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The Woolwich attack: criticism of Islam and the issue of free speech

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

32 comments to The Woolwich attack: criticism of Islam and the issue of free speech

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Islam is less a religion than it is a call for an authoritarian government with religious overtones – rather like the Heinrich Himmler version of Nazism. Maybe if it was criticized in that light the authorities could discover a need to contain it.

    On the other hand, modern Britons probably wouldn’t have done anything about the Nazis, either.

  • thoughtful ape

    I disagree. I am in no sense obligated to treat those whose political or religious views I find I find offensive or absurd with the same level of respect as anybody else. I should absolutely have the legal as well as the moral right to discriminate against you on the basis of your ideas. Your politics and your religion are not immutable characteristics handed to you at birth. They are choices freely made and the nature of your choices tell me something about you. I will take that into account in forming my opinion of you and quite possibly in how I treat you.

  • I disagree.

    With what?

    I am in no sense obligated to treat those whose political or religious views I find I find offensive or absurd with the same level of respect as anybody else.

    Is John Stephenson saying you should be obligated to do that?

    I should absolutely have the legal as well as the moral right to discriminate against you on the basis of your ideas.

    Indeed. And who is suggesting otherwise?

    Your politics and your religion are not immutable characteristics handed to you at birth

    I discriminate against stupid people all the time and stupidity is indeed an immutable characteristic handed down at birth.

  • The muslims have a judicial system. It is called sharia court. They claim universal jurisdiction and the ability to apply physical punishments. What will it do? What is the crime for which these self-proclaimed representatives of muslims will be charged before this court? What is the sentence range available to the judges?

  • John Stephenson

    I think to have an affiliation with a religion is a very different thing to being the very epitome of that religion’s doctrine. Sure, we should treat those who endorse the killing of innocents with contempt, but those individuals are few and far between. I think religion can easily impede on politics if your fundamental world-view has been distorted by an ancient belief-system. My point is this; if I meet a Muslim I should assume they are one of the majority – a perfectly reasonable and law-abiding individual. However if I THEN find out they are part of the small minority who look favorably on acts of terrorism, I have reason to treat them with contempt. I’d also question your point about the choice of religion being made freely. I trust you know the penalty for leaving Islam….

  • Slartibartfarst

    @John Stephenson: I suggest that what you say here would probably be met by blank stares or silent laughter from most Muslims, and though they may nod up and down in apparent agreement with you just to humour you, they would know that Islam is above scorn or ridicule – being based, as it is, on the absolute and infallible word of Allah.
    Your paradigms are much weaker than the absolute rightness of the Islamic paradigm, hence your opinions are at least worthless, and at most risk being downright offensive.

    The jihadist Michael Adebolajo gave a highly articulate and intelligent explanation to camera as to his motivation.
    If you refer to an unedited/uncensored clip of the video taken if him by someone getting off a bus at the scene, you will see/hear what I mean.
    For example, the Sun’s post of Woolwich killing: Suspect speaks at scene.
    Far from being an “evil rant” as the Sun suggests, the jihadist refers to the source of his motivation being the ayah (verses) in the Qur’an:

    ‘There are many, many ayah throughout the Qur’an that says we must fight them as they fight us, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. I apologize that women had to witness this today but in our land women have to see the same. You people will never be safe. Remove your government, they don’t care about you.’

    Notice the use of the word “must” – relating to something that Allah has made mandatory behaviour for Muslims.
    Adebolajo would seem to have done nothing wrong under Shariah law, and in fact he has acted consistently with the ayah.
    Islam – and especially the Qur’an – must not be criticised, and must be defended from any criticism, with violence if necessary. That is the only permissible response to such blasphemy.
    Freedoms – including free speech – are not applicable, as, once one has submitted to Allah, freedom becomes irrelevant.
    Allah is wise and knows all.

  • Islam is not now nor has it ever really been a religion. In truth it’s a doctrine to keep the tribute money coming in after the horse barbarian has passed away. As such it has historical significance as it’s the first time any horse barbarian has kept his will imposed beyond the passing of his sons. Islam is best studied in political science class, not in theology schools.

  • I agree Billl, it is best thought of as a totalitarian political systems that just happens to be a religion.

  • Slartibartfarst

    …it is best thought of as a totalitarian political systems that just happens to be a religion.
    (Perry de Havilland)

    I don’t fully understand why you say “best thought of”, but it certainly is an incredibly powerful fascistic and authoritarian religio-political ideology – one that is self-substantiating and self-reinforcing through the application of fear and greed, and which has stood the test of time for approx 1400 years.

  • I don’t fully understand why you say “best thought of”

    And I don’t understand what you don’t understand. When one says “what is Islam?”, most people would reply “a religion” or words to that effect. I am saying it is best thought of as a totalitarian political system… the fact it is a religion is very much of secondary importance and in fact distracts the most useful analysis of it.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    Much agree with Perry’s analysis.

