Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.
With the election campaign dragging along to the deadline of October 19, many Canadians are hitting opinion fatigue. Yet Islamic immigration, and Islam generally, is still a hot button.
I have my biases in this area. My own experiences in Islamic countries (Iran and Egypt) have been personally enriching. While I never practiced, I’ve been drawn to Sufi philosophy and its elusive doctrines for many years, and I see much insight in the best writers coming out of Islam. I find the Quran sometimes jarring, and sometimes heart-stoppingly beautiful.
All that’s neither here nor there when the topic of refugees, possible terrorists and creeping cultural influence come into play. It’s one thing to admire the spiritual depth in the writings of St. John of the Cross, Teilhard de Chardin or Thomas Merton; it’s an entirely different thing to experience the Bible Belt in the US. Bright smiles of greeting often cover deep wells of intolerance and resentment, and refusing the sales pitch produces rapid frosting of the smiler’s attitudes. Similarly, I’ve had fascinating discussions in the Middle East with Arab or Persian Muslims – women included, I add – over cardamom-flavoured tea, as well as chill condescension from bearded adherents of the faith in Toronto.
Having lived five years in Mexican village, I’m aware of the distorting effects of being in a foreign country. After the initial enchantment, which might last years, there’s a sense of secret desolation or loss that afflicts many expatriates. Old ways of speaking and acting return as defences, fallback positions that jar with the general environment. It’s possible to maintain your entire persona while progressively losing contact with key aspects of individual identity. The creeping sense of wrongness produces secret resentments of the mainstream community around you, with its ease in its own language, and long-established ways of living and relating. I enjoyed much about Mexico, but I misplaced myself.
After all that, I have a far clearer appreciation of the difficulties of immigrating to Canada. Yet to explain is not to excuse. Any immigrant destination, like Canada, places expectations on newcomers, and however loosely, imposes a certain set of heritage values. At confederation in 1867, the founders explicitly recognised two forms of religion (Catholic and Protestant), which both had historical resentments towards each other. The notion of religious tolerance, often tested since, is built into the national DNA.
From this point … the questions arise. And, as has happened with the electoral discussions (wearing the niqab, Syrian refugees, the position of Israel, Islamic State, terrorism …), they aren’t easily settled.
Looking at it Thelemically doesn’t necessarily clarify matters. Crowley was an enthusiast for Islam, finding in it a virility and freedom from guilt that was absent in Christianity. The directness of the encounter with Allah, and the continuing sense of living with Divinity, seemed to him a parallel to Knowledge and Conversation. He spent considerable time in Islamic lands, and both the reception of the Book of the Law and his definitive crossing of the Abyss occurred in them, in Egypt and Tunisia respectively.
Then, there’s the absolute spiritual freedom explicit in Thelema. We aim to open ourselves to an uncompromising encounter with the Sacred, and (hopefully, anyway) offer the same to others. That has to include Muslims.
But we also offer ourselves personal and sexual freedom, and even non-Thelemites find most Islamic cultures strongly objectionable on this score. Islam has thirteen centuries of history, but no Renaissance, not anything truly comparable to the late Eighteenth Century Enlightenment in Europe. In both these instances, Europeans happily drew on pre-Christian ideas. Islam repeatedly reaches back to its own past (the fundamentalists do this to an extreme degree) yet can’t embrace what came before Mohammed. Equally, it steadily absorbs western concepts and technology by osmosis, but can’t take in things from outside its own sphere with much gusto. People in the west use words like mantra, karma, nirvana, yoga or Zen (as in ‘Zen-like calm’) with comfort: my discussions with educated Muslims indicate little familiarity with such ideas.
And so on, and so on. I started compiling a laundry list here, and realised just itemising all the points of comparison and dissimilarity would take too much space. Also, most thinking people in the non-Muslim world have tried to understand what it’s all about, so the effort would be superfluous.
The West – now the post-Christian world –clashed with Islam multiple times. Muslim armies made it north into France, until defeat at the Battle of Tours in October 752. Spain fought for centuries against the Moorish Kingdoms, everyone’s heard of the Crusades (there were at least seven, depending how you count some smaller campaigns), and the Turks were repulsed from Vienna, Austria, as late as September 1683. The events of the past fourteen years seem, in retrospect, like picking up a quarrel that lay dormant for three centuries when European culture and self-confidence were at their peak.
