If European Muslims are treated like children, is it surprising that some should act so irrationally?
Sunday November 25, 2007
I looked at the heckler at the Labour meeting and imagined his life in an instant. As a man of the 1968 generation there must have been sit-ins and marches, along with vicarious thrills at the triumphs of communists from Cambodia to Cuba. I guessed that with communism dead he would have no difficulty in endorsing the new threat to the status quo from the radical right. I wasn’t disappointed.
Only rich Iranians wanted democracy, he declared. The true voice of the masses, the tribune of the people we must attend to and negotiate with, was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
I have become so used to hearing leftists defending reactionaries I am no longer shocked. But my ’68er surprised me with a form of bad faith I had never seen in the flesh before. Alongside me on the platform were three liberals from Muslim backgrounds: Ed Husain, who renounced the jihad lovers of Hizb ut-Tahrir and joined the Labour party; Shiv Malik, a secular left-wing journalist; and Rokhsana Fiaz, whose Change Institute works to diminish cultural tensions.
They shared the principles he professed to hold. But he looked through them. At home and abroad he treated Muslims who rejected the religious right with casual condescension.
You might say that Fiaz and Malik are hardly marginal figures and Husain has become a political phenomenon who convinces audiences with all the charm and skill of the young Tony Blair. I wouldn’t have mentioned their confrontation with the Sixties’ radical if it didn’t echo a broader trahison des clercs in the liberal West.
Earlier this year, Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel, an account of how she escaped from a world of genital mutilation and forced marriage to find asylum and the free thinking of the Enlightenment in Holland, was published. She was attacked, as feminists are, but the assault wasn’t led by the churches and Daily Mail but by Timothy Garton Ash and Ian Buruma, men who saw themselves as liberal thinkers. There was an intellectual scandal in Europe, and the New Republic in Washington devoted most of an issue to what the controversy revealed about the contortions of liberal thought. Accusations of double standards weren’t thrown about simply because academics who knew no terror in their lives had turned on a woman who can’t step outside without bodyguards – just because fanatics want to kill her doesn’t make Hirsi Ali right – but because the liberals treated her with a superciliousness unthinkable in the late 20th century.
Garton Ash wrote in the New York Review of Books that journalists were more interested in her beauty than her ideas. ‘If she had been short, squat, and squinting, her story and views might not be so closely attended to.’ She was an ‘Enlightenment fundamentalist’, he continued, as bigoted in her way as the Muslim Brotherhood she opposed. On this reading, there is no moral difference between those who would subjugate women, kill Jews and homosexuals, place the dictates of a seventh-century holy book above the parliaments of free peoples… and those who wouldn’t. Liberal intellectuals have no obligation to make a choice between religious fundamentalists and ‘Enlightenment fundamentalists’, and indeed could devote their energies to condemning the latter rather than the former.
Garton Ash met Hirsi Ali at an electric meeting in London on Wednesday. Unlike Buruma he had the good sense and good grace to think again and he gave her a public apology. Nevertheless, he stuck to the argument that there was no point in liberals treating her as a heroine because her abandonment of Islam and embrace of atheism meant her arguments carried no weight with Muslims. Instead he told us to encourage those Muslims who reject the stoning of women because they dispute its scriptural authority. Religious debates about whether the Prophet Muhammad really approved of stoning may be ‘gobbledegook’, but, he cried, ‘We must support gobbledegook that is compatible with liberal democracy.’
I’m not sure how he can be certain that Hirsi Ali has no influence. How does he know what seeds she is planting in the minds of Muslim women? I know one former jihadi who thought again after reading Salman Rushdie, but I accept he’s not typical. Ed Husain points out that he and most men like him did not embrace democracy because they had been convinced by liberal secularists but because they had found alternative interpretations of the Koran. Islam had freed them from the prison of Islamism.
I’m not arguing with him. In my view trouble comes only when white liberals who don’t understand religious politics assume any far rightist can be a friend so long as he stops short of planting bombs on the London underground. Garton Ash says we should listen to Tariq Ramadan, grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, who doesn’t want to ban the stoning of women, merely to impose ‘a moratorium’ on murder.
Jack Straw agrees and sends civil servants to seek Ramadan’s advice on how to combat extremism. Next month Derek Pasquill, a Foreign Office civil servant, faces trial under the Official Secrets Act. His alleged crime is nothing as trivial as losing confidential information on 25 million people but of embarrassing the FCO by leaking details of how it planned to send public money to radical Islamist groups in the Middle East. Last week Liberal Democrat politicians and Sir Ian Blair of the Met joined a Muslim Brotherhood rally whose star speaker was a Saudi cleric who until recently called for jihad against coalition forces in Iraq.
Never make the mistake of thinking that intellectual arguments are esoteric disputes that can’t shape wider politics. As JM Keynes said, ‘the world is ruled by little else’.
Ayaan Hirsi listened to Garton Ash and had two questions. If liberal secularists, like my heckler, didn’t have pride and confidence in their principles, why should they expect anyone else to take them seriously? And if, like Garton Ash, they turned away from democrats and insisted on treating European Muslims as children who can only be spoken to in the baby language of gobbledegook, what right did they have to be surprised if European Muslims reacted with childish petulance rather than the broad-mindedness of full adult citizens?