Switch on the television, says Mustafa Hassain, a Pakistani-Danish sociologist, "and you have the impression that Muslims are all fanatics, that Muslims don't understand Western liberal values." Hassain was complaining about media distortion and misrepresentation, but in practice, he may not have made quite the point he intended. Let's switch on British television to see some of the things on view this past week.
Last Friday, Muslim zealots demonstrated in London over the Danish cartoon affair. One man was dressed as a suicide bomber, and a small child held a placard that said, "Whoever insults a prophet kill him." Other slogans read, "Behead those who insult Islam," "Europeans take a lesson from 9/11," and "Prepare for the REAL Holocaust."
On Monday, the BBC program Newsnight gathered several Muslims, among them Anjem Choudary, who had organized that demonstration. (There's a link to view the debate on this BBC page.) He verbally abused the other speakers, denouncing one highly intelligent and personable woman, a Conservative candidate at the last election, as an unbeliever because her head was uncovered, and a man because he was clean-shaven.
No, of course England didn't belong to the English, Choudary insisted, or to any human inhabitants, "It belongs to Allah, the whole world belongs to Allah." He prayed for "the domination of Islam" ("hopefully peacefully") and looked forward to the day when "the black flag of Islam will be flying over Downing Street."
Then on Tuesday evening, television news reported the conviction of Abu Hamza al-Masri on charges of "soliciting to murder" and inciting racial hatred at his north London mosque (once visited, in his kindly ecumenical way, by the prince of Wales). Quantities of insanely bloodthirsty propaganda had been stored in the mosque, and Hamza, who used to serve al-Qaida in Afghanistan, had regularly urged his followers to kill the infidel.
After skipping around the channels, I almost felt sorry for Mustafa Hassain. Who is insulting whom? And who is bringing the name of Islam into disrepute?
For the first few days after it erupted, the cartoon affair was discussed in terms of free speech and censorship. That continues, with a French magazine republishing the offending images on Wednesday and in turn earning a rebuke from President Jacques Chirac. But in Britain the debate has now widened into other and maybe more ominous fields: the limits of multiculturalism as a basis for public policy and especially for policing, and the place of Islam in pluralist societies.
For years the London tabloids the Sun and the Daily Mail have been grumbling about "political correctness gone mad" and the pussyfooting methods of our multiculti police. Now liberals are uneasily facing the possibility that they might be right.
Not only did the police make no arrests at last Friday's grotesque demonstration, which openly incited murder; they actually sheltered the fanatics. Two men who tried to stage a peaceable counterdemonstration were hustled away for questioning. A working-class Londoner who got out of his van to say something to Choudary and his friends was told in violent language by a cop to get back in his van and go away.
Just when my exasperation was ebbing, on Wednesday morning I heard Chief Superintendent Ali Dizaei of the Metropolitan Police explaining himself on the radio through a spume of modish jargon: gently shepherding that mob had been "a judgment call" and an example of "smart policing." Alas, it was not a good day for this drivel, since we had just learned that the police and security agency MI5 had been watching and indeed talking to Hamza for years past. A French intelligence officer has told the Guardian that no action was taken against him by the British authorities even when they had evidence of his extensive involvement in terrorism.
Apart from the demands of multiculturalism and "sensitivity," there is a factor of which Americans may not be aware: The Labor Party in general and some MPs in particular, Cabinet ministers among them, are gravely concerned about the Muslim vote. There are now 1.6 million Muslims in Great Britain, concentrated in a relatively small number of parliamentary constituencies. This helps explain why the government has often looked ignominious. Tony Blair won much admiration for his statesmanlike response to the suicide bombings in London last July, until he reverted to type. First the government proposed a new law making it an offence to encourage or "glorify" terrorism. Then Blair tried to play it both ways and appease Muslim sentiment with another law, just as offensive to civil libertarians, criminalizing "religious hatred."
Last Friday, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said that he supported free speech—you always know what the next conjunction is going to be—"but there is not an obligation to insult or to be unduly inflammatory." This was a fine case of non sequitur meets category mistake, but you must also bear in mind that Straw's personal vote in his own, heavily Muslim constituency of Blackburn, Lancashire, fell by 12.1 percent at last May's general election because of the Iraq war.
On Tuesday I had a salutary experience of my own when I took part, as I regularly do, in The Breakfast Show, an Irish radio program, and found that one of my interlocutors was Anjem Choudary himself. He may be nasty or crazy, but he is not stupid, and he reminded us of some important truths.
There can be no separation of church and state for Muslims, because Islam has never accepted "render unto Caesar," Choudary said. It is a religion that is not confined to the mosque but that informs every aspect of social and political life at all times. Censoring transgressive cartoons and books is only a beginning. Sharia law must rule everywhere; the black flag of Islam must fly over Downing Street.
As a severe critic of the Blair regime, even I don't think that would be an improvement. And that's why the most depressing thing I have seen or heard this past week (which is saying something) was from someone who suggested that there was a fundamental incompatibility between Islam "and our democratic secular values." If that's a view that, as I have more than hinted here, I am close to sharing, why was it so depressing? Because the speaker was a leader of the brutal white-supremacist British National Party.
Leave aside the impudent hypocrisy of a bigot and racist invoking secular democracy, something has gone badly wrong when fascists speak for bemused skeptics. Recently, it has been quite easy to think that many Muslims are fanatics who don't understand our values. Looking back over the past week, it's hard to believe that this is entirely the fault of the liberal west.