The secular mind may be too witless to notice, but to religious people the New Social Doctrines are fast acquiring the look of a new religion. The twentieth century’s great liberationisms often feel like powerful sublimations of the religious drive, as the innate yearning for freedom from worldly ties and the straitjacket of the self becomes strangely transmuted into a great convulsion against restrictions on personal freedom.
In this sense, the politically-correct West is an intensely religious society. It has its dogmas and theologians, its saints, martyrs and missionaries, and, with the arrival of speech-codes on American campuses, a well-developed theory of the suppression of blasphemy.
Some have mused that all this is necessary, and that human beings need certainties and causes, and that without an orthodoxy to hold itself together the West would rapidly unravel and turn to lawlessness. But the trouble is that the new doctrines, which are now enshrined in legislation, school curricula and broadcasting guidelines, do not make up either an authentic new religion, or even a sustainable substitute for one. For religious morality, whether Muslim, Christian, Buddhist or Eskimo, holds society together with the idea that personal fulfilment is attained through the honourable discharge of duties. The West’s new religion, in absolute contrast, teaches that it comes about through the enjoyment of rights.
Given the extremism of this inversion, it is not surprising that the societies which it affects should be running into difficulties. To paraphrase Conor Cruise O”Brien, the trouble with secular social medicines is that the more they are applied, the sicker the patient seems to become. It is certainly a blasphemy today to suggest that the new orthodoxies have worsened our social ills rather than bringing us into a shining and liberated utopia – but this is what has happened. And yet the pseudo-religion is still powerful enough to ensure that the notions which have presided over such destruction may not be subject to criticism in polite society. Muslims are perhaps the only people left who do not care for such politeness.
One of the most characteristic liberationisms of this century has been feminism. Divided into a myriad tendencies, some cautious and reasoned, others wandering into unimaginable territories of witchcraft and lesbianism, this is a movement about which few generalisations can be made. But perhaps a good place to start is the observation that women were the major though unintended victims of both Victorian pre-feminist and late twentieth-century feminist values. The disabilities suffered by wives in traditional Christian cultures, which denied that they even existed as financial or legal entities distinct from their husbands, may have been accepted without demur by most of them; but real injustice and suffering was caused to those for whom the social supports were cut away, and who found themselves in need of an independent existence. The feminism of the suffragettes was thus a real quest for justice. It moved Western society away from Christian tradition, and towards the Islamic norm in which a woman is always a separate legal entity even after marriage, retaining her property, surname, inheritance rights, and the right to initiate legal proceedings.
What Muslims are less happy about is the new feminism of the past three decades, the militantly ideologised world-view of Friedan, Greer and Daly. These thinkers initiated a new phase by attacking not only structural unfairnesses in society, but the most fundamental assumptions about male and female identity. “Until the myth of the maternal instinct is abolished, women will continue to be subjugated”, wrote Simone de Beauvoir; and similar noises could be heard from the new feminists everywhere. In this view, the traditional association of femaleness with feminity and maleness with manhood was biologically and morally meaningless, and was to be attacked as the underpinning of the whole traditional edifice of “patriarchy”.
At this point, people of Muslim faith have to jump ship. The Quran and our entire theological tradition are rooted in the awareness that the two sexes are part of the inherent polarity of the cosmos. Everything in creation has been set up in pairs, we believe; and it is this magnetic relationship between alternate principles which brings movement and value into the world. Like the ancient Chinese, with their division of the 1,001 Things into Yin and Yang, the Muslims, naming phenomena with the gender-specific Arabic of revelation, know that gender is not convention but principle, not simple biology – but metaphysics.
Allah has ninety-nine names. Some are Names of Majesty: such as the Compeller, the Overwhelming, the Avenger. Others are Names of Beauty: the Gentle, the Forgiving, the Loving-Kind. The former category are broadly associated with male virtues, and the latter with female ones. But as all are God’s perfect Names, and equally manifest the divine perfection, neither set is superior. And the Divine Essence to which they all resolve transcends gender. Islam has no truck with the hazardous Christian notion that God is male (the “Father”), an assumption that has been invoked to justify traditional Western notions of the objective superiority of the male principle.
