The Archbishop of Canterbury is flying mighty close to the flame. In the recent past he has been engaged in careful and respectful conversation with the chief rabbis of Israel. Now he has talked about Muslims in England and their religions rights in a land ostensibly Christian. The first won considerable praise. The second has led to calls for his resignation. The whole matter has reached such a state that the Anglican Communion News Service has had to produce the transcript of the Archbishop's actual remarks in order to clear up the matter. His remarks have been set on with considerable glee by all sorts of critics. The Archbishop is taking a pounding. My fear is that the pounding is not coming because of possible remarks supporting Islamic laws that might or might not make their way into the society, but because across the board, his support of Semites is the problem.
Semite has become a code word for Jew. Of course it doesn't actually fit. You can be a Jew and not a Semite. You can be a Jew and not know a single bit of any Semitic language. But being a Jew you are a Semite. And whatever that means it at least means you are not "like us." It is a proto-xenophobic word. Fear and hatred of "them-not-like-us." So it turns out that in being open to conversation, and sometimes agreement, with Jews and Muslims, the Archbishop of Canterbury is playing into the xenophobic fears of England and the new Europe. There are too many of "them." So he is getting beaten up because his openness produces fear. But of course there is undoubtedly more to all of this. Not being English and not writing from that context I have only a limited sense of the issues. Still it is apparent that the Archbishop has stirred the pot and who knows what will come of it.
Antisemitism has a long and inglorious history in all of Europe and England (and for that matter the US) is not exempted. It is of course a reference to anti-Jewish prejudice and since the nineteenth century has almost always been in reference to the hatred of, prejudice against and fear of the Jews. Still, back there is also the wider sense of hatred of, prejudice against and fear of all Semitic peoples. The ways in which hatred of the Jews is expressed has become increasingly complex following the holocaust, the establishment of the state of Israel and the rise of a critique of Israel that then is made an overlay on the still present virus that is antisemitism.
There are very persuasive arguments that antisemitism is alive and well in the so-called "new Europe" and that it builds its hatred of Jews on the often quite legitimate liberal criticism of the state of Israel. Thus it is argued, the mechanics of liberal criticism become an vehicle for the hatred lurking in the shadows of the West.
Bernard Harrison's "The Resurgence of Anti-Semitism" (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc, 2006) spells out in considerable detail the ways in which liberal opinion, whose criticism of Israel has become convoluted, has given rise to an antisemitism voiced by the very people who would cringe at the notion of Jew hating. It is a difficult read, alternately depressing and pedantic, but his effort is important. Harrison quotes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, who said, "[The new anti-Semitism] is coming simultaneously from three different directions: first, a radicalized Islamist youth inflamed by extremist rhetoric; second, a left-wing anti-American cognitive elite with strong representation in the European media; third, a resurgent far right, as anti-Muslim as it is anti-Jewish." Harrison's primary interest is the left-wing cognitive elite, but for a moment we might turn our gaze to the third, "a resurgent far right, as anti-Muslim as it is anti-Jewish."
The far right has, in various parts of Europe, as in the US, has often taken the form of defending the country's "character." There are all sorts of worries about labor, documentation, language, customs, and now fears about the immediate violence of terrorism and the prolonged violence of the overthrow of the dominant culture. Into these fears and defensiveness comes the Semite, for whom there has been centuries of baggage and recent history of struggle. And when the Archbishop is found working with them - Jews or Muslims - he becomes a traitor.
Liberal criticism would not suggest this, but perhaps in a slight kiss-off to religion in general, simply decide that the Archbishop has gone bonkers. I don't dispute the possibility that he has indeed gone round the bend. Still I think not. Looking at the amazingly pervasive shouts of outrage, I wonder as to its source. Are those shouting using the Archbishop's comments to further a xenophobic and anti-Semitic sentiment that lies always dormant and ready to return?
We are none of us clean on all this. In the US xenophobia and antisemitism take on many disguises. But there are a number of people here who wonder just why most of the candidates for President seem not to be able to talk about Israel, antisemitism, and anti-Semite prejudices (against Muslims, Arabs, Jews, etc).
Back behind the anti-Semitic hate mongering against Muslims, particularly Arab Muslims, is the long history of skewed and wildly misrepresented image of Islam, Muslims and the Arab world.
Fredrick Quinn in his book "The Sum of All Heresies: The Image of Islam in Western Thought" (Oxford University Press, 2007) spells out the pervasive and continuous history of the ways in which Islam has been viewed in Western thought. It is a great read. That perception - that Islam and its adherents are primitive, violent, uncouth, under civilized, repressive and yet sexually exciting, and on and on - colors any possibility of addressing Islam in England or any other cohesive culture without already build-in prejudice and hatred.
It is no wonder then that the Archbishop catches hell for broaching the question of how adherents to Islam might find ways to express their religion in the context of a civil structure that has taken on the patina of a Christian based framework for law and structure of society. But he is being beat up not for these matters, I believe, but for exploring rather openly and in an investigatory sort of way, just how emerging religions viewpoints find their place in a society that has been formed and informed by Christian practice. In doing so he has touched on the xenophobia and latent antisemitism that exists just under the surface.
Some weeks ago there was a controversy about the possibility of the loudspeaker broadcast of the call to prayer in English towns. These same towns have no doubt had bells that rang the hours, or perhaps the hours for morning and evening prayer. I saw no one suggest that perhaps we Christians might live quite nicely with the call to prayer as well as the bells, reminding us too that we might take a moment to make the sign of the Cross, say an Our Father, and remember the Cross and Passion, and celebrate in joy the Resurrection (it takes all of five minutes.) Then we could give thanks that our Muslim brothers and sisters gave us yet another opportunity in the day's hectic cycle to remember God who redeems and saves.
No one suggested it because bells and calls have become matters of ideology among enemies, not matters of piety among friends. We have a long way to go and we ought to cut the Archbishop of Canterbury a break.
Some time ago I wrote that I had heard the rumor that the ABC might resign after Lambeth. I don't know how he does it. This sort of beating can only add to the temptation to do precisely that. There are those calling for him to resign. I sometimes wonder why he doesn't. What a miserable job it must be at times. Hopefully he gets the joy of feeling that what he is doing is gently nudging us to take seriously our divisions and to find new ways to relate. Meanwhile, the plague of antisemitism is still running its course against Jew and Semite both. It will take all our efforts to counter the fears and prejudice that support it.