Questions questions

Placards at an Islamist protest against the Danish Mohammed cartoons in London, by Steve Bowbrick

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 Islamist 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?


  1. I have heard so many people, intelligent, high powered successful people, say over the last couple of weeks that ‘freedom of expression means that you should be careful not to insult people’s deeply held beliefs’. Well, sorry. Freedom of expression is exactly the opposite. Restrain yourself by all means. Most will. But freedom of expression is freedom to insult or it is nothing.

  2. But, over the last few weeks, who ever said politics was boring? I’ve never enjoyed it so much and I go back a quarter century (I so love saying that).

  3. Ivan: That is something you and I both agree on.

    Over here in the US they made freedom of speech the first amendment to the constitution: right at the top of the list of 10 rights in the bill of rights. The founding fathers who wrote that stuff valued freedom of speech over even the god-given American right to carry big guns and shoot things (a right that I enjoy exercising 😉 )

    Not “freedom of speech just as long as you don’t piss off the muslims” but simply “Freedom of Speech.”

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