From left, Meryle Kates, executive director, Toronto chapter, Stand With Us, and British journalist and author Melanie Phillips. (photo from Vancouver Hebrew Academy)
On April 1, at the fourth annual Faigen Family Lecture Series presented by Vancouver Hebrew Academy, British journalist and author Melanie Phillips tackled what she called “the herd of elephants stomping around the furniture.”
From 9/11 to the 7/7 bus bombings in London, through the Spanish train and Mumbai bombings, the activities of Hezbollah and Iran, she said, “There is a refusal in the West to acknowledge the link between all these disparate events … that all these phenomena, which take different forms, are a variation of the Islamic religious war, or jihad. Now, we know that this is the case because the perpetrators tell us this – they tell us this over and over again in varying terms.”
More than 150 people filled the downstairs auditorium at Schara Tzedeck Synagogue to hear Phillips speak, which she did after brief remarks from VHA board co-president David Emanuel; Gina Faigen, whose father, Dr. Morris Faigen, z’l, created the lecture series; and Meryle Kates, executive director, Toronto chapter, Stand With Us, who introduced Phillips.
Phillips, author most recently of The World Turned Upside Down: The Global Battle over God, Truth and Power (Encounter, 2010), said that, in Britain, when 9/11 happened, they were told it had nothing to do with religion: “It was to do with poverty, it was to do with lack of education, it was to do with alienation from the surroundings of society.” Referring to the perpetrators of terrorism, she said they were not poor, they were well-educated and, in Britain, they were being alienated, not by Western influences, but by Islamic preachers. Nonetheless, the British were told, “It was Bosnia, it was Chechnya, it was Kashmir and, above all, it was Palestine. So, the way of solving this problem … was you dealt with grievances. Get rid of the grievances, and you will get rid of the problem of terrorism…. It ignored the fact that all these people said over and over again they were doing it for religious reasons, they were doing it in order to defend God against modernity, against America, against the Jews and against the West. It ignored the verses of the Koran which framed these declarations of war being perpetrated on Jews and on the West.”
Phillips said the British government now has decided “what we’re living through is the perversion of the religion,” but it is more accurate to say we’re up against an interpretation of the religion with which not all Muslims agree and, indeed, of which many Muslims are “the principal victims.” However, she noted, offering the British security service as her source, between 2,000 and 4,000 young British Muslims are considered to be “active terrorists” and “they believe the true number is far greater than that.” She added, “opinion polls show that some 40 to 60 percent of British Muslims want to live under sharia law. Now, this is no small matter. Sharia law is in direct conflict with the state, it recognizes no such authority.”
Britain has a “very, very serious problem of religious fanatical radicalization but it has not accepted this.” Only recently, she said, it was reported that the prime minister has set up an inquiry into the Muslim Brotherhood.
Phillips argued that reticence in dealing with terrorism comes from a decent impulse most people have: the fear of being intolerant. She said we must never forget that there are many Muslims “who come to the West because they actually subscribe to Western ideals in that they want to live in peace and freedom, they want to have jobs like everybody else, they want to bring up their families in peace and security like everybody else…. There are people who are so enraged by Muslim, by Islamic terrorism … that they forget that, and I think it’s very important that we don’t forget that. But it’s equally important that we don’t ignore the other side of the story.”
Liberal democracies welcome minorities, she said, as contributing to and enhancing the culture. “The quid pro quo, however, is that minorities have to, in their terms, sign up to a kind of overarching national story, an overarching set of values.” If the rule of law doesn’t apply to everyone, she continued, then a country is no longer a liberal democracy.
In the late 1980s, Phillips began writing about the “cultural vacuum” she perceived was developing. “I started writing about things to do with family, with education, with multiculturalism. It just seemed to me that, over the years, something was going very, very wrong with all these issues; values were being turned on their heads.” She gave the example of family breakdown becoming more of an entitlement, a person’s right rather than a thing that should be avoided if at all possible. She spoke of education in Britain as becoming more child-centric, the belief that imposing constraints and rules on children limited their creativity, leading to illiterate and innumerate children. As well, she said, certain self-defined victim groups were being given a free pass on their behavior because they were supposed victims of the majority.
“… the culture of the nation, as expressed in education, as expressed in the laws passed by that nation … was deemed to be illegitimate because the nation was deemed to be illegitimate. Why? Because nations led to nationalism, and nationalism led to prejudice and war, and if you wish to avoid prejudice and war, you basically abolish the nation … you set up institutions which trumped the nation, transnational institutions, which bound nations together under an umbrella of common values, and those were deemed to be more legitimate than the nation because those brought people together, they were inclusive, they didn’t separate.”
She described human rights laws as pitting one set of rights against another, rather than being universal, as was claimed, and contended this was part of a more general view that “the culture of the nation, as expressed in education, as expressed in the laws passed by that nation … was deemed to be illegitimate because the nation was deemed to be illegitimate. Why? Because nations led to nationalism, and nationalism led to prejudice and war, and if you wish to avoid prejudice and war, you basically abolish the nation … you set up institutions which trumped the nation, transnational institutions, which bound nations together under an umbrella of common values, and those were deemed to be more legitimate than the nation because those brought people together, they were inclusive, they didn’t separate.”
In Phillips’ view, multiculturalism doesn’t mean that we should simply be tolerant and respectful of minorities, but rather, as a doctrine, says that every single culture should be regarded as having identical value as every other. “So, that means that you cannot hold liberal values because … if you’re up against a culture which basically believes that women are second-class citizens or that gay people should be killed, then you as a liberal society cannot impose your view that gay people should have civil rights and that women should have equality because you are being racist, because you are imposing your culture on their culture … consequently, it’s a liberal death warrant, it’s a liberal society’s death warrant, multiculturalism.”
As with other isms, Phillips said, multiculturalism has become unchallengeable. This has happened, she argued, because the West has told itself that religion is bunk. “In other words, instead of adhering to a program which owes its origins to what are considered to be divinely inspired rules of behavior, man … shapes the world, or reshapes the world, according to his own wishes…. So, we have a whole range of ideologies which now govern our assumptions in the West. We have materialism, the idea that everything … must be explained by material explanation. We have moral and cultural relativism, the idea that what is right for me is what is right…. We have deep-green environmentalism, which says that the world would be a great place if only it wasn’t for the human race mucking it all up.”
Phillips said that ideologies replace truth by power. “In the non-ideological world, one looks at facts and evidence and then other facts and evidence and one reaches a conclusion. With an ideology, you start with the conclusion…. The idea governs how you look at the world and, if there is evidence that conflicts with that idea, you have to wrench the evidence to fit that idea … one group fights for supremacy over another group, and that’s how you lose the sense of a national overarching set of values.”
On a whole range of issues, “it is no longer possible to have a rational discussion with people who believe in these ideologies, as upon each issue there can be only one story for them…. Reason is replaced by bullying, intimidation and the suppression of debate.”
Ideologies drive out reason, she said. “And, if there is no truth, there can be no lies either because truth and lies are merely alternative narratives in the jargon of the time.” On a whole range of issues, “it is no longer possible to have a rational discussion with people who believe in these ideologies, as upon each issue there can be only one story for them…. Reason is replaced by bullying, intimidation and the suppression of debate.”
Phillips noted the irony in the West’s replacement of religion with secular dogma. “Just as with medieval Christianity, with Islam through the ages, these ideologies represent a perfectly closed thought system which brooks no alternative because … each of them aspires to create a perfect world, they are synonymous with virtue and, therefore, brook no opposition.”
They have turned evidence and logic on their heads, she said, in a way that is particularly relevant to Israel. “Because of the ideology of multiculturalism and minority rights, self-designated victim groups, defined as those without power, can never do wrong, while the majority groups can never do right. So, it follows, the Muslim world can never be held responsible for blowing people up because they are, as people of the Third World, victims of the West.”
In this scenario, she explained, Jews can never be victims, they are not a minority because they are held to be all-powerful and in control of the media, Wall Street and America – “so much of the hateful discourse about Israel follows from that.” Phillips said this echoes the narrative within Islam. “Because Islam considers itself to be the perfect, unchallengeable word of God, it can never do wrong.” All aggression by Islam is, therefore, seen as “automatically self-defence,” while Western or Israeli “real self-defence is said to be aggression.”
Added to this, she said, is “transnational progressivism,” in which nations are innately divisive and Western nations “innately colonialist, rapacious and cruel.” Israel, therefore, is “triply damned”: “It’s a nation, bad. It’s a Western nation, very bad. It’s a Jewish, Western nation, racist. So, when Israel goes to war to defend its people against the thousands of rockets coming at it from Gaza or whatever it is, the thousands of rockets are regarded as immaterial. What is important is Israel’s military self-defence in the interests of a Western, ‘racist’ nation. Terrorism, by contrast, becomes resistance.”
The utopian nature of ideologies makes them, “by definition, the most high-minded of ideas and thus the most high-minded people subscribe to them, the intelligentsia, which wear them as badges of conscience.” Among the things this explains, she said, is “the phenomenon of left-wingers, high-minded people devoted to human rights and sexual promiscuity marching shoulder to shoulder on the streets of London and elsewhere with radical Islamists devoted to killing homosexuals and stoning adulterous women to death under the common band of human rights.”
Worse, she added, is that, when utopia “fails to materialize, and utopia always fails to materialize, its adherents, its proponents, are so enraged by the failure of what cannot fail … that they select scapegoats on whom they turn to take out their rage over the thwarted establishment of a perfect world, and the scapegoats become enemies of humanity.”
One of the commonalities between all these disparate ideologies, she said, is “hostility to Judaism, Israel and the Jewish people.” She attributes this, in part, to the fact that it was Judaism that laid down the moral foundations of Western morality, “which is under attack from moral relativism.” And herein lies her solution.
In Phillips’ opinion, “the essence of the problem is the displacement of religion, especially biblical morality, and its replacement by secular ideology.” So, the religious basis of the West needs to be restored. She thinks this is possible for two main reasons. “First, people are not adverse to spirituality…. What they don’t want to believe in is in organized religion, but that’s very different from saying they don’t want to believe or that they don’t instinctively believe in something that is supernatural…. The second is this, there’s an assumption in our modern world that in one box is reason and in another box is religion and the two can never meet…. The fact is that religion was the wellspring reason, order, progress, human dignity and liberty…. Without the Hebrew Bible, these things … would not have existed and, I would suggest, that as religion has been progressively edged out of Western life, so truth and morality have crumbled, leading to irrationality, prejudice and so forth.
“Western science grew, essentially, out of the revolutionary claim in the Bible that the universe was the product of a rational creator who endowed men with reason so that he could ask questions about the natural world.”
“And it was not just any religion that created reason and progress,” she continued, “but very specifically Christianity and the Hebrew Bible from which it sprang, the Hebrew Bible…. Western science grew, essentially, out of the revolutionary claim in the Bible that the universe was the product of a rational creator who endowed men with reason so that he could ask questions about the natural world…. The problem arose in our modern times, when science overreached itself and sought to explain the inexplicable … and so, scientific materialism became a kind of faith in itself, an explanation for all things, but that isn’t actually the case.”
It is the same with equality, she said. “It is the Hebrew Bible again which tells us that we are all created equal in the eyes of God and, therefore, we have to respect each other as human beings and, without that biblical story, equality would not exist, nor would we have our assumptions of putting the interests of others first, which lie at the very heart of a civilized … society.”
The task of the West, she said, is “to re-Christianize, as the previous pope well understood. And I realize that to use those terms, to say the West must re-Christianize, causes a terrible frisson, not least among people in this audience. Christianity has not been an unalloyed pleasure for the Jewish people, but if we wish to defend and protect and assert Western culture, we have to accept that Christianity is at the root of Western culture, with all its freedoms and all its values…. And at the root of Christianity is the Hebrew Bible.”
As Jews, we must “help reconnect the Western world with those Jewish roots and values which are the root, are the very core, of the Western culture,” she said. “We have to stand up very clearly for stating the truths about the state of Israel, its history and its present situation.”
Phillips called the “attack on Israel” the most important “cause of our time, not just because we are Jews and we should care about the existence, survival and security of the state of Israel,” but “because attitudes to Israel are attitudes to truth, to justice, to morality, to decency, to civilization. If people are on the wrong side, essentially … of Israel, they are on the wrong side of truth, justice, morality and civilization…. Western culture is currently at great risk because its understanding of itself has been smashed into fragments. The way to save it … is by putting those fragments back together again…. The challenges are truly formidable but if, and only if, we have faith in ourselves, it can and must done.”
After a 15-minute Q&A, VHA head of school Rabbi Don Pacht concluded the evening on a light note, thanking Phillips for an informative lecture, as well as for her “wholesale endorsement of the Hebrew Bible,” of which he’s “a huge fan.” He also thanked the Faigen family for their sponsorship of the annual event.