Abdal Wadod Shalabi has remarked that a society only becomes
truly decadent when "decadence" as a principle is never referred to in public
debate. Prior generations of Muslims and Christians were forever fretting about their own
unworthiness when measured against past golden ages of goodness and sanctity. But in our
self-satisfied era, to invoke the idea of decadence is to invite accusations of a
retrograde romanticism: it is itself perceived, perversely enough, as a decadence.
Muslims looking at the West with a critical but compassionate eye are often disturbed by this absence of old-fashioned self-scrutiny. We note that no longer does the dominant culture avert complacency through reference to past moral and cultural excellence; rather, the paradigm to which conformity is now required is that of the ever-shifting liberal consensus. In this ambitiously inverted world, it is the future that is to serve as the model, never anything in the past. In fact, no truly outrageous ("blasphemous") discourse remains possible in modern societies, except that which violates the totalising liberalism supposedly generated by autonomous popular consent, but which is often in reality manufactured by the small, often personally immoral but nonetheless ideologised elites who dominate the media and sculpt public opinion into increasingly bizarre and unprecedented shapes.
The debate over the status of the family lies at the heart of the present ideological collision between the bloated but "decadent" North and the progressively impoverished South, a collision in the midst of which our community is attempting to define itself and to survive. This culture clash is so vital to the self-perception of each side that it is now all but inescapable. It seems that each time we switch on our televisions and sit back, we must observe northern prejudice and insecurity being massaged by an endless, earnest-humane diet of documentaries about the ills of the rigidly family-centred Third World, and the wicked reluctance of its peoples to conform to the social doctrines of the liberal democracies. To the average Westerner this one-way polemic seems satisfying and unarguable, confirming as it does assumptions of superiority which allay his nervousness about problems in his own society. It shapes the public opinion that goes on to acquiesce in the liquidation of Palestinians, Bosnians or Chechens with only the mildest (but self-righteously proclaimed) twinges of guilt. In fact, it is hard to resist the conclusion that the social doctrines of the modern West have been forged into the imperial ideologies of the closing years of the century, as polemicists use orthodox feminism and homosexualism as the perfect sticks with which to beat the Third World. A hundred years ago, white Christians interfered with everyone else for the sake of theological dogma and commerce; now they do so for reasons of social dogma and commerce. But the underlying attitude of contempt has remained essentially unchanged.
Muslims living in the West are perched in an interesting vantage point on this question. While many Islamic theologians have written on the "westernisation process" in the Muslim world and its nefarious effects on family life, the reality, as some of them have noted, is that this process is being championed by obsolete secular elites whose cultural formation was the achievement of the old imperial powers. The family lifestyle of the average secular Syrian or Turk is not that of a modern European, despite his outraged claims to the contrary. His clothes, furnishings, marriage rituals, and most details of life are more redolent of the 1940s and 1950s than of the present realities of Western existence. And so the mainstream Muslim debate on changes in the family, led by such thinkers as Anwar al-Jindi and Rasim Ozdenoren, tends to be of only slight relevance to our situation here in the heartlands of the "liberated" West.
As we attempt to theorise about our own condition, we are at once confronted by the irony that the country to which many of us migrated no longer exists. Back in the 1950s and early 1960s, British family values were still recognisably derived from a great religious tradition rooted in the family-nurturing Abrahamic soil. While the doctrinal debates between Islam and Christianity remained sharp, the moral and social assumptions of the "guest-workers" and their "hosts" were in most respects reassuringly and productively similar.
That overlap has now almost gone. Even the Churches no longer claim to be the coherent and convincing voices of absolute moral truths, as an increasingly spongelike rock of ages finds itself scoured and reshaped by the libertarian sandstorm. Cardinal Hume, the usually clear-headed spokesman of Britain's Catholics, has recently made conciliatory remarks about homophilia; while an Anglican bishop, resplendent in tight jeans and leather jacket, has openly announced his relationship with another man. So far from representing family values to their flock, 200 out of 900 London priests are said to subscribe to homosexual tendencies. The number of Christian and Jewish organisations and individuals eloquently singing the virtues of Sodom seems set to rise and rise, cheered on by the secularists, until the remaining voices of tradition are finally shouted down.
