John Stephenson has some views regarding the Woolwich attack and freedom of speech
The events witnessed this week in Woolwich, London, were a devastating reminder of the problem Britain faces regarding the threat of terrorist activity. However, much of the ensuing reaction has been one of confusion and has done little to aid the in the slow and painstaking process of combating such delusional ideology. On the one hand there are those who are determined to tar the events by forwarding their equally absurd beliefs. Demonstrations organised by the EDL and “Operation Fightback” were organised but quickly shut down by police, while mosques were attacked in places such as Gillingham and Braintree. On the other hand, I have to say that there appears to be an apologetic element within the public domain that is just as guilty of blemishing debate, although this has been done by shooting down anyone who is willing to speak openly about the nature of the attacks as “islamophobic”, “bigoted” or “racist”. Some of these attacks are justified – the support for Stephen Lennon’s EDL movement is undoubtedly host to anti-Asian racists and those who are prepared to beat up anyone they meet wearing a veil. However, many of their gripes come as a result of the confusion that surrounds the criticism of Islam.
The perennial problem for those who wish to speak frankly about organised religion is that in asserting their view they can sound similar to the bigot they would run a mile to get away from. However there is one fundamental difference; while the intolerant will tar a religion’s supporters with the same brush, the critic of religion will be averse to doing so. This can easily be put in a better light; suppose I am opposed to Conservative politics (which for the most part I am). This should say nothing about the way I treat Conservatives when I meet them in my day-to-day activities and should not prevent me from greeting them with the same friendliness I would give anyone else. However I should still have the fundamental right to speak my mind with regards their ideology or beliefs as long as my conduct towards them is not affected.
One objection to this may come from those who deem it “offensive” to voice anti-Islamic views. The problem is that it assumes that this gives the offended some sort of “rights” and in doing so seems to pay little regard or thought to the fact that the person of no religion may be equally offended by religious views. For all it’s worth I may be offended at the Bible’s description of a lady turning into a pillar of salt or offended at the Quran’s views on polygamy. However, I would not for one moment suggest that my offence should impede their right to voice those beliefs. As long as we do not discriminate against Muslims, we should be allowed to voice our views and people should have the right to be offended.
Though with this being said, there is indeed one group of individuals whose contribution to the current debate surrounding Islam has been questionable; politicians such as Boris Johnson, David Cameron and Nick Clegg have all spoken out to condemn the attacks, but have gone further by stating that they are not representative of Islam. Cameron spoke candidly about the attack outside Downing Street, stating that it was a “betrayal of Islam”, while Johnson and Clegg both gave statements of similar nature, even reading out a peaceful verse from the Quran.
These statements have been met with appreciation from those in Islamic communities who abhor the attack. Nevertheless, they have equally been met with hostility from individuals who says that a politician making theological statements is playing a dangerous game. Douglas Murray of The Spectator for instance argues that the statements from the likes of Clegg, Cameron and Johnson are not only false but actually fuel the hatred of groups such as the EDL, who will think they have access to some revelationary form of knowledge regarding the Muslim faith that politicians are unaware of.
I agree with Murray in the sense that I believe the statements are false. I fail to see how Islam can be called a religion of peace when the Quran contains verses such as “strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them”. I would also take issue with the statement that these attacks have nothing to do with Islam. We can make the distinction between Islamism and Islam, but it is the Quran where these verses can be found and Muslim scholars are at a predicament as to explain how such verses can be interpreted as peaceful while still in accordance with the word of Allah. However, this is just my opinion and I should not have to face any sort of backlash or scorn for holding it, so long as my views are not condemnatory of the ordinary, perfectly law-abiding and respectable Muslim.
Where I disagree with Murray is in the idea that politicians should “stay out of it”. While I imagine the statements from Clegg, Cameron and Johnson have been guided by short-term politics and a wish to protect the Muslim community, in talking about it there is further hope that they can break the taboo surrounding religion in the UK. The former Home Secretary Charles Clarke agrees, saying that there is indeed a taboo within our society that gives too much room for intolerant religion and oppresses those who oppose it.
A healthy balance within political thought needs to be struck, whereby the rules of conversation are changed and religion is subject to the same scorn as any other institution. However, there is also a need to protect these groups from the prejudiced and hate-filled organisations whose only aim is the persecution of the religious. In doing this, we will no longer patronise religion by giving it a wide-berth and acting as if it is the elephant in the room. I am not Islam’s biggest fan, but if it were banned tomorrow I would be out protesting to protect the rights of the Muslims I know and those I do not know.
This is just my opinion. You have the right to be offended