Geoffrey Kirk unfolds some of the subtleties and unexpected pitfalls in the contemporary liberal enthusiasm for apology
Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough
It isn’t fit for humans now
There isn’t grass to graze a cow.
Swarm over death.
Not Sir John Betjeman’s best poem; but nearly his most famous. Curious then that his daughter Candida Lycett-Green has seen fit to offer a formal apology for it to the people of the town which it has done more than any other work of literature to make famous. What was she thinking of, and why did she feel herself entitled, simply out of affinity of blood, to speak for its author? To understand that, one would need, I suppose, to look deeply into the psychopathology of the contemporary culture of apology. Every confessor knows the propensity of penitents to express contrition for sins they have not committed. But modern political apology has other aspects. Its principal aim, I think, is to demonstrate the political correctness, the downright right-on-ness of the apologist. And the need to make that declaration springs from the known consequences of not doing so: social exclusion.
Modern liberal society is not, as some have portrayed it, the haven of free speech and opinion. It is constrained by taboos (largely unspoken and unacknowledged) which render some opinions as unacceptable as a fart at a royal garden party, and yet canonize other opinions in a wholly irrational and unacceptable way. After the Metropolitan Police had been convicted of ‘institutional racism’ – a term coined for the purpose – the Bishop of Southwark launched an inquiry into ‘institutional racism’ in his diocese. What one inquiry had supposed itself to have uncovered, the other was to take as axiomatic! So the agenda unfolds.
Poor Candida, now she has begun to toboggan down the slippery slope, had better catalogue all those other apologies which the poetry of her father will eventually necessitate – for a poet so given to religious sentiment and class distinction will surely require yet more contrition from his blood relations. The liberal consensus is a jealous God, visiting the sins of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation.
All this the spokesmen of Islam know only too well, and use to devastating advantage. The demands for an apology from Pope Benedict for a passage in his lecture to the University of Regensberg on ‘Faith, Reason and the University’ are a case in point.
On the pretext of a quotation from a fourteenth century Byzantine Emperor, demands have been made for apology and retraction which goodly sections of the Western Press have taken up with alacrity. Even the Daily Telegraph (not usually the voice of the liberal consensus) published a shameful argument alleging that the Pope is dictatorial in his management style, reluctant to take advice from his aides, and, in matters concerning Islam, naïve and ill-informed.
The opposite would seem to be the case. Benedict’s speech, timed not long before his impending visit to Turkey, was a masterly stroke of statesmanship and political acumen. By quoting from an ancient source, and commenting on that source largely from scholarship not his own, the Pope had left ample room for the retraction which he knew would need to be forthcoming. He had also laid a trap for those who would attack him, such as they would not be able (and were not able) to resist.
Angry that he seemed to be claiming that Islam is a religion of coercion and violence, they nevertheless reacted to prove his point. His life was threatened; the failed assassin of his predecessor warned him of the danger to his safety if he visited Turkey; the Turkish government itself compared him with Hitler and Mussolini (forgetting that the former, at least, had sought common cause with Arabs in prosecuting the holocaust); and mobs who could have known nothing of the Regensberg lecture save what had appeared in the Western press, torched churches on the strength of it.
Reactions in the Islamic world – hugely in excess of the actual facts – only serve to demonstrate how Islamic spokesmen use the techniques of the Western liberal establishment to undermine all that it purports to stand for. They have, of course, no place in their own vocabulary for apology or regret; but they know instinctively that they have powerful allies in post-enlightenment liberalism who demand and encourage it.
Whilst talking about Faith and Reason and their place in the development of the modern university (and by implication, of modern Western culture) the Pope has deftly exposed both the totalitarianism within (which has no appetite or respect for the great tradition of Christian Humanism), and the totalitarianism without (which seeks to impose an absolutist culture in the name of an absolutely transcendent God).
I came across statistics the other day which astounded me. They are simply that by 2025 Oslo with be a predominantly Islamic city, and by 2050 Norway will be a predominantly Islamic country. The dream that, absorbed by Western secularism these numbers of immigrants would be rendered religiously indifferent, has clearly not been fulfilled.
It is not just that (to adapt Macauley’s famous dictum) at some future date tourists from Indonesia will be cruising the fjords admiring in their still waters the reflections of many mosques, but that the patrimony of St Olaf and St Brigitta will be gone forever. The armies which were once turned back at Poitiers and from the gates of Vienna will have reached the Arctic Circle.
The Pope acts and speaks as the guardian of Christian Europe when the majority of its politicians are too craven to do so. In Regensberg he did so with great subtlety and strength. International Islam surely needs to find in the Holy See (which has consistently opposed the war in Iraq, American policy in Afghanistan and the invasion of Lebanon) an ally not an enemy. But to do so, as Benedict has made clear, they would have to show that there is a genuine Muslim dialogue between Faith and Reason which mirrors that one among Orthodox and Catholic theologians, which was the true subject of the saying of Manuel II Paleologus, and of which, assuredly, the Holy Father spoke.