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Both sides are becoming childish

02 November 2006


Paul Vallely fears increasing polarisation in the debate on free speech and Islam

Even before the furore over the cartoons of Muhammad, I had begun to notice an interesting shift in the way that a number of Muslims had begun to write. No names, no pack drill on this one. You’ll soon see why. I say Muslims somewhat tentatively, for these are individuals — academics and journalists — who had seemed pretty thoroughly secular in their writings in the past. Suddenly "As a Muslim" has become the unspoken preamble to what they write.

Of course, it may be merely that laying claim to their cultural heritage gives them a locus that they feel adds authority to their words. Or it may be that they have always been practising Muslims, but kept quiet about it for fear that it wouldn’t go down well with their secular friends. But what is most likely is that the constant derision and dismissal of the Muslim community’s values has brought to the surface feelings of identification that previously had been dispersed in a wider cultural identity.

Before 9/11, the Muslims I know lived at ease with a sense of multiple identity. They could be both British and Pakistani, with a worldview informed by a cultural inheritance from the sub-continent and a post-Enlightenment scientific rationalist education in Britain. But now their community feels under siege, and simplistic reductions come to the fore. They find themselves defending what they had previously criticised.

What has become clear with the cartoon controversy is that something similar is happening among white Brits. Individuals who were once broad-minded, tolerant, empathetic, and in tune with the tenets of multiculturalism have shifted, too. All the talk about taking "a principled stand" over freedom of speech is telling because it, too, reveals a retreat into tribal certainties.

The right to free speech is, in reality, only one right, which needs to be balanced against others in the interests of maintaining a harmonious and compassionate society. But all that has gone out of the window. Freedom of expression has been elevated to be the primary virtue. It has become a kind of touchstone of what amounts to a secular fundamentalism, obsessed with protecting its "long-cherished rights", but increasingly oblivious to the long tradition of social responsibility that was once key, too.

Instead, people are brutishly determined to "show these Muslims what we stand for", reprinting the offending cartoons "out of solidarity for free speech", with an increasing sense of indignation, which in practice only goads the other side. These cartoons are not just a gift to the extremists — they show ordinary Muslims that a disdain for their faith and culture runs deep throughout the West.

So what has happened is a polarisation, as both sides of the debate adopt increasingly uncompromising positions. It all generates more heat than light, and increasing levels of righteous irritation. What both sides are becoming is childish and stubborn.

There are some signs of hope. A few Muslim leaders, such as Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui of the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain, have stepped back from the tribalism to suggest that the authorities must tackle "the fascist element within our community". The Muslim MP Shahid Malik has called for the prosecution of those who carried placards calling for the beheadings of those who insult the Prophet — a sentiment as offensive to some Britons as was the original offence to our Muslim community. The extirpation of such elements will always be more effective if action comes from Muslims rather than outsiders.

Such views demonstrate a maturity that has been absent from a controversy that seems dominated by the dynamics of the school playground. Would that this maturity were to spread a little further, particularly on the secularist side.

Paul Vallely is associate editor of The Independent.

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