    I remember somebody commenting that Islam is political ideology disguised as a religion, and AGW is religion disguised as a political ideology.

  • Gareth

    John Stephenson said:

    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.

    Unfortunately, what too many of our betters want now is to oppress vocal members of intolerant relgions too when instead they should cease oppressing opponents of intolerant religions.

  • RRS

    The murder at Woolwich had little to do with reaction to freedom of expression.

    We are witnessing the metastasis of victimhood as that has been identified in Bernard Lewis’ What Went Wrong.

    We are witnessing the desire of individuals resident in and beneficiaries of Western civilization to identify with victimhood. There are diverse causes for the rise of those desires, among them the lack of social forces for, and politically motivated obstacles to, assimilation or integration.

    Factually, those sensitivities of victimhood have been exacerbated by the lack of objectives in the critical activities undertaken to contain or restrict “terrorist” functions.

    Those allegedly involved in a Woolwich murders appear to have been born and raised within the ideologies will not related to those of the “victimized.” However, those persons may have felt some other form of personal victimization, but determined to identify with that of others whose victimization might be more compelling, less personal and have more impact than the complaints of their own.

  • RAB

    I’m with Perry too, but Wobbly, I’d have said “AGW is a religion AND a political ideology disguised as irrefutable science, that has moved the goalposts so often they can’t find them anymore and have had to put down jumpers to play the Cup Final”.

  • Slartibartfarst

    When one says “what is Islam?”, most people would reply “a religion” or words to that effect. I am saying it is best thought of as a totalitarian political system… the fact it is a religion is very much of secondary importance and in fact distracts the most useful analysis of it.

    OIC what you mean. Thanks. I mistakenly thought you might have had some improved way of thinking about the thing.
    I have never really perceived of it as being “a religion” – except when playing Devil’s advocate for it – and have usually described it as a religio-political ideology – same for Roman Catholicism. For all I know, you may well be right about how most people would describe it. However, I suspect that anyone who had made a reasonable study of the Koran would probably describe it differently.
    Sadly, it seems that not nearly enough people are sufficiently interested in Islamism to get stuck into a study of it, and so are not easily able to discuss/comprehend the thing in terms of principles.

  • Alsadius

    Religion is just a mirror of the believer. An asshole will interpret Islam(or Christianity, or atheism) in an assholeish way, whereas a peaceful person will interpret it in a peaceful way. I’d much prefer the culture of every religion encourages people not to be such big assholes. But arguing about the “inherent characteristics” of a book is a bit silly. It’s the believers who determine how peaceful a religion is, not the religion itself.

  • John Stephenson

    If religion is just how you interpret it, then what point does it serve other than letting people be the people they would WITHOUT it?

  • Hmm

    It does not matter whether “a system” is dressed up as politics or religion (Those two words are only names we give to sets of ideas, most often so that we can group them for politicised purposes.), no matter how a single idea or systemised set of ideas is dressed up –
    – if when its end sum results in a negative outcome for its users then all it is, was and all it ever shall be, in plain truth is: *** A bad idea ***.

    People who think about ideas in a scientific way, who consider the pros, cons & consequences, are likely to discard such ideas. From gaining this insight they are likely to help others to also see the pros, cons and consequences for themselves and so help others learn how to avoid such bad ideas by considering them in a comprehensive way. However, if the someone wants people to follow bad ideas then they have to stop them from realising that the ideas are bad; and the best way to do that is to stop them from thinking about the idea at all.

    That is what is happening.

    It is not merely the idea of “free speech” that is under attack…

    …It is individualised thinking itself that is most under attack.

    We are seeing people being propelled more and more into non-thinking behaviours.

  • Mr Ed

    Meanwhile in France, they are all to eager, it seems, to rule out the heirs of the Cathars, seeking to avenge events some 800 years ago.


  • Pardone

    Religion is just a tool by which the cunning and powerful manipulate the naive, the narcissistic, and the weak. All religions are totalitarian in nature; consider the examples of William Tyndale and Galileo. Its a very effective way to make people into docile slaves, largely because very likely that’s the entire reason religion came into being in the first place.

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    Not so, Pardone! If you bothered to at least browse through the many books on what is called the near-death experience, you would read that many people believe they had an out-of-body experience. These experiences would give people a belief in a soul, whether they are genuine or not! (They could be a type of hallucination.)
    Also, all peoples seem to believe that height is an indication of power, and the highest objects in the sky are the Sun, the Moon, and the stars, both fixed and wandering (the planets). Beliefs about these objects solidified into religions, usually aligned completely with the rulers. In time, Religion could be powerful enough to contend with the State, thus opening the way for Individualism to prosper. I think you have totally misread history.
    The closest religion to Islam would be the Thuggee cult, where they tried to justify robbery and murder as being devoted to Kali. Mohamedism allows you the same freedom for ‘the cause’.

