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.