Published:

The sum of Imran Mulla’s article on this site a week ago today is roughly as follows. Religious freedom is a social good – or at least should be tolerated.  The French assimilationist tradition is hostile to it.  The British multicultural one is not.  So ours works better, and would work better still were it not for the Government.

I want to leave the last, particular, claim aside for the moment (because space is limited), and probe the others, which repose the big questions about faith, extremism, multiculturalism and integration, terror and modern Britain that have haunted us since at least 7/7.

I will do so without reference to anything else that Mulla has written, posted or tweeted, with one exception: his article on the same theme in Athwart, in which he praised Edmund Burke.

“In the writings of…Burke, the preeminent conservative thinker of the Anglosphere, we see a perfect articulation of English secularism’s potential for tolerance,” Mulla wrote, describing him as “an early and passionate advocate for British imperial multiculturalism and religious freedom”.

Having been born into one religion, taken up another and lived alongside a third – Islam, Mulla’s own – I start from the same place that he did.  Religious freedom is indeed a social good.  So for that matter is religious practice, or at least that of established faiths, such as the three to which I refer: Judaism, Christianity, Islam.

That’s because they put at least as much into civil society as they take out, whether the measure is charitable work, food banks, reducing substance abuse, homeless shelters, debt counselling, family support, education – and social action during Covid. The famous Burkean sentence about “little platoons” applies.

Nonetheless, to say that religion should be welcomed into the public square isn’t the same as saying that it should simply be waved in with a free pass.  Or be allowed to do whatever it likes once its inside.  To explain why, let me return to those three faiths.

In 1994, Baruch Goldstein threw a grenade into crowd of praying Muslims at Abraham’s tomb in Hebron before opening fire on them with an assault rifle.  Twenty nine people died, including twelve children, and 125 were wounded.

In 2001, Peter Knight shot dead Stephen Rogers, a security guard, at a private abortion clinic in East Melbourne.  He was overpowered before carrying out his plan to burn alive the 15 staff and 26 patients present. He had with him six litres of kerosene, three lighters, torches and 30 gags.

It is a statement of the obvious that religion has war, massacre, torture, oppression, censorship, sectarianism and hate in the debit column to balance the peacemaking, rescue, charitable work, art, music, scholarship and love in the credit one.

That Goldstein’s and Knight’s murders were blasphemous parodies of Jewish and Christian teaching is true (though perhaps a claim better left to theologians).  But that those faiths were an inspiration to them stands.  It is a mercy than terror carried out in the name of either religion in Britain is rare.

So is that claimed in the name of Islam – but, unfortunately, it is less rare. The period from June 7 2005 to November 14 last year have seen a series of terrorist incidents, complete or attempted, claimed in the name of that religion.  Were these also blasphemous parodies?

I would say yes.  Then again, there is a violent strand in Islam, exemplified early in the religion’s history by the Kharijites.  Then yet again, there is one too in Christianity and Judaism.  But neither pose anything like the same security threat here in Britain to people of all religions and none.

Mulla’s piece refers in passing to “Muslim terrorism”.  A terrorist who identifies as a Muslim might not claim his terrorism in the name of Islam, any more than one who identifies as a Christian might claim his in the name of Christianity, or one who identifies as a Jew might claim his in the name of Judaism.

Mulla will speak for himself about what he thinks are the causes of the terrorism that he briefly identifies. I believe that a key element of it is Islamist ideology – a term that differentiates between Islam, the multi-faceted religion, and Islamism, the political ideology, which terrorises Muslims as well as non-Muslims worldwide.

Obviously, there are other contributing factors, such as foreign policy – or even foreign affairs in themselves.  One of the earliest British suicide bombers was Mohammed Bilal, who blew himself up outside an Indian army barracks in Srinagar in 2000, the year before 9/11. Britain left imperial India the best part of 80 years ago.

It should go almost without saying that it is wrong to carry out terrorist attacks in response to one’s government’s foreign policy, or for any other reason.  But it is evident, pondering Islamist ones in western Europe, that foreign policy is not the only or even the main factor.  For example, where does it fit into the Charlie Hebdo killings?

A global struggle is taking place within Islam itself for its future.  And the experience of the last 15 years in Britain suggests that a conveyer belt can take people on a journey from Islamist ideology to terror attacks.  It would have been extraordinary in these circumstances had on our multicultural settlement not come under strain.

Some of the reactions have been legitimate: I include, for example, the principle underlying the Prevent programme.  It is sensible to seek to prevent terror attacks before they happen rather than deal with the consequences afterwards.  And if Crest Advisory’s polling is on the money, 80 per cent of Muslims support the scheme.

It goes almost without saying that violence against Muslims is not – such as the terror assault near Finsbury Park mosque, the murder of Mohammed Saleem in Birmingham, the attack on the sister of a waterboarded refugee in Huddersfield.  Some of the violence will have been racial as well as religious.

And some reactions have been legitimate but mistaken: I’m thinking back, for example, to the Blair Government’s attempt to hold suspects without trial for 42 days.  But it has not been easy for the authorities.  Politicians, the security services, the police, the civil service – all have wrestled with the question of how to deal with Islamist terror.