  • Carlos

    Religion isn’t the problem. Its the British laws making it beyond discussion. From across the pond, I observe that what Brits are trying to achieve on anti-discrimination is ill conceived. In the US for the most part the only discrimination that is actionable is that perpetrated by the government. US law on discrimination prohibits government bodies, and not private citizens, from treating people unequally for reasons of race, ethnicity, sex, etc. (Unfortunately, etc. is a growing category.) The state has little to say about private conduct except where it claims a stake, such as employment. For a government to criminalize discrimination by private citizens is thought control. My right to be a boor is preserved in the US, at least for now. Social sanction is enough to keep most people on the right side of things and at the same time avoid absurd results like criminalizing political discourse.

  • Julie near Chicago

    The fact that people make terrible use of certain principles of physics doesn’t mean the teachings of physics are morally wrong or bad or evil — still less the discipline itself.

    In general, I think people might be interested in a series of articles that looks into the actual political history of Galileo’s time and place, and the conclusions it reaches. See countingcats.com for a short introduction, and links.

  • Tedd

    Nick and Pardone:

    I like to make a distinction between religions and churches. The church is the social institution, and it can be thought of as having agency in the same way we think of governments, corporations, or other organized bodies as having agency. Religion is merely what someone considers sacred, and perhaps what they believe about things they otherwise cannot explain. If enough people have similar enough ideas about such things we can reasonably think of it as “a religion,” and we might even give it a name. But the social unit to which we ascribe attributes such as cunning-ness or manipulative-ness (or benevolence, for that matter) is a church.

    This distinction is important because it is the church, not the religion, that involves itself in politics and encourages its members to do likewise. A religion has no such agency; to the extent that it affects politics it is merely in the sense of individuals following their own consciences. In the political domain, we absolutely have the right to place limits on churches the same as any other institution, including attempting to forcibly dissolve them (as we do with criminal organizations) if the situation merits it. Individuals, though, are free to think about whatever they like, and so the state has no say regarding religion, as I have defined it.

    I’m no expert on Islam, but it seems to me that it has many churches, as do all the other religions that cover large numbers of people. Some of those churches are probably perfectly fine. Some, by all accounts, are criminal gangs that need to be dealt with in much the same way we deal with other forms of organized crime. Making the distinction between the religion and the church enables us to do that without prejudice. The churches themselves will, of course, wrap themselves in the cloak of the religion, for political protection. But we don’t need to be drawn into that ruse.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Religion and politics are different spheres. Religion is based on premises that cannot be usefully debated. Faith, we call it. Religion also makes bigger and deeper claims than politics. No political system has ever offered more than a better way to organize human society; religion claims to embody the will of the creator(s) of the world, or at least its superhuman ruler(s).

    The Christian religion, in particular, is prone to claims of having the absolute truth about God and his will, and there is a long history of Christians who, believing in such claims, imposed their own doctrines by force on everyone they could reach. The very idea of tolerating religious difference was unthinkable for centuries. Even what are now considered minor variations in doctrine were treated as capital crimes.

    Millions of people were killed in wars or persecutions for having different religious beliefs.

    It was only about 350 years ago that Europeans “agreed to disagree”. The conflicting claims were irreconcilable, so we agreed not to bring them into any other sphere. Since then, religion has not been of substantive importance. In Jefferson’s phrase, “It neither breaks my leg nor picks my pocket.” Thus we don’t have to fight over it. That agreement was extended until by the 20th century, we had agreed that the claims of religion were absolute in that sphere, but nothing outside it: complete individual liberty of conscience.

    And so there is a layer of immunity around religion. Westerners feel (consciously or unconsciously) that breaching this layer by intermingling religious belief and politics or business is a move to the Bad Old Days of religious coercion.

    That layer of immunity does not exclude political actions on the basis of religious belief. Catholics who want abortion prohibited are not seeking to impose Catholic belief.

    It does constrain political actions against religious belief, which is where the fears of anti-Moslem bigotry come from.

    Islam has a very different history. For a over thousand years, Christian political power meant coerced religious uniformity including forced conversion, whereas such behavior has been only sporadic under Moslem rule. On the other hand, where Christianity was excluded from power for its first three hundred years, Islam has been politically supreme from its beginning.

    These histories aren’t mixing well. The problem has been gravely exacerbated by the recent massive promotion of Wahhabi and Salafist doctrine thanks to Saudi petrodollars. The result is a large bloc of Moslems who can’t accept any political or social status except dominance.

