Alex Massie

Ground Zero Mosque: Another Moment of Truth for the Open Society

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A good number of readers  - or those readers who left comments* - didn't much care for my post on the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque". Revolting [and] symptomatic of the imbecilic scramble to dhimmitude widespread in liberal circles... The Muslim colonists push and the gutless West meekly gives way, as usual... It will be seen in the world for the symbol of what it really is; a victory for resurgent Islam and a defeat for the Christian West...Hopefully this symbol of Islamic supremacism will be strangled at birth. You get the idea.

There's a cultural war wrapped inside a psychodrama here. Or perhaps it's the other way round. This sense that, somehow, the United States, the United Kingdom and the rest of what we term the western world are under assault and that, more's the pity, defeat is imminent. The responsibility for this catastrophe will be shared by the malevolent forces of evil and their willing, it witless, useful idiots in the liberal west. The latter may even be more responsible, thanks to their supine, craven "dhimmitude" that threatens us all.

If only - if only! - other people possessed my resolution, my ability to see everything as it really is. If only others could be as vigilant as I am. If only we could rid ourselves of the weak who fail to share my awareness of the peril we face. Well, then, victory would be ours! Instead, alas, we are on the road to defeat and thence to hell.

The rules of this game are zero sum. No "mosque" (actually a prayer room inside a community centre) at "Ground Zero" (actually a couple of blocks away) until there are churches in Riyadh and Mecca! These are serious times that call for serious people, you see, and if being serious - as Newt Gingrich likes to style himself - means we must adopt a Saudi Arabian definition of religious liberty then so be it. Otherwise the terrorists will win.

True, there's something phoney about the manner in which George W Bush and Tony Blair would talk about "true Islam" and how Wahhabism is a corruption of the faith. There's no one "true" Islam any more than there's one "true" Christianity. Nevertheless, it does not require great eyesight to see that not all strands of Islam are alike, any more than all brands of Christianity are the same. Your perversion of the Book is another man's Holy Writ, if you like.

Nevertheless, Bush and Blair and others had a point: if you convince yourself that the west is fighting some kind of Holy War and that muslims are the enemy then, pretty soon, you find yourself unable to differentiate between the different strands of Islam. Soon after that, once it's a matter of "them" and "us" (even though some of "them" are also part of "us") then there simply can't be anything that can plausibly call itself moderate Islam or, consequently, moderate muslims. Deep down, you see, they're all just the same.

Indeed, some of the kerfuffle over the Cordoba Initiative seems to indicate this. (A word about the word Cordoba - it wasn't chosen to celebrate the conquest of Spain but, I rather think, to acknowledge that there was a moment in Spain in which Jew and Christian and Mohameddan could live together in, by the standards of the age, unusual harmony.)

There's no suggestion that the Imam behind the plan for an Islamic version of the Jewish Community Center (or the YMCA) is any kind of Wahhabist. That would be ridiculous since, as a Sufi, he's as much a target as anyone else in New York. Perhaps a greater target. But rather than accept this, we're told he's "soft on Hamas" and god knows what other unsavoury characters. In other words, he's a false moderate. In fact he can only be a false moderate because Islam is a religion of the sword and brooks no moderation. Everyone knows this, right?

Wrong. These people are (almost) the anti-Cassandras. Many people do listen to them and they are (usually) wrong. We know this because their notions of a death-struggle with Islam are contradicted by our own daily experiences. Are the muslims you work with or play cricket with all would-be jihadis? Of course not. Is the muslim running your local corner-shop or the mini-cab driver who'll take you south of the river a would-be jihadi? Of course not. There are two million muslims in Britain. If they constituted a fifth column undermining Britain we might have endured more than just two (successful) Islamist terrorist attacks in this country since 9/11.

Of course, it's not just a question of terrorism. It's about culture too. But that doesn't mean that every time a publicity-seeking preacher (of whom, admittedly, the law may sometimes have been too indulgent) says something idiotic or inflammatory or repulsive we must treat his words as proof that his congregation is, if anything, just as foolish or unpleasant or malevolent as he may be.

It doesn't mean we must believe that the muslim goons who take to the streets when the coffins of British soldiers are brought back from Afghanistan are representative of anything other than their own tiny unsavouriness. They deserve all the scorn and mockery they receive but we demean ourselves by inflating their significance.

That is, we cannot in good faith judge the beliefs and standards of the law-abiding majority by the excesses and ghastliness of a few. No-one of sound mind disputes that radical Islamism is a real threat. Nor does anyone dispute that there's a problem with "home-grown" radicalism. The question is how we minimise and in time, we hope, eradicate these problems. Turning everything into a Them and Us struggle is just about the last thing we could do to achieve those goals.

Instead, however, we get up in arms every time a chip shop ceases to sell pork products or when any muslim declines to reject any and every aspect of sharia law. See! They're winning! We cannot permit a Chip Shop Gap.

This doesn't mean one need accept the horrors of honour killings and the like, sweeping them away as an unfortunate price of multiculturalism. Not at all. That kind of barbarism demands to met by the law, not understanding. Nor is it unreasonable to expect that acceptance is a two way street. You may certainly protest the publication of The Satanic Verses or the production of a play you consider blasphemous but your protests must be peaceful and you have no right to demand that you may not be offended by the perfectly reasonable and lawful actions of others. That's life and even if you don't like it you must lump it. The British muslim has the same rights - and no more - as the British Jew or the British Roman Catholic or the British Hindu or the British Anglican. The same responsibilities too, for that matter.

But while there are evident tensions and areas of difficulty (and these should not be downplayed or denied) the bigger truth is that the conflict - and there is one - is only tangentially about us. This is much more a civil war within the Islamic world than it is a confrontation with the west (though it is that too). Osama bin Laden's real enemies are the muslims he considers heretics and moderates. That's the struggle he's interested in and the fight with "the west" is merely a means to achieving that final, internal, triumph.

This being so, among the very worst things we can do is lump all muslims together and, by doing so, suggest that we don't think there's any salient difference between the brands and branches of Islam. But, on the other hand, this also doesn;t mean we must demand that British (or American) muslims divest themselves of their religion or their attachment to their layered, over-lapping identies.

What it does mean, however, is trying to avoid postures, rhetoric and policy that will convince British (or American) muslims that they're regarded as suspect or somehow only enjoy second-class status (which, now that the GZM rumpus has gone national is what opposing the mosque, no matter how well intentioned your reasons, effectively does).

To draw a comparison with the Irish terrorist problem (which at least had a clearly visible political solution and so was, in that respect, simpler than the problems we face today even if one could also argue that, in the UK at least, the IRA were better at terrorism than radical Islamists have proven to be) we know from our own experiences that treating one part of the population as the enemy on the basis of who they are can cause more trouble than its worth.

Internment, for instance, didn't merely radicalise a generation of Republicans, it also increased sympathy for Republican objectives, though not necessarily methods, amongst Irish nationalists, north and south of the border, who otherwise had no great love for the IRA or even, beyond paying lip service to it, any great interest in a united Ireland. It was a policy, among plenty of others, that however well-intentioned or justified  and however successful in the short-term caused nothing but trouble in the end.

Now, clearly, no-one is talking about interning or deporting great numbers of British muslims but the comparison, while limited, stands. The more British muslims, especially the young, the unemployed and the poorly educated, are told or given the impression that they're the enemy or that their religion is somehow a threat to or incompatible with British life then the more likely they are to see themselves eventually in those terms too.

Of course once you've convinced yourself that the restoration of the Caliphate is around the corner and that this is the aim of all good and true muslims then it makes sense to assume that any denial that there's any significant - that is, more than sentimental - interest in this, far less any actual means of achieving it must itself be deeply suspect. Everything is a means to an end and nothing can be trusted and everything is, again, a zero sum game. This way madness lies.

To my commenters and the others worried by the "Islamification of Britain" I would ask only this: why are you so afraid and why do you lack such confidence in this country and its people's ability to solve these problems? Perhaps my confidence is misplaced but I think we can probably do it. This is, in many ways, a better, more tolerant place to live than it has been in the past and, unless we blunder, it should remain so. The annoyances of idiotic council regulations about Christmas trees and crucifixes or inflammatory articles in the press ought not to distract us from that fact. The open society is an achievement to be proud of - for conservatives and liberals alike - but the most likely way it can be defeated is if we allow ourselves to be defeated by our fears and, thus, in the end by ourselves.

Diversity need not be a threat, though diversity cannot work unless all are equal under the law. But Britain is changing and doing so in often interesting ways. It is, in general, a comfortable, tolerant place made up of people with complex identities that make it a more, not less, interesting and decent place. Yeats' famous lines do not quite apply here. On all sides, the worst may indeed be full of passionate intensity but the best do not lack conviction even if we don't shout about it. Perhaps we should do so more often.

*The best, obviously, were: Alex, you are absolutely insulting. It is high time you moved to the Guardian newspaper- where you belong and Build a muslim prayer room at the Spectator.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articleSocietyislamterrorism