IN NEW YORK, the singer Zayn Malik gave an interview to Vogue magazine this week to plug his new record. For the benefit of older readers, he was a boy with a voice from Bradford whose parents are of Irish and Pakistani heritage (his mother converted to Islam on marriage), and who was part of an incredibly successful boy band, One Direction, until he left in 2015, and made an even more successful solo record.
Most of the interview was, of course, about showbiz; but towards the end the interviewer asks “Britain’s most famous Muslim” about his religious beliefs.
“‘To be honest, I’ve never spoken publicly about what my religious beliefs are. I’m not professed to be a Muslim.’ Would he call himself a Muslim now? ‘No, I wouldn’t,’ he says thoughtfully.
“‘Discussing faith becomes a religious fucking debacle of philosophers. I just want to keep it between me and whatever I believe. . . I just believe if you’re a good person everything is going to go right for you,’” the young multi-millionaire explained, thoughtfully.
This makes me laugh for at least two reasons. The first is the use of “religious” and “philosophers” as terms of abuse, something no doubt oft felt but ne’er so well expressed. The second is that this is such a wonderfully clear expression of “moralistic therapeutic deism”, which is generally thought of as a Christian heresy, but clearly has attractions for Muslims, too.
“IF YOU’RE a good person, everything is going to go right for you.” Perhaps he supposes that Asia Bibi is not a good person. After eight years on death row, most of them in solitary confinement, for the supposed crime of blasphemy, she is now trapped in Pakistan, where mobs riot, baying for her blood even after her acquittal in the Supreme Court (News, 9 November). Two politicians have already been murdered for standing up for her.
What makes her treatment even more disgusting is that the Pakistani government — indeed, the mobs on the street — say nothing whatever in defence of the Uighur Muslims of Xinjiang, who are presently being persecuted by the Chinese government on a scale that dwarfs anything that happens to anyone in the Indian subcontinent.
But China is the new colonial power, economically speaking, at least, in Pakistan. It is so much safer to rage against the safely departed West.
The UK has not behaved very well about the Asia Bibi case. Of course, she should be granted asylum here if she wants it, but the obstacles to that happening are mostly in Pakistan.
The silliest take on this was a piece headed: “The plight of Asia Bibi should have everyone in the West trembling,” in the Telegraph, which manages to blame the whole thing on Guardian readers: “Heavily applied political correctness is no different from religious extremism.” In other words, some people have been rude, on Twitter, about Sir Roger Scruton, and this is supposed to be comparable to the persecution of Asia Bibi.
There is a serious point buried in here. The murderous mobs in Pakistan are different in degree, and not in kind, from some of the hatred that slops around Britain at the moment. The invective aimed at women online is simply incredible if you do not have experience of it. One friend of mine, after a recent television appearance, got an email from a complete stranger who observed that she had recently lost weight. If this was the result of a diet, her correspondent continued, she should realise that she could never lose enough weight to become attractive enough to rape — but he hoped that it was really the result of a terminal cancer.
I imagine that right-wing women get much the same treatment. This is not religious hatred, although you can see that it might clothe itself in religious justification. Even the Telegraph would struggle to blame it on political correctness. But it is out there anyway, and social media work to concentrate and inflame it.
That is what’s meant by toxic masculinity.
THERE is another sort, best described by J. B. Priestley after he attended a reunion of his old battalion from the Somme. He wrote: “It is not war that is right, for it is impossible to defend such stupid long-range butchery, but . . . it is peace that is wrong, the civilian life to which they returned, a condition of things in which they found their manhood stunted, their generous impulses baffled, their double instinct for leadership and loyalty completely checked.”
This was quoted by Neal Ascherson in a characteristically thoughtful and illuminating essay on the Armistice in The Observer. Priestley ended: “Men are much better than their ordinary life allows them to be.” Ascherson remarks: “A hundred years after the Armistice, that’s the one revelation of war that we don’t commemorate.”
No one can understand authoritarian religion unless they also understand that the urge for leadership and loyalty is at least as powerful and selfless as the urge for independence and autonomy — even if that is all that our culture presently recognises.