Giles Fraser is described by the Guardian as “priest-in-charge at St Mary’s Newington in south London and the former canon chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral.” He writes regularly for the Guardian, but it’s nothing that is edifying. It’s apologetics, Jake! Fraser has appeared on this website several times before (e.g., here, here, and here), and never in a favorable light.
But his piece in yesterday’s Guardian (he has a column), may be the worst yet. You can tell that from its title, “How to defeat terrorists? True extremism.” Now what on Earth can he mean by that? He starts by talking about the truck that killed people in Berlin’s Christmas market. (The suspect, Anis Amri, has now been killed in Italy, and there’s a video of him pledging allegiance to ISIS.) As a true apologist, Fraser argues that Amri, and other religious terrorists like him (at least Fraser admits religion was involved!) wasn’t a true believer, for a true believer would have trusted Allah to do his own work, rather than enlist a truck driver to do it for him.
The problem with the person who drove a lorry into a crowded market of Christmas shoppers wasn’t that he was too religious, but that he wasn’t religious enough. It was the action of a half-believer, the sort of thing done by someone who doesn’t so much believe in God – but rather believes in the efficacy of human power exercised on God’s behalf, as if God needed his help. As Rowan Williams once put it: “For the person who resorts to random killing in order to promote the honour of God, it is clear that God is not to be trusted. God is too weak to look after his own honour and we are the strong ones who must step in to help him. Such is the underlying blasphemy at work.”
This is about as bogus an argument I can imagine. First of all, it ignores the fact that God, if He exists, allows horrible things to happen to innocent people—children killed by leukemia, tsunamis, and so on. If God was doing his own work, he would be holding back the tides and curing the kids, with no doctors required. The fact is that the whole basis of Christianity, which is clearly laid out in the Bible, is for people to do God’s work: to act in a Godly fashion. Jesus, after all, was setting about his Father’s work.
Christians and their missionaries regularly say they are “doing God’s work.” Nobody calls them “half-believers” despite their conviction that they’re doing what God wants. It’s only when God requires bad acts, as he did regularly in the Old Testament, that one who performs them is called a “half-believer.” Let God commit his own genocide. But in the Qur’an there are repeated calls by Allah (through Muhammad) to smite the unbelievers. Allah tells them to do that. And that is what Amri did.
“The great aim of all true religion,” wrote William Temple, “is to transfer the centre of interest from self to God.” Religious terrorists don’t get this because they still think it’s all about them, and what they can achieve. That’s the heresy. The man who shot the Russian ambassador to Turkey shouted “Allahu Akbar” – that God is great. The thing is, if he really thought that, he wouldn’t have shot the ambassador. His mistake was to think that God was somehow dependent on, and grateful for, his violent assistance.
Oh really? How does Fraser know that the guy who shot the ambassador didn’t think God was great? I suspect that Turkish policeman thought that he was acting as an extension of God. And that’s not a mistake if you interpret the Qur’an in certain ways.
I don’t want to go on with this, as there is nothing a theologian can’t argue from scripture. But in this case Fraser ignores both the Old and New Testament’s call for believers to do God’s will.
Indeed, what Allahu Akbar surely means (and Arabic speaking Christians use the phrase too) is that God needs nothing from me in order to be God. And when this is recognised, I can (sometimes with quite considerable relief) drop all my desperate schemes and arguments that try and keep him going in the face of opposition and disbelief. Indeed, in order to seek to transfer the centre of interest from self to God, to achieve other-centredness, you can’t make it all about you, your spiritual struggle, your religious heroism.
. . . But as Jonathan Swift famously explained: “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.” Which is why I want religious people to be more extreme in their faith, not less; to put aside their own boiling inadequacy and to trust in God’s greatness and that he knows what he is doing.
Moses and Jesus and Muhammad were all extremists. They trusted in God over their instincts. And the shorthand for this is Allahu Akbar – a phrase the terrorists will never understand.
Umm. . . . I think they understand it better than Fraser. And his call for Muslims to be more extremist is one not likely to have good results.
Here’s an exchange Matthew (who does Twi**er) sent me, along with the note, “Tom Holland – historian, Christian, and honest man – points out some problems to sophisticated theologian Giles Fraser.” That’s Tom Holland the author and historian, not Tom Holland the actor, and you might read his Wikipedia bio.