I have been told that we in the wealthy, liberal West have nothing to fear from Islam, no existential threat, no reason to be on our guard against a force that seems, to me, anyway, an imminent threat to the freedoms that so many struggled to win. Just think of the freethinkers who were sent to jail in 19th century Britain, for speaking out plainly about their disbelief. Think of the suffragettes, who went to jail, and faced contumely, in a staunch defence of their liberties and rights as women. I can still remember a time – can you remember it too? — when radio and TV were dominated by men’s voices. If women worked in radio or TV, it certainly wasn’t in front of a microphone or camera. I recall how much offensive, misogynistic language was hurled at women who wanted to work in “men’s” fields, like engineering, science, law, and other fields dominated by men. Women were expected to observe the three Ks, Kinder, Kuche, und Kirche — how convenient for German to have three words beginning with K that summed up the whole duty of woman — though teaching and nursing and secretarial careers were open to women. Wasn’t that enough? I remember, too, how men returning from the war, took up where the women left off, sending them scuttling back to their homes after having run industry for five years, as welders, riveters, and other things that were thought to be solely the province of men. It was a long, hard struggle, and, as some have observed in the comments, there is still a long way to go. Over at Butterflies and Wheels Ophelia has let out all the stops in her campaign against the stupid, sexist denigrating language of the gutter that is used just to put women in their place, language which reduces women to their sexual parts, as though women were only warm vehicles for men to stick their willies in. So when we are talking about the subordination and repression of women in Islam, it takes in a lot of ground. These things are so deeply rooted in most cultures that it is well-nigh impossible to root them out, especially if they are written in that indelible ink called religion.
Of course, this post is not only about women; it’s about men too. Because religion doesn’t aim itself only at women; it enslaves men, too, to ideas and beliefs that come out of a distant past, which are one and all irrelevant to the way that life is lived now, and incompatible with what we know about the world. And yet religion remains enormously powerful, because, at a very early stage of human development, religion somehow wormed down to something that was at the centre of what it was coming to mean to be human. It hijacked that part of us where all our passions are met and issue as certitudes at a quasi-intellectual level, and ever since men and women have been more bound to religious beliefs and practices than they have been to each other.
Certainly, religion has had its advantages in keeping tribes and people together with a common culture, and has established guides to insiders and outsiders by means of hard to fake costly commitments, so that duty to insiders was more important than duty to outsiders, who were one and all enemies, and threats to the very being of insiders and their collective existence, call those outsiders what you will, kuffar or infidels or commies, or any number of the thousands of ways that such distinctions were made and lines were drawn in flesh and blood. Wars were fought and people horribly killed and maimed to maintain that structure of insiders and outsiders, and these ancient alignments, rooted in that very primitive part of us, are still one of the ruling structures of our world. That’s why Muslims and Serbs in the Balkans became vicious enemies almost overnight. They had worked together for two or three generations in peace, or apparently at peace, but the old rivalries between Orthodoxy and Islam, or Catholicism and Islam, or Christians and Jews were still brewing under the surface of what had seemed so civilised and restrained. The Winter Olympics at Sarajevo showed a Balkans apparently united and at peace. No uncrossable gulf led from those unremarked apparently peaceable tribalisms to out-and-out genocide, where all the hatreds and animosities and revenges of nigh on a thousand years burst out in a paroxysm of blood-letting and hatred.
So when people say to me that Islam is not a danger, I remember that it only takes a few to fire up the many, and send them on missions of the most horrible crimes against humanity. Did anyone for a moment dream that ancient Christian antisemitism, that had lain quiescent for generations, except for the occasional spiteful insults and names that bespoke contempt, would, in a few years in mid-twentieth century Europe, end up in an extermination programme that would, with deliberate foresight and planning, murder millions? People say now that, if people had read Mein Kampf with care, they should have seen it coming, but would even those who had read Mein Kampf be to blame if they did not see that Hitler’s mad dreams would lead, eventually, to Treblinka and Sobibor, to Belsec or Chelmo? And if we listen now to the mad Muslims, who say with chilling determination that there is world enough and time, and that their mission to see that Allah’s name will be sanctified with kuffar blood, until all peoples submit to Allah and worship him alone, will some day be fulfilled; can we see in these words of fanatics the deliberate murder of millions or the forcible subjugation of whole societies? No, of course not. We will only see it when it happens, but don’t think for a moment that that is not what is intended. Perhaps their ambitions are greater than their power. But their power is limited by our courage, and of that there seems to be a dearth at the moment. Will we come to recognise, in time, that those who say that the whole world must submit to Allah, are really very serious, and are biding their time until the time seems ripe?
While Islamists plan, Western atheists spend their time criticising Christianity, without noticing that, whatever else it is, Christianity is nowhere near the threat that Islam is. Christianity, for all its sillinesses, has passed through a reformation and an enlightenment, and as silly as American Christian fundamentalism and Third World Christian fundamentalism may seem, it is nowhere near the threat that Islam is slowly becoming for those nations where Islam is considered of only marginal, and sometimes, almost comic, concern. How can Islam pose a danger when they are so few? The answer is that it is easy, because a few of that few are quite prepared, not only to be rage boys, but to kill and be killed in the name of their seventh century Arabian deity, and Christians will help them. Christians have lost so much ground in the last hundred years that they are quite prepared to stand up for Muslims and Islam, hoping on their coattails to slip back into the public realm where power resides. That is why people like the Archbishop of Canterbury make supportive noises for this much maligned religion — though not nearly so maligned as Christianity — while little understanding the forces at work, and why they are willing to permit Islam to spread its poison undisturbed, declaring confidently that Sharia law is inevitable, even though they should know, from the start, that Sharia law, which is active in many places in Europe, works in direct contradiction to the laws under which all are considered to be equal. Yet the archbishop and many others seem quite happy to be complicit in undermining that crucial equality in order to accommodate a religion which, had it the power, would consign archbishops and all their followers, into a legal limbo, where all those who refuse to make a respectful nod towards Allah will be placed.
