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Has the West been silenced by Islam?
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
Wednesday, October 4,2006 00:00
by Independent News and Media
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 the two hijackers.

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.

The festival

This year villages around Valencia have dropped the ancient custom of burning effigies of the Prophet Mohamed to mark the reconquest of Spain from the Moors. Mayors in a number of villages near Valencia said they did not want to offend Muslim sensibilities. "It wasn’t necessary and, as it could hurt some people’s feelings, we decided not to do it," Antonio Valdes, the mayor of Bocairent, said.

Majed Kadem, the president of the Islamic Community of Alicante, said the tradition was viewed by most Muslims as a "healthy diversion". But Asid Farrod, the Imam of Barcelona, said the fiestas were offensive and should have been stopped years ago. "That they have gone on so long is a disgrace. We are living in a country where hatred of our Prophet is everywhere," he said.

The Reconquista (Reconquest) holiday in February celebrates the victory of the Catholic King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella over the Muslims in 1492 and the expulsion of the Moors after seven centuries of Muslim domination of Spain.

The Pope

Pope Benedict XVI astonished moderate Muslims, and infuriated extremists, when he used a learned address to a German university to quote a Byzantine emperor describing Islam as "inhuman and evil". The Pope characterised the quotation as "brusque", but did not otherwise suggest that he disagreed with it, provoking protests across the Muslim world from Turkey to Pakistan to Turkey to Jakarta in Indonesia, left.

The Vatican moved into withdrawal mode, with the Pope’s spokesman, then the Pope himself, on two separate public occasions, saying he did not endorse the emperor’s words, and that he was "very sorry" for the misunderstanding.

Such corrections were damaging to the Pope’s image among Catholics of infallibility.

After the Pope summoned ambassadors to his residence and pledged himself to peaceful dialogue, the row finally died down. But the central paradox remained: if Muslims react so violently when their religion is identified with violence, doesn’t it prove the accusation right?

The politician

John Reid, the Home Secretary, was heckled by protesters as he gave a speech in east London last month urging Muslim parents to watch their children for signs of extremism.

Abu Izzadeen called Mr Reid an "enemy of Islam" and asked how he could "dare" come to a Muslim area after so many had been arrested under the terror legislation. "Shame on all of us for ... listening to him," he said.

It later transpired that Mr Izzadeen has been investigated over comments about the London suicide bombings, after describing the attacks as "mujahedin activity" which would make people "wake up and smell the coffee", during an interview on the BBC’s Newsnight last year.

Mr Izzadeen’s actions were regarded with contempt by moderate Muslims. Khalid Mahmood, the MP for Perry Barr, condemned a planned visit to Birmingham this month by Mr Izzadeen and his followers for an Islamic rally. He said: "The people who follow Izzadeen are idiots and he should be banned from ever entering Birmingham."

The opera

Germany’s first case of self-censorship in the face of a perceived Islamic terrorist threat provoked uproar last week when one of Berlin’s opera houses banned a production of the Mozart opera Idomeneo, which depicted the beheading of the world’s spiritual leaders, including Mohamed. (The head of Jesus is pictured left). The scene does not appear in the original plot.

Kirsten Harms, the director of the city’s Deutsche Oper, quit because she had been warned by police that the work would pose an "incalculable security risk" if it was shown, provoking criticism from politicians, theatre directors and the majority of Muslim community leaders. Kenan Kolat, the head of Germany’s Turkish community, said: "The opera should be shown. Art must be free." Ali Kizilkaya, the head of the Islamic Council, disagreed. "The ban is right because the scene offends the feelings of Muslims," he said. "Whether it’s an opera or a cartoon, it makes no difference."

The radio show

Being funny about fatwas on the radio has not got down well with defenders of Muslim civil rights in the United States. In recent weeks the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has taken action twice to chide those it believes have crossed the line from humour to abuse.

First to be reprimanded was a Minnesota radio station which aired a skit called "Muslim Jeopardy" hosted by DJ Dave Ryan (left). With a mangled South Asian accent, an anonymous announcer named three categories of questions: "infamous infidels", "smells like Shia" and "potent portables". A female host was threatened with beheading if she got an answer wrong. After a letter of complaint from CAIR, the station apologised.

