No Exemptions

Polly Toynbee has a very good column in the Guardian today (thus incidentally showing that that newspaper is not always the evil spawn of Satan despite what my colleague may say). She says what I’ve been saying for months: that criticism of Islam (or any other religion) is not racism, and should not be called such or talked about as if it were such. She also says that worry about just exactly this equation has caused a lot of people to go all woolly about Islam. Ain’t it the truth.

Fear of offending the religious is gathering ground on all sides. It is getting harder to argue against the hijab and the Koran’s edict that a woman’s place is one step behind. It is beginning to be racist for teachers or social workers to object to autocratic patriarchy and submission of women within many Muslim communities. Islamic ideas that find the very notion of democracy incompatible with faith are beginning to be taken seriously by those who should defend liberal democracy.

‘It is getting harder to argue against the hijab’ – you can say that again! I spent a lot of time doing just that last winter, and was endlessly surprised at the absurd things people on the left were willing to say. It was kind of educational, in a way. The fatwa on Salman Rushdie was educational for a lot of people; the arguments over the hijab were educational for me. I learned that a lot of well-meaning leftists will stop at nothing to mollify Islam. Which is bizarre. Why in a conflict between Islam on the one hand and secularism and feminism on the other, people on the left feel compelled to choose Islam, is beyond me. Well not entirely beyond me; I realize it has to do with the fact that Muslims are the targets of anti-immigrant hatreds and racism; but puzzling all the same.

More alarming is the softening of the brain of liberals and progressives. They increasingly find it easier to go with the flow that wants to mollify Muslim sentiment, for fear of joining the anti-immigration thugs who want to drive them from the land.

Just so. It is alarming, because if liberals and progressives won’t stand up for women’s rights and against Sharia, the hijab, unequal divorce laws and the rest of it, who will? Who the hell will? Who will stand shoulder to shoulder with Homa Arjomand and Azam Kamguian and Maryam Namazie and Ibn Warraq? If liberals and progressives abandon secularists and feminists who have the dire misfortune to live in countries ruled by Islam, in favour of solidarity with a religion that codifies unequal treatment of women – then they are not liberals and progressives any more. They intend to be, but they’re not.

Consider this post at Crooked Timber for instance.

This is one problem that we can’t blame Bush for. For all of his faults, he has consistently urged respect for the Muslim faith and world, and I’m grateful for that.

Okay – why is respect for the Muslim ‘faith’ a good thing? And more than that, in fact the heart of the matter – why is it so taken for granted that it’s a good thing? That’s the part I don’t get. So often it appears to be just – well, a matter of faith, that Islam is automatically and necessarily a good and harmless thing. That it has to be. That it simply can’t not be – so there is no need for further investigation or even thought. It is just not even conceivable (apparently) that right-thinking people might believe and say that Islam itself – not extremist Islam, just Islam – might have some bad ideas right at its core. Christianity has some terrible ideas right at its core; why is it self-evident that Islam does not? Well we know why. Because it’s all mixed up with race and anti-racism, colonialism and postcolonialism, Orientalism and Occidentalism, that’s why. But that’s not a good reason.

It will be more important than ever to stand like Voltaire, ready to defend Muslims, their right to be here and to practise their beliefs against the growing swamped-by-aliens talk that Anas Altikriti warned against on these pages last week…Muslims must also accept the right of others to criticise religions without smearing any critic as a racist.

I’m like a broken record – but it can’t be helped: the wool is out there. Religions cannot and must not be beyond criticism. They’re the last human institutions that ought to have a free pass to go unexamined and unquestioned – and yet so often they are the first to get the magic exemption. Écrasez l’infame, etc.

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