Wherever Islam has the power, it uses it. In the Netherlands city of the Hague a Dutch Muslim politician has called for a ban on dogs, which are considered by Islam to be unclean. And don’t for one moment think that the votes of Muslims will not be considered important by our politicians. In Canada Stephen Harper has made special appeals for the minority immigrant vote, and has received support from them. As Richard Dawkins said, in a speech at the Jaipur Literary Festival:
Our whole society is soft on religion. The assumption is remarkably widespread that religious sensitivities are somehow especially deserving of consideration – a consideration not accorded to ordinary prejudice. . . I admit to being offended by Father Christmas, ‘Baby Jesus’, and Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer, but if I tried to act on these prejudices I’d quite rightly be held accountable. I’d be challenged to justify myself. But let somebody’s *religion* be offended and it’s another matter entirely. Not only do the affronted themselves kick up an almighty fuss; they are abetted and encouraged by influential figures from other religions and the liberal establishment. Far from being challenged to justify their beliefs like anybody else, the religious are granted sanctuary in a sort of intellectual no go area.
In his article about the dangers posed by this sort of special sanctuary granted to religion, published at Richard Dawkins.net, Dawkins says this:
Here are two possible reasons one might offer for kowtowing to a violent threat such as was visited on the Jaipur Literary Festival last week.
- I shall give in to your demands to suppress freedom of speech, purely because I fear your threats. But don’t for one nanosecond confuse fear with respect. I do not respect you, I despise you and everything you stand for – especially given that your faith is apparently so weak in argument that it requires violent threats to shore it up.
It seems to me that there is nothing reprehensible in such a response. It is not cowardly, simply prudent, and Nick Cohen praises Grayson Perry for using a milder version of it. But the same cannot be said of the following:
- I shall give in to you because I know that freedom of speech is not part of your culture. Who am I to impose Western, colonialist, paternalistic ideas like freedom of speech on your very different and equally valuable culture? Of course your ‘hurt’ and ‘offence’ should take precedence over our purely Western preoccupation with freedom of speech, and of course we’ll cancel the video link.
Nobody would express this patronising thought in quite such brazenly explicit terms, but I have concluded that it is the subtext of a great deal of the woolly, liberal accommodationism that we saw at the time of the fatwa and the Bradford burning of the books, as well as during the Danish cartoon affair. The closest approach to it that I know was the German judge who, in 2007, denied the divorce application of a Moroccan-born woman on the grounds that the Koran permits husbands to beat their wives.
While a couple of brave men at the Festival read from Rushdie’s books, since his life was under threat from Muslim thugs and could not attend — even the video link was enough to generate opposition and threats of death from the rage boys of Muslim enforcers — and are praise, people conveniently forget the cowardice that has silenced so many in the West where the threat is less immediate. Muslim censorship was imposed — a growing trend — by threats of grievous bodily harm and death. And if that does not remind us that the same thing has been threatened in the West with equal if not greater success, then we’re not doing our homework.
Religious violence, and demands from the religious, is on the rise, and yet, a day or two ago, some men who should know better, reached out a hand of friendship to the religions. Atheists themselves, they did not want to offend, and assured the religions that most of what they do, aside from the completely unfounded religious beliefs that underlie their religious project, is not only not harmful, but good, and worthy of emulation. Alain de Botton thinks we should build atheist temples and listen to atheist sermons. The religious response was predictable. Suddenly, there was a break in the clouds, and atheism was seen to shine its gladdening light on all the religious who had been so discomfited by the unapologetic atheism of the so-called new atheists. Suddenly, it seemed to the religious, who look for hope in all the wrong places, that the shrill stridency of the “new” atheism was being replaced by a kinder, more accommodating version of disbelief. But those same people who are so gladdened by this little snippet of good news, do practically nothing to rein in or criticise religion’s destructive role in the world. They forget that religion has already, by its threats, diminished freedom of expression in the West. The rage boys of Islam are just waiting for the next offence, so that they can make good their threats. And in that suspended voice lies the enormous harm that Islam has already done, and continues to do. Have Christians supported writers and artists in countries that once were free? No, they have not. When the Ayatollah Khomeini put out a contract on Salman Rushdie’s life, both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope responded with inane gibberings about offence to religion. No prominent religious authority supported Rushdie’s freedom of expression. So when I am told that I should not be concerned that Islam is an existential threat to the West, I know that they have no idea what they’re speaking about. When writers are silenced, or have to go about with bodyguards, the existential threat is present and active and real, as it is present and active and real right now. If it seems as though it isn’t, that’s because people are respecting the boundaries set by religious murderers and their leaders. And Christians, jealous of this power, remain silent. So do many others. The new atheism is all about opposing this religious threat.