Then came a radio commercial from an Ohio car dealership which was withdrawn after complaints. It declared a "a jihad on the automotive industry" and said sales representatives would be wearing burqas.

The intellectual

Robert Redeker, a French philosophy teacher, and his family have been living in hiding under police protection since he wrote a newspaper article critical of Islam in mid-September. He has received death threats, and Islamist websites have carried his description and directions to his home.

In his article - inspired by Muslim reaction to the Pope’s comments in Germany - he complained that Islam was trying to destroy the West by attacking its liberties.

Soheib Bencheikh, the director of the Institute of Islamic sciences in Paris, said: "Anyone should have the right to criticise Islam, just as Christianity was attacked during the enlightenment in the 18th century... Not to criticise Islam would be a form of segregation."

But Abdelhakim Sefrioui, a member of the French Council of Imams, said: "The liberty of _expression is invoked every time someone wants to stigmatise Islam. There is a climate of Islamophobia in France."

Paul Vallely

Paul Vallely CMG is a leading British writer on Africa and development issues. He first coined, in his seminal 1990 book Bad Samaritans: First World Ethics and Third World Debt, the expression that campaigners needed to move "from charity to justice" – a slogan that was taken up by Jubilee 2000 and Live 8.

Vallely was the Times of London correspondent in Ethiopia during the great famine of 1984/5. He was commended as International Reporter of the Year for his reports which Geldof described as "vivid, intelligent, moving and brave". Vallely was the only British correspondent to leave the easy air routes to the feeding camps and strike off across country to find out what was really going on. He uncovered a number of things the Marxist government were trying to keep hidden, was pronounced “an enemy of the revolution”, arrested by the secret police and was expelled from the country. He subsequently reported from across Africa, and elsewhere, covering wars and events in 30 different countries across the globe.

In 2004/5 he was co-author of the report of the Commission for Africa set up by the British prime minister, Tony Blair, of which Bob Geldof was a member. Vallely ghost-wrote Geldof’s autobiography, Is That It? and travelled with Bob Geldof across Africa to decide how to spend the £100m raised by Live Aid and was involved in the organisation of Live 8.

Bob Geldof paid tribute to his influence in a lecture to the Bar Human Rights Committee Lecture, St. Paul’s Cathedral in which he said: "In his book Bad Samaritans of 1990 Paul Vallely wrote correctly: ’For all his skill as a populist Bob Geldof could not shift the agenda from one of charity to one of justice.” Well maybe after 20 years we’ve finally got there." The founders of Jubilee 2000, Martin Dent and Bill Peters, have also acknowledged being inspired by Vallely’s book.

Vallely has chaired or been active in a number of prominent UK aid agencies, including Traidcraft, the Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR), Christian Aid and CAFOD.

He is associate editor of the UK newspaper The Independent where he writes about ethical, religious and political issues. He is also a columnist for The Church Times and Third Way.

Vallely was created a Companion of St Michael and St George (CMG) "for services to journalism and to the developing world" on 17 June 2006.


  • With Geldof in Africa (with David Blundy), 1985;
  • Is That It? (with Bob Geldof), 1986;
  • Bad Samaritans: First World Ethics and Third World Debt, 1990;
  • Promised Lands: Stories of Power and Poverty in the Third World, 1992;
  • Daniel and the Mischief Boy (for children), 1993;
  • The New Politics: Catholic Social Teaching for the 21st century, 1999;
  • The Church and the New Age, 2000;
  • A Place of Redemption: A Christian approach to Punishment and Prison (ed), 2004;
  • The Fifth Crusade: George Bush and the Christianisation of the war in Iraq, 2004;
  • Our Common Interest: report of the Prime Minister’s Commission for Africa (co-author) 2005;
  • Geldof in Africa (with Bob Geldof), 2005;
  • Hello World: the official Live 8 Book, 2005

Other Topics:

Mohamed: the messenger of Allah
Paul Vallely, independent, UK

Posted in Other Opinions , MB and West  
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