no one denies that it exists.

And so this is the point. That’s what scientism is as opposed to science. We don’t reject science, we accept science. But for us science is part of a broader rational methodology, it’s not the be-all and end-all—and that’s the difference.


David Rutledge: If we go back a few centuries, we come to a time when Western Europe was mired in the Dark Ages and Islamic societies were world leaders in what today we would call science and technology. They were doing things like calculating the volume of water in the River Nile and measuring the size of the earth.

Jim al-Khalili is Professor of Physics and Professor of the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey.

Jim al-Khalili: What we refer to as the golden age of Arabic Science—and by Arabic here we mean the language in which the texts are written rather than the race ‘Arabs’, because, you know, many of these scientists were Persians and other nationals—really refers to a period between, I guess, the early ninth century… the end is rather more obscure, so people talk about the thirteenth, fourteenth, maybe even fifteenth century. But it’s a few hundred years, in which a number of disciplines flourished.

Many of them built on what the Greeks had come up with, so areas like philosophy and geometry and so on. The areas, I think, that were probably most advanced were medicine, mathematics, astronomy and philosophy. And we see sort of the emergence of disciplines like physics and chemistry, which really weren’t something that the Ancient Greeks were good at. The Greeks were good at abstract thinking and philosophical ideas, and the golden age of Arabic science was really all about starting to apply the ideas and come up with something useful. So chemistry was developed because they were interested in coming up with coloured dyes for ceramics and glass and soap. And metallurgy for their weapons and so on. So this is really the birth of what we would regard now as ‘proper science’.

David Rutledge: It’s interesting, because I’ve heard this period referred to as ‘the age of translation’ and there’s an implication there that the Muslim world translated all the great works of the Greeks and then the West came along and picked them up and really ran with it. But you’re saying that there was more going on than that, it was really a time of great innovation, not just translation.

Jim al-Khalili: Yes, I think this sort of a rather outmoded view of what took place. Certainly there was a tremendous translation movement that kicked off the golden age, and without it it wouldn’t have happened. You know, these were sort of scholars hungry for knowledge and they looked around to see what have other people done. And they got hold of the great Greek texts; so, a book on astronomy by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy, a book on geometry by Euclid, called The Elements, which is still essentially the geometry we learn at school around the world today, the work of Aristotle, the medical texts of the Greek physician, Galen.

These texts, some of them had already been translated into other languages like Syriac, which were the languages in the Middle East in that region. They also got hold of Indian and Persian texts. So for probably a couple of centuries there was this really sort of almost frantic translation movement to translate all these texts from Greek and Hindu and Syriac into Arabic, because Arabic was now the official language of the Islamic empire, because it was the language of the Koran. And without that translation movement, this golden age wouldn’t have happened.

But pretty soon they started to develop their own ideas. So this notion that the Islamic empire was simply a repository of European knowledge—Greek philosophical texts—that they looked after until Europe awoke and was ready to take back its heritage—you know, ‘Thank you very much for looking after our texts. We’ll take it from here guys’—is really not correct. This really was a period when a lot of original scholarship in a number of disciplines really developed way beyond anything the Greeks had done.

David Rutledge: Jim al-Khalili.


What’s interesting about this period is that none of these technological innovators were congratulating themselves on their fearless resistance to superstition and metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. And while the practice of these early scientific disciplines would sometimes present certain challenges to religious authority, just as it would in later European history—we all know the story of Galileo—this was a time when the familiar modern distinction between science and religion didn’t really apply at all.

Here’s Salman Hameed, Associate Professor of Integrated Science and Humanities at Hampshire College in Massachusetts.

Salman Hameed: Some of the reasons for the development—say, for example, of algebra or of trigonometry, a lot of the functions that we think about, cosines and tangents and things like that—were coming out of the need, for example, to find directions to pray. Muslims have to pray towards the direction of Mecca. And the earth being spherical, it is a hard problem to figure out if you are far away from Mecca, which way do you find on a sphere.

David Rutledge: This is an interesting case, isn’t it, of science actually serving a religious purpose.

