It’s happening again. Once more, somebody has been less than respectful about Islam, or the prophet Mohammed, and once more throughout the Islamic world – particularly the Arab world – enraged mobs are demonstrating before embassies and consulates, burning them down when they get the chance and not even stopping short of killing westerners, should they get their hands on them. Whether it’s Salman Ruhsdie’s Satanic Verses, a film by Theo van Gogh, caricatures in a Danish newspaper, the provocative burning of the Qur’an by a lunatic American fundamentalist – any perceived insult to Islam seems to provoke protest and violence by thousands of adherents of that religion against the easiest target they can find to which some kind of tenuous connection can be constructed with those responsible for that insult.
In common with millions of others, I’m getting really sick of it. I am the last person to deny that the ordinary – and particularly the poor – people of countries like Egypt, Libya, the Yemen, Sudan, etc., may have many good reasons to be angry with the USA, and western countries in general; reasons associated with colonial history, economic exploitation, the support of brutal dictators. That’s fine; if they were (peacefully) protesting about such issues before western embassies throughout the world, I’d be the first to be cheering them on. But they’re not. What they are doing, in essence, is protesting at the fact that our societies allow people to have free opinions and to express those opinions, even if these opinions are offensive to a few, some, many, or even the majority of their fellow citizens or the whole population of the planet.
Let me just get a few things straight – for the record. The film The Innocence of Muslims is a badly made, artistically worthless, obnoxious piece of junk. I’ve watched a few clips from it on YouTube and I’m not putting up a link here because, honestly, it’s really not worth viewing and I do not choose to help its makers reach any more viewers. If you’re really interested, you can google it easily enough anyway. Moreover, the sole purpose behind it seems to be to provoke Muslims to precisely the kind of reaction we have been seeing worldwide in the past days. It is a reprehensible, worthless product of small-minded, fundamentalist bigots, designed to insult and elicit a violent reaction from other small-minded fundamentalist bigots. The only real difference between the Christians initially behind this film and the thousands of Muslims protesting against it is that most of those Muslims have at least the excuse of being very poorly educated members of societies without a democratic secular tradition. Worse, they are being manipulated by more intelligent, better educated bigots called mullahs or imams, dangerous ideologues who really want to create some kind of Islamic-theocratic world order by whatever means they regard as necessary, or cynical people in power who encourage this kind of thing to divert the attention of the masses they are exploiting from the real scandals in their societies.
In this context, I want to look at what has been happening here in Germany a little more closely. Last week an angry demonstrating mob attacked the German embassy in Khartoum, Sudan. The demonstrations were reportedly instigated by a number of Muslim preachers who had picked up on reports that anti-Islam protests had taken place in Germany this summer, which had involved caricatures of Mohammed.
Those reports were true – as far as they go. In the past couple of years, a new extreme right-wing group has been growing in Germany. It began in Cologne, coalescing around protests against the building of a large mosque there. In a cynical move to gain support, the group called itself Pro-Cologne. It has now organised itself on a national level and calls itself Pro-Deutschland.
Let’s keep this in perspective. There is a continual, very small minority in Germany which is consistently prepared to vote for the far right. Such nuts are present in every country; in Germany we have been lucky that they have never amounted to more than two or three percent nationally. In their latest incarnation, they have taken an overt stand against Islam, realising that they may be able to gain support from many people worried about the problems arising around the whole question of the integration of Muslim immigrants into German society.
They have turned up in my home town of Remscheid too, where we have quite a substantial Muslim minority (around 12%), mostly of Turkish origin. On Mayday this year, they announced a demonstration against the proposed building of a new mosque. A spontaneously formed group (“Remscheid Tolerant”) quickly called for a counter-demonstration. My regard for the views represented by Pro-Deutschland being around the level of my enthusiasm for root-canal work without benefit of anaesthetic, I decided to take part.
It was a nice, sunny first of May afternoon as a work colleague and I joined of group of maybe four hundred to march through town to the planned site of the new mosque. About two thirds of the demonstrators were of Turkish origin, but the rest was a motley crew, from local politicians to punks and even some representatives of the near-anarchist Autonome movement. As my colleague had some friends among those general left-wingers, I finished up marching with them.
It was fun. The atmosphere was good humoured and I found myself reflecting on other demonstrations I had taken part in when I was younger. With a feeling that I was indeed getting older and more staid, I realised that it had been nine years since my last demo – the huge protests against the impending Iraq war in 2003.
