Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Nursing their wrath

As an ex-British, ex-working-class guttersnipe I've never had any time for the idea of giving people titles. Robert Burns had it right when he said that "the rank is but the guinea's stamp", and even though he was referring to the hereditary styles used by the nobility in his day (as in ours), the modern honours given out by the Queen are still largely predicated on fame and financial success. The annual parade of rock stars, footballers, and actors lining up for their increasingly debased knighthoods is dispiriting proof that the British establishment continues to feel the need to define itself as a select class of people by exalting its members in rank above the common herd.

So in itself, the fact that Salman Rushdie has been made a Sir is of no interest to me; I stopped keeping track of knighthoods after Elton John's (or was it Mick Jagger's?) But the predictably incensed reaction among Muslims will prove to be of greater importance in the long run. It's been eighteen years since the controversy over Rushdie's The Satanic Verses gave us our first intimation that the West might have a serious problem on its hands with its sizeable and apparently radicalized Muslim population. That Ayatollah Khomenei had put a bounty on Rushdie's head could be construed as a belligerent act by a foreign power against a British national, but at least in this respect the mad mullahs in Iran were only living up to their fanatical reputations. What proved to be the real shock was the support given to the Iranian fatwa by many Muslims in the West. For years our political classes had promoted mass immigration while dismissing the concerns of the host population about cultural incompatibilities as paranoid race-baiting; now multiculturalism had arrived at its logical conclusion in the spectacle of a minority group espousing values that were not only different from those of the majority but actively hostile to them. Ever since then, the rifts between Muslims and non-Muslims in Britain (as well as in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Norway, Sweden etc. etc.) have only gotten deeper, and their consequences more far-reaching.

Things today would not be as bad as they are had our political and cultural elites unanimously hastened to defend Rushdie when he was first threatened. Whatever one thought of the literary merits of his book, the principle of freedom of speech was much too important to forsake in the face of intimidation. Western artists had struggled for centuries against censorship from Christian authorities; having largely won that struggle, why should they have wanted to once again be subject to the dictates of clerics -- this time Islamic? Unfortunately, there was no unanimity on the issue, and in fact too many influential figures -- among them Germaine Greer, Roald Dahl, and Hugh Trevor- Roper -- expressed sympathy with the radicals, to their everlasting disgrace. Some of those who had spent years promoting multiculturalism were too heavily invested in the idea to admit that they had made a mistake in supposing every culture's values to be of equal validity; others made a great fuss about the need for "sensitivity" -- without ever admitting that this need was driven by fear of fanaticism -- or for "respect" -- without facing up to the fact that some beliefs are not worth respecting at all.

Since we have apparently learned nothing since 1989 we are condemned to repeat this whole sorry business again. Foreign protesters will burn the British flag and make gruesome threats; murderous Muslim governments such as that of Iran will express their outrage; and eventually, after a certain number of people die in violent demonstrations, there will come the inevitable apologies and recriminations as the West tries once again to appease the unappeasable. We should make no mistake about this: today it is Salman Rushdie, or Danish cartoonists, or the Pope; tomorrow it will be anyone who dares to express a contrary opinion of Islam at all.

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