Salman Hameed: Sure. And I would be a little bit careful in presenting science and religion conflict, because certainly the Galileo incident gets a lot of play, and it in some sense presents itself as the canonical science versus religion, but remember Galileo himself was religious. In fact the book that he was trying to publish, he had the option of not going through the Vatican but he did. He was part of the Catholic Church. Copernicus was also part of the religious clergy.

So the dichotomy sometimes is with the institution sometimes clashing with individuals. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be science versus religion, specially in a historic context. I think it changes later on, in the nineteenth century and on, specially with debates regarding evolution, but I think historically it’s all mixed together.

And within the Islamic lands, as I mentioned, the issue of defining the direction to Mecca—I mean, that has a practical implication for prayers. But so is issues of the timings of prayers. Muslims have to pray five times a day and it depends upon the position of the sun, including not just the sunrise and sunset, but dawn and dusk. Those are difficult calculations if you are at different locations. You have to figure out the apparent movement of the sun and the position of the earth. So all of these questions certainly have practical implications with regarding religious need.

Jim al-Khalili: I think for their time they were incredible. People were interested in things like, you know, the flooding of the Nile for irrigation and they developed these interesting gadgets that would measure the height of the water. Measuring the size of the earth for me is a wonderful example, because the Greeks had tried to measure the circumference of the earth and they’d come up with various ingenious proposals, but scholars in the Islamic empire went beyond that.

There was a Persian scholar by the name of Biruni, who is… for me he was the da Vinci of the Islamic world. He really did everything. He wrote a book on the history of India, he wrote a book on geology, he wrote a book on trigonometry, astronomy. And he developed a technique for measuring the size of the earth that relies on what we’d regard today as sort of high school trigonometry, but at the time it was very, very novel—it involved climbing up a mountain and then measuring the angle to the horizon.

These were ideas that had never been done before. And they were sort of applying what the Greeks would regard as abstract knowledge—maths and geometry—and applying it to the real world, connecting up maths with what I would regard as physics.

David Rutledge: So how do you account for the difference between what was happening in Europe and what was happening in the Islamic world? Why this great flowering of knowledge at this particular period?

Jim al-Khalili: It’s all down to power and money and confidence of a powerful empire. The golden age of Athens was at a time when Athens was very wealthy and there was money provided for the patronage of philosophers and the building of academies and scribes to create texts. For the same reason, the Renaissance actually took place in Europe later. That started off because of wealthy families like the Medicis in Florence, who were able to provide the patronage for people like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.

The Islamic empire in the late eighth century and early ninth century—so it’s only a century or two old, this new religion—has become vast and wealthy, stretching from India in the east to Spain, Andalusia, in the West. And the Abbasid dynasty, who were ruling at the time, happened to be very obsessed with scholarship and learning. They were very closely linked culturally to the Persians, who were obsessed with scholarship and learning—it was important to them.

And so they used this wealth to provide academies, and the most famous of all was the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, where they could draw in the greatest minds of the known world to come in, whether they were poets or theologians, whether they were philosophers or mathematicians, to all come and work. And that atmosphere develops this culture of wanting to understand the world.

And, you know, so it’s not unique to Islam, it’s not unique to the Islamic empire, we see that throughout history—there were these pockets of great flourishing of thinking whenever an empire, a civilisation, is confident and powerful.


David Rutledge: On RN, you’re listening to Encounter and the second in a three-part series looking at faith and reason. This week: Islam.


We’ve heard the story of how Islamic societies in the medieval period were making huge strides in all kinds of fields that today we’d label scientific and technological. And most of us know the story of what happens next. Europe awakes from the Dark Ages and begins to make its own advances in mathematics and astronomy and biology—all of which leads to what’s popularly known as the Scientific Revolution and the beginning of a long, slow decline in the Islamic world.

Well, that’s the story as it’s usually told, but how accurate is it? Robert Morrison is Associate Professor of Religion at Bowdoin College in Maine:

Robert Morrison: The scientific revolution is in the 1600s, right? So if we could have this radio show again in the 2300s and we’ll see where Western science is. But I think there is a difference, there is a change, that Islamic societies are not where they used to be, and I think Muslims might say that too. I think it’s a fact.

