By Dr. Abdul Wahid
This week British Prime Minister David Cameron made a speech marking the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible – also known in Britain as the ‘Authorised’ version.
His remarks that Britain should be proud to be a “Christian country” were widely reported, and that Christianity has “helped to shape the values which define” Britain’s politics, culture and moral outlook.
It is, of course, true that Britain’s politics, culture, music, and literature are derived – or draw strong links to Britain’s Christian heritage; and that is forgotten in an age where it has easy to denigrate and marginalise religion. So it is unsurprising some people welcomed a senior figure addressing religion generally in a positive manner.
He also spoke frankly of certain realities that exist in Britain – such as having to confront “the slow-motion moral collapse that has taken place in parts of our country these past few generations” – and talked about embracing certain “Christian values” in order to confront this.
But there was less honesty in other areas and to some extent he used the speech – as one might expect – to advance his own political views. The most significant fallacy was to address morality as it applies to the individual alone, not to the systems that dominate both British society and the world in general.
“The absence of any real accountability, or moral code, allowed some bankers and politicians to behave with scant regard for the rest of society.”
Cameron blames the financial crisis and political corruption on an individualistic immorality – the few exceptions that he might argue soil the integrity of an otherwise sound system – and chooses to ignore the systemic causes that created these problems. The toxic mix of money and politics in the capitalist democratic system makes political corruption almost inevitable, just as the usurious banking system is the driver for targeting perpetual profit at almost any cost.
Similarly, when addressing last summer’s riots, we hear criticisms of the individual rioters and their parents – but nothing about the morality of the capitalist system as a whole, which affects and influences the values and behaviour of individual. When society encourages young people to be free to do what they want – then criticises them when they do that, or doesn’t give equal opportunities to pursue their aspiration, it is not surprising that people riot, albeit unwelcome.
Similarly, if young people see the state withdrawing help from them but increasing the debt burden on taxpayers in order to help the finance sector it is hardly sort of morality that people will respect.
This system has widened the divide between rich and poor; led to record levels of indebtedness where some pay the interest and others greedily devour it; encouraged casino-style market trading to which everything else has become subservient. So, to ignore its part in the financial crisis or this summer’s riots is, at best, negligent and, at worst, deceptive.
Moreover, David Cameron was not accurate when he said that “moral neutrality is not going to cut it any more“. Britain has not been morally neutral in the past few years – it has simply exchanged a morality founded in Christian teachings with one based on enlightenment values; and within that the ‘market’ dominates all else.
What was once considered ‘wrong’ has been relabelled as acceptable in a ‘freedom-gone-mad’ culture, defended by advocates of a liberal society (of which Cameron is one), and exploited by those who see an opportunity to profit out of this.
So it has not been a morally neutral country, but actively promoting the values of life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness – and, above all, profit!
If Cameron had meant what he said – that he wished to “actively stand up and defend” certain Biblical values, he surely would have articulated this. But he did not.
The militant atheist Richard Dawkins was recently reported to have said that David Cameron ‘is “not really” a believer in God but a “believer in belief”, one of those people who, though themselves non-believers, think that religious faith is “good for the common people” and helps to keep them in order. Dawkins can’t of course know what Cameron really believes. The prime minister’s own profession of a “fairly classic sort of Church of England faith” may suggest a lack of intensity in whatever it is, and his enthusiasm for gay marriage a certain moral relativism.’
Despite having a Christian heritage, Britain cannot be said to be a Christian country in terms of its current social values. And despite confessing his Anglican faith, Cameron cannot necessarily be said to be promoting Christian values.
When Cameron assumed office he specifically praised New Labour’s progress in making Britain a more open country – which most people understood to mean a more socially liberal country. Yet, in part, this socially liberalism (as well as certain economic factors) has led to a shift away from the nuclear family centred around a married couple that Christianity promotes. The individualism that has grown in capitalist societies has led to a fragmentation in a sense of community that religions usually encourage.
This stark inconsistency suggests that talking about ‘responsibility’, ‘hard work’ and ‘honouring the social obligations we have to one another’ all fits more with a narrative of small state and less dependency on benefits that is a core government priority. ‘Charity’, which he mentioned, as understood by the capitalist right wing, is encouraged insofar as it passes responsibility from taxation to voluntary contribution. ‘Self-sacrifice’ and ‘pride in working for the common good’ have overtones of George Osborne’s ‘we’re all in this together’!
The view that this speech was more about Con-Dem capitalist values was further reinforce when Cameron went back to a favourite theme of his – whether addressing rioters or ‘Islamic extremists’ – and that is his muscular liberalism.
Some Muslims welcomed Cameron’s speech, which in part maybe due to his argument that religious people feel more comfortable in Britain than in continental Europe which is more aggressively secular. But they must have missed his comments where he said: “Frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and a much more active, muscular liberalism. A passively tolerant society says to its citizens, as long as you obey the law we will just leave you alone. It stands neutral between different values. But I believe a genuinely liberal country does much more; it believes in certain values and actively promotes them.”
This was repeating a theme he addressed in a security conference in Munich in February 2011, which was seen as an attack on multiculturalism, focussing largely on need to use a muscular liberalism to advance the coercive assimilation of Muslims in Europe.
This double-speak – implied criticism of a European approach toward public expression of religion whilst advancing a similar agenda in Britain, unless one follow a Cameroon-style Anglicanism – was all too common in the era of Blair and Brown, and something that has become easy to spot.
Fundamentally, the real problem is the failure to recognise that the dominant ideas in society – promoted by the media and institutionalised in the systems – affect the morality and values of people. To have divorced religion from societal affairs is to have left to individuals to seek moral guidance from religion if they chose – and if they do not, they will have to accept to be (mis)guided by what dominates society outside of religion.
The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) once made an analogy in regards to society – that it is like people on a boat. “They are like two groups who boarded a ship; one of them settled on the upper deck, and the other on the lower deck of the ship. When the people of the lower deck needed water, they said, “Why should we cause trouble to the people of the upper deck when we can have plenty of water by making a hole in our deck”. Now, if the people of the upper deck do not prevent this group from such foolishness, all of them will perish; but if they stop them, they will be saved”.
The idea that individuals need to left to pull themselves together – as has been previously said regarding rioting youth – is not enough. Even – aside from Cameron’s selectively look at morality – to expect the Church alone to set a moral public opinion – is unrealistic.
As long as the moral values that society aspires to are inconsistent with the systems society runs by, he will never be able to square this impossible circle.
Dr. Abdul Wahid is a regular contributor to New Civilisation. He is currently the Chairman of the UK-Executive Committee of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain. He has been published in The Times Higher Educational Supplement and on the websites of Foreign Affairs, Open Democracy and Prospect magazine. He can be followed on Twitter @abdulwahidht or emailed at [email protected]