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Has the West been silenced by Islam?

2006 October 4
by Paul Vallely

In an age scarred by flashpoints between cultures and religions, it is easy to make accusations of prejudice or bigotry. But, argues Paul Vallely, we have all got something to gain from developing new sensitivities


A cartoon in Private Eye neatly summarised one side of the argument.

First Muslim: “The Pope says Islam is a violent religion.”

Second Muslim: “Let’s kill him then.”

Cartoons, as we have come to learn, can be dodgy guides through the minefield in which European and Islamic cultures meet. But there are fears of a clash of civilisations in which Europe’s enlightenment values are under attack from religious obscurantism. Cherished traditions, such as freedom of speech, the alarmists complain, are being surrendered out of political correctness and appeasement.

Thus we see this week that Spanish villagers who have for centuries donned medieval costumes to re-enact battles between Moors and Christians are now abandoning the custom of burning effigies of the Prophet Mohamed to celebrate the end of 800 years of Muslim rule in the Iberian peninsula. Meanwhile, in France a philosophy teacher is in hiding after publishing a newspaper article critical of Islam. In Germany a production of Mozart’s opera Idomeneo has been cancelled for fear of angering Muslims. And in Rome, Benedict XVI continues to issue apologies – he’s done four so far – for his ill-judged quotation from a 14th-century Byzantine emperor who had called Islam “evil and inhuman”. The Pope clearly still isn’t sorry enough in the view of many Muslims.

By contrast, in the West, even those who judged that the Pontiff, and others, may have gone too far have been rushing for their dictionaries of quotations to find the exact words of Voltaire about disapproving of what you say but defending to the death your right to say it. (They were actually written by one Evelyn Beatrice Hall, a biographer of that icon of the European Enlightenment). Everywhere have sprung up champions of freedom of expression and crusaders against religious darkness in the name of Western values.

Yet the truth is somewhat different. This is not so much a clash of civilisations as one between religious and secular fundamentalists. For our world is very different from even that of our fathers, let alone that of Voltaire, In his day, religion was the dominant oppressive culture against which emerging rationalism struggled. Today, by contrast, Islam embodies the identity of one of the most vulnerable, and alienated, minorities in Europe.

That is not all. The reality of a multi-faith multicultural Europe, in which many feel threatened by the fear of new and growing waves of immigration, is provoking a crisis of identity characterised by increasing insularity and fear. It is in that context that the simplistic polarisation between “the inalienable principle of freedom of speech” and “the sphere of divine duty” is taking place. The result is all too often a dialogue of the deaf.

Take the article in Le Figaro written by the French high-school philosophy teacher Robert Redeker. In it he complained that France was “more or less consciously submitting itself to the dictates of Islam” by banning string bikinis during this summer’s annual beach party in Paris, setting up times when only women can visit public swimming pools and allowing Muslim schoolchildren – horror of horrors – to get halal food in school cafeterias.

These are all reasonable issues for debate. The problem was that, for good rhetorical measure, he also added that the Koran was “a book of extraordinary violence”. And that the Prophet Mohamed was “a pitiless warlord”, a “murderer of Jews” and “a master of hate”. His vocabulary was not quite as vile as that of the Dutch filmmaker, Theo van Gogh, who routinely described Muslims as “goatfuckers” before one of them murdered him. Nonetheless Redeker, who immediately began to receive e-mail death threats, feared that some Islamic zealot might try to carry them out.

The trouble with debate carried out in this adolescent fashion is that it obscures rather than enlightens. Though it purports to open a dialogue with Muslims about the values of a pluralist society, in reality it is simply gratuitously offensive. And it merely reinforces the prejudices of the fundamentalists on both sides. See, say the Islamists, the West is inherently anti-Muslim. See, say the Enlightenmentists, Islam has an intrinsic propensity for violence.

The Pope has not helped here. Though he has apologised for not distancing himself from the “evil and inhuman” quote he has not resiled from the substance of his Regensburg address. In it he insisted that, thanks to the influence of Greek philosophy, there was no conflict between faith and reason at the core of Christianity. The Christian God is incapable of actions which are not good: hence He could never endorse the use of violence to spread religion. In Islam, by contrast, he said, God is not bound by any human categories, even that of reason, which is why Islam sees no contradiction on spreading religion by the sword.

To back his argument he selectively drew on Christian theologians who endorsed his view, niftily omitting those like Tertullian or Calvin who leaned towards the “God beyond reason” view. And he cited a marginal medieval Muslim theologian, Ibn Hazn, who said that God is not bound even by his own word, ignoring the many Muslims, such as the Mu’tazilite school, who have said God must act in accordance with reason.

This is all high-brow stuff but it boils down to the same kind of triumphalism, without the gross insults. Both say that Islam is alien and can never be truly European.

Others are less narrow-minded. The decision in Spain to scrap the burning of effigies of Mohamed reveals that a new sensitivity is developing in many quarters. It was evident in the cancellation of the production of Mozart’s Idomeneo at the Deutsche Oper. The Hans Neuenfels production, which inserts a scene not in Mozart’s score – in which the heads of Poseidon, Jesus, Buddha and Mohamed are pulled from a bloody sack – may have been unexceptional when it opened in 2003 but that was before the riots that erupted around the world after a Danish magazine last year published a series of puerile cartoons of Mohamed, including one in which the prophet’s turban contained a bomb.

Not everyone is so convinced. Wolfgang Boersen, the German government’s culture spokesman, accused the opera house of “falling on its knees before the terrorists”. One Austrian newspaper spoke of the “high point of self-censorship”. But in many places there is a growing realisation that freedom of expression is not absolute but needs to be governed by a sense of social responsibility. To elevate one right above all others is the hallmark of the single-issue fanatic. Sometimes it is wise to choose not to exercise a right.

There are signs too of a growing maturity among the Muslim community. The wild men have been in evidence – and much quoted by a confrontation-hungry media – but many Muslims are coming to see that they must respect the traditions of the culture into which they and their fathers have immigrated. And if cynicism, irony and indeed blasphemy are – going back to Voltaire – part of the culture they have decided they must observe it with detachment. A group of German Islamic leaders, meeting in Berlin for a routine forum with the government, called unanimously for Idomeneo to be performed as scheduled next month. One imam even said they would all attend the performance.

That was a refreshing contrast to the hyperbole about art and free speech being “the elixirs of an enlightened society”. Instead of a power struggle, or a test of wills, it opens the way to a more mature approach. Instead of an emotional debate which closes down rational discourse, it is the way to build common values – ones which recognise the inalienable right to freedom of expression but which, at the same time, demand it be exercised in a measured way.

Voltaire, the great deist, had something to offer here too. Calling out to God, he wrote, “you did not give us hearts to hate nor did you give us hands to kill. May our differences in attire, our ridiculous customs, our imperfect laws and our nonsensical opinions, may all these nuances not be interpreted as signs of hatred and persecution”.

Now there is a European inheritance which perhaps all might embrace.


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