Earlier this summer, I met and interviewed Mail on Sunday journalist Peter Hitchens. We spoke about politics, literature, his brother Christopher, his spats with Russell Brand and Stephen Fry, and the state of Britain today. He’s a conservative, a Christian and different from myself in almost every way. Despite this, we get on amicably, and you can now read my profile of him in the New Statesman.
Until 1989, the most dangerous – yet contemptibly defended – forms of totalitarianism were offshoots of communism. The fall of the Berlin wall, the revolutions in the Eastern Bloc; these diminutions left the arteries of the civilized world exposed to a new disease. On Valentine’s Day of that year, the first noteworthy waves of this assault crashed against Western shores. Far away, Osama bin Laden founded al-Qaeda; nearer to home, Ayatollah Khomeini (bearded yet egg-like) spewed the following; the world began to change:
“We are from Allah and to Allah we shall return… I am informing all brave Muslims of the world that the author of The Satanic Verses, a text written, edited, and published against Islam, the Prophet of Islam, and the Qur’an, along with all the editors and publishers aware of its contents, are condemned to death. I call on all valiant Muslims wherever they may be in the world to kill them without delay, so that no one will dare insult the sacred beliefs of Muslims henceforth. And whoever is killed in this cause will be a martyr, Allah willing.”
Rushdie, an Indian-born British novelist, had – following the success of his exquisite Midnight’s Children – published The Satanic Verses in 1988. It had been well-received in the U.K., and was a finalist for that year’s Booker Prize (losing narrowly to Australian novelist Peter Carey). The novel: a fantastical exploration of two Indian actors’ psyches, partly inspired by the life of the Prophet Muhammad. At the time of publication, a handful of conservative Muslims bemoaned the books potentially “blasphemous” content. Rushdie was not only upsetting the faithful, they said; his apostasy from Islam cemented a much greater offense. Then came the life-and-death sentence, the fatwa. He had – unknowingly – been cast as the Shaytan: the devil, the opposer of the sacredness of Islam.
In his recently published memoir recounting the affair, Rushdie has likened these initial criticisms to the first few birds in Hitchcock’s great film: individually harmless, but the precursor of a far more deadly, blackening tide. He spent the next ten years in a state of perpetual danger, escorted between maximum security buildings and impregnable armoured Jaguar cars. He remains haunted by this ceaseless terrorism.
This crystallizes the dangers of the Islamist threat rather well: a freethinking British citizen, not even born in the country that sentenced him, ensnared in a ten-year bedlam of religious bullying, rioting and threats. But this is not the entirety of the danger.
At the time of the Rushdie fatwa, there emerged among the liberal and leftist communities a great number of individuals not just unprepared, but unwilling, to defend him and the human rights for which his struggle stood. Freedom of expression, freedom of and from religion – and the rights of an individual in a democratic nation – normally so loudly cherished and exercised, became mired in doublespeak about “offense”, “tolerance”, “sensitivity” and, worst of all, the stressed notion that Salman “knew what he was doing”. This mindset is so beset with impotency, ignobility and cowardice as to make one long to vomit out not just the meal most recently consumed, but all the meals one has ever consumed.
The tone and content of Khomeini’s opening speech – the appeals to and prostration before Allah, the assertion that Rushdie’s artistic license and freedom of expression was a direct attack against Islam itself, as though one drool-flecked mullah spoke for the one billion adherents of that faith – betray the sadistic and two-faced reality of the “offended” faithful mobs. Khomeini, and all those who took up the anti-Rushdie cause, were not at all interested in the reciprocation of the freedom from offense that they demanded. No discussion was made – by they or by the leftists who defended their barbarism – of their refusal to “respect” the right of an individual to disagree with the divinity of the Qur’an, or to write a novel drawing upon it as a non-religious literary source.
By Valentine’s Day of ’92, an Iranian newspaper had restated the claims of the Ayatollah, citing the fatwa as ‘a divine command to stone the devil to death.’ The discrepancy between what the apologists touted – a need for religious “respect” – and these fanatical, mythically-worded indictments was never emphasized, or even considered.
An admirable defence of Rushdie was roused by figures such as Susan Sontag, Christopher Hitchens and others, who read from The Satanic Verses at a PEN literary event. Opposed to this brave gang were a number of writers – Arthur Miller among them – who claimed exemption from involvement on account of their Jewishness. Miller did eventually take a stand on Salman’s side, but for too long, a scandalous number of his co-patriot Brits and allegedly freedom-loving American coevals did not a thing, mired in the dank atmosphere of fear. This is the essential component of the Islamist oppression that encroaches more and more upon free Western society each day, a creeping tone that threatens by its very nature: Cross us, and you’re next.
