Monday, 25 October 2010

Is Cameron also signalling a shift in our defence policy?

The recently announced 8% cuts in the defence budget have brought out a raft of ideological commentary across the media. The Mail frets about the danger of a ‘fresh Argentinian invasion’ of the Falklands following the downsizing; the Guardian heralds the end of Tony Blair’s liberal interventionism doctrine with barely disguised glee.

The 8% cuts at first glance seem small compared to the slash-and-burn other government departments have been subjected to, but in context they are not insignificant. The UK will now be spending a lower percentage of GNP on defence (just under 2%) than at any other time since records began, and will have the ability to deploy about two thirds of the troops committed by Blair to Helmand and Iraq. In that context, it’s unsurprising that reactions have been mixed.

Whatever your position, one thing is clear - the defence cuts mean that the UK will have to reappraise its role on the world stage, and the interventions which characterised the Blair years will become much less viable, at least with the UK leading the charge. It’s the liberal philosophy of localisation writ large - overseas problems will no longer be our burden to bear.

Is this a good thing? Many on the left were unanimous in opposition to Blair’s wars, but as Nick Cohen has argued, progressive values are not geographically or culturally limited, but universal. This was always the moral foundation of Blair’s liberal interventionism. It’s all well and good for progressives to argue for improvements in the UK democratic system, but surely that carries a duty to spread democracy in those places in the world that have none?

I think yes, you may disagree. But the self-perception of the UK as a major global power needs to be put to bed, and that’s one good thing that could come out of these cuts. If we are going to influence global events in the future, and I believe we should aspire to do so, then we need to do it as a part of a more integrated Europe. The aim of interventionism is to spread progressive ideas in places where they haven’t taken root organically, so the best way to do that (within the new fiscal constraints) is in concert with other states who share the same ideas.

As ever, these natural allies are to be found not over the Atlantic but across the channel. The Liberal Democrats may seem neutered in this government, but they remain the most intuitively pro-European political force in the UK. That’s why Clegg should use whatever remaining influence he has to leverage the unease around the defence cuts into an argument for greater EU integration - you know it makes sense, Nick.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

The Curious Case of the Ahmadiyya

The Independent has run a long article today outlining their recent investigation into the escalating tensions between Britain’s Ahmadi Muslim community and adherents of more orthodox strains of Islam. 
According to their findings, recent leaflets and TV announcements have encouraged Muslims to attack and murder the Ahmadiyya, following an outbreak of violence in Pakistan where two Ahmadi mosques were bombed by the Pakistani Taliban.

The Ahmadiyya have long been controversial within the Islamic world. Indeed, in Pakistan it is illegal for them to call themselves Muslims, which explains why they are disproportionately represented in Britain’s Pakistani diaspora. They believe that their founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835 - 1908) was the Mahdi, a prophet eagerly awaited by Muslims worldwide, who - according to some, but not all, Islamic scholars - comes to Earth to guide mankind back to the true path of Islam. Incidentally, Iran’s inimitable president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad belongs to a different sect which is still awaiting the Mahdi, or Twelfth Imam as they’d have it. Reportedly Ahmadinejad has ploughed major resources into a Mosque in the Iranian city of Qom to prepare for the Mahdi’s arrival. But I digress.

The Ahmadiyya’s belief that their sect’s founder was a prophet comes into conflict with the established orthodox Islamic notion that there can be no more prophets after Mohammed. There are other differences of opinion, notably over the question of whether Jesus was actually a prophet - the Ahmnadiyya aren’t so sure, whereas orthodox Muslims believe that he was.

I summarise all this to give some flavour of the dispute that has arisen in the subcontinent and spilled into the UK and Europe. To flesh this out further, here’s a summary of a debate held on the satellite Ummah channel, cribbed from the Independent article:
When a caller named Asim asked for a scholar to explain whether Ahmadis were legitimate Muslims the imam replied: "Since the time of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) the Sahiba [knowledgeable scholars] have confirmed that anyone who believes in a prophet after the Holy Prophet is a kafir [unbeliever], murtad [apostate] and Wajib-ul Qatal [liable for death].
What is not mentioned here, by The Independent or by any mainstream outlet, is that it’s completely immaterial what difference of theological opinion exists between the Ahmadiyya and other Muslims - the point is, they’re all wrong. It’s as simple as that, and that is simple.

The whole debate is reminiscent of the Thomas Aquinas project to ascertain how many angels can dance on the head of a pin - the question itself is null and void, since there are no angels in existence. Similarly it makes no difference if Ahmad is considered a prophet or not, since neither he or Mohammed ever had any revelation from God - whether some ‘believe’ that or not is neither here or there.

Since The God Delusion there has been an extensive backlash against Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris et al - often dismissed as the ‘militant atheists’, usually followed up by the asinine claim that they are just the same as religious fanatics in their zeal for atheism. But this latest spate of sectarian hatred between the Ahmadiyya and orthodox Muslims just shows how right the ‘new’ atheists were - it really is nonsensical to humour this sort of thing. The real-world consequences of these absurd ideas are very often harmful, so why should it be considered ‘insensitive’ to point out that neither side is ‘right’ in any meaningful sense?

It’s a debate between equally unprovable and nebulous assertions - we’ll never ‘know’ whether Ahmad was a prophet, but we do know for sure that there has never been a recorded and proven case of a human hearing a divine revelation. Surely the free press in secular societies should re-enforce this sort of rational perspective, instead of condescendingly worrying about offending this or that community’s beliefs?

When complaints were made about the Ummah channel debate, Ofcom ruled that the channel was guilty of "abusive treatment of the religious views and beliefs of members of the Ahmadiyya community”. Not ‘incitement to violence on the grounds of fantasy’, not ‘abusive treatment of the concept of logic’, but crimes committed against the beliefs of the Ahmadiyya community.

Free speech should enable the Ummah channel pundits to give their opinion on the Ahmadiyya, but it should also allow mainstream secular pundits to describe the whole situation as they see it in the cold light of day - completely divorced from reason or any known reality. It’s an argument between people who believe a 7th Century myth and people who believe in a 19th Century myth.

It would all be harmless, and just a waste of intellectual energy, if it was constrained to TV studios and theology departments in universities - but this debate has already cost lives in Pakistan, and has threatened lives in the UK. Dawkins was right all along, and it would be an error to let his detractors set the tone - ‘respecting’ these harmful ideas only gives them room to breathe and disseminate, resulting in more lives endangered or lost.