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How can we have respect for Islam when we are too fearful to criticise it?

One of the biggest misunderstandings of the crisis caused by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten printing cartoons of Muhammed is that the paper was merely satirising Islam and hadn’t realised that any image of the prophet, insulting or respectful, is utterly taboo to Muslims. This is quite wrong.

The incident arose from the fact that an author of a children’s book about the life of Muhammed wanted it illustrated but couldn’t find any artist brave enough to risk offending those who currently express their offence by murdering the offender. Hence in a deliberate test of freedom of speech, the newspaper, not Muslim and therefore not bound by this taboo, sought artists willing to draw Muhammed. The mild satire on the state of Islamic jihad was incidental.

So yes, it was a deliberate provocation, a massive shove in the playground, but they didn’t start the fight. The initial provocation came from Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 when he pronounced a death sentence on the author Salman Rushdie for having a written a novel that contained another Islamic taboo, that of disrespecting the Koran. This was a stroke of genius. Whereas critics of repugnant ideologies were only in peril when they acted openly in the country guilty of the tyranny, and were free to express their disgust from the safety of a civilised country, Khomeini came up with the brilliant Mafia-like scheme of recruiting his foot soldiers everywhere.

Knowing that there are now Muslims in almost every country in the world, he removed that safety net once offered to people such as critics of the USSR or Idi Amin, so that even in safe, tolerant Britain, nobody would ever again dare write, paint, broadcast, film or lecture on anti-Islamic views for fear of their lives. Of course most Muslims, being sane, peaceful human beings, simply ignored the psychotic Khomeini. But tragically the subsequent brutal murder of Theo Van Gogh, the deadly riots sparked by journalist Isioma Daniel’s article about Miss World in Nigeria, and the threats to people like author Irshadi Manji for writing a witty book about reforming Islam, have had such an effect that they have bought Islam immunity from criticism, not through respect, but through fear.

This was what Jyllands-Posten was testing, and the result, as we can see, is that it has proved its point spectacularly. The other European papers which published the cartoons were, with a couple of exceptions, not trying to further provoke Muslims, but were engaging in an “I am Spartacus” moment, showing solidarity for Denmark and trying to gain enough similar support throughout Europe that it would make it harder for the extremists. What if everyone publishes? Going to kill everyone? Going to boycott goods from every European country? If only the Czech Republic would publish the cartoons then Hamas would have to boycott Semtex.

This may seem a storm in a teacup, but it is in fact a profoundly serious moment in our history. Fundamentalism, utterly at odds with the Western values so vigorously and courageously fought for over two bloody world wars, has successfully undermined the very linchpin of our freedom. Our culture falls way short of being perfect, but it is a work in progress. We are our own self-critics, the majority of us just as appalled by the trademarks of Western excesses like pornography, yob culture and rampant, wasteful consumerism as any mullah would be.

But when the Twin Tower murderers spent their last night alive experiencing Western culture, did they go to The Guggenheim? Did they see an Arthur Miller play, listen to a recital of Mozart’s Requiem, take in a showing of a Hitchcock film or even drive a Ferrari? No. They went to a lap-dancing bar. So when hardline Islamists shout that we don’t understand their culture, the greater truth is that they clearly don’t understand ours. For instance, how, as a feminist, can I explain to an extremist that while the sight of 12-year-old girl with a thong cutting her half-exposed bare bottom in two is offensive to me, so too is the sight of a woman in a burka.

But what of moderate Islam? British Muslims are represented by the unelected Sir Iqbal Sacranie, a man at the forefront of the book-burning mob who threatened Rushdie’s life, when Sacranie declared: “Death, I think, is too easy for him.” For this part in incitement to murder, Sacranie was awarded not the stiff custodial sentence one might expect, but a knighthood. Now this hypocrite says that he “believes in freedom of speech”, although he was complicit in attempting to destroy it, and we must all “respect other people’s beliefs”. If that is so, then logically we must respect the beliefs of Nick Griffin and the BNP. But we do not. We despise them. What we respect is Griffin’s right to be despicable. Hardline Islamists want us to lose the right to criticise all that is contemptible about their beliefs, without understanding how hard we are all working to allow them that exact same freedom.

This paper’s belief in freedom of speech is paramount. The decision not to reprint the cartoons, not to declare ourselves another Spartacus in support of our European colleagues, was taken, at least partly, out of consideration for the safety of the staff, and the safety of Scottish people here and abroad, and I fully support it. But the extremists, who created the fear that made that decision a foregone conclusion, must understand that if they think the UK press have done this out of respect, they are so very wrong. They have undoubtedly won this battle hands down. Well done. We are afraid. But do they think people neutered and silenced by fear are going to work at embracing their culture, their religion or their values? Clearly, they don’t care. The danger of this backlashing on to our innocent Muslim fellow citizens is a distinct possibility and the thought makes me sick to the stomach. It looks as though those of us aching for the misery of all this hatred to end are in for a long wait.

Published February 05, 2006, Sunday Herald