The best way to cure ourselves of Islamophobia is to have a laugh
Among the disasters of my early journalistic career was the time I was sent by the newsdesk to Walsingham in Norfolk, to report on what was promised to be a major religious bust-up. There were these Anglo-Catholics, the news editor explained, and they wanted to march with an image of the Virgin towards a shrine; and then there were these evangelical Protestants. It was gonna be a real ding-dong, said the news editor. He wanted action, colour, quotes, personality. He wanted ecclesiastical fisticuffs with lashings of sectarian abuse. He wanted the Gaza Strip comes to Norfolk.
As far as I can remember, the clash of denominations was a bit disappointing. It was steaming hot, and the evangelicals obliged by shouting a few anti-papist slogans, while the Anglo-Catholics psalmed away sweetly. And then God caused the whole lot of us – just and unjust alike – to be drenched in a summer downpour, and I fled to a café to phone over my account; and no sooner did it hit the apathetic streets of Britain than the protests began.
In thrashing my brains to think of a way of describing the image of Our Lady of Walsingham, I had come up with the phrase “bobbing doll”. This seemed fair, because the statuette had lovely rosy porcelain cheeks, and she did indeed bob as she was carried on the shoulders of the celebrants.
But according to the many people who rang and wrote in, these were very far from the mots justes. I was told that I was crass, idiotic, grossly insensitive and mortally offensive. One man managed to find me in the phone book late at night and gave me such an ear-wigging that I almost felt like making my own pilgrimage to the shrine, on my knees, and scourging myself with a copy of the offending piece.
And yet when I look back now, the remarkable thing is not how much fuss they made, but how little, especially if you think what we have come to expect from some Muslims. I have in mind not just the murders of Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh, but the trembling refusal of a noted Koranic scholar to write an article for The Spectator. “You don’t understand,” he said. “These people will kill me if I say what I really think. I mean kill me.”
What makes modern Islam so politically troublesome is that some Muslims can be induced to take offence not just at an insult to Islam, but at any injustice suffered by one of their co-religionists, and it is this deep personal sense of outrage – scarcely explicable to our post-enlightenment souls – that helps the whacko imams to warp the alienated young men into becoming suicide bombers; and that is why we are now so desperately using new law to trammel what non-Muslims can say about Islam, and what Muslims can say about their own religion.
Much of what Charles Clarke is proposing is surely right: we should of course crack down on the hate-spouting mullahs. Take away their benefits; kick ’em out, and if their arrival is not conducive to the public good, stop them coming in. Let us make much better use of the existing law against any incitement to murder and terror. But I am less convinced by the new restrictions on free speech.
The proposed ban on incitement to “religious hatred” makes no sense unless it involves a ban on the Koran itself; and that would be pretty absurd, when you consider that the Bill’s intention is to fight Islamophobia. As for the measures Clarke announced yesterday, to stop people “glorifying or condoning” acts of terrorism, they seem to trap us in a semantic convolvulus. What is “condoning” an act of terror?
The Daily Mail yesterday denounced the evil mullahs who “blame us” for the bombings, in the sense that we were co-invaders of Iraq. But, er, it was surely the same Daily Mail that, two weeks ago, printed an article by Sir Max Hastings, saying that the chief provocation for the bombings was Britain’s role in the Iraq war. Are we proposing to bang up Sir Max, George Galloway and all the millions of Britons who make the same point as the evil mullah?
These bans are likely to cause confusion and disappointment, since they will be impossible to operate; and in any case they are just tip-toeing round the real problem, which is fear of Islam; not Islamophobia, but fear of discussing the good and bad in that religion without giving offence. It should be part of the general long-term programme of winning back disaffected British Muslims that they no longer feel that it is Islam which exclusively defines them, and therefore that any insult to Islam is an insult to their whole being.
That is why we need to begin the re-Britannification I mentioned last week; and part of being British is recognising that this is a free country, in which people can have frank views about religion. Militant Islam has been shielded from proper discussion by cowardice, political correctness and a racist assumption that we should privilege the beliefs of a minority, even when they appear to be mediaeval. It is time the discussion was opened up not just to reason, but to reason’s greatest ally, humour. Instead of banning the discussion of the 72 virgins of paradise, the alleged meed of the suicide bomber, would it not be much more efficient to make fun of this ludicrous claim?
When is Little Britain going to do a sketch, starring Matt Lucas as one of the virgins? Islam will only be truly acculturated to our way of life when you could expect a Bradford audience to roll in the aisles at Monty Python’s Life of Mohammed; and when an unintentionally offensive newspaper article about Islam is requited not with death threats but with the exasperated but essentially kindly letters one might expect from Christians.
We have a long way to go, but the first step is to stop treating this subject as so terrifying that it cannot be satirised. Some things may be sacred, but they are no less sacred for being made the object of good-natured humour; and if that is frivolity, it is frivolity with a deeply serious intent.