Thursday, 26 February 2009

Geert over there

Geert Wilders has been visiting America. He has given a major speech at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York and appeared on Fox News. He had no trouble passing through immigration, it would seem, though since the United States is not part of the EU he has no automatic right of entry. Nor have there been any reports of rioting or the civil unrest whose spectre our own Home Office invoked as justification for forbidding him entry to Britain. Ten thousand angry Muslims did not descend on the venue; indeed, a relatively small percentage of New York's population was even aware of his presence. Puzzling, that. It cannot simply be that Lord Ahmed was otherwise engaged.

Coincidentally, Hazel Blears, the "Communities" Secretary, has also been giving a speech, this time at the LSE, on the government's current approach to "engagement" with various types of Islamist. Being a member of a government that banned Wilders from the country as a dangerous threat to national security, it is only to be expected that Blears and Wilders have diametrically opposed views. And, indeed, they have little time for each other. Blears talks dismissively of "Geert Wilders' outfit in Holland" while Wilders, for his part, singles out " the snobbish left", populated by people who have "too much money, too much time, too little love of liberty". But such mutual antipathy does not preclude a certain similarity of phrase. Hazel warns of the dangers of those who believe in

... the supremacy of the Muslim people, in a divine duty to bring the world under the control of hegemonic Islam, in the establishment of a theocratic Caliphate, and in the undemocratic imposition of theocratic law on whole societies: these are the defining and common characteristics of the disparate strands of this ideology here and around the world.

While Wilders told his audience:

I come before you to warn of a great threat. It is called Islam. It poses as a religion, but its goals are very worldly: world domination, holy war, sharia law, the end of the separation of church and state, slavery of women, the end of democracy. It is NOT a religion, it is an political ideology. It demands your respect, but has no respect for you.

The difference between Wilders and Blears would seem to be a subtle one, a question of pure semantics. Blears argues that the political ideology going by the name (usually) of Islamism is distinct from the purely religious phenomenon known as Islam. Wilders is of the view that that political ideology is Islam in its purest form. Therein lies the danger. As Blears warns: "Even in English, where the two words are distinct, many people lack the political literacy to distinguish between a political ideology dubbed by some as Islamism and Islam itself."

And some of these people - many in fact - are Muslims.

Wilders' film Fitna set out to demonstrate how the Koran promoted violence and terrorism. And he didn't have far to look to find extremist preachers who share his view of Islam. Wilders' error is not that he mistakes politicised Islam for the real thing, as Blears would claim: rather, it is that he imagines that a fundamentalist, literalist view of the Koran is the only authentic Islam going, and that by stressing intolerance, violence or the oppression of women the Islamists are being truer to Islam than the moderates. He likes to say, "there are moderate Muslims, but there is no moderate Islam". This is clearly nonsense. Like any religion, Islam is not words set out in a book. It is a life lived in the context of culture, tradition and human striving. It is not a fossil; it can change. It has, in fact, changed a great deal over the centuries, and the Islamist interpretation is in many ways historically anomalous.

But Blears is wrong too. She is wrong, first of all, to assume that because Islamism is a political ideology, it is not first and foremost a religious view. Plainly, it is. She claims that Islamism is "rooted in a twisted reading of Islam", and her evidence for this is that

The academics, scholars and imams I meet to discuss these issues tell me that the message of Islam is one of peace; and the followers of Islam I meet oppose the single narrative promulgated by Al-Qaeda, and certainly oppose violence.

The key word here is "certainly". Because the Islamist reading of the Koran is no more "twisted" than was the Protestants' reading of the Bible in the 16th century. Islamists can look to history, too, and see the triumphs of Islamic armies in centuries past, caliphs and sultans who won empires - even Mohammed himself - at the point of a sword, and did so in the name of God. Was the Prophet's understanding of the religion he founded "twisted" - or is it merely historically inconvenient?

The danger in invoking the "true" spirit of Islam is that there is no single authentic interpretation. Anyone who tries to impose one will run up against insuperable logical difficulties. This is especially true of a non-Muslim government like that of Britain. Here, for example, is part of Inayat Bunglawala's riposte to Hazel Blears:

For the past couple of years the government has adopted the opposite course of action and has instead been seeking to find partners among British Muslims who are prepared to parrot its own views on what are the main drivers behind the phenomenon of violent extremism and in return has been handing out millions of pounds in taxpayers' money to them. That strategy has clearly failed with the government's "partners" universally derided among British Muslims as stooges.

