Sunday, 21 October 2012

Let’s Stop Being So Tentative And Uncourageous When It Comes To Islam

I don't find it difficult to become dissonant at Islam - so when I read two things in a week that astound and anger me, blogs like this just roll off the tongue (or keyboard). 

The first thing I read was that craven officials at Norwich City Council have issued a trading ban against stallholder Alan Clifford because his display contained a booklet criticising Islam (I read it and it seemed to me to be not an inflammatory booklet, just one that cast aspersions over Islam*).

Now I don't think I would have much in common with Alan Clifford - from what I've been told (from trusted sources, and from reading his material) he is a fundie, which means his Islam booklet really amounts to fundie vs. fundie.  But that aside, let's be clear, Norwich City Council's cowardly interjection is part of a disgraceful wider picture, and represents everything that is so timorous and spineless about the emerging politics in this country, and the willingness to concede too much ground to Islam.  Two key bits of information are that it was after a single complaint that Norwich City Council has decided to ban the outreach on Hay Hill, but also that it was cited by Norwich City Council as being for “equality reasons.”

“Although the police advised that no criminal offence had been committed, we have a duty under the Equality Act 2010 to foster good relations between people of all backgrounds and religions. By allowing premises owned by the Council to be used by an organisation publishing such material, we would be failing in that duty.”

This is absurdly ignorant – even though, in fairness to the Council, it is not their fault that the Equality Act 2010 and the Public Offence Act is so grossly restrictive and imprudent. I think this equality act has got a lot to answer for, because one kind of equality it clearly isn't accounting for is one of the most important ones - the equality we all should have in our right to freedom of expression.  One thing that diminishes “good relations between people of all backgrounds and religions.” is when people are limited by law in their ability to speak openly and freely about things, and when different concessions are made for different groups (which is what has been tacitly happening with Islam in recent times, and is likely to get worse). 

As I've said repeatedly, I think radical Islam is an extreme, patriarchal, repressive, backward and morally stultifying stain on humanity.  It is perhaps the worst human invention of all time - and one that appears to be gaining more and more impetus against political parties and governmental figures with no backbone.   Of course, you’re going to say that many Muslims don’t fit this description, and you’re right.  But that misses the point – it is the ‘religion’ that is all those these things – and the Muslims who are kind, intelligent, liberal, tolerant and progressive can be, and often are, all of those things in spite of Islam not because of Islam.  I would ask for anyone to defend my right to express that critique, just as I would defend any Muslim's right to speak openly about what he or she believes (as long as it is deviod of hate speech).

Here is what opponents of this view do not seem to understand.  Whenever we hear a voice or read an opinion which is vastly different from our own, or the common opinion, not only should we give that person the right to express themselves, we actually deny ourselves the right to hear or read the expression if we choose to seek refuge in the false security of consensus.  There are, I would say, three works which stand up as regards this particular subject.  John Milton's Areopagitica, Thomas Paine's Introduction To The Age Of Reason, and John Stuart Mill's Essay On Liberty.  The summarising central point of all the authors (if I may be so bold) is the following.  It is not just the right of the person that speaks to be heard, it is the right of everyone else to listen; and every time you silence somebody you make yourself a prisoner of your own actions because you deny yourself the right to hear something.  In other words, your own right to hear is as involved as the other person's is to have his or her view.  The freedom of speech is meaningless unless it means the freedom of the person who thinks differently.  We may not agree with everything we hear, but we do ourselves an injustice if we fail to hear the dissenting voices. 

The second thing I read was in James Delingpole's column in The Spectator, in which he talked of his niece's undisclosed "Middle-class state school in a pretty English cathedral city".  Apparently, despite being a school which is only 2% Muslim, the children are taught that whenever they say "Mohammed" they must suffix it with the "Peace Be Upon Him" phrase (PBUH).  Now I won't even get into to all the issues I have with the reverence of Mohammed, and what sort of character he strikes me as, but I will say how astounded I am that anybody outside of Islam would coerce or encourage British non-Muslims to utter words of reverence for a figure for whom they have not the slightest reverence.  This is just the case of more spineless cowardice - it must be, because, underneath, white middle class British non-Muslims do not have any such reverence for Mohammed or Islam, much less do they think he was a prophet. 

What on earth is wrong with so many people in Britain that they would succumb to the insidious dominance of Islamic thinking and give it a protective and exalted cultural niche that it does not merit?  Moreover, surely having people utter PBUH blithely is pretty meaningless - it only has meaning to those who utter it out of reverence; so even Muslims should wish that this kind of cultural ignorance and sycophancy is eradicated pretty quickly.   

Of course, it is important that we say all this with civility, consideration and good manners – and a lot of that seems to be absent in today’s society.  What we need is open and honest critiquing of things that have been given protection from analytical scrutiny for too long – but in a manner worthy of those aforementioned positive qualities that are so often scarce.  Instead what seems to be happening is that legislation is being put in place as an antidote to the pervading loss of respect and good manners. 

Remember, also, one of the best ways to show respect to a person is to be honest with them about what you think of their views and beliefs, and hope they would afford you the same in reciprocity.  The real spectre that needs to be faced is that instances like these almost certainly are the thin end of the wedge – there is worse to come as Governments slowly erode away freedom of expression and duck out of the challenge of facing up to a more open and diverse scrutiny of what people believe and how they came to believe these things.

* You can read Alan Clifford's Why Not Islam here? on his website.