Back to 1989

The always-wonderful Joan Smith beez wonderful again with her take on Charlie Hebdo.

Almost 150 well-known writers, including the novelists Joyce Carol Oates and Peter Carey, have written a letter protesting the award. They say they are sickened by the murders but claim the decision to honour the magazine is “neither clear nor inarguable”. They accuse Charlie Hebdo of mocking “a section of the French population that is already marginalised, embattled, and victimised” and causing “further humiliation and suffering” among France’s Muslims.

Seeing this, my mind flashed to The Satanic Verses. Back in 1989, I was dismayed by the number of people who said that the death sentence passed on Salman Rushdie was wrong, but he shouldn’t have offended Muslims. The historian Lord Dacre even declared that he wouldn’t shed a tear if some British Muslims “were to waylay [Rushdie] in a dark street” and teach him some manners. Defending free speech is easier in principle than in practice, it seems.

Indeed. My mind has been flashing back to 1989 all week (as has Salman Rushdie’s). It’s a bad thing. It’s bad when people on the left tell other people on the left that they mustn’t rebel against religion because [insert bad reasons here]. Religion is one of our masters, and it’s arguably the most illegitimate of all. The left has no business telling people not to rebel against their masters.

Curiously, these self-appointed defenders of Europe’s Muslim population are making exactly the same mistake as the people they think they’re opposing; like white racists, they regard “Muslims” as a homogenous group. They see them as uniformly powerless, ignoring the emergence of a Muslim middle class and the enormous power wielded by advocates of extreme forms of Islam. I don’t imagine the secular blogger Raif Badawi, who is still under sentence of 1,000 lashes, would have much time for the argument that the Wahhabi sect which runs Saudi Arabia is mild-mannered and ineffective.

Or a powerless marginalized group, either.

The journalists gunned down at Charlie Hebdo – including a French-Algerian copy-editor, Mustapha Ourrad – understood this very well. Some Muslim men (they almost always are men) are very powerful indeed, whether they are the leaders of Boko Haram or the Muslim clerics who encourage impressionable young men to kill people. There are good reasons for being afraid of Islamic extremists, just as I would have gone in fear of the Inquisition if I’d been born in 15th-century Italy.

Or of the nuns if she’d been born in 20th-century Ireland.


  1. Scr... Archivist says

    Could the present “rift” be made obsolete if Western leftists who notice ex-Muslims boosted their signal? Perhaps shared links to their writing and public speeches? You would think that secular anti-racists would be happy to learn about potential allies “on the inside”, as it were. There must be a way to reach them with the idea that both the Western Right and the Muslim Right need to be fought.

    …they regard “Muslims” as a homogenous group.

    Speaking of which, have you seen this article about atheists in Arab, predominantly-Muslim countries?

    …As for the political debate, those on the right suspect “Muslims” of being hostile to individual freedoms and sympathetic to jihad, while leftists seek to exonerate “Muslims” by highlighting their “peaceful” and “moderate” religiosity. But no one is letting the Arab populations off the hook for their Muslimhood. Both sides base their argument on the premise that when it comes to Arab people, religiosity is an unquestionable given, almost an ethnic mandate embedded in their DNA.

    I would also be curious to hear about atheists in non-Arab, Muslim-majority countries.


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