All this means that the Muslim community, already marginalised in terms of class, race, and economics, is now having to confront a further and potentially far more drastic form of alienation. As newcomers who are the sole defenders of values which would be recognised as legitimate by earlier generations of Britons, we are in a disorienting position. The temptation to panic, to retreat into factions and cults which excoriate the wider world as impure and evil, will claim many of us. Already such movements are making headway on the campuses. But such a sterile and facile temptation should be resisted, and, if our faith is really as strong as we and our detractors like to believe, it can be resisted easily and in favour of a far more mature and fruitful grasp of our relationship with the "host community".
But a strategy for the articulation of such a stance must be grounded in the knowledge that Muslim traditionalism does not appeal to the sort of comforting essentialist "metanarrative" whose claims to objective truth are less important than its status as a definer of cultural identity. Such has been the emergent error of the twentieth-century's rival essentialisms, particularly nationalism and fascism; and it is all too often the error of Muslim activists whose alertness to spiritual realities is subordinated to, or even replaced by, the quest for the pseudo-spiritual solace of authenticity. The narrative of Muslim civilisation, inspirational for the Muslim Brotherhood and neo-Ottoman revivalists until the 1970s, has suddenly given way to the utopian narrative of "the Salaf", on the problematic claim that the Salaf followed a consistent school of thought; but among the adherents of neither position do we find an immediate and responsive type of faith that yields, as true faith must, an ethic rooted in compassion and concern rather than a chronic obsession with purity.
What this means is that unless Muslims in Britain can counteract the impoverishing and exclusivist "ideologising" of Islam that has taken place in some Muslim countries, and return to an image of the faith as rooted in immediate and sincere concern for human welfare under a compassionate God, we will continue to fail to contribute to the national debate on this or any other question of real moment. It is not enough for the exclusivists to shrug, "But who cares what the unbelievers think". For Muslims are directed by the Quran to be an example to others. We cannot be an example, or successfully convey the message that God has revealed, if we hide in cultural ghettoes and act abrasively and arrogantly towards those we take such exquisite pleasure in considering beyond the pale. Instead, we must take the more difficult path of understanding the real dilemmas of this society, and then the even more difficult one of gently suggesting a remedy that may be of real assistance.
The time for such an advocacy is now. In recent weeks, several religious figures in Britain have offered their thoughts, often anguished, generally cogent, on the tragedy of the progressive decay of the family. The Bishop of Liverpool and the Chief Rabbi have both summarised the process with the usual statistics: 34% of British children are now born outside wedlock; a similar proportion of adults suffer the heartbreak of divorce; within twenty years fewer than half of the nation's children will be brought up by their own two parents; and so on. Few doubt the practical catastrophes which ensue: in the United States, it is said that over half of prison inmates are from broken homes, while men and women are known to suffer deep psychological harm from parental divorce even in middle life or old age. Sheppard and Sacks lament together that in a rapidly-changing world where the family haven has never been more needed by children and adults alike, it should have been wrecked by that most basic of all sins: selfishness. Nobody likes making a sacrifice: bowing at the idol of personal freedom we all shout for our rights and chafe under our duties. The lesson is irritating but clear: the Thatcherite egocentrism which posed as the apotheosis of Adam Smith's advocacy of competitive self-interest as the key to collective social advancement is claiming so many casualties as to endanger the whole undertaking. Greed creates rich men and happy Chancellors, but it now appears to come at a long-term price. Gigantic social and economic bills are now rolling in for extra policing, prisons, social workers and a growing blizzard of DHSS cheques. The socialist revolution has already failed; it seems that capitalism too may ultimately choke on its own contradictions.
