It is time our leaders learned that Islam is just another religion

  • Date / 18 February 2009

It’s time our leaders learned that Islam is just another religion.

It was a bad week for freedom. On Monday and Tuesday 9/10 February, an Islamic mob in Kolkata (Calcutta) called for the arrest of Ravindra Kumar and Anand Sinha, the editor and publisher of the Statesman, one of the oldest and most respected English-language newspapers in India. On cue, the Indian authorities arrested both men on Wednesday. Their crime? Republishing an article by Johann Hari in the London daily, the Independent, explaining why it is necessary to criticise religion.

On Tuesday, UK Home Secretary (Minister of the Interior) Jacqui Smith banned Dutch MP Geert Wilders from entering Britain. He had been invited to Britain to show his film, Fitna in the House of Lords and to answer questions. Whatever one may think of Mr Wilders’ opinions, as a Dutch citizen with no criminal record (and not simply because he is a member of the Dutch Parliament) he has the absolute right to travel freely around Europe. The only exception to this right can be made by a government on grounds of public order. But why would the minister think that Mr Wilders is a threat to public order? The answer, sadly, is that one member of the House of Lords, the Islamist Lord Ahmed, had said he would bring 10,000 people onto the streets in protest if Wilders were permitted to come to the House. Now, we have seen plenty of demonstrations in London before and we will see many more in the future. The most famous perhaps was the demonstration against the Iraq war that brought a million people onto the streets. But that, like so many other demonstrations in Britain, was peaceful. So why should the government be worried at the prospect of 10,000 people demonstrating about Wilders’ visit? Yes, that was a rhetorical question, and we all know the answer: the 10,000 demonstrators would be Muslims, bringing with it the very real prospect that the protests would be violent.

I am sure that the average law-abiding citizen of Britain was appalled when they heard of Lord Ahmed’s threat, but not so the government. Their reaction was to attempt to appease at all costs the threat of Islamic violence. Wilders arrived at Heathrow on Thursday and was immediately put back on a plane to Amsterdam.

In an interesting footnote to the affair, The British Foreign Secretary, David Milliband in an interview on Hardtalk on BBC World Service, was highly critical of Wilders’ film – as though making a film critical of Islamic violence was a crime and a justifiable reason for banning the filmmaker from Britain – only to admit at the end of the interview that he had not seen the film!

In India, the editor and publisher of the Spectator have now been released, but what does their arrest tell us about the Indian government? Here too, it seems, is a government willing to appease violent Muslims. This is all one with the months of house arrest and deportation from India of Taslima Nasrin who, like Wilders and like Messrs Kumar and Sinha, had committed no crime. Nevertheless she was forced to leave her adopted country, probably for ever, in the face of intimidation from an Islamic mob.

What is it that so provokes the Muslims?

In Wilders case he juxtaposed texts from the Quran calling for holy war against the infidel with scenes showing Muslims – however misguided they might be – following this call in 2001 and 2005. Wilders thinks this book should be banned, and has said so. (I personally don’t agree because quite apart from my absolute commitment to freedom of expression – including texts we may loathe – I believe the more people that read the Quran the better. Only then will they learn to be sufficiently suspicious of those who take its injunctions seriously and seek to follow them to the letter. Wilders has never incited people to violence. His “crime” is that he is opposed to people and books that do so.

What of Johann Hari? He wrote: “All people deserve respect, but not all ideas do. I don’t respect the idea that a man was born of a virgin, walked on water and rose from the dead. I don’t respect the idea that we should follow a “Prophet” who at the age of 53 had sex with a nine-year old girl, and ordered the murder of whole villages of Jews because they wouldn’t follow him.

“I don’t respect the idea that the West Bank was handed to Jews by God and the Palestinians should be bombed or bullied into surrendering it. I don’t respect the idea that we may have lived before as goats, and could live again as woodlice. This is not because of “prejudice” or “ignorance”, but because there is no evidence for these claims. They belong to the childhood of our species, and will in time look as preposterous as believing in Zeus or Thor or Baal.”

It was no doubt the remark about a 53 year-old “Prophet” (note the scare quotes) that enraged the Calcutta mob. Or were they enraged that anyone should imply criticism of their prophet having had sex with a nine-year old girl?

I will give the last word to Mr Kumar. In a note published in the Statesman on 8 February, he said: “The Statesman had reprinted Hari’s article because “it mourned the marginalisation of the middle, liberal path in modern society”. It added: “The Statesman has always upheld secular values and has a record of providing space to all viewpoints, even contentious ones. If we were unable to fulfil this role, we would rather cease publication with honour than compromise our basic values.”

The time has surely come for our leaders to start defending our liberal, democratic values. What we fail to defend, we shall surely lose.

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