Anti-Islamic hysteria is about us, not them

The story has been out of the press for a few months now, but the furore-that-was surrounding Rowan Williams and his rather modest, academic musings about sharia law has got me thinking. The interest that inheres in this has nothing to do with what Rowan Williams said: as far as I can discern his idea was boring and broadly unappealing. All he wanted to do was to talk about the limits of universalistic law in a religiously pluralistic society; he thought that there might be a case for the de jure recognition of now existent de facto sharia law courts for cases of civil adjudication, on the proviso that all parties consented to be bound by the judgments of the court. The real locus of interest is the intemperate reaction of the press and the hysterical breast-beating of the general population.

I’m aware that some of this reaction was because of the cynical decision of some journalists to act as agents provocateur, but I don’t want to dissolve the whole reaction in the solvent of journalistic sensationalism acting under the Mephistophelean influence of capitalist inducements: this wasn’t just the look-at-me press. It may have been that at first, but the story ran and ran, news cycle after news cycle. The story had resonance; it spoke to people. Clearly the British public is terrified and angered by their sense of Islamic encroachment. The way in which people did react to this just crystallized in me something that I have felt indistinctly for some time: as a nation we are far more frightened of, and attentive to, issues about Islam than objective circumstances would warrant.

The fear of terrorist attack is greater; the political intensity inspired by the issue greater; the restriction of civil liberties greater; the angst about the assimilation of Muslim immigrants greater than any even-handed appraisal of the situation would seem to justify. That is: there is something inside of us that causes us to obsess about Islam and to make unfounded claims about the world ‘out there.’ Some inner sense of inadequacy or deficiency, some unconscious fear, is being projected onto that constellation of ideas and forces and groups that we subsume under the label of Islam. And I think that underlying social psychological cause is a submerged identity neurosis.

We don’t know who we are; where we have come from and where we’re going; who’s in the group and who’s out; how we ought to make sense of the world; and how we ought to act. I think very simply that the cause is Durkheimian anomie: the conscience collective has become attenuated and one of the manifestations of this is a paranoid perspective on Islam. The anomie is difficult to provenance; you’re always going to be playing the part of the speculative historian working from intuition not evidence. To give a hedging answer, it seems to be of twin provenance. One bundle of causes is material: late capitalism with its aggressive, empty individualism, its hyper-consumerism, its bureaucratization, instrumentalism and globalization has hollowed out our sense of living in a non-consequentialist community where human relatedness and bonds of affection are foundational. The other bundle of causes is ideational: our relativistic, populist liberalism with its cult of the individual and its antinomianism has dissolved older prescriptive moralities and systems of thought along with the structures – family, Church, classes – which used to disseminate them. Very crudely then, too much freedom is leaving us with a feeling of being hollowed out and lost. We have been thrown into a deconfigured world in which the dominant Weltanschauung offers us too little to satisfy our basic non-material needs. To be told that we should go out into the given world (capitalist, democratic, secularist) as self-creating individuals and live however we think best, creating whatever identity for ourselves is compatible with our own genius and sense of conscience, so long as we abide by certain social minimums (respect for reciprocal negative liberty, tolerance, adherence to the law) is to be abandoned to doubt and the anxiety of the modern.

Hysterical fear of terrorist attack, consequent foreign adventures, consequent security service scaremongering and restriction of civil liberties; anxiety about a quasi-apocalyptic global ideological struggle between liberal democracy and militant Islam (mapped onto now redundant Cold War categories); deep unease about the assimilation of Muslim immigrants with their gender politics, their headscarves, their barbarously slaughtered meat: – all of it is nothing but that anxiety turned outwards. Some of it is angry, some of it fearful; but underneath all of it lies the bewilderment that comes from turning inwards and seeing nothing.

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