They have strained to gain understanding of a religion that most of them don’t practice, with spin-offs whose foundational texts, like those of the religion itself, weren’t written in English.  The barriers to understanding are higher than in the case of Marxist communism, the main ideological threat to a preceding generation in the West.

Broadly, there are two schools of thought about how to respond.  The first is to target the crocodiles, as the familiar image has it.  The second: drain the swamp: in other words, try to challenge and cramp extremist ideology – that strange meeting of the Wahabi strain of Islam and the Islamist ideas of Qutb, Maududi and others.

That second approach is nearer the heart of the problem.  But it is difficult to deliver.  Consider that picture of a conveyer belt.  It is only helpful as far as it goes.  Some segregrated Islamic movements are quietist – withdrawn altogether from political activism.  Most of their members don’t travel on the beltway at all.

Other Islamist terrorists have a background of family breakup, drugs and crime.  They took to terror soon after taking up extreme ideology.  It is not even true that all Islamic violence comes from the point at which Wahhabism meets Qutb.  Consider the murder of Salman Taseer, the former governor of the Punjab, by his Barelwi bodyguard.

Confronted by these complexities, the easiest course to take would be simply to seek to delegitimise Islam: for government, civil society and the courts to curb its means of expression. Instead, and without any decision being taken by the authorities, a trend to delegitimise all religion has arisen, deploying a reading of equalities ideology.

Equalities legislation cities religion as a protected strand.  However, it also names others: disability, sexual orientation, pregnancy and maternity and so on.  The politicians who shaped the legislation left it to the judges to determine which strand takes priority when.  And to everyone else to guess what decisions the courts will uphold.

So it is that a Jewish school was told that it cannot favour pupils who are halachically Jewish.  And a Christian street preachers was arrested after quoting from the book of Genesis.  The logic of the fashion is that to single out one religion from others would be discriminatory.  So all must endure alike.

State-funded Muslim schools, too, have felt the bite of officiadom.  The Al-Hijrah school in Birmingham was closed after a long struggle with Ofsted – which reported inter alia that gender segregation in the school required girls to wait to eat until “all the boys had finished”.

This particular battlefield of the culture wars is a congenial one to combative secularists, of whom Richard Dawkins is perhaps the best-known.  Since 9/11, those who object to institutional religion altogether have found themselves in the company of those who object to Islam in particular.

Potential casualties in this cross-fire include religious believers with traditionalist beliefs about gay sex and the role of women, and segregationalist practices, like certain strands of the Exclusive Brethren.  Should the state seek to censor, micro-manage and shame such people?

Each of us must answer for ourselves.  My own view is that there is a difference between Islamist extremism and social conservatism, and indeed between Islamist separatism and other forms.  They are bound up with the role of government.  Separatists of other faiths tend to accept the legitimacy of the British state.

So do some Islamist separatists, but not to the same degree.  Ed Husain’s Among the Mosques paints a picture of Islamist ideologues and propagandists agitating for an Islamic state in which people are treated not as equal citizens under the law, but as religious believers under pre-modern law (their own conception of the sharia).

Ottoman Turkey developed a millet system under which religious communities were allowed a measure of autonomy.  The Islamist state as encountered in Husain’s book is different in flavour: it is where politicised Islam and the modern state meet.

In terms of the rights of religious minorities, women and gay people, there seems no essential difference to me between this Islamist state on paper and a recent experiment in practice: ISIS in Iraq and Syria.  That’s not to say the first will always go where the second went, but they start in much the same place.

It may seem strange, having summoned up the shadow of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to end with Burke, but I do, because the parallels are instructive. A patriotic Muslim’s feelings about Britain now may not be all that different from Burke’s about England then.

Catholics in his day were viewed by many as a potential fifth column, as Muslims are today. As the Irish child of a Catholic mother, Burke was vilified by hostile cartoonists.  He himself could, on the one one hand, speak as a Rockingham Whig, praising the English constitution when arguing for conciliation with America.

On the other, what Conor Cruise O’Brien calls the Irish layer of Burke’s psyche could sometimes burst to the surface: his horrified reaction to the French Revolution seems to have been linked to its treatment of the Catholic Church.  A Muslim politician who practices his religion and loves his country would feel the pull of different cross-currents.

But he would recognise at once that religious freedom is incompatable with the Islamist state.  So a paradox comes to me in response to Mulla’s article: that religious freedom must sometimes be cramped if it is to flourish. There is a point at which multiculturalism can eat itself.

The issues he raises are not easily resolved.  Are state actors justified in seeking to marginalise social conservatism – and if so, when?  At what point is the liberal state strained by as much cultural divergence as its coherence can stand?

When does religious practice, if ever, challenge the British way?  Whatever answers we may give, on one point Mulla, I and ConHome readers can agree.  Whatever may may not be Burkean, it isn’t the Islamist state. Maududi can’t be squeezed into Tory clothes.