B u t t e r i n g  U p  t h e  M u s l i m  V o t e


probes the terrorist mind-set

and puts the Mohammed cartoons in perspective (2/2006)



The Political Limits of Free Speech

OUR Government's policy to pander to the religious lobbies and substantially increase the proportion of subsidised "faith" schools has continued, unabated, even since the London suicide bombings of last July, though the Government has reacted to those atrocities, in knee-jerk fashion, with other draconian responses.

These have included not only legitimate moves against terrorists and would-be terrorists, but also the erosion of many hard-won civil rights, even extending to the centuries-old principle of habeas corpus - which England, from the time of Magna Carta, taught the rest of the civilised world. The Prime Minister stubbornly tried to get it suspended, by the Terrorism Bill, up to a monstrous 90 days, during which suspects could be kept in prison without charge. In the event, that attempt was defeated by Parliament, with the aid of rebel backbenchers of his own Party - though even then the period was substantially extended to 28 days, which is draconian enough.

We were told by politicians and mealy-mouthed functionaries that it was politically incorrect to call the perpetrators of the London July 7 terrorists Muslims - but, of course, everyone knew they were Muslims, of the most zealous.

They were British-born Muslim youths, three of whom - all dead - were quickly identified. However, the identity of those who recruited them and supplied their explosives has, apart from the hate-preacher Abu Hamza, yet to he discovered.

Since the belief of a typical suicide bomber in a blissful after-life for "martyrs" is unshakeable, what we need perhaps is a revered ayatollah to proclaim, with Koranic support, that suicide bombers will actually go to hell!

For eight years, at Finsbury Park, Hamza was allowed to preach violent hatred and incite young men to commit murder, before the Crown Prosecution Service started its criminal proceedings against him in 2004 - and only then because the US was demanding his extradition to their country to be tried for crimes against it.

Of course Britain must take care to avoid a violent backlash against the mostly peaceable British Muslim community, but succeeding governments have in the past carried the exoneration of Muslim law-breakers too far.

When Islamic extremists held their big protest march in London in May 1989 to demand the death of Salman Rushdie for "blasphemy", I was foolhardy enough to stand at the side of the route holding a banner that read, simply, "Free Speech". Physically attacked by a surge of marchers yelling "Kill, Kill, Kill!", I was saved from serious injury by a plain-clothes policeman.      On the same occasion, 123 of the demonstrators were arrested for injuring policemen, but all were released the next morning without charge - obviously in accordance with a misguided Home Office directive.

At that time, even on mainstream television, hard-line Muslim spokesmen began advocating the murder of Rushdie, and even offering bribes for carrying it out.      Naively, we expected them to be prosecuted for the age-old common-law offence of incitement to murder - but nothing happened, of course.  This crime was apparently immune from prosecution if committed in the name of Islam - and the hate-preachers were naturally emboldened by the pusillanimous immunity.

The Fate of Free Speech in British Universities

As president of the National Secular Society for 25 years (from 1971), I was constantly invited to take part in university debates all over the country on religious motions, and, in the hope that I might help a few young people to start thinking for themselves, I accepted whenever possible.      It was a foregone conclusion that my atheistic side of the debate would lose the subsequent vote, as such bodies as the Student Christian Mission were always disproportionately represented in the debating chamber; but it was more important to me that we should win the argument.

Then, in the early 1980s, there was a sudden switch from fundamentalist Christian to fundamentalist Muslim opposition, and it became obvious that Muslim student bodies, not the faculty, were organising the debates and bringing Islamic orators in to oppose secularism, though the events were still officially under the university auspices. After one debate, I remember, a non-Muslim undergraduate came up to me to say he had had no idea how biased the set-up would be, and was
horrified by it. Members of the faculty, however, were seen only fleetingly, even when I had specifically asked them to monitor the event.

I accounted for the number of Muslim students by assuming that they included many from other universities and elsewhere. More recently I have learnt that a number of committed Muslim A-level students would decide jointly on their choice of university, so that they could form the nucleus of a Muslim student body there. And it is reported that they often spent time on it when they were supposed to be attending official lectures and tutorials.

Early on in my acquaintance with the Muslim students, sex segregation became the order of the day. One time, a friend of mine turned up to support me by joining the audience, and,
arriving early, chose a seat near the front of the hall. He was approached and told that that side of the aisle was for women, not men; but, as the hall had begun to fill up and there were no good seats left on the other side, he refused
to move. In fact, dozens of male students had to stand throughout the lengthy debate, though half the seats on the
female side were vacant. Leaving early, my friend was pursued menacingly out of the building and spat at.

I took to writing to the university secretariat prior to each debate, asking them to rule that sex segregation was unacceptable in British universities, but they always replied that I could put it to the students to choose, before the debate. When I did so, the vote - on both sides of thehall - was overwhelmingly in favour of segregation. Later I understood why the women students would prefer it: because many of the sex-starved young men took to groping if they found themselves near a woman.

The Muslim undergraduates invariably declared that democracy and free speech were contrary to the will of Allah, though they would support the principle of democracy when it suited them, as in the matter of the seating vote - and I could hardly go against it myself after agreeing to a vote being taken on it. They also liked to declare that Britain was destined, with their help, to be the first ever true Islamic state. When I cited Pakistan as an existing Islamic state, they said it was not truly Muslim, and they were confident (no doubt encouraged by the official reluctance to prosecute Islamic crimes) that Britain would soon become the first

Political (Parliamentary) Appeasement 2005/6

In the wake of the threats against Rushdie in 1989, the Labour Party's pledge of appeasement to the Muslim community was enshrined in an official policy document entitled Multicultural Education. Their promise of more faith schools went along with support for the Muslim demand for "parity" of protection against disrespect through an extension of the old blasphemy law, which (though rarely used these days) still shields the Church of England.

