It is symptomatic of the divisive wedge that has been driven through the psyche of the British by the Brexit farce that in two days last week two polarized representations of Islam emerged in the UK. One spoke to the tolerant nature of the open society that post-colonial Britain had aspired to become, embracing all faiths, races and cultures as equal. The other was characteristic of the dog-whistle politics that in the past three years has seen the UK consign itself to the wings of the world stage, recast as a clown whose bungling persona would be amusing were it not for the dark contempt for all things foreign at its heart.
On July 15, it emerged that in an essay written in 2007 Boris Johnson, the man who is this week very likely to inherit the leadership of the UK in the wake of the populist Brexit crisis he helped to engineer, had launched a belittling attack on Islam. The faith, he wrote in the essay, “And Then Came the Muslims,” “inherently inhibits the path to progress and freedom.” A barrier to “liberal capitalism and … democracy,” it had caused its adherents “to be literally centuries behind” the West.
The very next day the British Museum announced a major new exhibition devoted to an appreciation of the Islamic world and the creativity it has generated in the West.
When it opens in October, the exhibition, “Inspired by the East: How the Islamic World Influenced Western Art,” will feature objects from the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia alongside key pieces from the British Museum’s own world-class collection of over 25,000 items from the world of Islam. Housed in the new Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World at the very heart of the museum, that collection serves to underscore Islam’s “global connections across a vast region of the world,” reflecting “links between the ancient and medieval as well as the modern worlds.”
It could be argued that Johnson’s view of Islam might have changed since 2007 – or, indeed, that it was never one he held genuinely. After all, this is the political opportunist who in 2016 wrote two drafts of a column for publication as he waited to see which way the Brexit wind was blowing. One version praised the EU as a “boon for the world and for Europe.” The other, which he published two days later as he joined the “leave” campaign, urged Britons to vote for Brexit “to show that we care about self-rule.”
On the other hand, only last August Johnson wrote an inflammatory newspaper column insulting Muslim women who wore the burqa as looking like “letter boxes” and “bank robbers.”
Whether or not Johnson’s contempt for Islam and Muslims is genuine, the expected appointment as prime minister of this close ally of Donald Trump will further coarsen the global political discourse and encourage those whose instinct is to blame all their problems on foreigners.
But behind this xenophobia lies a deeper-rooted disease. The essay serves as a reminder that within Western society there lingers a post-imperial conviction not only that its form of democracy is the best system for the entire world, but also that any country that chooses an alternative path is in some ill-defined way inferior.
It’s a pompous conceit, especially at a time when democratic systems worldwide appear to be resiling from their supposed commitment to tolerance and progress and instead are miring entire nations in soul-wrenching bouts of divisiveness and indecision.
Take America, where in 2016 democracy installed Donald Trump in the White House, even though his opponent polled 2.5 million more votes. Today the US is a bitterly divided nation in which the president releases racist tweets and whips white followers at a rally into baying for a US congresswoman of color to be “sent back” home.
And then there’s political stasis. Since the 1980s America’s two-party system has led to no fewer than 10 government shutdowns as the two perpetually opposed tribes squabble. Trump has presided over two such travesties, including the record 35 days lost over his demands for federal funding for his Mexico border wall.
In Britain, democracy has delivered the shocking paralysis of Brexit, which since the referendum in 2016 has seen many real problems neglected by an impotent government embroiled in a vicious and divisive civil war of its own making that has dimmed economic prospects, turned neighbors and families against each other and could yet see the United Kingdom fall apart.
One has only to look at the economic and social progress being made in the states of the Gulf to wonder if democracy – the Western form, as practiced and prescribed by Johnson and his ilk – isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Certainly, governance in states such as the UAE is more imaginative, decisive and fleet of foot, allowing long-term planning to sit comfortably alongside swift responses to changing economic and social realities.
Johnson’s assault on Islam neglected to recognize the countless contributions to science and culture made by Muslims over the centuries. It also failed to acknowledge that much of the recent lack of progress in the wider Arab world is attributable not to Islam but to the West’s military adventures, which have disrupted economies, cost the lives of over 250,000 civilians and left 21 million Afghan, Iraqi, Pakistani and Syrian people living as refugees.
The West is entitled to persist with democracy. What it is not entitled to do is to foist it upon other peoples, least of at all at a time when Western democracy is demonstrating its inadequacy as an effective form of governance and its vulnerability to exploitation by populist extremists.
As he struggles in vain over the coming months to persuade the EU to bend to his will, Johnson should take time out of his busy schedule this autumn to visit the British Museum’s new exhibition. Who knows – even he may find himself “inspired by the east.”
Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.