I’m late with this response to Giles Fraser’s piece last week. I certainly cannot equal the wit of my old Shiraz comrade Jim Denham, who describes Fraser as ‘a caricature comes true – or rather two caricatures, both old favourites from Private Eye: the Rev JC Flannel and Dave Spart.’
In it Fraser begins by complaining about the lack of respect shown to Church of England priests in general. ‘Under pressure not to ‘do God’,’ he explains, ‘the wet non-committal English clergyman became a figure of fun – at best, a local amateur social worker, and at worst, a social climbing hypocrite’ and traces this to the great secularist compromise of the Enlightenment: ‘If not from its inception, then certainly from the end of the English civil war, the big idea of the C of E was to prevent radicalisation – precisely the sort of radicalisation that led to religious people butchering each other throughout the 1630s and 40s.’ But the downside was that ‘God is defeated by religion. Indeed, one could even say that, for the English establishment, that is precisely the purpose of religion. They trap Him in boring services so that people won’t notice the revolution for which He is calling.’
I would have thought this a fair tradeoff, after all there’s not much nostalgia out there for medieval absolutism and witch burning, but Fraser laments the vicar’s drop in status. Maybe that’s just his perception of it though. To vary Stewart Lee’s joke about Ben Elton: it’s not that people don’t respect Christians, or Christianity – they just don’t respect Giles Fraser. His next para gives some insight into why that may be.
And then along comes Islam – and, thankfully, it disrupts this absurd game and refuses to play by the rules. Its practitioners want to talk about God, sex and politics rather than mortgages, school places and the latest Boden catalogue. And good for them. But David Cameron’s whole attack upon ‘non-violent extremism’, his upping the ante on the Prevent agenda, is an attempt to replay that clapped-out C of E strategy of stopping people talking about God in a way that might have social or political consequences. Cameron, of course, thinks of this sort of political God-talk as radical and extreme – which, by the standards of English dinner-party rules, it most certainly is. But had the Levellers of the 17th century not been radical or extreme, they would not have introduced England to democracy in the first place (something for which they were eventually rounded up and shot).
Where exactly to begin? Does Giles Fraser know so little history that he can’t make distinctions between radicals for democracy and the radicalism of the black hole? (I don’t recall the Levellers slaughtering people on beaches, although admittedly I do need to work on my theory.) Fraser ends on a petulant flourish: ‘I believe there is an authority greater than yours – one I would obey before I would obey the laws of this land. And if that makes me a dangerous extremist, Mr Cameron, then you probably ought to come over to south London and arrest me now.’
Probably the Prime Minister has better things to do than to personally arrest people who disagree with him. That said, there is a huge debate to be had about anti terror strategy. Do we set a watch on any provincial maniac even if they have committed no apparent offence? Do we bug children’s phones in case their parents spirit them away to a war zone? This is way above my expertise, maybe above Fraser’s as well. Fraser’s more interested in the passion. There he is, despairing of old maids and warm beer, and then – here comes Islamism, and it’s like Elvis crashing a tea-dance. Belief! Conviction! Wow!
How bored would you have to be to welcome a movement that beheads aid workers and treats women as slaves? Maybe Fraser just needs to get out more, and go to more interesting parties, ones with sex and politics on the agenda. He says, of course, that ‘I condemn absolutely any theology that calls for or encourages violence.’ But what we’re talking about here is a very dull, fundamentalist Wahhabi/Salafist variant of Islam, one to which hardly anybody subscribes. If Islamism didn’t create violence it would be a marginal issue in the UK, like Scientology or Mormonism. As it is, the only reason the British are talking about Islamism is because Islamists are killing people… albeit mainly Muslims in developing countries. Maybe next time Fraser goes to the migrant camp church in Calais he should listen to some Syrian or Iraqi asylum seekers and discover exactly what it is they’re running from.
So despite Fraser’s disclaimer, maybe it’s not the sex, politics and God that attracts him – maybe it’s that buzz, the thrill of the abyss, blood and bombs and rock and roll. He wouldn’t be the first. Fuck him if that’s how he feels. As for the dull bourgeois civilisation he criticises, well, it’s not ideal, but most of us seem to get along. As Kent Brockman said on The Simpsons, you’ll forgive me if I keep my old Pontiac.