When we got to the site of the planned Mosque, the demonstrators from Pro-Deutschland were there – all eleven or twelve of them. They were a sorry little group, separated from us by around sixty policemen and women, around half of them in riot gear. They half-heartedly waved a couple of placards, featuring reproductions of Kurt Westergaard’s famous Mohammed-as-a-bomb caricature. They tried to chant a couple of slogans, Deutschland für die Deutschen, stuff like that, but were comprehensively shouted down by our much larger group, the punks delightedly challenging them to, “Piss off home, you Nazi wankers!” and inviting them to go fuck themselves. Meanwhile, the politicians and trade union leaders were making speeches about tolerance and solidarity and a group of Turkish schoolgirls were doing a folk dance. Just an ordinary demo, a practical public expression of the democratic rights of anyone to express their opinions in public. The cops looked attentively bored and there was no suggestion of violence, though in neighbouring Solingen, another little group of Pro-Deutschlanders were stoned by some Salafis - planned provocation and a planned response. After about an hour everyone went home.
In the midst of the current controversy, Pro-Deutschland have announced that they plan to hire a cinema in Berlin and publicly screen The Innocence of Muslims. There are also reports that they have invited Terry Jones to attend, that mad Florida pastor who is so keen on burning Qur’ans. Made nervous by the events in Sudan last week, and under pressure from various Muslim groups, there are reports that the German government is looking into the possibility of banning the showing.
That would be, in my opinion, a mistake. At the core of this issue is not the question of insulting Muslims, or Mohammed, or Allah, but the question of freedom of opinion and freedom of expression. And this is a value which is central to any free, open society.
The freedom of opinion, of belief, of expression has, at its foundation, the realisation that people will have different, often contrary opinions, and that no society has the right to force anyone to believe particular things. This also has the corollary that no group or section in that society has the right to forbid others from holding different opinions to themselves, or from expressing them – even if they find that expression personally offensive, providing that expression does not infringe on the particular rights of others (as is the case with libel or slander). There are also limits with regard to questions like incitement to violence or crime, but otherwise the right to one’s opinion, and the right to express that opinion, is a central component of any free society.
Religions often have problems with this necessary aspect of secular society, because religions tend to claim to possess absolute truth. If Christians are right, then atheists are wrong – and so are Muslims. If Muslims teach the truth, then Christians are in error.
Christianity has two advantages over Islam in this regard. Firstly, it has had over two hundred years, since the American and French Revolutions to get used to the idea. Secondly, the modern philosophy of the secular state, as a-theistic as it may be, evolved initially within Christian dominated cultures. Even so, the Catholic Church only finally made its peace with modern secular society in the 1960s with the Second Vatican Council (and I frequently think that there are many among its current leadership who would like to roll that back).
Islam still has a long way to go here, but it is a road that it must take. No religion has the right to dictate how any modern society should be organised on the basis of its self-proclaimed divinely inspired teaching. The very right to freedom of opinion and expression for everyone, including – especially – those who think differently than we do, is the only guarantee that any religious group has for its own security in a multi-cultural world. To claim otherwise would be to acknowledge that the interpretation of this world religion as held by Osama bin Laden and the Taliban is implicitly correct. And if that is the case, then the modern world is indeed at war with Islam and we will all have to accept that the teachings of this religion are incompatible with the way most people – including many Moslems – understand themselves and the world.
And so, much as I find their views disgusting and reprehensible, I must argue that Pro-Deutschland, that ghastly group against whom I protested a few months ago, should be allowed to go ahead with their laughable screening of that worthless film. To prohibit it would be to concede that anyone who claims to be insulted – for whatever reason – by someone else on religious grounds would have the right to prohibit that other person from expressing their views. It is an admission of the superiority of religious beliefs over all other ideas, views, and opinions. It is incompatible with any vision of an open, tolerant and free society.
In the end, the whole Muslim perception of insult is rather pitiable anyway. It is a sign, for me, of a deeply seated insecurity, even a self-perception of inferiority. How can a God who is as great, compassionate, merciful and all-powerful as Muslims proclaim Allah to be, really be mocked by the writings of a Salman Rushdie? How can a man as reputedly wise and blessed as the prophet Mohammed, who has been dead for nearly 1.400 years, really be insulted by a Danish caricature or a worthless film produced by a vindictive, criminal American Christian of Coptic origin?
The author of The Satanic Verses has been much in my mind while writing this. Twenty three years ago, the Ayatollah Khomeini spoke a fatwa, basically condemning Salman Rushdie to death for blasphemy. Rushdie spent many years under police protection and had to endure major forced changes in his life because of his literary treatment of the prophet. In an interview in The Guardian yesterday, he commented on the current controversy,
‘"The film is clearly a malevolent piece of garbage," says Rushdie. "The civilised response would be to say of the director: 'Fuck him. Let's get on with our day.' What's not civilised is to hold America responsible for everything that happens in its borders. That's crap. Even if that were true, to respond with physical attacks and believe it's OK to attack people because you're upset at this thing, that's an improper reaction. The Muslim world needs to get out of that mindset."’
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Note: The famous quotation from Voltaire isn’t, unfortunately, from him, but rather attributed to him (as a summary of his position) by Evelyn Beatrice Hall (1906)