David Green is Director of Civitas.
Peter Oborne defended Baroness Warsi’s claim that Muslims were the victims of bigotry by launching an attack on the press. Many of our most famous newspapers, he claimed, ‘routinely fabricate or pervert stories about Muslims’. Violence against Muslims, he insisted, was legitimised by ‘so much of the daily conversation which takes place in the media’. Really? And is it valid to accuse newspapers of ‘routinely’ inventing false stories about Muslims? Some stories may prove to have been incorrect, but the term ‘routine’ implies that day in and day out our newspapers are making up untrue stories about Muslims.
Surely these accusations are somewhat over the top. Worse still, Mr Oborne is creating an atmosphere in which reasoned, calm, measured, proportionate and valid criticism of Islam and the behaviour of particular Muslims is de-legitimised. Traditionally we have regarded vigorous criticism as an alternative to violence not its precursor.
Was the historian Andrew Roberts encouraging violence when he argued in his mammoth A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900, that Islamist terrorism is best understood as another variety of totalitarianism, following the lead of Kaiser's Germany, the Axis powers, and Soviet Communism. Once more, Roberts argued, the English-speaking peoples find that they must fight for their heritage of liberal-democracy, a system that aims to create the conditions in which everyone can add their bit to the improvement of society and the advance of human civilisation. Islamism, by contrast, is another version of the creed that seeks concentrated, exclusive and limitless power to control any aspect of human life.
Are the critics of Sayyid Qutb, one of the most influential modern Islamists, hoping to provoke violence? Or are they defending liberalism in the hope of avoiding bloodshed? In his book Milestones, Qutb argued that ‘totality’ distinguished Islam from other religions. There was no God but Allah, whose laws defined everything of importance. He hated the separation of church and state. An Islamic system meant the ‘abolition of man-made laws’. Democracy was an abomination that put the wants of man above the laws of God. And such Islamists are implacably hostile to the Christian idea that all belief should be the genuine result of a questioning and open mind. Islamists call for simple obedience.
But it is not just Islamists that have been the subject of legitimate criticism in our media. Mainstream Islam as it has been interpreted historically and as it is celebrated today in majority-Muslim countries is not compatible with our humanistic ideal of liberal-democracy. Islamic leaders at their best are not keen on democracy; do not treat women as equal under the law; and do not regard membership of a faith as a voluntary decision, but rather as a permanent state dictated from birth. To leave the faith is to be an apostate who can be put to death.
Worst of all, Oborne and Warsi portray themselves as defenders of Muslims when in truth by portraying the valid criticism of the conduct of some Muslim factions as bigotry they strengthen the hand of the most aggressive elements within Islam. The real problem is that there is a great battle going on for the heart and soul of Islam. The faith is bitterly divided between factions with incompatible views. Some are quick to use force, including bloodshed, and their main victims are Muslims who came to the West to get away from medieval sharia law and the intimidation that goes with it. We have all been shocked to learn that beatings and murders in the name of ‘honour’ have been carried out in our midst. And we have all been discomfited to discover that some Muslim schools teach animosity to the West and promote sectarianism.
We have been in this situation before during the seventeenth century civil war, when the nation was bitterly divided between religious factions. And the strength of the West derives from the time when it learned to tame religion. When the Church had monopoly power it was inclined to impose superstitions, carry out persecutions, and suppress the growth of any knowledge that contradicted church teaching. Yet belonging to moral communities inspired by religious faith has also been one of the strengths of the West. In England the turning point was in 1688/89 when religious toleration allowed the advantages of faith to be combined with the benefits of pluralism. The constitutional settlement of that time allowed people who disagreed strongly about the right way to live nevertheless to get along with each other without violence. In other words, our system was built on the expectation that there would be disagreements. Indeed, they were welcomed within limits. But, violence was ruled out and so was intolerance.
If Oborne and Warsi are taken seriously, their attempts to portray critics of Islam as little more than bigots, will have the effect of putting Islam above criticism. Perhaps Peter Oborne thinks he is siding with the underdog in classic British fashion. But in reality he is making excuses for Muslim totalitarians who are at war with those members of their own faith who admire Western liberal democracy. The upshot of suppressing criticism of Islam will not be a reduction in violence, or even a reduction in heated debate, but the creation of a smokescreen that will permit the silent but ruthless intimidation of Muslims who hope to reform Islam and create a liberal and tolerant branch of their faith.