So far, so good. It is unarguable, and not just to religious people, that greed has been a culprit. And yet the pleas for a return to selflessness have been heard so often in past ages, and with so little manifest effect, that they cannot be seen as holding out a believably sufficient solution. If religions are truly to have the capacity to overcome the worst consequences of human sinfulness then they must acknowledge that simple appeals to "be good" rarely have much impact, and must be accompanied by a practicable paradigm for reform. Neither the bishop nor the rabbi seem to have much to offer that is practical and concrete; which is perhaps why they have been tolerated and even platformed by politicians and the liberal media. But as Muslims, possessed of a religious dispensation granted through an intermediary whose status as "a mercy to the nations" was manifested in a concrete social as well as moral programme, we know that the present plight of society will never be reformed through homiletics. Structural changes are called for as well: and, given the gravity of the problem, we should not be surprised to learn that they can be painful.
Hardly less obvious than the causes of family decline are the reasons why establishment ideologues refuse to recognise them. The politicians are the most flagrant instance: last week's sorry resignation by Social Charter minister Robert Hughes in order to "repair his marriage" after an illicit fling is simply the latest in a string of by now frankly boring incidents which show the political establishment (and not even the moralising Mr Ashdown, the leader of the UK Liberal Democrat Party, has been immune) as largely incapable of leading a moral life. And yet tucked away in the office of every MP are all the clues we need. There before his desk, adding spice to his every tedious letterwriting moment, is that anarchic presence which unless he is very buttoned up indeed may prove his undoing. The number of MPs who have secretaries as second wives is second only to the number with surreptitious concubines. Only aberrant idiocy - or complaisance - can ignore the fact that if a politician, charged with that eroticism which power seems to generate, works late hours with a member of the opposite sex, a conflagration is probable rather than possible. Under such conditions the system offers no protection whatsoever for suffering children and spouses, who will be traumatised even to the point of suicide. Again, the disastrous notion that individual rights take precedence over the rights of the family has resulted in degradation for both.
But politics is merely the most notorious example of an environment in which, as the Iranians say, "fire dwelleth with cotton". As the current anguished debate over sexual harrassment reveals, there remains hardly a public space into which private desires do not obtrude. Never before has there been a society in which men and women mingle so casually, and where the radically increased opportunity for temptation and unfaithfulness is so patent that even the most anti-moralising journalist, politician or social strategist must see it.
In Tom Wolfe's popular novel Bonfire of the Vanities, a young financier commits adultery, destroying his wife and daughter, simply because New York is a city "drowning in concupiscence" and he is its child. It is not simply the routine mixing of the sexes that brings about his downfall. Everywhere his eyes wander he sees advertising, pornography, news stories and squeezy fashions that grasp at him and shout aloud the charm of duty-free sex. Wolfe's adulterer is an ordinary, not a fundamentally evil man: he is simply living in a world in which most human beings cannot behave responsibly.
New York is not yet London - but the Atlantic grows narrower all the time, and the eroticising of the public space has become part of our culture. Middle-aged men with middle-aged wives once had little to tempt them, short of an unhealthy adventure with a Piccadilly tart. Now, with a superabundance of flesh reminding them painfully at every turn of what they are missing, they are unlikely to remain loyal unless they are either stupid, or belong to that category of powerfully moral human beings which always has been and always will be a minority.
A radical diagnosis, although obvious enough: but is there a cure? Islam recognises as a major misdemeanour a crime unimaginable in the West: khalwa, or "illegitimate seclusion". Moral disasters always have preludes; Islam seeks to reduce the social matrix in which such preludes can occur. Thus our commitment to single-sex education. Not for us the absurd desperation of the Clackmannan headmaster who last month introduced the rule that boy and girl pupils may not be closer than six inches from each other, because 'spring is in the air." But schools are the merest starting-point. The workplace, too, while not obstructing female advancement, should ensure that the rights of spouses are protected by denying all possibility of illegitimate seclusion in the office. Politicians and business people who insist on employing a personal assistant of the opposite sex should explain their reasons. Pornography and sub-pornographic advertising should be carefully censored as intolerably demeaning and as an incitement to marital infidelity, the task of censorship being entrusted to those feminists who so rightly object to such portrayals of their sex.
