By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2012-09-15 at 10.24.16The application of the Government's new Prevent policy, which draws clear distinctions between extremism and non-extremism, and the untangling of our engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan – two U.S marines were killed yesterday at the base where Prince Harry is stationed – have seen media coverage of Muslims in Britain wind down (and since most news by definition is bad news, such coverage as a rule is relentlessly negative).

This may be about to change.  The Financial Times (£) reports this morning that Lord Marland, the Trade Minister, has cancelled a planned visit to Libya in the wake of the horrible murder of the U.S Ambassador there.  The film about Mohammed that has caused convulsions worldwide follows a revisionist Channel 4 series about the origins of Islam, the launch of which was cancelled for security reasons.  And Baroness Cox is seeking to ban sharia courts or councils. She wants to introduce a bill which "would make it a criminal offence for any individual or group to pose as a proper legal court".

The Baroness seems to be confusing enforcing the law (for example, with regard to honour killings or forced marriages) with banning private arrangements.  For example, it isn't necessary to ban sharia councils to stop Muslim – or any other – husbands beating their wives: what is required is that the law be enforced, and that the police come down on miscreants like a ton of the proverbial.  Such plans also threaten to corrode the free society they seek to defend.  If a bunch of pagans, say, want to set up some Witches' Witenagemot to manage their affairs, that's their own affair and no-one else's business.

I am not going to waste my time tracking down the Mohammed film, though I did see the first part of the Tom Holland series. (These days, launches sometimes follow broadcasts, not the other way round.) It reinforced my prejudice that TV is a less intelligent medium than print.  There is a fascinating adademic debate about the origins of Islam, but with its non-specialist narrator, manipulative mood music and irrelevant bits of footage, the series generated more heat than light.  It contained little to undermine the traditional account – namely, that Arabs emerged from the desert with a new book that Mohammed gave them.

But whether or not the series' truncated explorations were right, what's certain is that Holland should be free to carry them out, just as the "meth-making federal informer who avoided jail time by snitching on his fellow criminals"  – copyright: Daily Mail – should be free to make his doubtless revolting film.  It is not unknown for people from the Sudan to seek to live permanently in Britain, whereas I have never heard of anyone from Britain seeking to live permanently in the Sudan.  The reason for this is bound up with a fact: western societies separated the sacred from the secular a long time ago, while some non-western ones are still struggling to do so.

I am not romanticising the former by suggesting that the cultural bundle that makes up the former – such as the rule of law, free markets, strong civil institutions and free speech – is the foundation upon which our prosperity and freedom have laboriously and hesitantly been built.  Let me end with good news and a warning.  First, the good news: neither Mr Holland's film nor the federal informer's film have been followed by the disturbances in Britain that succeeded the publication of "The Satanic Verses".  British Muslims are a lot smarter and infinitely less hysterical than their critics claim.

The quiet may not hold: for example, some idiot could do something to shatter it.  But I think it is possible to claim that, five years on from 7/7, relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in Britain are getting better, not worse – that the hard conversation that followed the atrocity was painful but necessary, and that lessons have been learned.  And last, the warning: Ministers should be ever-vigilant in watching for the effect of events abroad on cohesion here.

For example, I think, having just spent a week in Israel/Palestine, that they should be planning now for the knock-on effects in our cities if Israel takes military action against Iran…

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