I don’t think there’s been a great explanation. Let me try to make three points. First of all, in the 1500s the dominant Islamic empire must have been the Ottoman empire. At that point, if you’re looking at the Ottoman empire they’re really sitting pretty. They’re the dominant military power, they’re at a great place in terms of trade routes, everything’s good. They’re in first place. They have every reason not to mess with anything. Whereas what you see with European countries is that they’re taking some risks, they’re exploring, they’re trying some new sea routes. And the encounter with North America, the idea that… the attempt by the Portuguese to sail around the Horn of Africa led to them building better ships than the Ottomans really needed simply to dominate the Mediterranean. And what became European countries had motivations to take some risks that the Ottomans simply didn’t. And those risks obviously paid off.

And also, when you look at Ottoman intellectual history from the 1500s, 1600s, 1700s, they’re still doing stuff. They’re still studying science. They’re doing… some really interesting work on developments in philosophical logic have come out. So they’re not sitting around and doing nothing.

And my third point is that the economic historians have shown that the Ottoman empire was doing OK economically in like the 1700s.

And thus what I’d just have to say is that Europe does great and, you know, the Ottoman empire is sort of going… yeah, it’s sort of at a status quo. It’s not going downhill quite yet, but they’ve certainly just been leapfrogged by Europe. So, I mean, the question is, the productive question is, what happened in Europe. It’s harder sometimes to explain why another part of the world doesn’t end up like Europe.

David Rutledge: So it’s not a story about the backwardness of Islam, it’s more a story about the development of Europe, which had as much to do with Europe’s own historical circumstances as anything else.

Robert Morrison: Yeah, exactly. That’s the productive question.

William: The narrative of golden ages exists for a particular reason. It’s to kind of explain the failure of Muslim societies to adapt to and resist colonialism. It explains it as kind of a natural product of Muslim cultures’ failings.

David Rutledge: William is a student of history and a convert to Islam, living in Sydney.

William: People will often point towards religious edicts against the railway, for example, and point to them as examples of Muslim backwardness.

David Rutledge: A backwardness caused by religion…

William: A backwardness caused by religious kind of… religious anti-technology attitudes, when, if you look at the very strong links between the railway and European control, it kind of makes you think about those kind of rulings a bit more strongly. And you see this as a consistent theme within the Muslim world, where these kind of moves against technological change are correlated with moves against European imperial control.

There’s this kind of idea that the Enlightenment was inherently linked to the kind of technological changes that occurred within Europe and those technological changes were what drove progress and that in order to progress you need the Enlightenment. And I feel like there are a few gaps there.

You find that a lot of historians are sceptical of these things. One of the greater questions that a lot of historians are asking is, you know, what made Europe win? And traditionally one of the answers was, ‘Well, it was the Enlightenment.’ But I think that there is a lot of merit to… what people are saying now is that essentially it was very particular economic capabilities that existed within Great Britain and the relationship that that had with the kind of windfall of the conquest of the Americas.

And so if I were to say what can lead to the kind of rapid technological change that happened to Europe, what could lead that to occur in the Muslim world, you could say, ‘Well, conquer America again. Enslave a whole bunch of people, steal all their wealth, and then you have rapid technological change very quickly. Set up these systems of imperial control and then you’ll have your Enlightenment.’ It’s impossible to remove this stuff from colonialism, because rapid technological change in Europe was driven by colonialism.

So I guess I’m suspicious of that kind of narrative for those reasons, because it places technological change as being something that’s inherently related to a particular set of attitudes towards society, attitudes towards religion. And I think you find that, you know, the countries that are rapidly developing at the moment don’t necessarily have those values.


David Rutledge: If the relative fortunes of the post-medieval Islamic world and the West had a great deal to do with the rise and fall of empires and their colonial ambitions, it also had to do with the ways in which educational institutions and systems of learning developed. Salman Hameed.

Salman Hameed: If we are looking for structural reasons why scientific revolution took place in Europe and not in the Islamic world it seems that the university system in Europe, which has standardised curricula, played an important role. And this goes back to the early universities, the proto-universities. The church wanted to have control over what is being taught in the universities and so it wanted to have a similar curriculum be taught so that it knows whether they are going away from what is prescribed or not.

