Is This 21st Century Islam?


The current issue in the Muslim cartoon debate isn’t whether it’s wrong to sketch Mohammed (from William Blake to South Park, it’s been done for centuries) or the merits of Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten’s cartoon satire (virtually none, undoubtedly inflammatory). Nor is it about the harm to innocent Danes from a boycott of their goods (Muslims don’t drink Carlsberg or eat bacon the Danes will be fine).

It is now almost solely and squarely about the violent response of some Muslims and what it says about the incompatability of that response with liberal democracy and more mature forms of faith. And if we are ever to move past this heated slanging match, then the debate must broaden to examine the role of organised religion in our society.

Thanks to Bill Leak at The Australian

Let me be clear that I am a friend of moderate Islam as much as any agnostic liberal can be. Why? Because stronger and fairer societies result when there is true diversity.

That’s partly why it was heartbreaking to witness Muslims marching past Harrods last week demanding a ‘7/7’ style bombing of Denmark and the beheading of those who insult Islam. That little march like the torching of embassies and the shootings that have followed has drowned reason and democracy, and overwhelmed the response of moderate UK Muslims. And it severely dampened the sympathy I have for the disadvantage faced by many Muslims.

We really do have to ask ourselves: ‘what types of Islam can co-exist with other groups in liberal democracy?’ And in the face of the widespread, out-of-proportion reaction to the original cartoons: ‘what needs to be done to drag Islam into the 21st century?’

I make the same judgments of fundamentalist Christians and the excesses of the Israeli State, but whereas I would once have been more lenient on the Muslim community because of the disadvantages many of its members face, I have no further patience. It is beyond me how one is supposed to undertake the intellectual gymnastics of leaping from sympathy for the unemployment or chauvinism faced by Muslims, to silence in the face of incitement to mass terrorism.

Millions of others in the UK have crossed a similar patience threshold if polls, papers and pub conversations are anything to go by. And the particular problem this poses for Islam is the fear and terror promoted by its extreme adherents. Why? Because Muslims are seen as much more likely to start blowing things up than other fundamentalists. It’s a massive PR and human rights problem for all Muslims. Only they can solve it, and they are fast running out of excuses.

To provide a religious comparison for internal reform: it took a long while but from Vatican II in the 1960s to signs of taking responsibility for child abuse in its ranks in the 1990s, the Catholic Church is at least moving occasionally in the right direction. It proves internal reform is possible in even the most stubborn institutions. Moderate Muslims will need even more time to stamp out extremists because of Islam’s weaker hierarchy, but that frankly is a limited concession and the only one worth granting in this debate.

Far from suffering from some kind of absolute disadvantage, Muslims also enjoy the privilege of a time warp because of the sensitivities of Western liberals and the oil-hungry we excuse behaviour not excused in other groups because of guilt or the possible loss of money.

Many Islamic absurdities exist without challenge because of fear. Indeed, often Muslims willingly maintain this fear, argues Matthew Parris of The Times, by demanding a mislabeled form of ‘respect.’

To give you just one personal example, in April 2005 a group of Muslim youths bailed me up late at night near my flat in East London’s Bethnal Green and demanded I refuse to vote in the UK general election because Allah did not endorse it. Their mission that night was to intimidate their Muslim neighbours into not applying for postal votes. They were quite successful and they certainly scared me. I would have called the police if it was an anti-abortion group instead I went home bemused and worried about appearing disrespectful to difference. Yet I still knew what had just happened was wrong, and now it makes more sense.

Being lenient and respectful in such situations doesn’t help defend the basic principles of liberal democracy. Subjecting Islam to more public scrutiny would do that. Islam should be open for dissection. Full stop. Only through conjecture and scrutiny will Islam mature and give its adherents fully-fledged choices about what they should and shouldn’t do as part of their faith.

For centuries, Westerners have been allowed to mock Christianity, from watching Monty Python or viewing the artwork ‘Piss Christ.’ By contrast, the glamorous Indian tennis player Sania Mirza now has a full-time bodyguard because so many Muslims are unable to cope with the idea of a teenage Muslim woman wearing tight clothes in public. That is not OK. It’s the product of ignorance and fear and we are duty-bound to eliminate it.

If 80 per cent of practising Muslim women really do want to wear a full burkha, fine that’s compatible with my liberal beliefs. But I’ve never seen a scrap of evidence to prove they do. Further, I’d bet many Muslim women aren’t given a proper choice and wouldn’t choose to cover up if they were given one. In fact, if these choices and the information needed to make them were universally available, I’d also bet the religion would evolve and start to accept and reflect more of the world around it.

What is the alternative? Permanent Immature Islam? The knee-jerk election of an extreme Right-wing Danish Government? The kidnapping of Princess Mary’s baby or the assassination of the Danish Prime Minister? All of these are possible consequences if liberal democrats do not take a stand on the maniacal response to these cartoons.

For all those who worry that it’s just not right to criticise someone’s faith I offer you this. It’s not acceptable to criticise someone for having Black or White skin because they cant help it. It’s not acceptable to mock people who are gay simply for being gay because they can’t help it. It is totally acceptable to criticise someone for their religious beliefs precisely because they can help it. You fight back by using reasoned argument, by ignoring the criticism or by changing your faith. You do not, in a mature liberal democracy, blowtorch the nearest embassy when someone says something about your religion which you do not like.

If the extreme Muslim reaction weren’t so dangerous, it would be infantile.

There is no excuse for discrimination against Muslims. Stories about the woman having her headscarf ripped off on Cronulla beach in December horrify me. But the recent worldwide protests confirm everything believed by the people who are determined to discriminate against Muslims regardless of the circumstances.

Moreover, bowing to censorship, and violence is pointless. It is antithetical to the ideas of liberal democracy on which our Western society rests. Bleeding hearts had better get used to that fact. Just like moderate Muslims, we all now have a clearer responsibility for dragging Islam into the 21st century.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.