Monday, February 06, 2006

Freedoms in the balance

Guardian Unlimited | Special reports | James Buchan: Freedoms in the balance: "The west and orthodox Islam must step back from absolutist beliefs to be able to live together

The Scottish philosopher David Hume prefaced his Treatise of Human Nature in 1739 with a quotation from the ancient Roman historian Tacitus: "It is a rare and fortunate age when you may think what you like, and can say what you think."

That was going it a bit. Notorious for his atheism, Hume was shunned in Scottish society, denied a university post and twice threatened with excommunication. All the same, he inaugurated a period in Britain where the reasonable freedoms of ordinary people, including the freedom to disbelieve in the supernatural, could be accommodated. That this change passed without much violence or even bad feeling is the triumph of modern British history. Hume's teaching and example influenced the American constitution and its imitations.

In orthodox Islam, liberty has the same meaning it had in pre-Enlightenment Scotland. It is the freedom to practise the one true religion without interference or insult. The liberties of the Enlightenment - democracy, freedom of speech and the press, freedom of association, scientific scepticism - are contradictory or meaningless.

Since the Qur'an and the anecdotes of the Prophet Muhammad known collectively as the Sunna lay down an exact pattern of behaviour for all people for all time, the desire to do or think or speak or vote according to one's own fancy is not freedom but simply error that threatens the entire community with damnation. If it is carried out by someone born into the Muslim faith, it is apostasy punishable by death.

The conflict between these two notions of freedom has become fiercer since the colonial era. Arabs first heard the word enlightenment, and others such as liberty and equality, from Napoleon's officers in Egypt in 1798. The words, and the notions they express, have always be tainted by association with western encroachment.

There are about 15 million Muslims in the EU. They face ignorance, insult and even persecution. They cannot be wished away. To impose Enlightenment freedoms is self-defeating. Anyway, the Muslims have their own enlightenment.

Is it so painful not to insult other people's religious beliefs? Hume lived on good terms with Presbyterian clergymen and never sought to undermine their beliefs. It is a violation of natural liberty to show this courtesy but no more, as Hume's friend Adam Smith put it in The Wealth of Nations, than is "the building of party walls, in order to prevent the communication of fire". And fire, after all, is what is being communicated.

* James Buchan's Adam Smith and the Pursuit of Perfect Liberty will be published in April by Profile Books"

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