Other than rare freelance terrorist attacks, Canada confronts a challenge of a different kind. Prime Minister Harper’s attacks on the niqab face-veil are winning him some support, but equally they hit at the country’s long tradition of embracing diversity. It appeals to his natural following, and alienates voters he has no chance of attracting. That division, sadly, seems what he wants.
Historically, Islam was used to engaging with Judaism and eastern forms of Christianity, but it has little comprehension of the kind of post-Protestant mindset it’s encountering here. The Muslim idea is that anyone who doesn’t believe in the Abrahamic God is lost, and wrong. There’s little or no effective dialogue between such unbelievers and Muslims. Likewise, secular Canada, which is most of the country, has no common language with the kind of faith it encounters in Islam. It can address women’s body coverings, but it won’t and can’t go near the Muslim sense of the presence of the Divine in all things.
Conceivably, we’ll see anti-refugee, anti-niqab (or anti-burka or anti-mosque, or …) riots in our streets. Even outside the shallow volatility of the election campaign, the issue is simmering. The National Council of Canadian Muslims says headscarf-wearing women have already suffered physical attacks in various places.
More likely – though it won’t be accomplished within a couple of election cycles – Canada will come to terms with the Muslim presence in its midst, as it did in the 1960s with Italians and Portuguese, in the 1970s and 1980s with East Indians, and so on. It will be a different kind of accommodation, though, because it will have to encompass not a simple ethnicity, but a quality of faith that, as noted above, is outside its home territory, and has not yet found its adaptation to the Canadian scene. It will also have to encompass the ongoing wars in the Middle East and elsewhere, which have no clear aim, and continue to create fear.
My personal interest in all this, apart from hoping the probably inevitable violence is minor (“as Canadian as possible under the circumstances,’ to quote a famous line from the early ’70s), is that this time, we’ll see a cross-fertilisation coming about. It won’t be comfortable, and it won’t necessarily include the first generation of immigrants.
A key aspect of the new Aeon is the absence of the old Aeon’s group-think. Islam in its homelands, while it seems bullishly aggressive, feels but doesn’t understand this, and has had many debates over its direction. It’s making an attempt to translate the deep-level drive to individuality into a revitalised uniformity. The lousy results are best reflected in the current flood of refugees heading westwards out of the Levant and North Africa.
Nobody ever said this Aeon would be remotely like ‘the Age of Aquarius,’ and Islam is seeing in all us ‘infidels’ a reflection of the clefts opening in its own worldview. The unbelief that it can’t confront in us, simply mirrors the doubts it has about its own future. The violent nihilism of Islamic State is, I submit, the proof of this. Such groups have no answers – not even much coherent theology – and only see victory coming after Allah Himself intervenes directly. Outwardly directed violence is a response to an inward existential terror, based on a sense that Islamic cultures, if not the core of the faith, could become irrelevant. Hence, perhaps, the desire to preserve them under beards and layers of cloth; where they can, presumably, be confined for a while longer.
Crowley, as noted at the beginning, found much that attracted him among intelligent followers of the Prophet. In particular, the directness of approach, which needs no priest or Pope, seemed more honest than the strangulating Christian ‘morality’ he grew up with. And I think he liked the fact that Allah wasn’t a meek and gentle God at all.
The dialogue of the post-Christian thinkers and seekers (including avowed Thelemites) with Islam will be an awkward one, and there’s nastiness yet to come from it in this country. But if we are here to reach the point of seeing all things as a particular dealing of God with our souls, then there’s an instruction for the wise to be found in this community of immigrants and refugees we now have in our towns and cities. They have brought with them a God-conception that has no interest in grovelling repentance, yet isn’t at all devoid of heart. The instruction might not be the one the people in that community might want to convey, but then, that isn’t how this Aeon works. Reality emerges from beyond our outer intentions, rarely as a direct result of them. But it does crystallise around those who actively seek Light wherever it’s to be found.
Objecting to the social conservatism, dismissal of the full worth of women and other inflexibilities within Islam is absolutely within our remit as Thelemites. Ignoring the Light that exists within all of those layers of stultified thinking, would represent a failure to live up to our own professed standards.
Love is the law, love under will,