For whom the bell tolls, the Adhan also calls…

For whom the bell tolls, the Adhan also calls…

The atheist academic Richard Dawkins’ lazy anti-Muslim prejudice has made an unwelcome return to the limelight.

Last week he tweeted a touristy picture of him sitting on a park bench by Winchester Cathedral, one of Britain’s oldest. This would have been innocuous but for the accompanying comment:

“Listening to the lovely bells of Winchester, one of our great medieval cathedrals. So much nicer than the aggressive sounding ‘Allahu Akhbar.’ Or is this just my cultural upbringing?”

This tweet got exactly the response he probably wanted.

I have spent most of my life living within 200 metres of church and cathedral bells, and (beware unpopular opinions here) I’m not their greatest fan.

Liverpool Cathedral has the second heaviest bell in Britain, at 15 tonnes, called Great George. It’s only tolled on special occasions, and is so resonant that if one is unlucky enough to still be asleep, one will vibrate out of bed. Bells may be a great part of the Christian world’s heritage, but when the changes are being rung for a whole day, they don’t half-grate.

But that’s not the problem with the tweet. Bells heard from a distance can be beautiful. And so can the Adhan – especially when sung by a master. But, like bells, I can say from experience the call to prayer blaring out at close proximity complete with electronic crackle at 4am isn’t something to be relished.

I personally don’t believe that people about to be killed by a suicide bomber care whether they hear “Allahu Akhbar” or the bells of Winchester Cathedral immediately beforehand. But the extremists who shout the former are condemning themselves out of their own mouths. If God is great, then He is also just.

Peter Welby

Dawkins half-retracted his tweet, acknowledging the beauty that the call to prayer can have. But then he doubled down:

“My point is that ‘Allahu Akhbar’ is anything but beautiful when it is heard just before a suicide bomb goes off.”

So is it just his cultural upbringing? A liking for church bells probably is, along with his liking for carol services. If only that pesky belief in God could be taken out of all this nice religion!

But his hatred for Islam is something that he has developed, along with his determination that belief in God is the source of all the world’s evil. It’s not an uncommon view. Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature” makes the same argument: if only we could be more rational.

The development of this world view has been helped along the way with those who agree that God calls them to be violent. But it ignores the inconvenient fact that the bloodthirsty ideologies of the 20th century were decidedly secular, if not atheist.

What religious extremists have in common with Hitler, Stalin or Genghis Khan is belief that all good things are contingent on the cause itself. Life may be of value, but only insofar as it furthers the cause. And where Islamist extremists differ from mainstream Muslims is that they don’t recognise the inherent value that God has invested in human life.

The intellectual development of Richard Dawkins and Co seems to point in the same direction. The “selfish gene” has a cause: its survival. Whether individually or as a group, all things could be sacrificed for that end. His concern about suicide bombings points more towards his cultural upbringing: one inherited from millennia of Judeo-Christian theology, and a view shared by mainstream Islam.

But that cultural upbringing doesn’t make much sense once that theology is removed from the picture. What makes murder worse than abortion or euthanasia? To those whose greatest good is their own cause, surely it is the fact that the former might be done to them, and the latter probably won’t be.

To those who believe in the God-given inherent value of life, killing, for whatever reason, is never good. It can only ever be the lesser of two evils.

I personally don’t believe that people about to be killed by a suicide bomber care whether they hear “Allahu Akhbar” or the bells of Winchester Cathedral immediately beforehand. But the extremists who shout the former are condemning themselves out of their own mouths. If God is great, then He is also just. And a God who has invested human life with value will not look kindly on those who regard it as a means to an end.

Of course, the onus is on believers to mount the defence against the accusations made by militant atheists. And we could do better. Western Christianity suffers from something of a confidence deficit, in which we have allowed the philosophical heritage written by believers through the millennia to be adopted those who reject the context in which those texts were written.

But it is Islam that faces the greatest need for defenders in the West. It is Islam that is most closely identified with violence in the minds of many, as Dawkins’ tweets show. This is driven by a combination of a cultural heritage of historic fear, and the incapability of seeing the distance between the world view of extremists and that of hundreds of millions of ordinary believers.

There are individuals who can change this. The likes of Sheikh Mohammed Al-Issa of the Muslim World League, or Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies (and newly president of the UAE’s Fatwa Council) have both the authority and the inclination to lead the charge. Islam’s learned theologians and charismatic preachers can demonstrate the shallowness of the extremist ideology, and the rich depths of Islam’s traditions. There will always be those who wish to further prejudice and make that job more challenging. In response, the rest of us should do all we can to help.

  • Peter Welby is a consultant on religion and global affairs, specializing in the Arab world. Previously he was the managing editor of a think tank on religious extremism, the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics, and worked in public affairs in the Arabian Gulf. He is based in London, and has lived in Egypt and Yemen. Twitter: @pdcwelby.
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