Ethics & Morality

Welby: we wrestle not against ISIL, but against Jihadi principalities and powers

We are, once again, a nation at war. And, rather like World War I, it won’t be over by Christmas. The Prime Minister has identified our target: “We should be very clear that the cause of this problem is the poisonous narrative of Islamic extremism,” he declared (..yes, he said ‘Islamic’ rather than the euphemistic distinctive ‘Islamist’). And he warned: “..this mission will take not just months, but years.”

And it will.

Of course, in a sense, we have been at war since September 11th 2001, when al-Qaeda unleashed its barbarous nihilism upon the Western world. The ‘War on Terror’ has been and remains a battle against a virulent religio-political ideology; against a concept, more than flesh and blood. Yesterday’s vote in Parliament amounts to a formal declaration of our ongoing participation in the global struggle against it.

Many MPs referred to righteous motives, humanitarian ethics and legal frameworks. A few alluded to the principles of the Just War; that our response to the Islamic State must be “reasonable, necessary and proportionate to the aim that has to be achieved,” to quote former Attorney General Dominic Grieve. Two people mentioned Jesus in the House of Lords debate – the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Pearson of Rannoch. One naturally expects the occasional Lord Spiritual to consider the ethical teachings of Christ in relation to such weighty matters as war, but among the Lords Temporal and Commons laity the Ukip Peer alone dared to mention Him by name.

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s speech was wise and informed:

“My Lords, a danger of this debate is that we speak only of Iraq and Syria, only of ISIL, and only of armed force. ISIL and its dreadful barbarity are only one example of a global phenomenon..”

He doesn’t name them, but he’s talking basically about (inter alia) the Taliban, al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab, Hamas, Hezbollah and Boko Haram. He says we need to deal with “a global, holistic danger” not merely with military weapons, but with “a better story”:

The vision we need to draw on is life-giving. It is rooted in the truths of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, relying heavily in the Middle Ages on the wealth of Islamic learning, the Abrahamic faiths – not necessarily enemies – and enriched by others such as Hinduism and Sikhism in recent generations. Religious leaders must up their game and the church is playing its part. It is the role of the church I serve to point beyond our imperfect responses and any material, national or political interest to the message of Jesus Christ and the justice, healing and redemption that he offers.

One tends to hear the phrase ‘Judaeo-Christian tradition’ much more on the lips of Ukip-ers than Church of England clerics these days. Kippers often whistle it almost without meaning, or at least devoid of nuance; clerics tend to be fearful of the undertones of dogmatic supremacy. But Justin Welby tempered the phrase with a little multifaith humanity, which is, of course, intrinsic to and an expression of the very liberty which the tradition has generated and fostered. But ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State negates our ethical values and would deny us those liberties, so the Archbishop isn’t inclined to straddle a fence:

The action proposed today is right, but we must not rely on a short-term solution on a narrow front to a global, ideological, religious, holistic and trans-generational challenge. We must demonstrate that there is a positive vision far greater and more compelling than the evil of ISIL and its global clones. Such a vision offers us and the world hope, an assurance of success in this struggle, not the endless threat of darkness.

Other Lords Spiritual were more equivocal. The Bishop of Coventry Christopher Cocksworth wondered whether we will be any more successful in destroying ISIS than we have been in crushing al-Qaeda. He asked: “Can an ideology ever be wiped out?”, but then answered himself with the observation that it might be “dismantled by the more powerful weapons of truth, justice and compassion”. There is some truth in this: as Lord Alton made clear, one cannot bomb an ideology.

The Bishop of Derby Alastair Redfern was more pessimistic. In a swipe against the “negative” Prevent strategy and US rhetoric of eradication, he said: “It will not be eradicated; it is about a difference of views about what the good life is.” The Islamic State, he avers, has a political vision which is religiously good in its own terms and by its own definitions, so his prescription is that “we have to engage with the debate about what a good society is.. We have to contribute to that together if we are to stem this tide and create a safer world to live in.. We need to be much more proactive about facilitating a discussion about, and exploration of, the good life among people of different faiths and different political persuasions”.

