Edmund Burke and Islam

The majority of men are in no persuasion bigots; they are not willing to sacrifice on every vain imagination that superstition or enthusiasm holds forth, or that even zeal and piety recommend, the certain possession of their temporal happiness …

If anything can tend to revive and keep [fanaticism] up, it is to keep alive the passions of men by ill usage. This is enough to irritate even those who have not a spark of bigotry in their constitution to the most desperate enterprises; it certainly will inflame, darken and render more dangerous the spirit of bigotry in those who are possessed by it. (Edmund Burke, Tracts on the Popery Laws, 1765.)

I found this quotation as the Arab Spring was beginning, when many in the West (and a few in the Middle East) predicted that it might lead to Islamist victories across the region. It still may. This article uses Burke’s dictum to argue that even so, freedom, in the end, is the enemy of extremism.

Since I first started to write this article, various incidents have called this into question. In Egypt, a church was torched and Muslim-Christian clashes turned bloody. In Afghanistan, a mob stormed the UN compound in Mazar-e-Sharif and murdered unarmed aid workers inside. These incidents seem to bear out a different view from Burke’s – that of Thomas Hobbes, who said in Leviathan that men, though loving liberty, chose law in order to escape that miserable condition of Warre, which is necessarily consequent (as hath been shewn) to the naturall Passions of men, when there is no visible Power to keep them in awe, and tye them by feare of punishment to the performance of their Covenants.

I call this “ochlophobia”: the fear of the mob, the Hobbesian fear that only tough policing and secure governments can keep the lid on the seething passions of the people they rule.

I do not dismiss Hobbes’s argument altogether. It is entirely true that unless the government of a country prevents it, the strong will oppress the weak. If we look at the contrast between Western societies and Middle Eastern ones, it is of course true that their governments are far more autocratic than ours are. On the other hand, in certain ways, it is in the West that governments in a broader sense exercise more control over their people – when it comes to taxation, traffic control or the dropping of litter, to take a few mundane examples. The compact between the people and the state, which Hobbes said was the foundation of civic peace, is far stronger and wider reaching in Western societies than in most Arab ones.

No, the main problem with the Hobbesian line of thought is the assumption, implicit in it, that there is a kind of irrationality at work in Muslim societies that has been eliminated in our own. I see this in the ignorant attacks made by Western politicians on Islam and Muslims and, sometimes, in the ignorant attempts to win over Muslims by appealing to their religious sentiment and behaving as though the mentality of people in the Middle East were utterly different from that of Europeans and Americans.

Instead, I suggest that in those rare cases where irrationality is truly at work in any human society, we need to look for the ill usage that has caused it. Islam is not the determining factor that distinguishes pro-Western peoples from those who are anti-Western. There are Muslim Kosovars who were named “Tonibler” in honour of Britain’s former prime minister; I would guess that their parents were not anti-Western. In Afghanistan, by contrast, the scale and cold-blooded nature of the killings in Mazar shocked and baffled me. But the general frustrations felt by Afghans are easy enough to diagnose.

Once, after all, Afghan attitudes toward foreigners were rather different as described by the great British diplomat Mountstuart Elphinstone, who visited Peshawar in 1802. He several times points out that in matters of religion, the Afghans were broad-minded and that Europeans lived freely among them. In one touching scene, he describes an Afghan from the Court and one of his own Cockney servants walking arm in arm through the king’s gardens.

Between that time and this, though, Afghanistan has experienced disempowerment and conflict – including 20 years of continuous conflict right up to the 2001 invasion and, much longer ago but still remembered, three British-Afghan wars.

Furthermore, since 2001, economic inequalities within the country have soared. Many people in Afghanistan live on a dollar a day; many foreigners are earning 300 times that amount; some Afghans with government connections have lately become billionaires. Worse than this, the inequalities are openly on show. Traditional Arab cities such as Damascus hide opulence behind closed doors: a tradition of sitr, respect for privacy, preserves to some extent the dignity of the poor. In Afghanistan, this tradition has been abandoned. The four-wheel-drive car is the status symbol of choice. Huge villas have been built for politicians on state-owned land. Elections in 2004, 2005, 2009 and 2010 have been viewed with increasing cynicism, as fraud became widespread and apparent. All this has happened under the aegis of the international community.

