We need to talk about Islam, now
Our concern for the rights of others may be eroding the foundations on which our democracy is based, writes Carol Hunt
ALL the documentaries in recent weeks celebrating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall have given us a reason to celebrate the fact that, regardless of our present travails, we live in the free West where the rights of the individual will always triumph over the ideology of the group. Ding, dong, the Witch is dead.
Also, 20 years ago, Professor Francis Fukuyama, in a fit of optimism, sensationally declared that the fall of communism signified the Hegelian idea of "The End of History and the Last Man". He believed that the ideological conflicts of the world had been largely resolved and yes, folks, we had a winner -- Western-style liberal democracy.
'History', however, didn't read Fukuyama's book and continued to trundle along, "one damn thing after another", and Fukuyama has since changed his opinions.
It was inevitable really, because the same year which saw the fall of communism was the year in which the Ayatollah Khomeini issued his Fatwa against Salman Rushdie.
Certainly, the controversy over the publication of the Satanic Verses was a pivotal moment in the forging of British -- and European -- Muslim identity and its increasingly extreme political agenda. We in the liberal West don't like to admit this.
Actually we don't like to concede that's there's any sort of war going on, cultural, religious or otherwise -- leave that to the Americans and their oil-fuelled jingoism, their wars against terror and their need to feel that they are still 'policing' the world.
We Europeans are far too sophisticated to indulge in arguments over religious or cultural matters. We believe in free speech -- except when righteous people complain that is, then we bring in blasphemy laws to soothe those who are so easily offended by the peacefully expressed opinions of others.
The problem is that our concern for the rights of others seems to be eroding our own rights and the very basis of European democracy.
In 2006, Ali Selim, the secretary general of the Irish Council of Imams, said that if there were ever a Muslim majority in Ireland, Sharia law -- the strict Muslim code that governs every area of life, from prayers to style of dress, to the minimal rights of women -- should be introduced. We all laughed and thought the man was daft. As he himself admitted, a Muslim majority in Ireland was hardly likely. But minorities have rights too, you know, so nobody made much of a fuss.
Then, in 2007, the British Policy Exchange published findings of a survey which suggested that 37 per cent of Muslims aged 16-25 would prefer to live under Sharia law. And in 2008, Dr Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, said that the adoption of some aspects of Sharia law in Britain seemed "unavoidable".
He added: "As a matter of fact, certain conditions of Sharia law are already recognised in our society and under our law, so it's not as if we are bringing in an alien and rival system."
Is this taking the rights of the community, of 'minorities' a little too far? What about the rights of the individuals who live in Britain and elsewhere in Europe but are forced to abide by a legal system that actively discriminates against them (women and gay people) and against the law of the land?
During an inter-faith meeting in Turkey some years ago, a Catholic bishop recounted how an Islamic cleric told the crowd: "Thanks to your democratic laws, we will invade you. Thanks to our Islamic laws, we will conquer you." Reaction? Zilch. Just imagine the outcry if the Pope came out with something like that.
It's not politically correct to admit -- or even discuss -- the fact that the West is facing one of the greatest challenges to its traditions of plurality, democracy, freedom of speech and expression.
Instead we call it "multiculturalism" or "cultural relativism" and applaud it, as if tolerating unfair, inequitable and in some cases downright barbaric 'traditions' is somehow a noble, righteous cause. It's not. It's a deliberate and cowardly attempt to ignore what is going on right under our noses in case we may be branded racist, sectarian or worse.
Immigration can be a very good thing. Religious diversity can greatly enhance a nation. But only if cultural and religious practices are kept within the private sphere. And only if these practices do not go against the law of the land. This would seem to be self-evident, but in Europe 'multiculturalism' seems to have developed into a blind tolerance toward any culture and faith -- depriving many people, specifically women, of their human rights.
In 2004, Italian author Oriana Fallaci wrote The Rage and the Pride, in which she criticised both Muslims (bent, according to her, on conquering the West and annihilating its culture) and Europeans (described as spoiled, hypocritical and blind to the moral threat represented by Islamic expansion).
A few years later she wrote a follow-up, The Force of Reason. It's a wonder she had the courage to do this as, in the introduction, she recounts the intellectual lynching she was subjected to following the publication of her first book.
According to Fallaci, the politically correct establishment, or "modern inquisition", keeps individuals in fear of expressing what they believe.
"If you are a Westerner and you say that your civilisation is superior, the most developed that this planet has ever seen, you go to the stake.
"But if you are a son of Allah, or one of their collaborationists, and you say that Islam has always been a superior civilisation, a ray of light . . . nobody touches you. Nobody sues you. Nobody condemns you." Here Fallaci hit the nail on the head, but she was vilified for saying what people refuse to listen to.
America has never been pro-assimilation when it comes to cultural traditions, but Europe, perhaps in part because of her colonial history, has. Consequently we have a problem where the 'rights' of cultural groups are upheld to the disadvantage of individuals within those groups. So what we've ended up with is a Europe where polygamy is illegal, but some men, because of their cultural heritage, still manage to keep house with a variety of 'wives'.
We have a Europe that espouses universalist ideals of human dignity, yet there are areas where women can be 'legally' subjected to violence within marriage. A Europe where people who write books, draw pictures or make films that 'cause offence' can be justifiable targets of abuse, violence, and worse.
Is this what Archbishop Rowan had in mind when he spoke of the inevitability of accepting certain parts of Sharia law? I hope not.
But such namby-pamby PC fear dressed up as rational- minded 'tolerance' might be the reason that that's what we've ended up with. We can sit smugly in front of our TV sets and congratulate ourselves on 'the opening up of the East in 1989', when what we really need to do is open up our minds to the real threat of misguided multi-culturalism.
We should have started the discussion about assimilation of minorities years ago, before the winds of radical Islam began to blow. We didn't. Let's hope it's not too late now.