Back to Wilders in New York. A particular bugbear of his is the way in which the "liberal-left" establishment has, in his view, sold out its principles. Of course, he is usually described in the media as an "extreme right-winger", or some such. He's certainly a strong supporter of Israel; not the most obvious position for a Neo-Nazi to adopt, you might think, but there you go. He told his audience:

they [the Left] don’t care because they are blinded by their cultural relativism. Their disdain of the West is so much greater than the appreciation of our many liberties. And therefore, they are willing to sacrifice everything. The left once stood for women rights, gay rights, equality, democracy. Now, they favour immigration policies that will end all this. Many even lost their decency. Elite politicians have no problem to participate in or finance demonstrations where settlers shout “Death to the Jews”. Seventy years after Auschwitz they know of no shame.

Not much there for Hazel Blears to relate to, you might think. But how about this?

The liberal-left is historically concerned for the underdog, for oppressed peoples, for taking a stand against racism and imperialism. It is part of our political DNA. The problem today is that these valid concerns can be mutated into support for causes and organisations which are fiercely anti-liberal and populated by people whose hearts are filled with misogyny, homophobia and Jew-hatred.

It leads to British democrats who are sickened by the sight of the suffering of the Palestinian people allying themselves with people who advocate the violent destruction of an entire nation-state, a member of the United Nations, who believe that Jews were behind 9/11 and fled the twin towers before the attacks, and who believe there is a global conspiracy guiding the world's economy. Strange bedfellows indeed.

Liberals' pathological fear of being branded 'racist' or 'Islamophobic' can lead to ideological contortions: condoning or even forming alliances with groups which are socially conservative, homophobic, Anti-Semitic, and violent towards women.

Blears' own answer to this conundrum, strangely enough, is more robust debate. For example she says that

But the pendulum has swung too far. The quality of debate about religion in contemporary life - and by religion, I mean all faiths - is being sapped by a creeping oversensitivity.

This timidity "flies in the face of another of our traditions - open debate, rational inquiry, and plain old common sense", thinks Hazel. "We would do well to be a little less anxious and a little more robust." For example - here she brings in another topical example - "we should be confident about condemning the intolerance of Christian extremists such as Fred Phelps". No one, it is true, can accuse her government of not being "confident" in condemning that particular noisy but isolated and widely-ridiculed "pastor". The trouble is, they seem unable to see the difference between condemning an opinion and banning it.

Geert Wilders would like to see "a European First Amendment. In Europe", he says,

we should defend freedom of speech like you Americans do. In Europe freedom of speech should be extended, instead of restricted. Of course, calling for violence or unjustly yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre have to be punished, but the right to criticize ideologies or religions are necessary conditions for a vital democracy. As George Orwell once said: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”.

Rightly or wrongly, Geert Wilders now sees himself as something of a free speech martyr. But it is the European elites' fear of debate and lack of confidence either in their own values or, more importantly, in their people's ability to make up their own minds that gives him that opportunity, and wins him support he probably doesn't deserve.


asquith said...

Just for once, that actually sounds half-way sensible from Blears.

But looking at what New Labour do rather than what they say, I'm not impressed.

Olive said...

we should defend freedom of speech like you Americans do. In Europe freedom of speech should be extended, instead of restricted.

Er, is this the same Geert Wilders who wants the Koran banned?

JuJu said...

But isn't his point that the koran promotes violence, and therefore falls under the exemption quoted above?

septicisle said...

By that same notion you could claim almost anything promotes violence, hence why Wilders is a hypocrite setting himself up as a martyr, an ordinary failed politician dressing himself up as the only person telling the truth, as they so often do when they've come to the end of the road.

The Heresiarch said...

What Wilders actually said, I believe, is that if Mein Kampf is banned then the Koran should be too. Of course, Mein Kampf isn't banned in Britain: it's even on sale in Waterstone's. So presumably he only wants to ban the Koran in Holland and Germany. I think he was making a rhetorical point rather than calling for an outright ban.

I'm generally with Septicisle that Wilders is an "ordinary failed politician". The problem with Britain may simply be that we don't have much experience of his kind of quasi-populist politics, unless you count the brief and absurd career of Robert Kilroy-Silk. So he gets misconstrued as something akin to the BNP, which I'm fairly sure he isn't.

Letters From A Tory said...

Blears seems to be able to see what other Labour politicians cannot, but the Westminster establishment will still always side against freedom of speech if push comes to shove.

Elephant said...

That was all quite encouraging really. Has Hazel Blears been reading Celsius 7/7?

Waltz said...

Heresiarch, you are exactly right about Wilders' so-called call to "ban" the Koran. He was making a rhetorical point about inconsistency and the general stupidity of banning books. The soft-left have deliberately misrepresented him on this in order to make him look like a hypocrite. On this matter, at least, he's no hypocrite.

