Islam


For those who don’t know about it and may be interested, I have just watched the trailer and two extracts (here and here) from Xavier Beauvois’ film Of Gods and men which I gather has been showing in Europe and the USA. I’ve no idea if it will be coming to South Africa, but, if not, I hope that I get to see it somehow.

There are also reviews in the Guardian and the New York Times.

The film deals with the 1996 martyrdom of the Cistercian community of Our Lady of the Atlas in Tibhirine, Algeria, an event that has deeply affected many people, including myself.  (There is also helpful material here from the author of The Monks of Tibhirine, including extracts from his book).

Update: For those who read French, after posting this I discovered a recent interview with Brother Jean-Pierre, one of the two monks who survived attack, in Le Figaro. I ‘ve only skimmed through it, but it certainly looks worth reading.

Another update: It turns out that it is showing in South Africa and I saw it on Friday night. I won’t say more now as it triggered emotions that I don’t really want to speak about online, but it was definitely very good, and an accurate reflection of the events (although I do agree with the Guardian reviewer that the refectory scene was a bit over the top). In any case, please do go and see it if you possibly can!

The more I read about this mosque controversy, and the more hatred of Islam I see, the more horrified I become. It turns out that even Geert Wilders is involved, which should tell one quite a lot about the sort of people who are opposing the Cordoba Initiative. Anyway, I was trying to ignore this as it only arouses my own passions, when I dipped into a collection of essays by David Goa:  A Regard for Creation: Collected Essays (Synaxis Press, 2008). One in particular caught my attention, entitled “Zealous for Truth” and I then discovered that it is also available online. I find Goa’s article particularly helpful for the way in which he shows the relationship between zealotry and relativism, something that comes into particular focus in some current western discussions of Islam.

Recently I have listened to various people talk about Islam. Some are noted scholars. Others are journalists and others simply thoughtful men and women in the grip of fear. I have come to know some of these people. These women and men identify themselves, usually with vigor, with either the right or the left in both religious and political circles. They identify a discreet set of cultural diseases with our present age and I share at least a portion of their concern. Where I part company with both the right and the left – conservatives and liberals – and with their growing fraternities is when they prescribe antidotes to our cultural diseases based on their relativism or zealousness for the truth.

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I’d been trying to avoid the row over the mosque in the vicinity of Ground Zero as a peculiarly American storm in a teacup that I am incapable of understanding. But when the British Tablet dedicated a lead feature article to it I decided I’d better take notice. It’s a valuable article that I would highly recommend. But it made me even more horrified at the fear mongering Islamophobia that I’ve seen online, including on Orthodox blogs. And it also inspired me to visit the Cordoba Initiative website, which seems something well worth supporting, unless one actually wants a clash of civilisations.

In a recent article in Thinking Faith, the new(ish) online journal of the British Jesuits, Michael Kirwan, SJ provides an interesting discussion of Dutch Islamophobia in the light René Girard’s mimetic theory. He suggests that, unlike the case in France which has a longer secular tradition, the Dutch reaction to Islam – which functions as a reminder of the “repressed sacred” – reflects discomfort at being reminded of their own religious culture which they rather suddenly discarded, and at the increasing dissatisfaction with the secular society which has replaced it.

I hesitate to comment much on Dutch society as my experience of it is rather limited. However, Kirwan’s analysis does make a lot of sense. I remember being quite taken aback when first arriving here at how much nostalgia there appeared to be for the Christian past among people who were not necessarily practising Christians. Religious artefacts which had been discarded in the 1960’s were becoming sought after treasures in antique shops. And a “Christian” identity becomes a way of defining oneself over and against the other, which is increasingly seen as Muslim. But it can also be a way of defining oneself over and against secularism, even when it has very little religious content. I think of someone I met recently who didn’t believe that Jesus even existed but insisted that she was a Christian – which she understood as being “spiritual” – and who got quite offended when I questioned her use of the word! Of course this is not limited to the Dutch – I seem to remember Rowan Williams making a similar point in Britain recently, and of course the reaction to his comments on Sharia points to a similar dynamic – but it does point to the faultlines of contemporary society. And Kirwan’s article provides a useful key to further reflection. Girard is one of the people I’ve been wanting to read for years now – I suppose that I should get down to him sometime!