Since the editor is filling this page with its former occupants, I naturally responded to his invitation by looking back to the days 20 years ago when I filled this hole. In most respects, the subject matter was the same – why doesn’t the health service work, how to make peace in Northern Ireland, how the government is ignoring Parliament, why can’t children read and write, the problems of tax, crime, roads, housing, defence and, of course, Europe.
In the last column that I wrote for this paper before becoming its editor (24 March 1984) I was in Brussels for a summit in which Mrs Thatcher was fighting for ‘our money’. Explaining why Britain would continue to be in trouble with the Continental powers over what was then the EEC, I wrote: ‘The founders and perpetuators of the EEC idea do not think of it as static. They hope that the Community could eventually run the foreign policy, the entire trading system and even, perhaps, the defence of its members, and that it should do so through permanent supra-national institutions which would be sovereign over the nations which they subsumed. One does not need this week’s opinion polls to confirm that any British politician ready to countenance such a development would effectively destroy his own career.’
In the week in which the British government draws its thin ‘red lines’ and refuses a referendum over the European constitution, the Groundhog Day feeling is overwhelming, so instead I shall write about something which never featured in columns on British politics 20 years ago – Islam.
On Monday, the BBC Today programme decided to start the week of the second anniversary of 11 September with an interview with Abu Omar, a young spokesman for al-Muhajiroun, a London-based organisation which is holding a meeting to celebrate the ‘magnificent 19’ – those who flew into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and those who crashed in Pennsylvania trying to do something similar.
Mr Omar said his group has no views of its own: it simply draws attention to the Sharia (Islamic law). The Sharia, said he, makes 11 September ‘completely justified’. Muslims who disagreed with this were ‘apostates’. Muslims who served in the British army were also apostates. He went on to say that his was a peaceful organisation: ‘Our stance towards jihad is one merely of reporting what Islam says.’ He added, though, that suicide bombers were good because ‘Islam supports all martyrdom operations’.
What other cause glorifying murder would be given air-time to do it so directly? Even Sinn Fein/IRA are expected to wrap up their support for terrorism in talk about ‘removing the causes of conflict’. It is unimaginable that the BBC would invite a supporter of David Copeland, the man who blew up homosexuals and their friends in a London bar, to come on and explain why this was a great idea. It is equally improbable that they would give space to a Christian or a Jew who claimed that his Scriptures justified flying into office buildings to kill the workers inside them. And if, by some extraordinary chance, they did give air-space to such a guest, would they treat him with the almost respectful timidity of the interviewer, whose most challenging question to Mr Omar was ‘Are you not worried that your organisation is treading on a very thin tightrope at this point in time by doing this?’?
Yet I am not sure that Today was wrong to interview this man, because we all know that he represents something in the modern world which matters. It must be true, as Today immediately afterwards allowed the Muslim Lady Uddin to point out, that what he said is rejected by the great majority of British Muslims. And yet we know that if a bloodthirsty Christian were to pop up on the programme, he would stand for nothing significant in modern Christianity in the West, whereas the likes of al-Muhajiroun do stand for something significant about some aspects of modern Islam. It is a horrible distortion, yes, but also a genuine problem. That is why it is surely right, though it annoys many decent Muslims, to speak of ‘Muslim terrorists’. In their minds, their faith is central to their violent actions.
As a result, people in the West fear Islam more than they like to admit. In Tuesday’s Daily Telegraph, we reported Damien Hirst’s latest exhibition. He has ‘used flayed cows’ heads to represent Christ’s Apostles’, said the report. To represent the ‘bloody history of the Christian Church, these heads have kitchen knives, scissors and shards of glass and mirror violently embedded in them’. Terribly brave of Damien, of course. But would he, I wonder, be quite brave enough to offer comparable confections about Islam? Suppose, for example, he recaptioned one of his stabbed cow’s heads ‘The Prophet Mohammed’, what would happen then? Mightn’t the reaction be such as to cast a pall over the glittering private view at the White Cube Gallery, Hoxton Square? When politicians say that ‘Islam is a peaceful religion’ they are not exactly wrong – all the great religions speak of peace as their ultimate attainment – but one can’t help wondering if they would say it quite so often if they were absolutely sure it was true.
Western politicians have not got very far in working out what to do about all of this, and anyone who is sure of the answer is probably a fool. I find my own mind changes all the time. Sometimes I think it is important for public figures to state, as Tony Blair does, the soft, nice truths – that there is much in common between Islam and the other religions of the Book, that Islam has given birth to a high civilisation, that most Muslims in Britain experience little difficulty in reconciling a strong faith with a loyal citizenship. I admire the Muslim devotion to frequent prayer. I hear heartwarming stories of ecumenical gatherings; indeed I have taken part in one or two. The Bishop of Liverpool tells me how touched he is to have been asked to be the patron of the restoration of an old mosque in his diocese and of how, after Christians were murdered in Pakistan, Merseyside Muslims wrote him a letter of sympathy.
But at other times, I want to protest at the reluctance of the authorities to punish the outrageous incitements made by Muslims like Mr Omar, at the rather qualified rejections of them by Muslim leaders, at the pretence by the political parties that many Muslims are politically liberal. I am frightened by a creed which, in its current form, does not appear to have a doctrine of the separation of Church and state, which believes that its law is applicable, as law, in any civil society on earth. I notice a growing anti-Semitism. And I fear that a large Muslim population, added to all the time by an immigration which we neither control nor even properly monitor, is a big sea in which Mr Omar’s terrorist fish can swim. What incentive does Britain give for being a Muslim moderate? What price does it exact for being an extremist? Can a society so keen on lambasting itself as racist, exploitative and guilty stand up against a radicalised belief system which endorses that analysis and offers a religious answer? The late Roman empire had similar dark musings about Christianity. If the Muslim vote were larger still, Mr Blair might be well advised to ape the solution of the Emperor Constantine. How brilliantly he would do it.
Charles Moore is editor of the Daily Telegraph.