Our commitment to the values on which our society is based has been hollowed outby Michael Axworthy / September 25, 2005 / Leave a comment
Picture a country in which no women have the vote and few are employed outside the home. A country in which, through conviction or social pressure most people attend religious gatherings once a week, in which the state religion and the law ban homosexuality, where there are powerful religious movements urging abstinence from alcohol, where it is normal for women over 30 to wear black and where they only appear in public if their bodies are completely covered, in which married women have only recently acquired property rights, and there is a strong social stigma against divorce, illegitimacy and sex outside marriage.
Saudi Arabia? Pakistan? Iran? No—this is a picture of Britain in 1900 (in modern Iran and Pakistan at least, many of the above are not true). A century ago, many of the things we criticise today in other parts of the world, particularly concerning the treatment of women, held true in our own country. Viewed from this perspective, those restrictive social forms look normal, and the changes that have taken place in Britain and other western countries since then can be seen as a huge experiment in human personal freedom, the consequences of which are still being worked through.
From the more traditional perspective, Islamic or otherwise, many features of modern western society look dangerous, ugly or repellent: rampant materialism, widespread family breakdown, sexual promiscuity, drug addiction, the universal display of women’s bodies in images in public to sell merchandise, and news and entertainment media in which violence, paedophilia and a variety of other problems and abuses are exaggerated and portrayed as commonplace. Never mind whether this picture of western society as shallow and materialistic is accurate, it is one which many outside the west—and many Muslims within the west—have acquired, partly as a result of the way in which we in the west choose to present ourselves through our media and advertising. To many in more traditional societies, the western way of life looks both seductive and aggressive, and its global success is an affront.
Any of the great religious movements through history would have condemned this society thus portrayed. It is not surprising that many Muslims do so, nor that some extremists carry their disapproval beyond condemnation into violence. Yet we were surprised to find that the perpetrators of the recent London bombings were Muslims who were raised and educated within Britain. Tony Blair has…