The militant wing of this international theocracy made its first significant move in 1993, just thirty-three days after I had staggered into life. The bombing of the World Trade Centre – the eerie precursor to 2001 – involved the detonation of a truck bomb beneath that fateful North Tower. The plan here was to topple it into its brother tower, and in so doing, bring down both behemoths in a blaze of – now easily imagined – carnage. Ramzi Yousef, the “mastermind of the bombing” (a phrase too near to reverence), was able to take shelter in the statistical wasteland of Pakistan: a void of information which would later shelter his murderous uncle Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and Osama bin Laden.
Again, the disciples of faux-liberalism were quick to have the six murdered Americans reclassified as six inevitable suicides. This was the seeding of the much uglier brand of autophobia that flourished in post-9/11 reflections. At his 1995 trial in New York City, Yousef happily bragged that he was “a terrorist, and proud of it as long as it is against the U.S. government and against Israel, because [they] are more than terrorists; [they] are the [ones] who invented terrorism and [who use] it every day. [The U.S. and Israel] are butchers, liars and hypocrites.” His apologists took this to heart.
1994-1995 marked the rise of al-Qaeda in Bosnia, whereupon it gained control over 80% of the raving and dangerous terrorist cells. It bolstered its ideology, ordering its recruitment arm to seek out those Muslims who believed that jihad must become a global operation. Like each of its predecessors, this moment buried itself deep within the course of history; years would pass before their beast was nurtured to its full brute strength; before it was unleashed on Lower Manhattan; before it burst, ignited, along the tracks of Bombay’s Suburban Railway; before it ruptured the tunnels of the London underground with its flaming jaws.
There is little more to be said about the worst day: the raging fanaticism and hardline illiberalism reaching its crescendo, billowing the numbing ghosts of burnt humanity across the watching world. The most moving accounts of its horror and effect have already been written, and by far greater mammals than I. By the time of 9/11 itself, chief among the quasi-liberal cowards was Noam Chomsky. His assertions that the hijacked passenger flights were no different to cruise missiles deployed by the U.S. marked him as a champion of self-loathing anti-Westerners, determined to convince any who would listen that free citizens deserved the massive and brutal casualties inflicted upon them. That the majority of notable voices from the “tyrannized” nations – Ayaan Hirsi Ali and, again, Salman Rushdie for instance – insisted upon the innocence of Westerners seemed not to trouble Chomsky and his racket.
Apparently feeling more exposed and repelled on its military front, fanatical Islamism struck back with its sociopolitical bullying in September 2005. Throughout the pluralist West, events take place every day which could, potentially, incite the “offended” Muslim protesters once more. I would posit that the material from the Jyllands-Posten event (better known as the Danish Muhammad cartoons controversy) – the next in the endless torrent of bullying – was largely irrelevant. Islam forbids the depiction of Muhammad in any way shape or form.
This is extended by many Muslims today to include infidels: no citizen, Muslim or not, of any nation, Muslim or not, may draw the Prophet, and if you don’t like that, then tough, you will face the wrath of the offended too. Before the cartoons furore, nobody had heard of the Jyllands-Posten (Jutland Post). It was not, as its terrorizers claimed, a beacon of anti-Islamic propaganda, but instead part of a vast and attractive tapestry of freely spoken ideas and beliefs. But that tapestry was once again immolated by the heat of the religious. When one listened carefully, one could hear the J.P.’s satirization of Islamic censorship flying straight over the protestors heads.
Most recently of all, 2012 has witnessed the ludicrous protests against the Innocence of Muslims film produced by a crackpot group in the U.S, apparently compiled in their shed. Again – as with Rushdie, as with the J.P. cartoons – the content is of little consequence; anyone who has seen the film will know that it is a tactless, and apparently budget-less, mire of boredom. There is nothing about Muhammad in the film that is not stressed in far more detail in every atheistic or otherwise anti-Islamic book, and in far greater – and more eloquent – detail.
More disgracefully still, the rioters killed and injured not just the staff of the U.S. embassies – who they saw as implicated in the film’s continued publicity – but also the staff of British and German embassies. Nations which had committed no “offense” against Islam (on this occasion…) were lumped with the same damning sentence: burnt or raided embassies, assaulted staff, threatening messages and slippery warnings.
