As I write this thousands of Muslims are marching through London to “Defend the Honour of the Holy Prophet” and denounce the “insulting depictions of our Holy Prophet” by Charlie Hebdo.
They have every right to do so, of course. They have every right to voice their views, even though they would deny that right to others, if they could. It is also entirely within their rights to regard this issue as a more urgent reason for taking to the streets than, for example, the activities of ISIS. Does burning people to death, beheading children, and selling girls as sex slaves — when done in the name of Islam by the Islamic State — not demean the honour of the Prophet of Islam?
The media are quick to label ISIS and their fellow Jihadi Islamists as extremists, which they certainly are. But the implication is that mainstream Islam is moderate. Let’s consider some basic principles of any “moderate” worldview in the West nowadays.
Among such principles are: democracy, with multi-party pluralism and free elections; freedom of religion and the right to apostasy; freedom of speech and the right to openly criticise and reject any religion; the equal status of women, and indeed the equal status of all citizens, with a secular court system that treats everyone equally regardless of their religion; and the acceptance in society of minorities such as gay people.
No Westerner who rejected such doctrines would be regarded as a “moderate” by the Western media. That’s not to say there are no such people, but they would be regarded as fringe players, often ridiculed by the media, rather than as mainstream moderates.
We should not be so culturist as to expect lesser standards of anyone else. Thus, any moderates within the Islamic communities, either in Western nations or in Islamic nations, should be expected to uphold that list of ideals. Indeed there are many such people, the impressive Maajid Nawaz and his Quilliam Foundation being notable examples.
But, we should ask, is mainstream Islam moderate?
First, Islamic nations are rarely stable democracies with multi-party free elections. Turkey is close to that ideal, though there are increasing tensions between the secular state, as founded by Ataturk, and growing pressure for Islamisation. Further, many Islamic nations are dysfunctional (Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, to name a few) while others (Egypt and Pakistan, for example) are more stable only through authoritarianism.
It is routine for Islamic nations to have draconian laws against apostasy and blasphemy, with countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan having the death penalty for such “crimes”.
The death penalty for apostasy is supported by a majority of the population across Islamic nations in South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. Nearly 90% in those regions say that it is necessary to believe in God in order to be a moral person. Acceptance of homosexuality is typically below 10%. In Bangladesh, 47% of people think that suicide bombing against civilian targets is sometimes justified in order to “defend Islam from its enemies”.
In many countries, such as Pakistan, Egypt and Indonesia, there is typically 70–90% support for imposing Sharia Law, which grants women a far lower status than men. Similar majorities want the court system to be religious and led by clerics taking decisions on religious grounds.
Back in Britain today, thousands are marching against Charlie Hebdo cartoons. The Muslim Action Forum, who organised the march, have collected 106,000 signatures (and counting) on a petition denouncing all those connected with Mohammed cartoons, which they believe “are an affront to the norms of civilised society”.
Bizarrely, spokesman Shaykh Tauqir Ishaq labelled the cartoonists as “extremists” and equated drawing cartoons to violence, saying:
Perpetual mistakes by extremists, either by cold-blooded killers or uncivilised expressionists, cannot be the way forward for a civilised society. The peace-loving majority of people must become vociferous in promoting global civility and responsible debate.
In 2006, 78% of British Muslims said that the publishers of the Danish cartoons should be prosecuted. I’ve been looking for updated reports of the attitudes of British Muslims but, after a spate of such polls in 2006–2009, there seem to be few recent ones. Has even asking the question become too sensitive?
Surely an acceptance of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons — which are utterly innocuous by any normal standard — is a litmus test for being moderate? Any moderate would accept that Islamic religious rules can only be voluntary and self-imposed, and that wider society has as much right to criticise and satirise Islam as it does any other influential political or religious opinion.
Such cartoons are not about “hatred” of Muslims, they are about criticism of Islam. The difference there is crucial. Recently Government minister Eric Pickles sent a letter to British Muslim leaders which went overboard in trying to claim that “British values are Muslim values”. Well, British values include free speech and the right to criticise ideas by drawing satirical cartoons.
I suggest that the media use this test when interviewing “community leaders” and other voices from the Islamic communities. The moderates are the ones who can and do accept Mohammed cartoons as a legitimate aspect of free speech in a free society. If, by asking this question, the media were to discover that much of mainstream British Islam is not actually moderate, then they need to acknowledge and report that fact.