The tragedy for Britain is, of course, that this remedy, while as self-evidently worth implementing as the sex drive itself, will be brushed aside with amazement and scorn by passing journalists and politicians. Convinced that Islam implies discrimination by its policy of gender separation, and privately depressed by the prospect of diminished sexual interest at work, the same liberal establishment which bewails the fragility of modern relationships will continue to encourage and live in the public environment which is at the root of the problem. But Islam by its very nature takes the long view, and we should not be disheartened. The process of family collapse is proving so radical in its economic and human consequences that the time must ultimately come when the decadence will be recognised for what it is and radical solutions will be considered. Then, quite possibly, the principled Muslim conservatism that is so derided today will come into its own.
The secular mind may be too witless to notice, but to religious
people the New Social Doctrines are fast acquiring the look of a new religion. The
twentieth century's great liberationisms often feel like powerful sublimations of the
religious drive, as the innate yearning for freedom from worldly ties and the straitjacket
of the self becomes strangely transmuted into a great convulsion against restrictions on
In this sense, the politically-correct West is an intensely religious society. It has its dogmas and theologians, its saints, martyrs and missionaries, and, with the arrival of speech-codes on American campuses, a well-developed theory of the suppression of blasphemy.
Some have mused that all this is necessary, and that human beings need certainties and causes, and that without an orthodoxy to hold itself together the West would rapidly unravel and turn to lawlessness. But the trouble is that the new doctrines, which are now enshrined in legislation, school curricula and broadcasting guidelines, do not make up either an authentic new religion, or even a sustainable substitute for one. For religious morality, whether Muslim, Christian, Buddhist or Eskimo, holds society together with the idea that personal fulfilment is attained through the honourable discharge of duties. The West's new religion, in absolute contrast, teaches that it comes about through the enjoyment of rights.
Given the extremism of this inversion, it is not surprising that the societies which it affects should be running into difficulties. To paraphrase Conor Cruise O"Brien, the trouble with secular social medicines is that the more they are applied, the sicker the patient seems to become. It is certainly a blasphemy today to suggest that the new orthodoxies have worsened our social ills rather than bringing us into a shining and liberated utopia - but this is what has happened. And yet the pseudo-religion is still powerful enough to ensure that the notions which have presided over such destruction may not be subject to criticism in polite society. Muslims are perhaps the only people left who do not care for such politeness.
One of the most characteristic liberationisms of this century has been feminism. Divided into a myriad tendencies, some cautious and reasoned, others wandering into unimaginable territories of witchcraft and lesbianism, this is a movement about which few generalisations can be made. But perhaps a good place to start is the observation that women were the major though unintended victims of both Victorian pre-feminist and late twentieth-century feminist values. The disabilities suffered by wives in traditional Christian cultures, which denied that they even existed as financial or legal entities distinct from their husbands, may have been accepted without demur by most of them; but real injustice and suffering was caused to those for whom the social supports were cut away, and who found themselves in need of an independent existence. The feminism of the suffragettes was thus a real quest for justice. It moved Western society away from Christian tradition, and towards the Islamic norm in which a woman is always a separate legal entity even after marriage, retaining her property, surname, inheritance rights, and the right to initiate legal proceedings.
What Muslims are less happy about is the new feminism of the past three decades, the militantly ideologised world-view of Friedan, Greer and Daly. These thinkers initiated a new phase by attacking not only structural unfairnesses in society, but the most fundamental assumptions about male and female identity. "Until the myth of the maternal instinct is abolished, women will continue to be subjugated", wrote Simone de Beauvoir; and similar noises could be heard from the new feminists everywhere. In this view, the traditional association of femaleness with feminity and maleness with manhood was biologically and morally meaningless, and was to be attacked as the underpinning of the whole traditional edifice of "patriarchy".
At this point, people of Muslim faith have to jump ship. The Quran and our entire theological tradition are rooted in the awareness that the two sexes are part of the inherent polarity of the cosmos. Everything in creation has been set up in pairs, we believe; and it is this magnetic relationship between alternate principles which brings movement and value into the world. Like the ancient Chinese, with their division of the 1,001 Things into Yin and Yang, the Muslims, naming phenomena with the gender-specific Arabic of revelation, know that gender is not convention but principle, not simple biology - but metaphysics.
