I was at a thought-provoking but also slightly disturbing event this evening, entitled "Freedom of Speech vs. Right to Religion" and offering a panel and question-and-answer session, organised by the college Islamic Society. At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking, it's a no brainer. Somebody's free speech or free expression can't stop anyone practising their religion? Sadly, we didn't really get into the nitty gritty of whether the majority of Muslims there thought their religion mandated them to prevent the free expression of others in certain ways through the operation of law or outrage rather than reason.
The core point, as I see it, in relation to this matter is still the same. The cartoons represented an idea. It is an idea I would not broach in the way the cartoon sought to. Others clearly disagreed. Many Muslims agreed. Yet, despite sensitivities being hurt, what harm was caused by it? What freedoms or liberties were restricted by the printing of the cartoons? Nobody was forced to read them? If this is such a noxious idea we need to discuss the best way to deal with it. My response, is reason, discussion, debate. If it's really wrong, then the truth surely has nothing to fear from this. Many others, including many militant islamists, disagree; they would respond by banning it. Mr Galloway, according to my notes of the evening, told us that he would forceably shut up a white man he heard or saw insulting a black man. The real issue, at the core of all this, is how we resolve which approach is going to be better for society in the long-term. The sad truth is, you can't kill an idea. You can't kill it even if you momentarily suppress it. The best you can hope for is to make it risible and then defunct.
Instead too much of the panel's contributions focussed on outrage at the lot of Muslims across the world. Many grievances were aired on behalf of Muslims. Mohammed Ali, brains behind the Islam Channel, drew unnerving analogies. At one point, when talking about historic oppression of religious minorities in the West, he declared that the Jews didn't have Osama bin Laden, weapons of mass destruction or terrorism. In a rambling point, he concluded that they got killed anyway as they had no religious freedom of expression; that's why he believed the balance should be put right. He then asserted that "the West" wanted to eliminate Islam from the globe. The West had said that they had defeated Communism, which was just an ideology in the minds of an elite. Islam, however, is a religion in the hearts of the masses. Creepy stuff. In "the West" "they" have a choice, he concluded: eradicate racism and islamophobia or go down the path of Hitler and Mussolini.
He was challenged as to why, when he lives and works in Britain with his own television channel which he hopes shortly to launch in the USA, he still talked about the need for these problems to be resolved by "them" rather than "us". He responded by simply declaring that there is nothing in Britain for him to identify with. He sees himself in complete opposition to the entire British establishment. When so many people we would call Britons, who live in Briton, think of the problems of our society as needing a solution solely from others, not one involving them it is surely a dark day for this island.
Yvonne Ridley found it difficult to keep a straight face, she said, when she heard people talk of freedoms. Much of her address was impassioned and she clearly cares, but again she appeared to me to aim at radicalising the many Muslims in the audience with polemic, playing on the way the entire system of the Western world is meant to oppress them, rather than focussing on solutions and what Muslims and non-Muslims could do to alleviate these pressures. In her view, the Danish cartoons had nothing to do with free speech or free expression. It was racism. This begged the question, which was never posed, as to whether she'd ban such racism. That might have required us to engage with the question of free speech though...
The enthusiasm which convincing speakers such as Ms Ridley and Mr Ali whip up for such ideas, which place so many young and ambitious Muslims at complete odds with the country in which they live, worries me greatly. That such a significant proportion have such a hostile response to their country is disturbing. These aren't a handful of extremist Muslims on the fringes of society. Yet, the political messages being passed to them by the movement I witnessed this evening encourages them to see themselves in direct opposition to "the West". They are encouraged to conceive of themselves as hated and ostracised even more than they perhaps currently do. The Respect modus operandi seems to be to play on Muslims' sense of injustice and to use it as a tool to make them rail, irrationally, against aspects of the West. Aspects which the movement hates for political reasons.
Nowhere was this more clear than in George Galloway's address. The message I received, and which no doubt many of the Muslims in the audience received, was that nobody in the West gives a damn about Palestine, Srebrenicza, Kashmir, Afghanistan and a whole host of other bases used to justify hatred of the "Imperialistic West". But Muslims do. Even though, according to Mr Galloway, it scarcely registers a flicker in public opinion and policy in the West. We apparently have endless grief for the fallen in the West, but total equanimity to loss of Muslim life. This is why Muslims must follow the one true way. His. A rehashed route to an otherwise discredited socialistic utopia in which Western capitalism, which has delivered so much, is smashed.
Now I can accept there are - legitimate - grievances against treatment of many Muslims across the world. What I cannot accept is that this polemic is right, or that it justifies setting Muslims off against the West. I say jaw-jaw not war-war. It is imperative we stop Muslim opinion being hijacked by those who wish to radicalise it for their own ends. Let us avoid reaching a stage when we feel so implacably opposed a showdown is a matter of when not if.
Surely this is one of the great challenges of our time? Surely this is an issue more worthy of our attentions than capping party donations? We have to make common ground with more pragmatic, moderate sectors of Muslim society to stop this becoming the battle extremists on both sides want between the traditional West and modern militant Islam. For at the moment we are carrying that mantle poorly.