Both Blears and Wilders are right with regards Islam. I'm not sure Blears really means what she says, though - she's given to rhetoric of another variety, the politically expedient sort.

McDuff said...

I mostly agree with what's said in the OP here, but have to admit to a little jarring moment here:

Of course, he is usually described in the media as an "extreme right-winger", or some such. He's certainly a strong supporter of Israel; not the most obvious position for a Neo-Nazi to adopt, you might think, but there you go.

The "extreme right" has a good number of flavours. Some, the ones we're most used to, are explicitly anti-semitic. Others, particularly those in America which are roooted in Christianist Premillenialism like the Phelps Clan or the School of Christ or other such movements, are far more likely to support Israel because they see it as the fulfilment of biblical prophecy, and at the same time be rabidly anti-Muslim, anti-Atheist and anti-Catholic. Perhaps it's my own context making me biased in my expectations here, but in the year 2009 I would suggest that it's not at all unexpected for the venn diagrams of "far right winger" and "vocal support for Israel" to intersect considerably. Not all right wingers are neo nazis.

Having said that, I think your comparison with Kilroy-Silk is apt (although can we really say that his career was brief?) Like a stopped clock, both Wilders and Kilroy-Silk could occasionally say useful things, but the monumental towers of simplified, populist garbage you have to sift through to get to these grains of usefulness make it difficult to think you should rely on them on a regular basis. Nontheless, as keen self-publicists it's unlikely that they'll ever go away, so if they do say something useful and worthwhile they'll make sure we hear about it, as well as the ten things they said which were pure pap.

sarka said...

Interesting analysis.
One point you make that needs to made over and over again elsewhere, is that what any religion "really" is, is not something that can be defined from the outside, even if the religion conveniently has a central text that anyone can read.

Only someone who is a believer can claim a legitimate interest in whether "his version" is truer than that of another believer. Only a believer believes that there is an interpretation that is absolutely "true"... For the rest of us, deciding what a religion is about at any one time is just a matter of observing what dominant or predominant groups of believers say it is, and how they act...

The Heresiarch said...

Even that goes too far, I think. In the case of Christianity there are official structures to help out: one can say with confidence what Catholicism is, but there are many Christianities and unless one is personally committed to the doctrine of Papal infallibility it would be wrong to claim that "what Christianity is" should be defined by the Vatican purely because a majority of the world's Christians are Catholics. Similarly, Protestant fundamentalists would claim that Christianity is, among other things, "believing the Bible"; but the most an outsider can say is that that represents a strand within Christianity.

With Islam it's more complex, because the nature of the religion is contested from within. When Tony Blair says that the Islamists "pervert the true faith of Islam" he reveals an unexpected naivety, mistaking a sociological fact (most Muslims are not Islamists) for a theological one. And in fact, many Muslims, especially in the Middle East, are Islamists of one sort or another. In a recent opinion poll of Muslim majority countries, a majority supported having Sharia as the basis for the legal system. There is, of course, a difference between "extremism" and "violent extremism", and one of the differences is that what this government now likes to call "non-violent extremism" in fact represents a widespread, and growing, interpretation of Islam. It does no one any favours to pretend it ain't so.

McDuff said...

Why is support for Sharia in a Muslim country, however culturally ingrained that support may be, regarded as "extremism"?

Should we call every barstool imperialist in the west who was convinced it was a good idea to invade a few Muslim countries to spread democracy an extremist too? Seems broadly equivalent. Is our cultural character really so devotedly moderate that we can holler at others from our supposed ivory tower in the middle? I'd be inclined towards more caution in that regard, myself.

Edwin Moore said...

Hmm - Islamism is all part of one big human puzzle. Why, for example, do otherwise sane, even pacific people defend oppression in Cuba? It was a secular poet who came up with the words 'necessary murder' (subsequently disowned by Auden of course), but the phrase would resonate with many Muslims.

Sarka said...

Re "non-violent extremism"

You are of course right, Heresiarch, but that also brings up the whole problem of the use of the term "extremism".

We know what we mean by it - if in a rough and ready way - in our traditions and language. You know, "extreme" left and right, communism or fascism, and then "extreme" in relation to familiar organisations or movement ..."extreme Catholic", or "extreme nationalist" or "extreme feminist".

Islam being a different cultural matrix, the word becomes more problematic. Many positions within Islam are not "extremist" in any very intelligible way within Islam, though some are...When we use it of Islamic positions, except for terrorist groups who match our more familiar idea of extremism, we are really using it as code for something more like "alien", "unacceptable to us".