Allah has ninety-nine names. Some are Names of Majesty: such as the Compeller, the Overwhelming, the Avenger. Others are Names of Beauty: the Gentle, the Forgiving, the Loving-Kind. The former category are broadly associated with male virtues, and the latter with female ones. But as all are God's perfect Names, and equally manifest the divine perfection, neither set is superior. And the Divine Essence to which they all resolve transcends gender. Islam has no truck with the hazardous Christian notion that God is male (the "Father"), an assumption that has been invoked to justify traditional Western notions of the objective superiority of the male principle.
Islam's position is thus a nuanced one. Metaphysically, the male and female principles are equal. It is through their interaction that phenomena appear: all creation is thus in a sense procreation. But justice is not necessarily served by attempting to establish a simple parity between the principles in society "here-below". The divine names have distinct vocations; and human gender differentiation was created for more than simple genetic convenience. Both man and woman are God's khalifas on earth; but in manifesting complementary aspects of the divine perfection their "ministries" differ in key respects.
Islam's awareness that when human nature (fitra) is cultivated rather than suppressed, men and women will incline to different spheres of activity is of course one which provokes howls of protest from liberals: for them it is a classic case of blasphemy. But even in the primitive biological and utilitarian terms which are the liberals" reference, the case for absolute identity of vocation is highly problematic. However heavily society may brainwash women into seeking absolute parity, it cannot ignore the reality that they have babies, and have a tendency to enjoy looking after them. Those courageous enough to leave their careers while their children are small increasingly have to put up with accusations of blasphemy and heresy from society; but they persist in their belief, outrageous to the secular mind, that mothers bring up children better than childminders, that breastmilk is better than formula milk, and even - this as the ultimate heresy - that bringing up a child can be more satisfying than trading bonds or driving buses.
There are already signs that women are rebelling against the feminist orthodoxy that demands an absolute parity of function with men, and that "dropping out" to look after a child is less outrageous in the minds of many educated women than the media might suggest. But much real damage has been done. The campaign to turn fathers into nurturers and house-husbands shows little sign of success; and many houses have become more like dormitories than homes. Mealtimes are desultory, tin-opening affairs; both parents are too exhausted to spend "quality time" with active children; and the sense of belonging to the house and to each other is sadly attenuated. By the time children leave home, they feel they are not leaving very much.
In such a dismal context, dissolution is almost logical. The stress of the two-career family is greater than many normal people can manage. Increased income and (for some) pleasure at work are poor compensations for the increased scope for fatigue and dispute. Deprived of the woman's gift for warming a house, both husband and children are made less secure. The overlap in functions provides endless room for argument. And when the dissolution comes, it is almost always the woman who suffers most. As an ageing lone parent, she finds that society has little interest in her. She has joined the new class of "wives of the state".
The state, luckily, can afford to be a polygamist. The social unravelment of modern Britain has coincided with a massive augmentation of tax revenue. As long as the rate of social collapse does not outstrip the annual growth in GDP there is little for politicians to worry about. And yet the fate of literally millions of single families is a harsh one. The case for traditional single-income families, in which women are permitted to celebrate rather than suppress their nurturing genius, is increasingly looking more moral than the liberals have guessed.
But the feminists are not the only moths to have been gnawing the social fabric. There are others, some of them even more radical. The most strident are the homosexualists, the curious but always repulsive ideologues who are forcing on the population a dogma whose consequences for the family are already proving lethal.
As with feminism, the theological case against homosexuality is related to our understanding of the "dyadic" nature of creation. Human sexuality is an incarnation of the divinely-willed polarity of the cosmos. Male and female are complementary principles, and sexuality is their sacramental and fecund reconciliation. Sexual activity between members of the same sex is therefore the most extreme of all possible violations of the natural order. Its biological sterility is the sign of its metaphysical failure to honour the basic duality which God has used as the warp and woof of the world.
It is true, nonetheless, that the homosexual drive remains poorly understood. It appears as the definitive argument against Darwinism's hypothesis of the systematic elimination over time of anti-reproductive traits. In some cultures it is extremely rare: Wilfred Thesiger records that in the course of his long wanderings with the Arabian bedouins he never encountered the slightest indication of the practice. In other societies, particularly modern urban cultures, it is very widespread. Theories abound as to why this should be so: some researchers speculate that in overpopulated communities the tendency represents Nature's own technique of population control. Laboratory rats, we are told, will remain resolutely heterosexual until disturbed by bright lights, loud noises, and extreme overcrowding. Other scientists have speculated about the effects of "hormone pollution" from the thousands of tonnes of estrogen released into the water supply by users of contraceptive pills. Again, this remains without proof.