Islam’s position is thus a nuanced one. Metaphysically, the male and female principles are equal. It is through their interaction that phenomena appear: all creation is thus in a sense procreation. But justice is not necessarily served by attempting to establish a simple parity between the principles in society “here-below”. The divine names have distinct vocations; and human gender differentiation was created for more than simple genetic convenience. Both man and woman are God’s khalifas on earth; but in manifesting complementary aspects of the divine perfection their “ministries” differ in key respects.
Islam’s awareness that when human nature (fitra) is cultivated rather than suppressed, men and women will incline to different spheres of activity is of course one which provokes howls of protest from liberals: for them it is a classic case of blasphemy. But even in the primitive biological and utilitarian terms which are the liberals” reference, the case for absolute identity of vocation is highly problematic. However heavily society may brainwash women into seeking absolute parity, it cannot ignore the reality that they have babies, and have a tendency to enjoy looking after them. Those courageous enough to leave their careers while their children are small increasingly have to put up with accusations of blasphemy and heresy from society; but they persist in their belief, outrageous to the secular mind, that mothers bring up children better than childminders, that breastmilk is better than formula milk, and even – this as the ultimate heresy – that bringing up a child can be more satisfying than trading bonds or driving buses.
There are already signs that women are rebelling against the feminist orthodoxy that demands an absolute parity of function with men, and that “dropping out” to look after a child is less outrageous in the minds of many educated women than the media might suggest. But much real damage has been done. The campaign to turn fathers into nurturers and house-husbands shows little sign of success; and many houses have become more like dormitories than homes. Mealtimes are desultory, tin-opening affairs; both parents are too exhausted to spend “quality time” with active children; and the sense of belonging to the house and to each other is sadly attenuated. By the time children leave home, they feel they are not leaving very much.
In such a dismal context, dissolution is almost logical. The stress of the two-career family is greater than many normal people can manage. Increased income and (for some) pleasure at work are poor compensations for the increased scope for fatigue and dispute. Deprived of the woman’s gift for warming a house, both husband and children are made less secure. The overlap in functions provides endless room for argument. And when the dissolution comes, it is almost always the woman who suffers most. As an ageing lone parent, she finds that society has little interest in her. She has joined the new class of “wives of the state”.
The state, luckily, can afford to be a polygamist. The social unravelment of modern Britain has coincided with a massive augmentation of tax revenue. As long as the rate of social collapse does not outstrip the annual growth in GDP there is little for politicians to worry about. And yet the fate of literally millions of single families is a harsh one. The case for traditional single-income families, in which women are permitted to celebrate rather than suppress their nurturing genius, is increasingly looking more moral than the liberals have guessed.
But the feminists are not the only moths to have been gnawing the social fabric. There are others, some of them even more radical. The most strident are the homosexualists, the curious but always repulsive ideologues who are forcing on the population a dogma whose consequences for the family are already proving lethal.
As with feminism, the theological case against homosexuality is related to our understanding of the “dyadic” nature of creation. Human sexuality is an incarnation of the divinely-willed polarity of the cosmos. Male and female are complementary principles, and sexuality is their sacramental and fecund reconciliation. Sexual activity between members of the same sex is therefore the most extreme of all possible violations of the natural order. Its biological sterility is the sign of its metaphysical failure to honour the basic duality which God has used as the warp and woof of the world.
