If we want to fight Britain First, we need to learn something about religion

A Britain First march in central London (Getty Images)

Until Donald Trump retweeted Britain First’s postings, I confess that I had never heard of the group. Neither had most people, it seems; but that has now changed. The resulting row, involving our own Prime Minister, must be publicity gold to this hitherto obscure group.

As David Shariatmadari points out in the Guardian, Britain First has about 1,000 active supporters, but there are many more who have some sympathy with what the group stands for. He writes: “But the fact is that some of its views – that Islam is inherently violent, that sharia law is a creeping threat, that British Muslims share some kind of culpability for terrorist atrocities committed in the name of their faith – are widely held.” He is no doubt right about this, and he is able to give evidence that backs up his reading of the situation.

The sort of survey that he refers to has its limitations, though: it may well tell us what people think, but it may not tell us why they think that way. Moreover, while it invites people to answer a question, the questions unasked may be the ones that really count. It may be the case, for example, that people with a negative view of Islam feel the same way about all religions. They may be equally anti-Christian. Moreover, their anti-religious views are quite possibly the fruit of ignorance rather than the result of close observation or experience.

The level of religious literacy in Britain is not high, even among religious believers; this is true of Christians, from what I have observed, and we are told that it is true of Islamic extremists. In fact I would go further: I would say that it is particularly true of extremists, for if they knew more about religion they would be less extreme; contrary to what many may think in secular Britain, more religion, not less of it, may be the answer to the problem of extremism.

The anti-Islamic views of Britain First and their penumbra of sympathisers, as expressed above, are pretty superficial: they pose more questions than they ask. In what sense, for example, can sharia law ‘creep’? I have heard examples of this (though they are all based on hearsay rather than solid research, so I will not quote them), but are we to believe that ever more secular Britain is, in fact, turning into a carbon copy of Saudi Arabia? Or is the opposite true? Are young Muslims in Britain becoming more and more assimilated, and taking up things like alcohol and immodest dress, which leads their elders to feel under siege?

Nevertheless, there are questions we should be asking. While no Catholic should ever want to stir up dislike for Muslims, or create or propagate stereotypes that lead to hatred, we should not shy away from difficult questions. But most of these are to be framed in the sort of language that never makes it into newspapers.

First of all, do Muslims believe in an utterly transcendent vision of the Divinity? If this is so (and one gathers that it is), how can we talk about God? Indeed, how can we know Him at all? And even more importantly, does this mean that earthly things are of no intrinsic worth, unless God makes them so?

Allied to this is the question of the Koran being the uncreated word of God. What are the implications of this? In what sense is the Koran to be interpreted, and who has the authority to do so? In what way do Muslims see the Koran as true? Does it represent literal truth? Or spiritual truth? Or an allegorical truth? Or an existential truth? Or a combination of all of these? In what sense, if any, does understanding of the Koran grow and change? How do the truths of history and science compare to the truth of the Koran?

It is not anti-Islamic to think, in the light of the above, and in the light of recent history, that Islam per se has a problem with modernity. All religions do, including Catholicism. To see modernity as a challenge to revealed religion is nothing but the honest truth. The real question is how religion deals with modernity. To my mind, we Catholics have done rather well: we have harnessed what is good in modernity, and we have rejected what is bad. We have embraced Immanuel Kant, and we have rejected Friedrich Nietzsche, while at the same time resisting the temptation to deny the importance of either. In talking to Muslims and in talking about Islam, we need to get away from the crude banalities of Britain First’s tweets, and we need to ask the real question: how does God relate to the world? The clue to an answer, from our perspective, lies in the fact that He created it and He loves it, and that both Creation and love for Creation are in keeping with reason.

Whether Britain First’s tweets count as “hate speech” I do not know. To label something as such is not particularly useful. But their tweets are certainly blunt and crude. What we need is reasoned dialogue, which is a long way from the approach of Britain First, and we won’t make any progress without such reasoned dialogue.