Inter-religious debate and ecumenical chat with barbarous thugs over a cup of tea and a slice of halal cake? One is loath to be negative, My Lord Bishop, so good luck with that. Perhaps Canon Andrew White would be happy to arrange and host a little tête-à-tête for you with Islamic State spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani? If you manage to escape with your head, please drop us a line and let us know how our (apparently mutually exclusive) conceptions of the good life may happily cohere and our applied theologies coexist in peace.

But to the contribution made by Lord Pearson of Rannoch (Ukip), which merits quoting in full:

My Lords, I refer you to a short debate I held in Grand Committee on 19 November last, when I asked the Government to justify the Prime Minister’s Statement after the murder of Drummer Rigby that there is nothing in Islam which justifies acts of violence. I will not repeat what I said then, given our time constraint, but mention it as background to these few words.

We are now met to consider military action against the self-styled Islamic State, which has surfaced since that debate, and I support such action; but I fear that military action alone—and even victorious boots on the ground—will not be able to contain the resurgence of jihadist Islam on our planet. I suggest that we have to look deeper and accept that there are many verses in the later Koran and in the later actions and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, which Muslims are instructed to follow, which justify acts of violence.

Islam has the problem of the Muslim tenet of abrogation, which holds that where there is contradiction in the Koran, the later texts outweigh the earlier. I cited two of those verses on 19 November but have time for only one today. Surat 9.29 reads like this:

“Fight those who do not believe in Allah or in the Last Day and who do not consider unlawful what Allah and His Messenger have made unlawful and who do not adopt the religion of truth from those who were given the Scripture—[fight] until they give the jizyah willingly while they are humbled”.

That means a tax on non-Muslims.

There are many other such verses which are being enforced by ISIS, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab, Hamas, Hezbollah, Boko Haram, and wherever the sharia penal code is strictly enforced.

It does not help to point out that the Bible and other ancient religious texts have similarly violent passages. Jehovah did indeed smite the uncircumcised quite a bit in the Old Testament, but there is nothing of that in the New Testament, from which Christianity takes its inspiration. Jesus said:

“Love thy neighbour as thyself”,

and, “Do unto others as you would they should do unto you”. His instruction was universal. He was not talking just about relations between Christians, whereas I understand that the verses of peace in the Koran may refer largely to relations between Muslims. Of course, modern Jews do not act out the gruesome instructions of Leviticus and Exodus, so the comparison with the Old Testament does not help.

As I said on 19 November, Christianity has still been the volcano through which much evil has erupted over the centuries, but that is no longer happening. Today, it appears that the collective darkness of our humanity has moved largely into the violent end of Islam, where only peaceful Islam can resist it theologically and defeat it at its roots. As the noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal said in her opening remarks, we must support our Muslim friends as they try to reclaim their religion—I would add, particularly in this country.

I repeat a question I put to the Government on 19 November, to which I did not get a reply: as our jihadists are such a tiny minority who misinterpret the Koran and the holy texts, why does the great majority of Muslims not do more to stand up against them? For instance, could not the Government encourage our Muslim leaders in this country to call a great council to issue a fatwa against our jihadists, casting them out of Islam? Dozens of our imams wrote to the Independent newspaper on 17 September invoking Islam for the release of Alan Henning. Could they not form the nucleus of such a council? It would also need to address the violent verses in the Koran to which I have referred. One suggestion is that they should be declared to refer to the internal struggle between good and evil within each one of us, while true Islam flows only from the verses of peace.

Perhaps such a new explanation of Islam might also help to meet the point made by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury—that our young Muslims need a much better vision for their lives—with which, I am sure, all your Lordships agree.

I look forward to the Government’s reply.

He won’t get one, of course; at least not a substantive one which engages with the profoundly theological dimensions of a labyrinthine theo-political entity possessing of neither temporal statehood nor uniform spiritual authority. You may decry Lord Pearson’s elementary exposition of theology, and ridicule his naive attempts to redefine and reform foundational precepts of an ancient religious cult. But he is at least attempting to articulate some of the doctrinal, scriptural and metaphysical realities of the jihadi principalities and powers. Without some understanding of these, and without a bold acknowledgement that our struggle is, as the Prime Minister said, against a particular vision of Islamic dominion, we may never again live in peace until the parousia and the coming of the Prince of Peace.