Thursday, 26 February 2009

Could we be faced with a culture war?

It seems like such an odd -and unfortunate- question to have to ask. My brother, a law student and therefore very particular about how language is used, would scold me, and indeed already has. But I feel there is some merit to it nonetheless. Perhaps, though, it should in fact be altered: are we being dragged into a culture war?

Of course, there's no such thing as a culture war. It's hard to imagine university scholars taking up kalashnikovs and uzis for a battle to the death over who is the finer artist, Rembrandt or Caravaggio. Wars are fought over resources, territory and ideology. But there is the crux - ideology. "Culture" may not be the right term (although I use it in reference to famed -and [ob]noxious- conservative American pundit Bill O'Reilly's book title), but there is a growing schism in our society (by "our", I do in this case mean British, although this does apply, in slightly different terms and circumstances, to other countries such as the USA, France, Germany and The Netherlands). It's a schism between those of us who believe in secularism, and those who wish to impose religion on society as a whole.

To be honest, I'm no Richard Dawkins or Johann Hari. For yonks, this kind of thing passed me by (I was only a nipper when the whole Salman Rushdie farce kicked off), despite being a lifelong atheist and secularist. But slowly, the conflicts between the religious and the secularists began to rear their heads into my life.

First up was the "no veils" scandal that swept France a few years back. The French government caused much outrage and accusations of racism by banning the wearing of veils in schools and for civil servants. The scandal even meant that for a while France overtook London as a potential terrorist target. At first, I was rather ambivalent about the matter. It seemed a bit insensitive on the part of then-interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy to target what is deemed by many muslims (including women) to be an integral part of their faith. Much as I feel perturbed by the idea that woman should cover themselves up to please backwards-thinking men, the full-out banning of veils seemed over-the-top. A burka, fine. But a simple veil?

But after much heated debate with friends and colleagues, and a little investigation, I found out that this was not a simple case of anti-Islam bigotry. The principle of secularism ("la laïcité" in French) is deeply ingrained in the constitution of France. The state and religion are completely separate, and no religion shall be given precedence over others. If crosses and kippahs are not allowed in public schools, then why should veils be given special treatment? And, ultimately, French society acquiesced to this view. The Republic is an almost sacrosanct institution in France, ideally viewed as a system where all are equal and no-one gets placed ahead of someone else except on merit. Of course, this is more utopia than reality, but for the most part, France's ethnic and religious minorities (and even the Catholic religious majority) are happy to put the values of the Republic before their own, for the sake of national unity.

However, just months after this relatively storm-in-a-teacup-ish incident, there came the much more horrifying murder (fuck it, I think the word "slaughter" applies more) of controversial Dutch director Theo Van Gogh. We could debate until we're blue in the face about the merits (or lack thereof) of his film. I personally feel that, as simplistic as it was, it would be a travesty to suppress his views (and those of writer and politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose suffering at the hands of extremist Islam was terrible, including genital mutiliation). Those views are there to be debated, and if they prove to be erroneous or false, then surely that can be demonstrated. Suppressing them through violence and hatred is the way of the weak and cowardly. I have read enough of the Koran to know that it contains much beauty. The people who objected to Van Gogh's films would have best served Islam by highlighting these elements in a civilised manner to the director, rather than resorting to the heinous violence they ultimately unleashed.
But what ultimately shocked me, perhaps even more than the violence of the crime itself, was the way the world reacted. Of course, there was the usual outpouring of anger and disgust at the killer and those who incited him. But, in several liberal circles, not to mention among some extremist (and even moderate) muslims, there was sense that Van Gogh had gone too far with his film and that he had ultimately provoked the reaction he got. Taken to the extreme, it basically sounded like these people were saying he got what he deserved! How can this be possible? A man deserves to be murdered, because his views were extreme? Extremist violence as an answer to extreme thoughts? Am I the only one to see a disparity here? Thoughts, or words, don't kill. There is no justification for the murder of Van Gogh, and it should be resoundedly condemned as an assault on free speech, regardless of what anyone thought of his film.

At this stage, I must point to whoever may be reading this -let's face it, not many people- that I am not, in any way, shape or form, anti-Islam. It is unfortunate that the two incidents that awakened my awareness of the assaults on secularism and free speech by religions should involve radical islamism. I want it on the record right now that I have friends, colleagues and acquaintances who are Muslims, and I have nothing but the utmost respect for them. But this respect does not insulate them (or indeed, my Christian or Jewish or Buddhist or Hindu friends) from criticism of the tenets of their faith. Indeed, some of the most eye-opening, tolerant, interesting and rewarding discussions I have ever had have been with Muslims on the subject of Islam. The mutual respect we have is that neither feels the need to shout down or suppress the views of the other. They respect my right to criticise some of the ideas expressed in the Koran, and I respect their right to live their faith, and express their thoughts on it freely. The idea that we all could be sentenced to death, just for having said conversations, is deeply abhorrent for me. Yet is this not what happened to Van Gogh? Or those editors and caricaturists in Denmark? For me, such violent intolerance is not at the core of what I have learned about Islam, and yet it is so vocal. The aim of this blog is not to bash any religion, but to call for all moderate Muslims, Christians, Jews, etc. to stand up for free speech and the basic principle of democracy that is the free exchange of ideas.

In fairness, I'm not expecting this blog to be even remotely important enough to warrant any persecution. But you never know...

