What is Corruption? Featured

An often-quoted passage in the Qur’an interests the priest:

‘He who kills a man it is as if he killed all humanity.’ (5:32)

A commendable sentiment and one which I share. The statement is not absolute, however. ‘Unless it be for murder or for spreading corruption on earth’, the Book adds. That too finds me in agreement, yes.

It is ugly to corrupt human beings. Even more to corrupt youth. The wisest man of the ancient world was indicted precisely on that charge. Moral and intellectual corruption of Athens’ golden lads. Thus the people sentenced Socrates to death. His friends would have arranged his escape but the law-abiding philosopher refused – he drank the proffered poison cup and died, an innocent victim of the stupidity and prejudice of Greek democracy. Plus ca change...

Today ‘corruption’ tends to be associated with offences like bribery, bent politicians, sexual and physical abuse and the like. A wider, more radical application of the term exists, however. The sacred texts of the monotheistic faiths exemplify that.

The Arabic word for ‘corruption’ in the Qur’an above is fasad. In a personal communication Dr Muhammad Legenhausen, a distinguished Islamic scholar, tells me that it is a technical and legal concept. Literally it means ‘rottenness, as in rotten tomatoes’. Generally, it covered crimes like ‘highway robbery, rape and pillage’. Heinous crimes of course to which every society has attached the most severe penalties.

As to the New Testament, the word pthora renders corruption. It means physical but also moral decay. The Second Letter of Peter, 2:19, thus speaks of certain ‘servants of corruption’, malicious persons, ‘blots and blemishes’ who seek to spread mischief and filth and defilement around them and for whom hell is reserved. (Just look it up. It is a great preaching passage.)

The Qur’anic ayat is in fact about the law of retaliation ordained ‘for the children of Israel’. For Christians, the Old Law, superseded, in the sense of being fulfilled, by the New Law brought by Jesus Christ, the Gospel. Nonetheless, it is this ‘corruption’ concept that mesmerises me. What could its implications be?

An article by Simon Kuper in the FT Magazine got me thinking. Entitled ‘How the West had won’, it is an unashamed boast about the purported excellence of Western culture. The West gets more and more ‘dominant’ worldwide, the writer observes. Something reflected in the universal appeal of the English language, books and even Western ‘celebrities’. An example he gives of the influence of the latter is that of an Iranian student he met in Isfahan, who first perorated against Britain and America and then went on to inquire earnestly about glorious Western portents like David Beckham and Manchester United.

I should state that I too visited the marvellous city of Isfahan last year. I am happy to report that the young people I met there had the good taste and the intelligence to show interest in art and philosophy, not in footballing nonentities. So, pace Mr Kuper, maybe there is still hope for Iranian youth, insh’allah.

It is all about the Western way of life, says Kuper, which ‘implicitly includes democracy.’ The West’s fabulous cornucopia of goods is being spread across the earth then. The vision is of a glittering, secular, globalised New Jerusalem in which folks in the West are fortunate enough to be already dwelling, until the rest of humanity, such as benighted nations like Russia and China, grow clever enough to enter. Jolly good!

The priest is in a bloody minded mood. Hence, he wishes to be provocative. What if the actual Western way of life was essentially not so admirable but was...something else? What if it was...corruption? Universal, worldwide, radical corruption of peoples, values, cultures and human beings?

A qualification. By that little, overdone geographical expression, ‘the West’, I do not mean what until recently it used to mean, Christendom. Until Western civilisation held fast to Christianity, despite the falling short and the mishaps common to all earthly enterprises, that civilisation was genuinely great and good. Until the West had a soul, a spiritual and ethical core, it was an agent of wholeness, not of corruption. But the West no longer means that because it has lost its soul.

Britain, America and France. The unholy, secular trinity chiefly embodying Western culture and mores. (Germany, never mind how much it frightens hysterical Brits, is culturally kaput. A mere branch of the Yankee firm. Spain is broke and Italy is a joke.) What do these nations stand for? What values do they affirm? What way of life? What hopes, what ideals?

Mr Kuper naturally flags democracy as the summum bonum of the West. To which the priest is inclined to exclaim, after Madame Roland: ‘Democracy, how many crimes are committed in your name!’ In truth, democracy is a tattered fig leaf that fails to cover the scarlet sins of its wearers. Because democracy is a political system practised by ruthless empires tainted with robbery, butchery and plunder. Those empires, even if cut down to size, shrunk and minimised, like France and Britain, it could be argued, still spread mischief and corruption on earth, within and without. From Iraq, to Afghanistan and Libya and now, soon, most likely, Syria, some would say...

But the West still draws immigrants from all over the world, an argument goes. If they all want to come here, it can’t be that bad, can it?

Maybe the starving of the third world pushing at Europe’s porous frontiers proves that the priest is hallucinating. Mr Kuper then is right whilst I am a reactionary old sod. Just possible. Still, I recall the case of a certain Afghan man who was on a plane hijacked into London. Once here he and other passengers were offered asylum. It looked like Eldorado but shortly afterwards the Afghan opted out and went back home. Why? What was wrong with Britain?

‘It was an infidel country, it was cold and the food was awful’, he declared. Chap must have recognised fasad (and pthora, maybe) when he saw it.

Last modified on Wednesday, 12 June 2013 07:51

Frank Gelli I am an Anglican priest and cultural critic and commentator. I have BA in Philosophy, MA in Christian Ethics, MA in Islamic Studies, PGCE in Religious Education and Oxford Certificate in Theology. I have been a journalist & drama critic in Italy and England.
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