“There are no facts, only interpretations”, so said the philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, the Godfather or relativism. His words echo down the generations and some believe he is at least partly responsible for the mess we are in today. For, truth is in crisis.
Never has it been more important than now to know what we know and why we know it. We live in an age of rampant paranoia, conspiracy theories and mistrust, beautifully parodied by the play “I am Nobody’s Lunch” at the Edinburgh Festival. No one believes what governments say anymore, because they all spout lies crafted by spin-doctors.
We don’t believe scientists because they’re all supposedly in the pay of corporations and want to destroy the planet with frankenstein foods. So we start to believe in anything and everything - from Cosmic Ordering to the Da Vinci code; crystal therapy to Creationism.
We seem to have lost any sense of intellectual discrimination - credulity is rampant and the division between fact and fiction becoming dangerously blurred, not least on the internet, where all ideas are equal, no matter how misconceived. Just look at the websites which claim that 9/11 never happened/was a “Jewish-Christian” plot/ was organised by the CIA.
I’ve been amazed at the Edinburgh Book Festival this year by the number of people who suspect that the latest bomb scare was created to distract attention from Israelis military action in Lebanon. It even crossed my own mind. But journalists an writers are professional sceptics. We face a much more profound conflict of truth about the nature of the alleged conflict between the West and Islam.
How do you answer those one third of young British Muslims - according to a recent NOP survey - who believe the London bombings were justified because of British foreign policy? Who believe that there is a systematic attempt by the West to crush Islam?
We know that this is untrue - that the British- American invasion of Iraq, however misguided and malevolent, was not part of a Christian-Jewish crusade against the Muslim world. But just try proving it.
After all, Islamists will say, there is a pattern to history. The Western powers have been meddling in the Middle East since the end of the First World War, when the victorious powers redrew the map of the Arab world, creating first Iraq and Lebanon then, later, Israel.
Doesn’t America use Israel as a base from which to attack Muslims? Aren’t American weapons used by the IDF to crush Hezbollah? Why has the West turned a blind eye to Israeli breaches of UN resolutions in the West Bank and Gaza?
No use saying that in 1948 the American government was actually rather cool about the creation of Israel, or that the main pro-Zionist backer at the time was Soviet Russia. Or that Israel would fight even if America abandoned it. Or that it’s the only real democracy in the Middle East.
Nor does it cut much Islamic ice to say that Western forces defended the Muslims of Kosovo against Serbia in 1999, or that America financed the Afghan Mujihadeen in 1980’s against Russia. Or indeed, that in Iraq today, the vast majority of Muslim deaths are caused by other Muslims.
No, to many, it looks as if there has been a long campaign of Western double standards from Chechnya to Kashmir, where Islamic people always comes off worst. It can’t be accidental, they say. Look at the recent invasions of Afghanistan, and Iraq? Iraq had nothing to do with al Qaeda and 9/11. Don’t these confirm that the West is trying to occupy the Arab world, seize its natural resources, subjugate its people and destroy its religion? You don’t see the West invading Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, Communist Korea or any other non-muslim dictatorships.
Around fifty thousand Muslims in Britain, we are told, think along these lines. This paranoia isn’t helped by the intemperate remarks of Western leaders, such as George W. Bush, about the “war against Islamic fascism”. Or the Home Secretary, John Reid, that we are fighting the greatest threat since the Second World War. Who exactly are the enemy, the new axis powers? It’s easy to misread all this as a generalised declaration of war on the Muslim world as a whole.
Apocalyptic theories about the “Clash of Civilisations”, as the American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington called it, feed suspicion. Moreover, if we really don't want to be misunderstood, perhaps the West could stop invading so many Muslim nations.
The danger is that paranoia could become the intellectual default for many young British-born Muslim men. It is going to be exceptionally hard to eradicate this, not least because Islam - in its more radical forms - is a religion which doesn’t really go in for doubt and argument. God’s law is there, in black and white, in the Qu’ran, and all the true believer is required to do is accept it. This inclines more suggestible young people to accept what they are told by self-styled Islamic authorities, like Abu Hamza and Hizb ut Tahrir. For some Islamists, scientific argument is itself suspect, as is democracy, women and gay rights, freedom of speech.
We have a duty to oppose obscurantism, whether from Christian fundamentalists or Islamists. In fact, these modes of thought drive from the same Abrahamist religious origins in the Bible- which means, theologically speaking, that muslims are descendants of the Jews - which is an irony lost on the Islamists.
Some on the political Right argue that the intelligentsia in the West are partly to blame for the situation, that it is a symptom of the West’s own intellectual decadence and Nietzschean defeatism. The Tory MP Michael Gove, in his book “Fahrenheit 7/7” attacks our “culture of relativism” which he sees as: “a failure to display moral clarity, a corruption of thought on both right and left, as well as a strain of Western self-hatred, that combine to weaken, compromise and confuse our national response to a direct totalitarian challenge”.
So are philosophers to blame? Is multiculturalism to blame? Should we be enforcing Western modes of thought on Muslim communities in Britain? Well, we certainly shouldn’t do the converse. Earlier this week, British Muslim leaders called for the introduction of Sharia law as far as family matters is concerned. Is that acceptable?
Well no, it isn’t - if it means women being treated as second class citizens. But it is important to say why. We have to engage intellectually with the proposition that women are inferior to men, or that adulterers should be punished. We need to affirm that all humans are equal and that the freedom to form relationships is a basic human right. Assertion won’t do.
We need a more robust approach to intellectual debate. The philosophers have to come down from their concrete towers and engage in public affairs. Politicians have to start thinking beyond the next press release. We have to curb the spin, distortion and sensationalism which corrodes any sense of objectivity and truth.
Above all, in schools, where we learn how to think, it is time to start teaching the art of reason. And that’s a fact.