In the last few days, I have to say, my secularist self has been bristling considerably at recent news. There was the incident involving yet another Dutch polemicist, Geert Wilders, who was refused entry to the UK on the grounds that his controversial film (again! What is it with the Dutch and films condemning Islam?) Fitna could provoke the local Muslim population into violence. I've seen the film. It's crap. Absolute incendiary tripe. But he should not have been banned. The only way to address bigotry and stupidity like Wilders' is to let it out into the open, and then slam it down by exposing its emptiness. Instead, fearing riots and violence, Jacqui Smith made a stupid decision, one that has hit free speech in this country smack-bang in the face.

There was also the Palestinian appeal, that the BBC stupidly decided not to air, on the basis of "neutrality" in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Have we got so afraid of angering people (in this case, the Jewish lobby) that an appeal to save lives is deemed unacceptable? Okay, granted, that had little to do with religion and more to do with the vocal belligerence of Israel, but the principle remains the same. Still, at least Britain's jews would not threaten to firebomb the Beeb had the appeal gone to air, as was the risk for the House of Lords in the Wilders case. But in both cases, it stinks of free speech and the right to differing opinions being slapped down by vocal and aggressive minorities or lobbies.

But the crux for me has come in the last two weeks. A few weeks back, respected (and excellent) Independent journalist Johann Hari wrote an article defending the value of free speech in the wake of growing pressure on no less a body than the UN to not only defend religion, but ultimately to condemn all forms of criticism of religion, specifically Islam. The driving forces behind this pressure, which included Saudi Arabia, The Vatican and the Christian Right in America, basically ended with the Pakistani UN delegate demanding that UN's Rapporteur on Human Rights' job description be, in Haris' words "changed so he can seek out and condemn 'abuses of free expression' including 'defamation of religions and prophets'.
Hari was justifiably outraged, and put it succinctly this way: "The council agreed – so the job has been turned on its head. Instead of condemning the people who wanted to murder Salman Rushdie, they will be condemning Salman Rushdie himself." You can read the whole article here:
This is a serious assault on our civil liberties. Now, religious extremists can actually go to the UN and demand that the likes of Rushdie, or Hari himself (fuck, even me, if I were more significant) be condemned under international law for whatever offences they perceive as being inflicted on them. And it got worse. In his article, Hari demonstrated just why this ruling is an abhorrence by highlighting passages in all three major monotheist religions that are ugly, repugnant and unsound, yet which pretty soon we may not be allowed to condemn. The response? When his article was reproduced in an Indian newspaper, extremist Muslims in Calcutta, objecting to a passage about Mohammed's rape of a 9-year-old he chose to be his bride, rioted, called for the death of Hari and the editors and ultimately succeeded in getting the latter arrested. This in the world's largest democracy!

How can this be possible? How can the governing bodies of the entire world be bowing down to such hysterical pressure? I repeat, I am all for the freedom of every individual to express his or her religious faith. But NOT if this expression curbs or assaults the basic freedoms of others. That is what being a secularist is all about (please do not confuse it with militant atheism - I know quite a few religious secularists). And amongst the many backlashes against this insanity (read messages of support for Hari and the Indian editors here:, we are also now seeing a resurgence (did it ever leave?) of Christian hysteria in the UK, one that is increasingly matching the virulence of America's Christian Right and the extremism of radical Islam.

The big one was the nurse. Caroline Petrie was suspended from her hospital for offering to pray for a sick patient. This turned out to be a breach of hospital practice, and Petrie was duly sanctioned. Yet, the increasingly vociferous Christian Institute (that ultimately preaches a BNP-style mantra of restoring Britain's Christian roots at the centre of our society) caused a right stink, backed by those foul-crying harpies of our gutter press: The Daily Mail, The Daily Express and The Telegraph. They all equally screamed and stamped and cried "discrimination" at the tops of their voices when a school receptionist was reprimanded for sending an e-mail to friends during work hours asking for them to pray for her daughter who had been scolded in class for, in the CI's words "referring to Jesus and God".
Turns out, that's bullshit. The little five-year-old had been telling one of her school chums that, as a non-Christian, she would be going to Hell. The other child was frightened by this and a teacher intervened to tell the receptionist's daughter that scaring other children was not acceptable. The mother got the wrong end of the stick, sent a disparaging and unprofessional e-mail to her friends, one of whom happened to be married a school governor, who, noting the impropriety of this behaviour, duly informed the headteacher. Hence the reprimand. You can find out the full truth, and that behind other such "anti-Christian" stories as that of BA employee Nadia Eweida here: Unlike the Mail or the Telegraph, Guardian reporter Terry Sanderson has actually bothered to check the facts before spouting off. And he does it with much more eloquence. Funny that...
The CI and its allies have not bothered to check anything, instead trying to whip up conflict, scandal and hysteria by claiming Christians are being systematically discriminated against in the UK. Hell, it worked in the USA.

At the centre of all these situations is the central belief by many religious people that somehow their faiths deserve to be protected from criticism and debate. So, they take employers, journalists, authors to court, demonstrate outside embassies or newspaper offices and in the worst cases resort to violence or murder. And increasingly, our governing bodies are all too eager (because they're scared?) to play along. Surely these people's beliefs are not so fragile as to warrant such behaviour? Surely the words of secularists or free-thinking moderates are not so threatening? They're just words after all.
Above all, religions are based on ideas, in the same way philosophies and scientific theories are. Ideas should not be protected and shielded in the same way we protect ethnic or sexual minorities from racism or prejudice. They should be discussed, debated and critiqued, as a way of developping our societies as a whole. Otherwise, we will be one step away from getting our very own religious thought police. And that is the path to the death of democracy.

Maybe we are in a culture war after all. And freedom of expression could be the ultimate loser...

For anyone interested in promoting and upholding secularism, here's a great website: