October 4th, 1983
FROM THE ARCHIVES:In this one of his regulars columns Conor Cruise O’Brien pounced on a speech by the Catholic bishop of Limerick, Jeremiah Newman, extolling some aspects of Islam. -
THE BISHOP of Limerick, Dr Newman, said on Thursday last that “it was with shame that it had to be admitted that the Moslem world was way ahead in upholding religious values in the context of law, politics, economics and other matters”.
Ahead: that’s what he said. Still, it seems, he’s not going to make the Great Leap Forward himself, and become a mullah, with an entitlement to four wives and heaven as well. “The Moslem approach” – his Lordship warned the Limerick people – “should not be copied in every respect.” This warning has apparently come only just in the nick of time. According to the newspaper report, the place where Dr Newman delivered his Islamophile address is already called Crescent Shopping Centre.
The Bishop didn’t say in which respects the Moslem world is “way ahead” – and therefore presumably to be copied and in which respects (fewer, apparently) it should not be copied. He did say: “We have no desire to have Ayatollahs amongst us.” He could have fooled me.
But I do see what he means, I think. Most of the world today is not theocratic, but Islam remains obstinately theocratic. Pious Moslems will have none of this fuddy-duddy stuff about some kind of distinction between spheres of Church and State, religion and politics. There are only the faithful, subject in all their transactions to the law of Allah. As Ibn Saud put it: “The Constitution of Saudi Arabia is the blessed Koran.”
That’s not the end of it, though. Islamic law is a complicated affair. To understand it and expound it, you need a class of holy and learned men. Fortunately, such a class exists under various names, throughout the Moslem world. Although Moslems reject the idea of priesthood, as we understand it, this idea of a holy and learned man, expounding the will and law of God, does correspond fairly closely in concept to the historic role of the clergy in Christian lands.
In concept; but not in power, or in extension today. In the West, nearly four centuries of increasing secularisation have reduced the social and political power of the Christian clergy to quite small dimensions. Even in this State, the social and political power of the Catholic hierarchy is very limited, in comparison to that of the holy and learned in the Moslem lands. [...]
Are these the respects in which the Moslem world is “way ahead of us“? If so, I hope we never catch up. I respect Dr Newman as a holy and learned man, but I would hate to see him in a position to stuff his version of holiness and learning down my throat, with the aid of the law courts and police force of the land. And if he is not itching to do just that for my own spiritual good, of course – perhaps he would tell us why exactly he holds out to us the example of the Moslem world?