Benightedness is certainly a large part of the problem. Civilians of states ruled by Islamic regimes, or with strictly censored and conservative societies, have little to no concept of a government that does not approve and fund all material which is released before an international press. Equally maddeningly, few protesting Muslims ever saw or read a copy of The Satanic Verses; fewer still saw the J.P. cartoons, which every noteworthy newspaper refused to reprint out of fear. How many can have seen the Innocence of Muslims film now that YouTube has been blocked in several of the main protest countries?
These events lead on in an ever-quickening stampede: the rise of infallible mullahs, incontrovertible imams, Islamic scholars and sheiks; Islamic purists and fanatics whose beliefs are not only menacing and offensive to human dignity, but also claimed by their expounders to be unchallengeable. Not unchallengeable because they are strong, but because they are so delicate as to demand special protection from criticism. These zealots’ outrage stems not – as their apologists insist – from a desire for pluralism, or mutual respect, or tolerance, but from the negation of all such values, in favour of the rise of the final ummah: the puritan Islamic empire. They pride themselves on the unquestionable form of Islamism that left Salman Rushdie in constant fear when dining with friends, or visiting a bookshop, or struggling to see his children and loved ones. Do not let these people tell you that they have utter respect for the family, or art, or culture. These virtues are as wheat before the sheaf of Islam’s obsession with infallibility.
In daring to criticize such a trend, one is inevitably allayed with two predictable and side-stepping responses. The first is a recent, and witless, trend which paints any who abhor Islam and its propagations as racists. This is a paranoid cop-out: Islam is a religion (which is voluntary), not a race (which is involuntary). There are black Muslims, white Muslims, Asian Muslims, ad infinitum: one of Islam’s core tenets is that anyone can may convert. One has to hand it to Islam – bigoted, but only about certain things. Even the depraved must have their standards.
The second charge brought against anti-clericalists like myself is that of stereotyping all Muslims: 99% of Muslims disagree with the violence. I cannot comment on this assertion, as only the individuals themselves know what is truly in their heart and mind. What I must comment on is the painful silence of this alleged hidden majority. If, as asserted, these Muslims believe that the anti-Western, anti-democratic violence of the above events is “offensive” to the “true meaning of Islam”, then why are there not equal and opposite protests against the barbarism? Where are the masses (and, according to them, their masses would dwarf the rioting mobs of zealots) of peaceful, pluralist Muslims demanding the restoration of peace and civility? There are a pleasing number of peaceful and/or secular Muslims – not just in the West but beyond, particularly in Libya – who have stood up to their coreligionists’ behaviour; but their numbers have fallen far short of the huge majority cited as an excuse for what has become a vast and shameful silence.
Which leads one to the final and greatest criticism in the analysis of Islam: it intrinsically demands the silence of the conscience – and the muting of true free expression – in any matters which refer to the Prophet and their sacred text, not just for its adherents, but for all of those outside the faith who welcome it into their society.
No other societal groups (political, artistic, scientific) demand an exemption from public opposition, never mind mockery. Were one to say, as the leader of a political organization, that the other parties (and independents, to extend the metaphor to secularists) must promise nothing but praise for that party’s worldview, then one would be laughed off the stage.
The usual cliché justifying this softness is that Islam “forms part of their identity”, and that it has shaped and guided them as individuals. To this I can only point to the above case and implore these individuals: is this something you want as a core of your identity?
Freedom of speech must include the license to offend, and if any individual’s beliefs cannot withstand mockery, criticism or offense, then they are unlikely to be very sturdy or worthwhile beliefs. Those who demand freedom from criticism automatically strip themselves of their right to make up their own minds; in this case, anti-Islamic censorship places the thoughts and feelings of the Muslim population in the hands of mullahs, imams and all those who claim to know better than their fellows about what Allah wants.
The waves of threatening Islamic proclamations are intensifying, this cannot be denied by a serious person. At every turn, fresh, placating faces of pro-Islam apologism insist on more “respect” and “tolerance”, and do not see that in so doing, they strip themselves and others of any chance to enjoy such civility in future.
Islam must learn to tolerate its critics – as its critics tolerate its calls to anti-pluralism and anti-democracy – or it must learn to find itself increasingly ridiculed, detested and actively opposed.