In Egypt, there has been a similar problem of soaring inequalities and an absence of true political enfranchisement. Many people blame sectarian incidents on the policies of the country’s former regime. George Ishaq, leader of the famous Kefaya movement and himself a Christian, far from agreeing with the slogan ”stability is better than democracy” said he would never forgive Condi Rice for saying it. He himself, he said, had just managed to stave off another church burning through the simple means of sitting and talking to the people who wanted to carry it out. A whole range of people suggested that the reason for increasing social conservatism and intolerance was precisely that this kind of open dialogue and inclusivity was so lacking.

A parallel for this comes from Burke’s own time. In the passage quoted above, he was writing about my ancestors, Irish Catholics in the 18th century. At the time, they were accused of disloyalty to the state, hostility to the religions of those around them, seeking unapologetically to spread their own beliefs, resisting modernity and hankering after archaic forms of government. Some of their members had conspired to commit acts of terrorism: The 1605 Gunpowder Plot conspiracy, if it had been successful, would have been almost as shocking and deadly as 9/11.

In the case of Catholics, restrictive laws and hostile prejudice helped to make their community more cohesive and, I suspect, more conservative than it would otherwise have been. Theological and political moderation has followed the gradual opening up of economic and political opportunities, and the decreasing sense that a Catholic in England or the United States will necessarily be treated differently based on his or her religion.

The Cairo church burning and the Mazar decapitations were disgusting acts. Nothing that I write here is intended as an excuse for that behaviour or that of the clerics who incited it. The immediate response should be the arrest and punishment of the perpetrators. But I am arguing that ignorance, frustration and disenfranchisement have contributed to these incidents and that the policy response must take this into account. I also see these events as unrepresentative of the population of Afghanistan or Egypt at large. When crowds gathered in Cairo and Tunis, they were peaceful, humorous and mature; it was their governments that appeared anarchic and brutal.


At the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, held in February 2011 in Washington, a speech won applause for declaring that “political Islam” was “home and abroad … a mortal threat” to the United States. To make clear how broad his definition of political Islam was, the speaker explained that hundreds of millions of people believed in it. By saying that it was a threat at home as well as abroad, he obviously intended to point the finger at U.S. Muslims in particular.

He is not alone in doing so. Republican Party activist and would-be presidential candidate Herman Cain said that if elected president, he will not appoint Muslims as Cabinet officers or judges. He gave as his reason that they “are trying to force their Sharia law onto the rest of us.”

Let us, for the sake of argument, leave aside the judgment of Burke, a conservative thinker of another era, who said that the Sharia was “a law interwoven with a system of the wisest, the most learned, and most enlightened jurisprudence that perhaps ever existed in the world.” And let us ignore recent Pew polling that tells us that most U.S. Muslims are worried about the growth of Islamic militancy, not supportive of it, and that the proportion of Muslims who attend the mosque on Fridays is lower than that of Christians who go to church on Sundays.

Even then – even if we imagine that Muslims in the United States are in fact deeply wedded to the conversion of all other Americans to Islam – they are similar, in that respect, to Roman Catholics of previous generations and Protestants and many other groups. And what has tamed the religious fervour of those other groups is almost certainly that they now have a stake in the status quo, which means that the best way to undermine religious radicalism among U.S. Muslims is to appoint more of them, not fewer, as judges and Cabinet officers.

Burke favoured reform rather than revolution as a means to eliminate autocracy. Achieving this reform is the great task that now faces Arab peoples and governments, with the assistance of others if they wish it. In the meantime, in the West, it is time to put an end to practise what we preach: Honour the Arab Spring by putting an end to anti-Muslim rhetoric.

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