the right to criticise religion is sacred

Ever since the notorious burning of the Satanic Verses in 1989 in the UK and subsequent attacks on bookshops that sold the novel, the intimidation by Islamic zealots appears to have worked.

Today, anyone who dares criticise an Islamic idea or practice has to contend with a barrage of abuse and threats. The bullying and the violence have sent pusillanimous liberals cowering for cover. Publishers and broadcasters think twice before taking on anything related to Islam. Outright candid criticism is off the menu.

We all know what happened since then. Salman Rushdi had to go into hiding for ten years after the death fatwa from Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. Things got even much worse after the Danish cartoons. People got killed in demonstrations in Muslim countries and the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus were set on fire by angry mob.

A recent tv show in America (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vln9D81eO60 ) that voiced some criticism of Islam went viral with accusations of “racism” and “islamphobia” flying thick and fast everywhere.

One does not have to agree with anything that was said there ( the generalisations were gross) , but the reaction was typical. Fareed Zakaria’s reaction to the reaction got it just about it right (http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/fareed-zakaria-islam-has-a-problem-right-now-but-heres-why-bill-maher-is-wrong/2014/10/09/b6302a14-4fe6-11e4-aa5e-7153e466a02d_story.html ).

But in my opinion he left out an important lesson : Muslims living in the West have to accept that freedom of expression can be offensive, upsetting, but in a democracy it is sacrosanct, it is the sine qua non of a free society.

In fact, it is the very same freedom that guarantees Muslims the right to worship and proselytise freely without fear of persecution or prosecution, as happens for minorities in most Muslim majority countries.

Admittedly, racists of all kinds will abuse that freedom, or hide behind that right to air unsavoury views about other ethnic or religious groups. But gaging people will not stop them holding certain opinion. The best way to challenge such views is in fact to let them come out and debate them publicly. Unless Muslims themselves realise the centrality of freedom and individual liberty and stand up to defend it against the zealots in their midst they risk living up to the very same stereotype they find so offensive.

If ever there was a time for young Muslims living in the West to sever their ties with the religious institutions of the Middle East it certainly is now.  Governments should help them by encouraging the training of homegrown Imams.

Like any religion, Islam is open to interpretation. Relying on the dominant, literalist and ultraconservative, reading of tradition that dominates in the Middle East and South Asia will inevitably lead to the alienation of the young Muslims growing up in Britain or France or Germany. There is no doubt in my mind that the at least some of the parents bear part of the responsibility for the radicalization of their children. It’s understandable why they cannot live without that attachment to their homeland. That’s why the emphasis should be on weaning off the young from that particular kind of attachment. In normal circumstances it should grow weaker over time, but continued reliance on imported preachers would militate against that.

That is another reason why Western governments should stop importing imams from Egypt or Saudi Arabia, so woefully equipped to live in the West, let alone to preach. Some steps have already been taken in that direction. But Europe has to train its own Imams who understand and value personal freedom and freedom of expression.

The curricula should not be a copy of what’s taught at Al-Azhar in Cairo or Saudi seminaries , but should include comparative history of religions, psychology of religion and anthropology of religion. They should study how Christianity and Judaism adapted with the Enlightenment and have carved out a new space in modern and largely seculaised socieities. Such curriculum could lead to broadening the horizons of the otherwise very narrow approach adopted by the Middle East’s old establishement and which can easily lead to fanaticisim.

Developing a European Islam that is at peace with the modern world is the best and most effective way to fight radicalisation. It will take time, but is the best strategy to fight the cancer of radicalisation, because that affliction has its roots in the Middle East.

I do not doubt that for the vast majority of Muslims, Islam means peace, spiritual sustenance that bestows meaning for them on their lives. All the more reason I think for the silent majority of the Muslims living in the West to speak up,  loud and clear against the zealots and for freedom,  without any caveats or ifs and buts. It is in their best interest.

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Magdi Abdelhadi

Writer, broadcaster, moderator, media consultant. I commute between London and Cairo. I am a former BBC journalist. All views here are only mine.

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