Freedom of Religion

Queen's chaplain agnostic on "good or evil" violence in the Qur'an


Apparently, young people are turning to Jihad because school’s a drudge and mainstream religion is not sufficiently ‘exciting’. That’s the general headline summary of a speech given by Justin Welby at Lambeth Palace to faith leaders. To be fair to the Archbishop, his insights were rather more nuanced (as ever), particularly on the topic of ‘extremism’:

“Extremists are always someone else – you never hear someone – or very seldom – say: ‘I’m an extremist’.

“In our context, and I’m probably further along than some people, partly because of a long experience in dealing with conflict… that you only deal with it when you deal with the people who are the extremists.

“I think the greatest danger we have is hallowing (sic?) out the middle, the mainstream, by driving people to the edges, by marginalising those who disagree with us and calling them extremists.

“My feeling is that extremism becomes a serious problem when it advocates violence and disruption and oppression – that we ought to be able to have the confidence as a society and in our own faiths to cope with very vigorous expression indeed – provided it is not seeking to create hate, violence or oppression and where that is the case then you begin to see extremism.

“But if we define extremism too widely, then we narrow the mainstream too much, then it’s only nice people talking to nice people about being nice, then you can’t make much difference.

“But I know a lot of people would disagree with me very profoundly on that.”

There is a very real sense here in which the Archbishop has just confronted head-on the Home Secretary’s essential policy (not to mention that of the Education Secretary) of lumping all undesirable beliefs, prejudices, discriminations and bigotries together in the same categorical pot of ‘extremism’. Theresa May holds the view that: live in a modern liberal state is not to live in a moral vacuum. We have to stand up for our values as a nation. There will, I know, be some who say that what I describe as extremism is merely social conservatism. But if others described a woman’s intellect as “deficient”, denounced people on the basis of their religious beliefs, or rejected the democratic process, we would quite rightly condemn their bigotry. And there will be others who say I am wrong to link these kinds of beliefs with the violent extremism we agree we must confront. To them I say, yes, not all extremism leads to violence. And not all extremists are violent. But the damage extremists cause to our society is reason enough to act. And there is, undoubtedly, a thread that binds the kind of extremism that promotes intolerance, hatred and a sense of superiority over others to the actions of those who want to impose their values on us through violence.

It is not ‘extremist’, the Archbishop is essentially saying, to hold orthodox views about Jesus or socially-conservative views about sexual morality, abortion or marriage. The ‘extremism’ with which the law ought to concern itself is that which incites to violence or causes harm, against which there are already sufficient laws to secure prosecution. Targeting Christians for their moral orthodoxy, or labelling as ‘hate speech’ the public proclamation of the gospel, does indeed “narrow the mainstream too much”.

It is interesting that much of the media reporting of this speech has chosen to focus on the antidote to Jihad being to make the tedium of religion somehow more ‘exciting’, as though the God who created the universe needs to compete with the latest iGadget. What could be more ‘exciting’ than a relationship with the Living God? If you’re jaded with the unimaginative deadness of your spiritual life; if your religion isn’t ‘exciting’ enough, seriously, you need to change it. But change it for one which will amuse you – if not to death, certainly endlessly. Christianity is most revolutionary when it is lived out in spirit and in truth. It is most vibrant when believers counter-intuitively love not only their neighbours but also their enemies. It is positively zippy when it is counter-culturally challenging preconceptions, presuppositions, prejudices and injustices.

By way of response (kind of) to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Iain Dale on LBC interviewed the Rev’d Gavin Ashenden, chaplain to the Queen (or one of them). The encounter is recorded in the Daily Mail (or some of it). He says that he was “attracted to Christianity because it invites people to the extremity of forgiveness and love”. To which Iain Dale responds that Muslims would say that Islam was “entirely peaceful”. To which the Rev’d Gavin points out that parts of the Qur’an “tell you to kill your enemies”. The Mail account continues:

He then quoted verses which he said urged Muslims to ‘strike off the heads’ of ‘those who disbelieve’.

When warned his comments could offend Muslims, he said: ‘If they are offended by my quoting the Koran they are not offended by me, they are offended by the Koran.’

He added: ‘If you’re going to talk about excitement in Christianity it’s about delivering people from evil and transforming people’s lives.’

Asked whether he would describe certain parts of the Koran as evil, he said: ‘I notice that they invite people to violence. I’ll let other people decide whether that’s good or evil.’

The Church of England did not respond when contacted last night. Buckingham Palace declined to comment.

Perhaps the Rev’d Gavin Ashenden is cruising for banishment, or certainly begging not to be re-appointed to his ministry following a change of monarch. And yet those who take offence at anything that the Queen’s chaplain has said, or otherwise kick up a fuss about ‘hate-speech’ or ‘Islamophobia’ or ‘racism’ or ‘bigotry’, fundamentally fail to grasp the liberty which is being asserted by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

We must be free to articulate our views on all matters of religion, and to do so forcefully, passionately and with deep conviction, even if the ‘truth’ should offend. The gospel offends. The cross of Christ offends. It is heartening that “The Church of England did not respond when contacted last night” and that “Buckingham Palace declined to comment”. There is nothing to respond to or comment upon. This is a Church of England chaplain simply explaining why Christianity ‘excites’ him – ‘extreme’ forgiveness and love of enemies – and why some Muslims find ‘excitement’ in Jihad – ‘extreme’ killing your enemies and striking off their heads.

He then leaves it to others to discern between good and evil. Doubtless those who are inclined toward the ‘exciting’ Saudi-Salafist strand of Islam will find his undiplomatic agnosticism offensive. It is interesting that LBC leapt straightaway to Lambeth and Buckingham palaces in search of instant condemnation of the Chaplain. By refusing to find ‘good’ in the Qur’an; by declining to convey its scriptural perfection and affirm the truths set down by Allah in Arabic, the Queen’s chaplain has hated by omission, and thereby brought a media fatwa on his head.

Being an eminent theologian and experience pastor, the Rev’d Canon Dr Gavin Ashenden LLB BA MTh DPhil will be more than familiar with the importance of historical context, scriptural authorship, cultural mutability and the essential Sitz im Leben of a text. He has weighed these quranically, and found them wanting. He leaves it to others to discern the goodness or evil of Mohammed’s narrative.

But if it is not evil to incite violence or exhort hatred, what is it? The question is, is it evil to challenge the integrity, veracity and reliability of the precepts of a false prophet?