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.
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