It is true, nonetheless, that the homosexual drive remains poorly understood. It appears as the definitive argument against Darwinism’s hypothesis of the systematic elimination over time of anti-reproductive traits. In some cultures it is extremely rare: Wilfred Thesiger records that in the course of his long wanderings with the Arabian bedouins he never encountered the slightest indication of the practice. In other societies, particularly modern urban cultures, it is very widespread. Theories abound as to why this should be so: some researchers speculate that in overpopulated communities the tendency represents Nature’s own technique of population control. Laboratory rats, we are told, will remain resolutely heterosexual until disturbed by bright lights, loud noises, and extreme overcrowding. Other scientists have speculated about the effects of “hormone pollution” from the thousands of tonnes of estrogen released into the water supply by users of contraceptive pills. Again, this remains without proof.
But what is increasingly suggested by recent research is that homosexual tendencies are not always acquired, and that some individuals are born with them as an identifiable irregularity in the chromosomes. The implications of this for moral theology are clear: given the Quran’s insistence that human beings are responsible only for actions they have voluntarily acquired, homosexuality as an innate disposition cannot be a sin.
It does not follow from this, of course, that acting in accordance with such a tendency is justifiable. Similar research has indicated that many human tendencies, including forms of criminal behaviour, are also on occasion traceable to genetic disorders; and yet nobody would conclude that the behaviour was therefore legitimate. Instead, we are learning that just as God has given people differing physical and intellectual gifts, He tests some of us by implanting moral tendencies which we must struggle to overcome as part of our self-reform and discipline. A mental patient with an obsessive desire to set fire to houses has been given a particular hurdle to overcome. A man or woman with strong homosexual urges faces the same challenge.
To the religious believer, it is unarguable that homosexual acts are a metaphysical as well as a moral crime. Heterosexuality, with its association with conception, is the astonishing union which leads to new life, to children, grandchildren, and an endless progeny: it is a door to infinity. Sodomy, by absolute contrast, leads nowhere. As always, the most extreme vice comes about when a virtue is inverted.
None of this is of interest to the secular mind, of course, which detects no meaning in existence and hence cannot imagine why maximum pleasure and gratification should not be the goal of human life. The notion that we are here on earth in order to purify our souls and experience the incomparable bliss of the divine presence is utterly alien to most of our compatriots. And yet there is a purely secular argument against homophilia which we can attempt to deploy.
Homosexualism represents a radical challenge to the institution of marriage. Its propagandists will not concede the fact, but it attacks the most vital norm of our species, which is the union of male and female for which we are manifestly designed and which is the natural context for the raising of children. In times such as ours, when nature is no longer regarded as authoritative, and lifestyles are in all other respects an abnormal departure from the way in which human beings have lived for countless millennia, society cannot afford to believe that male-female unions are of only relative worth. The more the alternatives proliferate, the less the norm will be seen as sacred. Every victory for the homosexualist lobby is thus a blow struck against that normality without which society cannot survive.
It is in the context of the struggle to protect the family that the campaign against homosexualism becomes most universally accessible. The screaming fanatics who “out” bishops and demand a lowering of the “gay” age of consent are among the most bitter enemies of the fitra, that primordial norm which, for all the diversity of the human race, has consistently expressed itself in marriage as the natural context for the nurturing of the new generation. That which is against the fitra is by definition destructive: it is against humanity and against God. This awareness needs to be reflected in legislation, which for too long has sought to relativise the family as merely one of a range of lifestyle options. Muslims sometimes hold that the collapse of family values in the West will serve the interests of wider humanity. Decadence, they say, is what it has chosen and deserves; and the inevitable implosion of its society will leave the field open for morally-strong Islam to regain its place as the world’s dominant civilisation. The trouble with this theory is that the implosion shows no sign of leading to total collapse. Technology and wealth allow the creation of surveillance and social-security systems which can deal with the growing number of casualties. There is certainly an irony in a New World Order policed by a state which cannot keep order in Central Park after nightfall. But unless we are foolishly optimistic, or hope for absolute totalitarianism, we cannot but be anxious about social trends in the West. The survival of the Western family is a question of immediate Muslim concern, and we must offer our views until the time comes when our friends and neighbours, their doctrines broken on the anvil of reality, are humbled enough to listen.
The views expressed on Islam21c and its connected channels do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation.