From the Observer 6 June 2015
Islamist murderers in Europe follow a pattern. To paraphrase Pastor Niemöller, first they come for the free thinkers, then they come for the Jews. In Paris in January, Cherif and Said Kouachi slaughtered 11 cartoonists and editors at the offices of Charlie Hebdo because they had satirised Muhammad. Two days later, a fellow gang member murdered four Jews at the Hypercacher kosher supermarket a few miles away for no other reason than they were Jewish.
In February, Omar Abdel el-Hussein attacked a conference in Copenhagen discussing whether Islamism was the fascism of the 21st century. His target appeared to be Lars Vilks, who had drawn disobliging cartoons of Muhammad. But it could have been any one of the artists or writers present. El-Hussein couldn’t get past security so he shot and killed a film director and wounded three police officers who stood in his way before running off to murder a volunteer guarding Copenhagen’s Great Synagogue. Once again, his victim died for no other reason than he was Jewish.
Nothing seems clearer to me than the belief that you must support free thought and fight racist murderers. But in the world we are moving into, governments won’t let you do both. They will say that if you want to be against antisemitism, racism, sexism or homophobia, you must restrict the very freedoms that make challenges to conventional wisdom possible. They will not let you defend the values of Charlie Hebdo and the shoppers at the Hypercacher at the same time and for the same reasons. You must betray one or the other.
Democracies appear to be turning into the caricature middle-class leftist, who wants to silence the politically incorrect. But there are two important differences: powerful states are more thoroughgoing than PC censors, and, in their own way, more honest.
Britain’s relationship with Tony Blair is so neurotic that anything he does is newsworthy. Blair’s recommendation that Holocaust-denial become a crime duly produced the expected mixture of “how dare he even speak after Iraq” reactions. But the outrage missed the wider point.
Blair has joined the European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation, which is not only concerned about Holocaust-denial. It is lobbying governments to recognise that the only way to stop extremism is to stop tolerating the intolerant. It wants to protect everyone who may be subject to threats as a result of “their ethnic, cultural, linguistic or religious identity”. The authors don’t just mean that we must protect them from physical harm – as of course we should. They want to extend the borders of censorship by criminalising prejudiced speech as “group libels”.
This ambition makes Blair and his allies seem no different from the average British or American university, which bans speakers and declares whole swaths of thought heretical without even bothering to pretend that they provoke violence. But the similarities are superficial. Many on the left cannot bear to admit that antisemitism remains the force for evil it has always been.
Blair does not make the same mistake. His friends do not exempt favoured groups or minorities either. For all their appeal to universal values, their draft statutes are a response to the radical Islam so many liberals and leftists have ignored or indulged. Tolerate others or we’ll lock you up, they say to European citizens. Respect the “co-existence of diverse groups”, they say to migrants or we may “oblige” you to leave.
Don’t make the mistake of assuming that these are just the thoughts of Blair and few of his distinguished friends. David Cameron echoes Blair’s language when he says we have been too “passively” tolerant of the intolerant and allowed fanatics to foster their stories of “extremism and grievance”. His government wants to ban Islamists, who may have all the usual vile prejudices against women, Jews, apostates and gays, but are not promoting violence.
Elsewhere, European governments and judges go beyond the old liberal limits and make real and imagined hatred an offence. In the sinister words of George Osborne, they want to target people who “spread hate but do not break laws”.
I have often dismissed such authoritarianism with the chirpy riposte that if you cannot beat a neo-Nazi/Islamist/misogynist in argument then you shouldn’t be in the arguing business at all. It is not as if they have brilliant points to confound you. If you cannot take them on without calling for the cops, you should make way for someone who can.
Fine words. Yet in truth there is no vigorous argument against radical Islam in Europe. There are individual campaigners, many of them Muslims and ex-Muslims, whose bravery astonishes me. But an 18-year-old university student will not meet an anti-Islamist political culture that would force him to think again.
If he were a supporter of Ukip he’d have a hard time of it, but if he were heading towards militant religion and a flight to the Syrian border, his contemporaries would back off and hold that it was “Islamophobic” to challenge him.
When civil society fails to police itself, the state has no choice but to send in real police officers. Put like this, its behaviour sounds reasonable. Until, that is, you think of where it is taking us.
The Blairite future is an extension of where we are now – the present reduced to absurdity. It will be a society divided into blocs where ultra-orthodox Jews and conservative Muslims can expect the law to protect them against racist criticism or, indeed, mockery of their myths by secularists and satirists in the Charlie Hebdo tradition. But it will send in the police if they preach their views on homosexuality or the subjugation of women too vigorously. It will be a society that protects women from sexism but stops them fighting the religious misogyny in the ethnic minorities. It will be a society whose tolerance will be a fake, where the law will compel you to be nice.
I could say that it won’t work, that it will push hatreds underground, turn every bigot into a martyr and allow conspiracy theorists to flourish. I am sure that is true, but that is not the real reason I object to where Blair, Cameron and so many others are leading us. A tongue-tied and tongue-biting country is not a country worth living in. It will be unable to be honest with itself, let alone with anyone else.