The "blasphemy" of which the imams accused Rushdie was a satirical episode in his novel Satanic Verses obliquely referring to the life of Mohammed. By contrast, the film
The Life of Brian, which had been made, and publicly screened, ten years earlier with impunity - and has recently been chosen in a tv poll as the best film comedy ever made - was a far more explicit and detailed satire on the life of Jesus than Rushdie's novel was on that of Mohammed. Admittedly, a century earlier the film would have landed the Monty Python team in jail - but typical English opinions have become more liberal since then, while those of Islam have, in obedience to Mohammed's injunction of immutability, stood still.

It was assumed that if only Muslims were able to invoke the blasphemy law through the courts of justice, it would help to circumvent their resorting to violent protest; but surely the reverse is likely: every time a judge dared to rule against a Muslim blasphemy prosecution, that would be a direct invitation to mass violence.

Later, this blinkered political approach was reinforced by the birth of New Labour under Tony Blair; and buttering up the Muslim vote became even more important to the Party when the ill-judged Iraqi war cost them a large slice of it.

Eventually, vociferous Muslims were to be mollified by the Government's introduction of the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill. Fortunately, this was watered down in the Lords, not only by making it more difficult to obtain a conviction under it, but by signally restricting the proposed crime to "threatening" words as opposed to mere "abusive or insulting" words.

However, when the amended version went back to the Commons for ratification, Blair refused to accept this compromise, so Labour MPs were "whipped" to reject the amendments. But Blair was unexpectedly defeated by a sizeable bunch of his own backbencher rebels - just as he had been two months earlier, on the proposed 90-day suspension of habeas corpus.

The fact that his defeat this time was by only one vote and that he was complacent enough not to be in the House to cast his own personal vote, added to the gaiety of nations. However, even in its modified form, the new incitement law
encroaches on free speech - not least through self-censorship, which had already, since the Rushdie affair, been operating in deference to Islamic hauteur, to the detriment of the public spread of knowledge and comment.

Mixed Messages

Paradoxically, this gives the impression that Muslims are
an inferior, down-trodden section of the British populace, unable to accept robust criticism or to defend their own corner rationally - let alone to laugh at themselves, which is a redeeming asset in British eyes.

The more moderate and percipient Muslims in this country recognise this, seeing the continual propitiation of Islamic touchiness as patronising - and probably the main cause of mounting islamophobia. However, because the hard-line Muslim organisations make all the noise, they are falsely regarded by the media, as well as the Government, as being representative of their whole community.

Fundamentalists take themselves much too seriously, and their feelings are too easily hurt. They really need to imbibe the traditional playground retort, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me."

Animal Welfare and Halal

The Farm Animal Welfare Council - an official advisory body - has repeatedly recommended that an end be put to the Jewish and Muslim exemptions from the law requiring pre-stunning for the slaughter of farm animals; but no government has had the courage to introduce this reform.

  Predictably, the religions that oppose pre-stunning are up in arms at the prospect of having to obey the general law of the country, and insist on their "religious rights" in this matter. But what about animal rights?  And, indeed, the rights of meat-eaters of other religions, or of none, who are given no opportunity to avoid cruelly slaughtered meat. Since orthodox Jews eat only part of the animal, the rest is sold, unlabelled, in butchers' and supermarkets. And many of the state schools in areas of the country with a sizeable Muslim population now serve only halal meat.

  If the shechita and halal methods of meat-slaughter are not cruel, then the general law that demands pre-stunning in non-religious abattoirs should be repealed.            Otherwise, the same British law should apply to all, and people who choose to come to settle in Britain should be prepared to accept it. After all, they have the alternative of turning vegetarian.

The Cartoons

At the end of January, all hell broke loose, fundamentalist Muslims having maliciously spread the news among themselves internationally that, some four months earlier, a Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, had published a series of twelve cartoons caricaturing Mohammed. One of the twelve (innocently reprinted on the cover of the November Freethinker!) depicted
him as a suicide bomber, his turban a smoking bomb. Even moderate Muslims have described it as "insulting" to their
religion, though few of them have actually seen it. Anyway, since suicide bombers are regarded as "martyrs", how can it be insulting to depict the Prophet as a martyr?

We are told that Islam forbids the imaging of any human being, not just Mohammed. In that case, why are so many imams willing to appear on television and pose for photographs?

The fact is that hundreds of cartoons of the Prophet have appeared over the centuries - some of them far more offensive than these recent ones - with no retaliation from his followers. For instance, a German woodcut print of 1481 shows
a drunken Mohammed being scolded by one of his wives. And there is a fresco from the same century in Bologna's church of San Petronio, by Giovanni da Modena, who, inspired by Dante's Divina Commedia, depicted Mohammed being tortured in hell. That piece of medieval art did, however, attract Muslim wrath, when, in 2002, a terrorist group was discovered plotting (rather belatedly) to blow up the church.

Though the twelve amusing Danish cartoons were far less scurrilous than the medieval ones, it is not surprising that devout Muslims failed to see the joke. But the extent and violence of their reaction to the cartoons was surprising.

A ferocious protest outside the Danish Embassy in Indonesia was followed by similar outbreaks in many cities of Asia and Europe, including London. It prompted newspapers in several western European countries to reprint the cartoons defiantly in defence of free speech - but no national newspaper in Britain dared to do likewise.

The same buttery Jack Straw, now promoted to Home Secretary, rushed on to television to decry publication of the cartoons - apparently seeing them as more reprehensible than the actual raining of bombs on defenceless women, men, and children in Iraq - that being something which, unlike the late Robin Cook, he had felt able to endorse.

Barbara Smoker February 2006



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