In the aftermath of last month’s Paris atrocities there was a remarkable piece in one of Denmark’s leading papers signed by more than a dozen prominent Danish Muslims. It said that France, like Denmark, is a country where there is freedom of speech and freedom of religion and that writers and cartoonists had every right, in such societies, to draw and cartoon whatever they wanted, including Islam’s prophet. Muslims should get used to it. At the end of translating this article for me the Danish friend who showed it to me said something very important: ‘This has only happened because we’ve been having this argument in Denmark for nine years.’
Cut to Britain, where we should have been having the same argument for almost exactly twenty-six years (since Valentine’s Day 1989 to be precise). Yesterday in London a crowd of more than a thousand British Muslims (carefully divided between males and females) gathered outside Downing Street. The rally - organised by something calling itself ‘The Muslim Action Forum’ - was a protest against freedom of speech, specifically to cartoons of Mohammed in the French publication Charlie Hebdo. Among the banners carried by protestors were ones that read, ‘I am a servant of holy prophet Muhammad (pbuh)’, the sinister ‘We love prophet Muhammad (pbuh) more than our lives’, ‘Jesus and Moses were prophets of Islam’ and the even more presumptuous ‘Learn some manners'. Among those holding a banner reading ‘Charlie and the abuse factory’ was a little boy. Others bore banners with the fantastically awful words spoken by the Pope last month: ‘Insult my mum and I will punch you (Pope Francis).’ A large banner hung beneath the stage from which speakers addressed the crowd carried the barely concealed threat: ‘Be careful with Muhammad.’
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Meanwhile a group of tribal leaders presented a petition to Number 10 Downing Street which they said had been signed by 100,000 UK Muslims criticising publications which ‘sow the seeds of hatred’. The gathering blocked off Whitehall and saw crowds flowing around the cenotaph and the statues of Viscount Alanbrooke and Montgomery of Alamein. Among the speakers was one Shaykh Tauqir Ishaw, a spokesman for the organisers who said:
‘Perpetual mistakes by extremists, either by cold-blooded killers or uncivilised expressionists, cannot be the way forward for a civilised society.
The peace-loving majority of people must become vociferous in promoting global civility and responsible debate. At this time of heightened tension and emotion, it is crucial that both sides show restraint to prevent further incidents of this nature occurring.’
Of course much though these fanatics may like to pretend otherwise there are no ‘two sides’ of the same coin going on here. The ‘expressionists’ and the ‘terrorists’ are not ‘as bad as each other’. The only two things which are in fact conjoined are the people who use guns and bombs to terrorise people for exercising their rights as free Europeans and the very large number of people from the ‘moderate majority’ who back up such violence (even while, like yesterday's speakers, claiming to deplore it) with warnings that non-Muslims should be ‘careful’ when addressing their religion.
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The interesting thing about this is that if you compare the photos from yesterday in London and the photos of protests during the Satanic Verses affair twenty-six years ago you will see that nothing has improved in this country. If anything it has got far worse. Why is that? Why is it that in 2015 a crowd of thousands and a petition of a hundred thousand citizens can understand so little about the country they live in, its traditions and freedoms, that they would even think of petitioning the Prime Minister of Britain about cartoons in a French newspaper?
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One reason is the weakness of British proponents of free-speech to stand up for what they believe in. One of yesterday’s speakers, Shaykh Noor Siddiqi, said:
‘The actions of the UK media in not publishing the cartoons is highly appreciated by British Muslims and we hope that this kind of self-restraint and mutual respect will ultimately lead to a harmonious society.’
I’m not at all sorry to be able to break it to Shaykh Noor Siddiqui, that in fact a number of British publications most certainly did republish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of Mohammed. Among them were the Guardian, the Times (on page two the day after the atrocity in Paris) and the issue before the current one of Private Eye. But it is interesting that Shaykh believes none did reprint. Those who did so certainly slipped it in rather than making a big show of it. But those people who wish to take offence clearly think they have managed to silence the media even if the media has not been wholly silenced.
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The larger failing, however, has been the political one. Because even after more than two and a half decades, Britain still has not seen a mainstream political leader willing to explain the situation to people like those gathered outside Downing Street yesterday. Britain flunked the Satanic Verses affair, with politicians of left and right using the opportunity to satisfy their personal animosities against Salman Rushdie (some papers and politicians are still doing so now) and suck up to communal representatives rather than draw a clear line and explain what British traditions were and are. For instance the former Tory home secretary Michael Howard helped nurture the problem for another generation thanks to his bright idea of helping to set up and then governmentally endorse communal Muslim groups in the wake of the Rushdie affair.
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It could have gone so much better if at any point since 1989 a political leader of any party had found the guts to say, ‘These are the rules here, and these are our traditions. If you don’t like them then hop it.’ But no one has. And that is why, in 2015, Britain has learnt nothing and progressed nowhere on all this.