    Moslems and Christian-Europeans (including those no longer Christian) don’t have the same premises. The C-Es who insist on treating Moslems as if they also had C-E premises are preventing any solution of the problem

  • RRS

    We are not facing the “nature” of an ideology in the form of “religion.”

    We are facing the specific responses of individuals to elements of that ideology.

    Unless we examine the differentiation in those individual responses (which often coalesce into groups)and determine how to prevent or mitigate them, they will continue.

    It should be noted that currently those individual responses are far more damaging within the demographics of the ideology, than they are externally.

    An entire wide-spread social order (the intra-personal family, clan, tribe) is “breaking down.” There are individuals who sense themselves as victims of a “sinking” and that the “sinking” has been “caused.”

    Some forms of intervention, perhaps widespread publicity (even propaganda), will be needed to offer other perspectives on the causes of the “sinking” if the existing trends of “victimhood” with their vicious reactions are to be stemmed.

  • Mary Contrary

    RSS (immediately above me) touches on a point I was going to make.

    Although I agree with most of OP, I have a quibble with this bit:

    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 don’t think it’s fair to quote selected extracts from the Koran and say “look, see how it’s a religion rooted in violence”. You could certainly say the same of the Bible, and presumably the Torah. Since Hindus and Buddhists both have Warrior Monk traditions, I’m guessing the same could be said there, although I admit I know nothing of their holy works.

    The problem Islam is creating in the West isn’t that it’s a uniquely violent ideology, it’s that people still believe in it, and are prepared to act accordingly. You can’t say the same about Christian crusaders, outside Dan Brown novels.

    You might think this a trivial distinction, but I’m not sure it is. For one thing, it moves the Islamist problem from being a religious dispute to a question of development and education – and so potentially susceptible to the same “Blue Jeans and Coca-Cola” attack that played such a big part in bringing down the USSR. Since many people think the Islamist movement is not susceptible to this influence, citing (Western) homegrown jihadis as proof, this could be important. Are those homegrown jihadis really so typical? Or are they just maladjusted outliers who would switch to some other form of criminality or antisocial rebellion if the millions of Islamists “outgrew” their fundamentalism?

    Talking of which, our political leaders love to say that Islamist jihadis are a tiny minority and the “vast majority” of Muslims condemn their actions unequivocably. Perhaps this is a useful, white lie, but it is certainly not the truth. At best, it is a fair statement of the situation here in the UK, amongst British-born Muslims (perhaps not even that; most Muslims in the UK may not actually approve of jihadi attacks in the UK, but that’s some way from unequivocal condemnation). But it is most certainly not a true and accurate statement concerning the majority of Muslims in the MENA/Western Umma region.

    This is a less happy thought than the other.

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    I am going to continue to pick quotes from the koran, because that is what mohamedists do. Maybe that is how it is meant to be read- piecemeal?

  • Ian Bennett

    The mutterings of Cameron, Clegg, Johnson, et al should, in my view, be seen in a particular context, namely that politicians – those in positions of power generally – have one fundamental aim: to stay in power. They can therefore be expected to act in whatever way is likely to further that aim. If that happens to involve quoting from various religious tracts, then they will do so. If they thought that robust criticism of those same tracts would better advance their aim, they would do that.

    Religion is unconditionally dangerous, simply because it is irrational; the distinction between “extreme” and “moderate” adherents is a false one, and is better regarded as “consistent” and “inconsistent”. The inconsistent moderates may not actually call publicly for the murder of non-believers (despite that being a core dogma of their faith), but they provide the context in which the consistent extremists operate, namely that adherence to a religion is a perfectly acceptable way of life. Eating only fish on a Friday “because God tells me to” is no different in its motivation from committing any other act “because God tells me to”. If we accept the performance of an act which has no rational underpinning simply because of its motivation (“God told me to”), we must accept the performance of all acts with that same motivation. This is what consistent, “extremist”, religious adherents do.

  • Paul Marks

    It is depressing that the establishment (Mr Cameron as well as that depressing double act “Bush-and-Blair”) keeps going on about how terrorists and so on “betray the religion of peace”.

    In Islamic doctrine “peace” means submission, and the terrorists do not do anything that Muhammed would have disapproved of.

    For example Muhammed was pleased when some of his supporters pretented to be friends of an old blind poet (who had mocked Muhammed) in order to murder him, and when a poetess protested against this treachery and murder, Muhammed simply had her murdered as well. And there was Muhammed favourate military tactic of promising friendship – and then launching a surprise attack…..

    Blair-Bush-Cameron-Obama (and so on) all fall at the first fence.

    They accept that Muhammed was a good man (whose conduct should be followed) and that the doctrines he taught were noble.

    Once someone accepts that Muhammed was a good man and that the Koran (and so on) is good – then both treachery and killing are the logical consequence.