In the Islamic world, the madrasa systems developed, which also helped; I mean, madrasas are basically education centres, universities, however you want to call it—not modern type of universities—but they were often centred on individual scholars. And this was the Greek system. That’s why when we talk about, for example, Plato’s Academy, we talk about Aristotle, in the same way it was the medieval learning system that madrasas continued. And oftentimes they didn’t have a standardised curriculum but rather they were centred around individual personalities and an individual scholar would give a certificate which would be a personalised certificate rather than a standard across all of the Muslim world.

But in Europe these universities managed to have a similar curriculum because they were under an institution of the church.

David Rutledge: Which I guess meant, too, that when a scholar in the madrasa system died, his learning would be lost, or would be very likely to be lost?

Salman Hameed: Unless it has an exceptional student to carry on the work. And that is absolutely correct. But universities managed to contain across a long, large span of Europe, a similar type of curriculum.

(Street noise and music)

David Rutledge: Religious learning today faces its own challenges, particularly when it comes to theology and the critical reading of sacred texts. Faith and modern education don’t always sit comfortably alongside each other. For Christianity, the development of biblical criticism as a rigorous intellectual discipline was part of the great nineteenth-century sea change that saw secularism make huge advances in Europe. So it might not be surprising that, according to Mona Siddiqui, there’s very little critical study of the Koran – or open-ended speculative theology of any kind – being done in the Islamic world today.

Mona Siddiqui: Theology has been the domain of Christian theology for the best part of its history. But I think that what has happened in the Islamic world is that Muslims are looking for more of an ethical framework and you can’t get that just by describing what the law says or what history has shown or what the philosophers said. You have to have something that weaves through all those different disciplines to say, ‘Well, how does that particular literary or intellectual discipline shape the way or influence the way or could influence the way we think about living our life today?

And many Islamicists, whether they’re Muslim Islamicists or non-Muslim Islamicists, will argue that academic writing doesn’t have to have any relevance to modern life or to the way we live life. Intellectual research shouldn’t necessarily have any impact. But I think that Muslims who are involved and who teach and research in the Western academy really don’t have that luxury. We are not that many and I think that when you talk to people who are interested in the history of the Islamic world, the way Muslims thought about issues, somehow we have to kind of regain that territory and say, ‘What does that mean today? How should we live our lives?’

Christian theologians have been doing it for decades. You know, I remember speaking to a colleague of mine and I said, ‘You know, when do you use the bible for your theology?’ And he said, ‘Oh, I don’t use the bible, Mona. We just make it up as we go along.’ And you have that sense that there is a biblical studies world and a theological world. In Islamic studies you don’t have that distinction. If you are doing theology, I think you cannot do theology without looking at the Koran, without looking at the formative history of Islamic thought.

But I don’t think many people are interested in that theological debate. They’re interested in just giving black and white answers. That is not theology.

David Rutledge: Do you think that the state of theology in Islam also has to do just with the very mundane concern of where the money goes in universities, and that academia in the Islamic world is more about producing engineers and lawyers and state officials than it is in producing humanities scholars in general?

Mona Siddiqui: I think that’s a really good point and I’ve been arguing about this for so many years, that what the Islamic world needs is more investment in the value of the arts and humanities, about how we teach people to think, to not be anti-intellectual, to not see that questions about religion need defensive responses.

But even then, you know, even when I’m in a very British university and I’m in a very distinguished university, I still have students who are quite defensive about their religious faith. And I don’t have any Muslim students. So when it comes to faith, there are real issues about how people come to university, what they expect to be taught, whether it’s a divinity school or a religious studies department.

But definitely in the Islamic world you go… if you want to be taught religion you go to a seminary. And even if you go to universities, I’m not sure that there is enough of that critical thinking. And when Muslim students come over to the West to do arts and humanities, that is the first thing that really stumps them—what do you mean by a critical thinking? Because critical thinking often means to them anti-religion and criticism. And it takes a long time for them to realise that critical thinking is a methodology, it’s a way of looking at literature, at texts. That may change, but I don’t see any huge changes so far.

David Rutledge: Do you think that they’re completely wrong, though, in seeing critical thinking in the way that they do? If we look at Christianity, it almost feels that the archetypal, sort of capital-M ‘Modern’ Christian today is that suave Anglican vicar who says, ‘Oh, you know, Jesus was a wonderful fellow and the bible is a wonderful collection of texts, but we don’t really need to believe that he rose from the dead and all the rest of it.’ You can doubt the doctrine but still identify as a Christian, and it’s almost as though that’s where biblical criticism and critical theology have ended up.

Mona Siddiqui: Well, I think that’s the fear that people have, that what will the deconstruction of the Koran itself—looking at it in the same light as the bible was looked at over a century ago—what would that do? But, you know, I would argue that just because people have that approach to the bible, does that mean people have become less Christian? Does that mean that…?

Now, that’s a different debate about secularisation in the West. But I think when it comes to faith people go through all sorts of issues about religion and their personal faith. I’m not sure that taking away intellectualism is a good way forward. If anything, as we all know, faith is so much about doubt and how you work your way through doubt and how you keep together the various tensions of certainty and doubt in your life. That is good faith as far as I’m concerned.


David Rutledge: So how important overall do you think academic, intellectual work is in the Islamic world? I mean, we’ve touched on this, but if we consider the view that—and you hear this—that change in Islam has to come from the grassroots, not from any kind of top-down imposition of so-called enlightened ways of thinking, do you have any sympathy with that view?

Mona Siddiqui: I think it has to be both. I do think that people have to first of all feel secure that they can nourish and nurture ways of thinking at university. What is a university about? Now, I’m sure I could be accused of being too Western in this, that my whole life has been in the Western academy, but I don’t see a substitute for that. I don’t see a substitute for being intellectually aware, being able to be open to ideas, being receptive to other people’s way of thinking, being able to debate with some informed knowledge.

And one of the problems when it comes to arts and humanities, and especially when it comes to religion in the Islamic world, [is] that there is a certain brain drain of those kind of people who feel that they want to explore and push the boundaries. They either migrate to the West, where they will get a good position in a Western university, or they will keep quiet because they fear for their lives. You cannot really do scholarship in that kind of atmosphere. You cannot really push the boundaries. And there are ways of pushing the boundaries that are constructive, not destructive. And I don’t think that many people feel comfortable. So that’s why so many of the conferences and the meetings that are about religious freedom, conscience, et cetera, don’t take place in Islamic countries, because people are afraid to speak their minds.

Jim al-Khalili: I always say in the Islamic world if they really… you’ll know that there’s a spirit of openness and rational thinking when they openly debate evolution theory versus creationism.

David Rutledge: Jim al-Khalili.

Jim al-Khalili: It’s something that happened in the developed world, in Europe, 150 years ago, very soon after Darwin. And, OK, there are still chunks of the population in the developed world who don’t buy evolution theory, despite the overwhelming evidence—the debate has taken place. That debate has yet to take place in the Islamic world; you know, not really openly. And if it is, you know, people have to be careful.

You know, I do talk to a lot of friends who are Muslims who will say, ‘Of course, evolution is true. You see the evidence all the time and it’s there, but of course it stops at the apes. The fact that my grandparents were monkeys is ridiculous.’ So evolution applies to the whole of nature but not mankind, who obviously were created by God and is not part of that messy theory.

I grew up and went to school in Iraq and so I did biology lessons in Iraq. And I remember being taught evolution in Iraq as though it was scientific fact—there was no issue. I remember having a debate with mates, friends of mine who were more religious, and we had to go to the biology teacher to adjudicate. And he said, ‘Oh, no, no, Jim’s right. Evolution theory, there’s a lot of evidence for it and it’s no issue.’ So to some extent the debates… you know, evolution theory has been discussed and is part of school curricula in the Islamic world. Maybe not entirely, in every Islamic country, but the notion that all Muslims deny evolution theory isn’t quite correct. But of course they’re a long way behind the West. And I think sometimes you look around and you wonder whether the situation is in fact getting worse, whether were I at school today in a country like Iraq that sort of openness and debate about evolution with my biology teacher would even take place.

David Rutledge: If we look at somewhere like Al-Azhar University in Cairo, for example, or any of the other major universities in the Islamic world, how free are students at these universities to explore subjects that might challenge a traditional Islamic religious worldview?

Jim al-Khalili: I think in senses like that they are a lot freer than a lot of us in the West might expect. You know, it’s not like living in Stalinist Russia or under some awful dictatorship where you have to toe the party line and never say anything out of sorts. I mean, they may be devoutly religious, but that doesn’t make them fools. These are intelligent people who discuss ideas. But inevitably, where a scientific idea, theory, notion—however much it’s supported by empirical evidence—where it butts up against religious teaching, religion wins. What they’d have to do is rationalise just to make sure it complies with and fits in with religious teaching.

David Rutledge: Well, if we look at the Islamic world today, of course from a Western perspective the commonplace view is that the West has developed scientifically and economically while the Muslim world just hasn’t. You know, relatively backward, relatively undeveloped – how true would you say this is, and where do we see evidence that maybe complicates that picture?

Jim al-Khalili: Certainly the Muslim world is vast and there are many—50-plus—countries part of the Muslim community, and some are far wealthier than others. And so a lot of it is not down to the fact that they are backwards because they are held back by their religion. Those countries that are backward it’s because they’re poor, or because they have been pretty much kept that way by, yes, Western imperialism, as they would argue. And they have a point there. You are kept backward if a wealthier, more powerful nation wants to use your oil or your other reserves.

But I don’t think it’s any different to any other countries in the third world, in Africa or South America. Where there’s wealth, they understand that that needs to be put to use to develop their economy and society. So you look at the Gulf states, for instance, and they are building universities and laboratories and bringing in foreign expertise and they can see what is needed. The difference is—and this doesn’t just apply to Islamic countries, but many countries that are trying to develop—they see science simply as an application to apply to technology. And technology is simply there to support the economy or their defence industry. They don’t see science as an endeavour, this idea of openness, of freedom of thought to explore. So until that changes—that science is not simply there to drive technology and the economy, science is about asking questions openly without fear of someone telling you you’re not allowed to ask that question—that is what has to change and that is where religion is to some extent holding back that advance.


David Rutledge: Jim al-Khalili. This is Encounter, and you’re listening to it on RN.

Reporter (archival): The heart of Sydney today, where outrage got out of control. (Shouting) Hundreds of Muslim protesters gathered to protest a video on YouTube that insults the Prophet Muhammad.

Protester (archival): You cannot mock the greatest, most influential human being that ever walked the face of this earth! (Shouting)

David Rutledge: Demonstrators on the streets of Sydney in September 2012, venting their anger against a film that was said to have insulted the Prophet Muhammad. The protest began peacefully but turned violent, and the clashes between demonstrators and police – as well as people carrying placards that called for death to anyone who insults the Prophet – received saturation coverage in the media.

Community response followed a pattern that’s become rather familiar: talkback radio beating the drum of anti-Islamic sentiment, and Muslim community leaders assuring us that the violence was perpetrated by radical elements, and that by and large Australian Muslims are peaceful, law-abiding citizens, practitioners of moderate Islam.

Well, of course they’re right. The vast majority of Australian Muslims do live peacefully alongside their non-Muslim neighbours and share their everyday concerns: paying the mortgage, educating the kids and just getting on with life.

But these terms ‘radical’ and ‘moderate’ remain problematic. And if ‘moderate Islam’ means an Islam that’s at all points compatible with modernity, there’s no consensus as to whether or not that’s a good thing. Mona Siddiqui:

Mona Siddiqui: I don’t think that radical religion has to be destructive in any way or has to be a negative force in society. One could argue that radical—if you take away the current definition of radical meaning militant or extremist—can be about actually, ‘I am going to practise my religion in public life as well. That means I will do certain things when I am surrounded by people who may not share my faith, who may be completely against faith, religious faith.’ I think that is radical. I think that is making sure that your voice, your identity, is still out there in the public, that you are not shy.

That does not, however, mean that your faith, that your identity, has to impact negatively on anyone around you. But we are so caught up in these words nowadays that if religion is going to have any relevance in life it has to be dramatic. And we can’t live with drama, we can’t live with extremism, we can’t live with the edges. Religious voices and religious traditions for the most part—those religious traditions which have survived have survived precisely because they’re moderate.