But what is increasingly suggested by recent research is that homosexual tendencies are not always acquired, and that some individuals are born with them as an identifiable irregularity in the chromosomes. The implications of this for moral theology are clear: given the Quran's insistence that human beings are responsible only for actions they have voluntarily acquired, homosexuality as an innate disposition cannot be a sin.
It does not follow from this, of course, that acting in accordance with such a tendency is justifiable. Similar research has indicated that many human tendencies, including forms of criminal behaviour, are also on occasion traceable to genetic disorders; and yet nobody would conclude that the behaviour was therefore legitimate. Instead, we are learning that just as God has given people differing physical and intellectual gifts, He tests some of us by implanting moral tendencies which we must struggle to overcome as part of our self-reform and discipline. A mental patient with an obsessive desire to set fire to houses has been given a particular hurdle to overcome. A man or woman with strong homosexual urges faces the same challenge.
To the religious believer, it is unarguable that homosexual acts are a metaphysical as well as a moral crime. Heterosexuality, with its association with conception, is the astonishing union which leads to new life, to children, grandchildren, and an endless progeny: it is a door to infinity. Sodomy, by absolute contrast, leads nowhere. As always, the most extreme vice comes about when a virtue is inverted.
None of this is of interest to the secular mind, of course, which detects no meaning in existence and hence cannot imagine why maximum pleasure and gratification should not be the goal of human life. The notion that we are here on earth in order to purify our souls and experience the incomparable bliss of the divine presence is utterly alien to most of our compatriots. And yet there is a purely secular argument against homophilia which we can attempt to deploy.
Homosexualism represents a radical challenge to the institution of marriage. Its propagandists will not concede the fact, but it attacks the most vital norm of our species, which is the union of male and female for which we are manifestly designed and which is the natural context for the raising of children. In times such as ours, when nature is no longer regarded as authoritative, and lifestyles are in all other respects an abnormal departure from the way in which human beings have lived for countless millennia, society cannot afford to believe that male-female unions are of only relative worth. The more the alternatives proliferate, the less the norm will be seen as sacred. Every victory for the homosexualist lobby is thus a blow struck against that normality without which society cannot survive.
It is in the context of the struggle to protect the family that the campaign against homosexualism becomes most universally accessible. The screaming fanatics who "out" bishops and demand a lowering of the "gay" age of consent are among the most bitter enemies of the fitra, that primordial norm which, for all the diversity of the human race, has consistently expressed itself in marriage as the natural context for the nurturing of the new generation. That which is against the fitra is by definition destructive: it is against humanity and against God. This awareness needs to be reflected in legislation, which for too long has sought to relativise the family as merely one of a range of lifestyle options.
Muslims sometimes hold that the collapse of family values in the West will serve the interests of wider humanity. Decadence, they say, is what it has chosen and deserves; and the inevitable implosion of its society will leave the field open for morally-strong Islam to regain its place as the world's dominant civilisation. The trouble with this theory is that the implosion shows no sign of leading to total collapse. Technology and wealth allow the creation of surveillance and social-security systems which can deal with the growing number of casualties. There is certainly an irony in a New World Order policed by a state which cannot keep order in Central Park after nightfall. But unless we are foolishly optimistic, or hope for absolute totalitarianism, we cannot but be anxious about social trends in the West. The survival of the Western family is a question of immediate Muslim concern, and we must offer our views until the time comes when our friends and neighbours, their doctrines broken on the anvil of reality, are humbled enough to listen.
Abdal Hakim Murad
[Currently, he is a Research Fellow at the University of Oxford. He studied at the universities of Cambridge and al-Azhar, Egypt, and has also translated a number of Islamic works including Imam al-Bayhaqi's The Seventy Seven Branches of Faith (Quilliam Press, 1992).]