Mehdi Hasan delivered an oratorically brilliant if rather sanctimonious speech at the Oxford Union in May 2013, which now rings in the head like tinnitus in the wake of the jihadi butchery in Paris. The consequences of the Charlie Hebdo massacre are still reverberating throughout the Islamic/Islamist world, while Western civilisation twitches nervously, awaiting the next inevitable “punch” to be promulgated by Mohammed’s self-declared defenders of the faith. ‘This House believes Islam is a religion of peace’ was the motion: Hasan was obviously speaking for the proposition, but he comprehensively wiped the floor with the depthless, stammering tergiversations of his opponents (unfortunately, Douglas Murray had to pull out, for some reason).
Hasan introduced himself proudly as “an ambassador for Islam”, and proceeded to belittle his opponents’ right even to comment on such weighty matters of religion. You see, one was a graduate in law, another in modern history and a third in chemistry, and so Hasan derides their religious illiteracy: “We don’t have anyone who’s actually an expert on Islam; a scholar of Islam; a historian of Islam; a speaker of Arabic; even a terrorism expert or a security expert or a pollster, let alone to talk about what Muslims believe or think.”
The whole sneery speech is worth listening to, but two bold claims bulge from the hyperbolic bilge.
“Atheists see all religions as evil, violent, threatening,” Hasan proclaimed, as he dazzled the assembled intellects with his superior humanist knowledge, mesmerising recruits to the ‘honour brigade‘ of those who seek to subsume all criticism of Islam to the amputations and public floggings of apostasy; and all denigration of ‘The Prophet’ to the ash heaps, severed heads and bloodied rocks of blasphemy. The strategy is “to silence debate on extremist ideology in order to protect the image of Islam”, and the primary proposition is to contend that such ideology is “nothing to do with Islam”.
Curiously, Hasan is unable to see the bigotry of his assertion in the mirror of his own duplicity. Were you to say “Muslims see all other religions as evil”; “Islam says all non-believers are violent”; or “The Qur’an teaches that the mere existence of Jews and Christians is threatening”, he would scoff at your intellectual inadequacy, scorn your lack of qualification and deride (with some justification) your ignorance of theology / philosophy / history / language / national security, etc., etc. You would, in short, be racist, a bigot or an ‘Islamophobe’ – a fatwa decreed by the Political Editor of Huffington Post UK, made all the more authoritative by virtue of his being a darling of Al Jazeera. It can only be nullified or revoked by an unspecified period of silence and self-censorship.
Despite not being an atheist, and regardless of his lack of qualification in history, theology or even humanism (he did PPE – the most superficial of Oxford’s degrees; no history or theology at all), Hasan is seemingly free to caricature all atheists as being as zealous as the monomaniac Richard Dawkins. Are there not as many non-conceptions of the divine as their are denominational conceptions of God? How many atheists see the Society of Friends as a coercive refuge of savagery and brutality?
That aside, it was his allusion to the inspiration and motivation for the Reformation which merits some historical cytology. He said:
“In fact, Daniel David Levering, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author and of The Golden Crucible points out that there would be no Renaissance; there would be no Reformation in Europe without the role played by Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd and some of the great Muslim theologians, philosophers, scientists in bringing Greek texts to Europe.”
And the crowd marvelled at his learning, entranced by the rhetorical eloquence they suspended all historical knowledge and intellectual discernment, bursting into cheers and spontaneous applause.
But there are glaring errors in Hasan’s arrogance of awe.
By “Daniel David Levering” we must assume that he means David Levering Lewis. By The Golden Crucible we must assume that he means God’s Crucible. And as for bringing Greek texts to Europe, since when was Greece not part of Europe? Wasn’t the continent named after the Greek goddess Europa? Pedantry, you say? Quite possibly. But so much of the contempt Hasan spits at his opponents is for their “distortions, misrepresentations, misinterpretations, misquotations”. It is not unreasonable, therefore, to expect impeccable accuracy in his own literary references, historical allusions and academic statements. You can’t berate a humanist for referring anachronistically to Saudi Arabia (created AD 1932) as the birthplace of Islam (created AD 610) if you’re not aware that Mount Olympus has always jutted out from a peninsular of southern Europe.
And the claim that the Reformation (and so the Renaissance) would not have happened without “great Muslim theologians, philosophers, scientists” is simply Islamic supremacist revisionist claptrap. The point was pondered on Twitter, and the exchange is reproduced verbatim:
Archbishop Cranmer: @mehdirhasan says there would have been no Reformation in Europe without the role played by some of the great Muslim theologians. Right..
Mehdi Hasan: @His_Grace read a book once in a while. You might learn something. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2008/nov/06/how-muslims-made-europe/
Archbishop Cranmer: @mehdirhasan What a patronising, unintelligent, unnecessarily snide comment. There’s no end to the reading books: the secret is to discern.
Mehdi Hasan: @His_Grace you really need to look in a mirror…
Archbishop Cranmer: @mehdirhasan Archetypal pseudo-academic polemic hypocrisy. It’s you who needs to look in the mirror: you do and say exactly what you condemn
Mehdi Hasan: @His_Grace yawn
You will understand that there was no point pursuing the matter: when Mehdi Hasan is shown a mirror, he doesn’t even see his reflection dimly: all he apprehends is his lofty ambassadorial status as the self-declared mouthpiece of Mohammed. His instinct is to attack with patronising gibes and puerile refutation: it is the jihad of verbal insult and hot air (which is, of course, preferable to the alternatives).
Notwithstanding that Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd were fine scholars, manifestly steeped in the teachings of Aristotle and committed adherents of the school of rationality (contra Islamic unreason); and notwithstanding that they undoubtedly contributed to the philosophical symbiosis of East and West by introducing caliphs to kings and injecting liberal learning into the dogma of theological dominion; and notwithstanding that the theo-political origins of Christendom are undeniably syncretic – from Hebrew cult through Greek temples to Roman roads, architecture, literature and law, it is crudely ahistorical to ascribe the people’s cry for reformation to a couple of Muslim philosophers. They may indeed have helped to plough the early furrows of enlightenment – indeed Aquinas credits their influence. But Hasan goes further, bombastically reserving the entire Reformation and Renaissance to a Muslim-inspired genesis.
There is a reason that the Qur’an is not taught as the foundation of enlightened civilisation, and it isn’t all down to an unfortunate medieval victory in Poitiers or a belief that the Caliphate was more sophisticated and humane than the Empire of Charlemagne. It is to do with theology and the scriptural revelation of the nature of the Judæo-Christian God. It is to do with spiritual truth, the equality of humanity and an aversion to hypocritical piety, institutional corruption and abused authority. Europeans didn’t need Muslim philosophers to tell them that salvation couldn’t be bought, that books shouldn’t be burned, or that Scripture may not be dispensed with by papal decree. They didn’t need Arabic perspectives on Aristotle to teach them that Rome’s doctrine was erroneous, and that true religion should be immanent and internal, not remote and superficial. The causes of the Reformation are diffused, complex and sometimes vague, but the Hussites, Waldensians, Wycliffites and Lollards did not see Islamic scholarship as their inspiration to preach from a Bible in the language of the people.
While the sixteenth-century ecumenical councils gathered in the Lateran church in Rome debating whether bishops should have more power over the monks, the threat to Christian civilisation was coming from the Turks. Their instinct – with appeals to the exemplary life of Mohammed – was to attack, subdue, confiscate and control. Enlightened Muslims like Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd may have exhorted tolerance and respect, but zealous sultans and muftis much preferred to appropriate churches, slaughter Christian men, rape their wives and roast their christian over a slow-burning fire. That same evil drives what we now call extremist Islam or Islamism – with constant appeals to the exemplary life of Mohammed.
The choice we now face is between Canterbury and Constantinople. The weaker we make the former, the more we can expect the latter to fill the vacuum. It is entirely possible to establish friendly relations between patriarchs and ayatollahs, but if we are to stop St Paul’s going the way of St Sophia, it is imperative that we confront head-on the distortions, misrepresentations, misinterpretations and misquotations of the eloquently persuasive but patently unqualified ambassadors of Islam.