Monday, February 07, 2005

Islamophobia and populism

I did not have time before leaving for Brazil on 24 Jan to comment on an important article by Kenan Malik in the Feb edition of Prospect titled The Islamophobia Myth.

Malik referred, among other things, to criticism of Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee by the Islamic Human Rights Commission:

Toynbee's defence of secularism and women's rights, and criticism of Islam, was, the IHRC declared, unacceptable. Isn't it absurd, I asked Massoud Shadjareh of the IHRC, to equate a liberal anti-racist like Polly Toynbee with the leader of a neo-fascist party. Not at all, he replied. "We need to engage and discuss. But there's a limit to that." It is difficult to know what engagement and discussion could mean when leading Muslim figures are unable to distinguish between liberal criticism and neo-fascist attacks. It would be tempting to dismiss the IHRC as a fringe organisation. But it is not. It is a consultant body to the UN. Its work has been praised by the Commission for Racial Equality. More importantly, its principal argumentthat in a plural society, free speech is limited by the need not to give offence to particular religious or cultural groups has become widely accepted.

(Toynbee's article from last year on the issues is here).

openDemocracy's publication on 7 Feb of Salman Rushdie's Defend the right to be offended, based on an earlier speech to PEN, has a useful link to PEN's own campaign, including their Letter to Members of the House of Lords, which includes the following:
  • Helena Kennedy QC...has warned the Islamic Human Rights Commission that they might be the first to suffer from the existence of such a law, since it could also be used against them in attacks against their own teaching...
  • many moderate Muslims are against the law, seeing it as divisive and likely to cause or legitimise intolerance in certain Muslim quarters for the non-Muslim world
  • Kenan Malik in the February issue of Prospect magazine writes that "in practice the law could be a nightmare to enforce. Every Muslim leader I have spoken to wants to use the law to ban The Satanic Verses. Malik, a Muslim, also writes that "Having encouraged exaggerated fears about anti-Muslim prejudice, and led Muslims to believe that the new law has been designed to meet their concerns, ministers might find it difficult to dampen Muslim demands. The current view of the courts is that any material that encourages public disorder can be seen as inciting racial or religious hatred. So the new law may actually establish an incentive to create public disorder as disgruntled groups attempt to censor what they regard as offensive".
Sad to see yet more dangerous populism by the Labour government (although not yet as shameless as that of the Conservatives). Can we forget that Tony Blair, who claims to be serious about science, accords creationism equal status with evolutionary theory? Is the Enlightenment - and those who stand for it - to be burnt for the price of a few marginal seats where large numbers of voters embrace the more backward forms of Islam? Hasn't Labour already lost those voters over the Iraq war?

A small aside: PEN's letter describes Malik as Muslim, which is interesting in the light of his book Man, Beast and Zombie.

No comments: