Nick Cohen gets to grips with Rohan Jayasekera's Index on Censorship article on Van Gogh's murder. As you'd expect from Cohen it's a powerful read, but I'm puzzled by the title it's been given by the Observer: "Freedom to criticise religion is not freedom to express hatred and incite violence". It's an odd choice of words for an article that argues forcefully against any curtailment of our right to criticise religion: more appropriate surely for the view that Cohen is attacking, as propounded by those like Jayasekera who say that Van Gogh overstepped the mark, and so, in effect, asked for it. Maybe the Observer chickened out, in deference to David Blunkett's weaselly little article, underneath Cohen's, in defence of his ill-judged "incitement to religious hatred" law. Whatever, here's Cohen on Ayaan Hirsi Ali:
What was most telling was Index's treatment of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who worked with van Gogh on the film. I can remember when she would have been a liberal heroine. Ali is a Somali, who was circumcised at five - if you want the gory details of what female circumcision involves, by the way, I'm afraid you're going to have to look them up. She fled from an arranged marriage at 22. She overcame enormous handicaps to become a Dutch MP and, as free men and women are entitled to do, decided she didn't believe in God. Needless to add her secularism made her dangerous enemies, and the police had to protect her from Islamists. Their guard was increased when the killer stuck a five-page letter addressed to her to van Gogh's body with a dagger.
In the 20th century, feminists had a little success in persuading Western liberals that women should be treated as independent creatures whose intelligence ought to be respected. But these small gains can go out of the window when brown-skinned women contradict the party line that religious fundamentalism is all the fault of poverty or racism or Bush or Israel and isn't an autonomous totalitarian ideology with a logic of its own. Jayasekera dismissed Ali as if she was some silly geisha girl. That her experience of mutilation and abuse could be expected to inform her mature thinking didn't occur to him. She was a traumatised fool who had allowed a white man to manipulate her into an 'exploitative working relationship'.
And, in answer to Blunkett's sorry arguments:
Why not go along with the new tough liberalism and, as David Blunkett is suggesting, make it a criminal offence to incite religious hatred? There are plenty of reasons why not; many were well made in the Commons last week, but MPs didn't point out that when society decides that people's religion, rather than their class or gender, is the cultural fact that matters, power inevitably passes to the priests and the devout for whom religion does indeed matter most.
To their shame, many on the left have broken with the Enlightenment to perform this manoeuvre. They have ridden the Islamic wave and agreed to convert one billion people into 'the Muslims'. A measure of their bad faith is that they would react with horror if this trick was pulled on them, and they were turned into 'the Christians' whose authentic representatives were the Archbishop of Canterbury and 'Dr' Ian Paisley.
With an equal inevitability they have reinforced the very Islamophobic stereotype they claim to oppose and betrayed their comrades in the Arab world and in their own countries on an epic scale. Index on Censorship 's dismissal of Ayaan Hirsi Ali is scarcely novel. The supposedly socialist Stop the War coalition has dismissed the Iraqi Kurds, who were the darlings of the left when Saddam was America's ally, and all the Iraqi communists, socialists and democrats who want free elections. Instead they told the beheaders and bomb-planters from the Islamist far right and the remnants of Saddam's fascist Baath Party, that they should fight with 'whatever means they find necessary.'