If you look at any religious tradition which has wanted extremism, which has wanted to be on the edge of society, which has wanted to be far too judgmental on others practising the same faith, you’ll find that for the most part they disappeared or they were forced out. Because people cannot live on the edge of life, people live in moderation. And for me, good religion is moderate religion, whatever that may mean. But in a sense for me it is about people know that I have a religious faith but it’s a religious faith that can sit alongside other religious faiths or no faith.

Many Christians in the West live with their Christianity and modernity and they don’t seem to have an issue with that. Some do, some don’t. Many Muslims still struggle with what does modernity actually mean and how is it impacting my religion, and they’re scared that it might erode the fundamentals of their faith. I mean, you know, we’re seeing that in third, fourth generation of people struggling to keep a certain definition of Islam alive in their lives. And they’re finding it increasingly hard.

But generally I would say, if I was to make a kind of blanket, sweeping statement, most Muslims still call themselves Muslims because faith matters to them in some way. And I don’t think that’s going to change for a long time.

William: I would never like to be viewed as being moderate in my religion. I think that when they say ‘moderate Islam’ that they mean a kind of neo-liberal wishy-washy kind of good citizen Islam, not incompatible with nationalism, that’s not incompatible with, you know, particular projects overseas.

I think that as a Muslim you’re always going to be uncomfortable in a society like Australia. And if you’re not, then… I mean, this is something that a scholar once said to me, ‘If you’re not uncomfortable then you haven’t understood your religion.’ Because you kind of contrasted moderate with dangerous, which I think is interesting, because we have to kind of ask, dangerous to what and dangerous to who and dangerous in what way? There’s a sense that you’re either a moderate or you’re a bomber. And I’m not, you know… like, I’m not a particularly violent person, but I don’t have a problem with political activism and if that is viewed as being dangerous, then, well, my political activism is way more effective than I believe it is.

Uthman Badar: Look, I think anyone that says that they’re completely compatible either doesn’t know modernity or Islam or both, or is…

David Rutledge: … or is trying to be a good Western Muslim, right?

Uthman Badar: That’s right. It’s a pressure.

David Rutledge: There’s this idea of the rational, ‘reasonable’ Muslim

Uthman Badar: That’s right. You’re responding to a dominant discourse again, and you’ve moulded yourself. And it’s a classic power politics, where power is not only determining what we discuss, what are the issues of importance, but it’s also forming your response to it. I mean, modernity is born out of a move away from religion. The Enlightenment is born out of saying, ‘Well, religion is holding us back. Let’s put it to the side and voila, we’re free and we can now do science and do all this sort of thing.’

And people, I think, get fooled sometime or deceived by buzzwords, because they sound nice. You know, ‘freedom’, but you have to understand it’s freedom for the individual from everything, including God; in fact, specifically from God. Any person of faith, any person of religion, any Muslim, needs to understand that modernity is diametrically opposed to religion and to Islam, right? It doesn’t seek to finish it in the way that Communism may, but it seeks to relegate it, in a sense that effectively you haven’t left anything of it, right? It’s just a shadow of its former self. And that should be unacceptable to most people of faith.

Modernity itself, modernity needs to be interrogated. There’s this understanding that, you know, modernity represents reason and progress and technology, but that is the sanitised—romanticised, if you will—view of modernity. That’s not modernity. Modernity is ideological. It’s secularism, it’s liberalism, it’s capitalism. It’s freedom, it’s human rights – but these things have… these are charged words, they have a lot behind them. Modernity is racism—entrenched, you know? Modernity is the privileges that we have here in the West that we’ve achieved on the back of exploiting the masses of humanity.

Really, in a word, for me in a word modernity is benefit, yes, for a few, at the expense of the rest of the world. That’s modernity.

David Rutledge: And of course the other great plank of modernity – apart from reason and liberalism and all the other things you mentioned – is democracy. When we talk about reason and modernity, we talk about democracy. And again, Australian Muslims by and large go to immense effort to demonstrate their democratic faith, their democratic credentials. You wouldn’t go along with that?

Uthman Badar: No, absolutely not. It’s the same. It’s the same; you know, the essence of democracy is that people are sovereign, away from God. It used to be God, now it’s human beings. There’s nothing in the Islamic tradition that allows you to do that. But why are they doing this? Because there’s a pressure. Because Muslims have become the centre of attention in the post-9/11 world, in fact I would say in the post-Berlin Wall world. They’ve become the centre of attention. They’ve become thethreat in the West. And Western governments have a very intense program of intervention in Muslim communities in order to secularise Islam on the pattern of Christianity.

