I have many questions about Islam and those cartoons. I wish I could sit down with one of the young, apparently intelligent and obviously articulate spokesmen I see rolled out by the various protesting Islamic groups and ask him a few questions.
I want to know why Islam can’t respond in a grown-up way to these crappy, unimportant drawings. It’s as if Muslims lack (or have lost) the interpretive tools necessary to put them into their proper context. The community’s response seems to be – well – infantile, inchoate, immature. What happened? Has Islam been so bruised by decades of oppression, by systematic disenfranchisement, by loss of land and respect that it can’t, collectively, handle the kind of routine disrespect that other creeds take on the chin? Or is that just patronising?
And those threats, the ones painted on placards in London last week, were they for real? Should I have felt genuinely threatened? Maybe they were rhetorical: the bluster and bravado of a pissed-off community. I’m serious. If those Muslim men and women carrying the placards – kids and pensioners and mums and dads – didn’t actually mean it, I could be persuaded not to worry. Get on with my life. That’s another thing I’d like to ask one of those clever spokesmen. If you’re serious about bringing jihad – a ‘real holocaust’, one of the placards said – to Britain, what should I do? Should I take up arms against you? Hide? Emigrate?
And another thing. Freedom of speech has a history. It’s not a Godless bourgeois fixation or a silly luxury we thought up yesterday. When you and your friends are thinking up your slogans and your nasty invective, do you ever think about the centuries-long struggle that produced liberties like free speech in Britain and elsewhere? About the long line of vicious monarchs, aristocrats, landowners, rentiers and other scumbags who were defied and pushed back and finally overthrown so that we might say… well… anything we like?
Is anybody in the Islamic world bothering to explain the Western peoples’ attachment to the right to say things that might offend? If I picked up a newspaper in Cairo or Damascus or Islamabad today would I find columns (with helpful timelines and graphics – Charles II smashing a printing press, Nazis burning books) informing Muslim readers about the epic struggle of the people of Europe over centuries for the vote, for freedom of assembly and expression, for a living wage, for relief from the nasty clerics and the nastier landowners? Doesn’t look like it, does it?