Johann Hari comments on an important movement treated badly by the media, ignored by racists and betrayed by governments. Moderate Islam.
Seventeen years ago, the streets of Westminster and Bradford filled with smoke and shrieks as Muslim protestors threatened to “burn alive” a man who had dared to use his freedom of speech in a way they disliked. On the surface, it seems like little has changed since the Salman Rushdie affair, when a theocratic dictator demanded the slaughter of perhaps our greatest novelist and much of the democratic world equivocated. Once again, artists are driven into hiding in a liberal democracy for apparently insulting Islam. Once again, most of the democratic world resorts to a “yes… but…” non-defence of freedom. But this time there is a difference – an inspirational difference.
This time, moderate Muslims are fighting back. Slowly, steadily, a stream of heroic Muslims are standing up, loudly refusing to be defined by fanaticism and death-threats. In Jordan, the newspaper editor Jihad Momani has risked his life to publish the cartoons alongside an editorial demanding, “What brings more prejudice against Islam, these caricatures or pictures of a hostage-taker slashing the throat of his victim in front of the cameras or a suicide bomber who blows himself up during a wedding ceremony in Amman?”
And across Britain, Muslim women are refusing to bow to fundamentalists who believe beheading is a legitimate form of literary criticism. While criticising the cartoons of Mohammed as “distasteful”, Fareena Alam, editor of the Q News, damned the protestors, demanding to know “what the parents of the child wearing the ‘I love Al-Quaeda’ cap would say had their son been on the number 30 bus that terrible day.” At a massive conference of young Muslims organised by Fareena last week, one speaker said the way for Muslims to express their faith was “to mobilise to end the conflict in Congo, or to make generic Aids drugs available where they are not”, to roof-raising cheers. Sairah Khan, the Muslim near-winner of the Apprentice, said the ‘Death to Freedom’ protestors were “far, far worse” than the cartoonists, adding “If you don’t like it here, go and live somewhere else.”
The right are busy hyping this fight as a Clash of Civilisations between democracy and Islam – but that is a betrayal of democratic Muslims like Jihad and Fareena and Sairah. This is a clash within Islam between democrats and totalitarians, and demonising all Muslims is a racist, foolish way to ensure the wrong side wins. Religions are not inert, homogenous blocks; they are elastic, and they stretch and shift shape over time. The British Muslim community is genuinely divided, as a recent Populus opinion poll proved: some 12 percent of Muslims my age believe suicide-murder in this country can “sometimes” be justified and 34 percent believe British Jews are “a legitimate target”, although at the other end of the spectrum more than half of British Muslims believe Israel has a right to exist. These are much better than the figures at the time of the Rushdie affair, showing that Muslim opinion is in flux – and can be swayed by persuasive argument.
Only a fierce, fighting moderate Islam can win this struggle. In France’s Muslim ghettoes, an amazing movement of Muslim women called "Ni putes ni soumises" (neither whores nor doormats) has risen up, initially to fight against the epidemic of domestic violence in their communities but increasingly to craft a liberal – even feminist – brand of Islam. In the past fortnight, we have seen the first stirrings from their British sisters.
I live round the corner from the East London mosque, and most weekends there are stalls of jihadists perched outside, preaching sharia law and suicide-slaughter. However tempting it might seem, I don’t want to see these young men driven underground (or Underground) through censorship and the introduction of thought-crimes like the government’s mooted ban on “glorifying terrorism”. I want to see every one of their stalls matched by a stall of feisty Muslim women like Sairah and Fareena, ridiculing their bizarre beliefs and manifest sexual inadequacy, and offering young Muslims a different and better brand of Islam. Don’t suppress the battle within Islam – let’s have it out on the open and on the streets, led by amazing Muslim women like Fareena and Sairah.