And therefore, it’s simply… this response of Muslims—I’ll be very frank—this response of Muslims is not a reflection of their intellectual conclusions or their intellectual efforts, or their beliefs, even; it’s a reflection of government power, of money, right? And we see this… the most recent manifestation of that is in this issue of counterterrorism, counter-violent-extremism. Millions have been spent in the last 10 years, and part of that—there’s obviously the national security aspect, but then there’s purely ideological aspects.

Moderate Islam—you know, the Howard government spent $8-million setting up the NCEIS—the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies—and the whole point of that Centre was to propagate moderate Islam, moderate democratic Islam. And all of the academics that come out of there have the same message: ‘Oh, Islam is democratic. Islam is this… Yeah, there’s Sharia law, but we live now in the… we live in the West and we don’t have to apply Sharia law,’ and all sorts of stuff that is, as I said, is a reflection of the dictates of power, not of their own intellectual efforts.

David Rutledge: It’s a little bit like what I was getting at before, about there being an element of unreason in religion that you need to hang onto. And I wonder if you feel that there is also an element of radicalism in every religion—religion should confront, to some degree, it should affront to some degree, it should critique. And yet, anybody stands up and publicly proclaims themselves a ‘radical Muslim’ these days, there’s all sorts of trouble follows hard on the heels of that.

Uthman Badar: That’s right. I mean, what is religion in the end? There’s obviously that personal relationship with God, which is at the core. But the public manifestation of that is ethical interventions into the material; i.e., that the world we live in, the reality that we see ourselves in, the societies that we come to—and that’s what all the prophets did. They were sent to societies, their peoples, who were doing wrong things. And they came and said, ‘Look, this is wrong and this is right. I’m the messenger of God. God is unique and alone and one. Worship him alone. Don’t kill people. Respect your neighbours. Respect people. Do this, this and that.’

These are interventions, and therefore radicalism – in its political understanding and its non-perjorative understanding of being vastly different from the status quo, trying to change the status quo – is inherent in any religion. It should be inherent in a religion; otherwise, what’s the point?

So if you come into it with a message from God and it’s just more of the same—you might as well have come to me with a message from your next-door neighbour or someone, right? Or from the powers that be.

Yassir Morsi: There are different ways to understand, articulate and experience what it means to be Muslim and they do not have to abide by the coordinates set for us. So the term ‘moderate’ here is not for me to say that there is no moderation in the religion—far from it. I just think it’s an attempt to bounce off the idea that we’re not radicals, we’re not fundamentalists, we’re not going to blow stuff up, the vast majority of us are peaceful, the vast majority of us are integrated. And I think that language is the result of a persistent and existing Islamophobia. That’s why I’m critical of it.

But I don’t think it creates a less threatening Islam, because inevitably what happens in community discussions, or Muslim community discussions, is Muslims see other Muslims kind of ‘watering down’ the religion and they go at the other end, they begin to assert, ‘No, this is our religion.’ So, for example, patriarchy, which is somewhat cultural but it also stems from the religious readings and so forth, Muslims go out and say certain things like, ‘The hijab is a woman’s choice,’ and a very liberal form of language of pointing to her autonomy and agency, and then at the other end Muslims hear this and they react as well. So we have a negation of the negation. And at the same time we’re constructing the good ‘moderate Islam’ we’re also constructing the bad ‘radical Islam’, because they’re working off each other.

And that’s what happens when minorities use a different reference point other than their own historical trajectory. I don’t think this is an evolutionary process where Islam meets the progressive elements of Australia and the two synthesise into an appropriate Islam. I think from the opposite end, we’re actually creating resilient radical groups precisely because they sense that so much of their religion has to be left behind for them to be accepted in Australia. And it’s as much creating ‘radicals’ as it is ‘moderates’.


David Rutledge: On RN you’ve been listening to Encounter. Thanks this week to all our guests and to Steven Tilley for studio production.

this article at the ABC Radio National (Australia) site, June 14, 2014

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