“It is wrong to describe this as Islamic terrorism. It is Islamist terrorism. It is a perversion of a great faith.” This is what the prime minister said in parliament after the attack on Westminster Bridge that killed three tourists and a policeman. While I completely accept that the sins of extremists should never be visited on the vast majority of moderate believers, I am increasingly uneasy about how we handle the connection between religion and extremism. The ideology to which Khalid Masood was converted in prison may indeed be a perversion of Islam, but it is a version of it. We should not shy away from saying so.
After Nice, Maajid Nawaz of the Quilliam Foundation wrote that saying such terrorism has nothing to do with Islam (as some do) is as dangerous as stating that it has everything to do with Islam. The terrorists in London, Paris, Brussels, Nice, Munich, Berlin, Würzburg, Ansbach, Orlando, San Bernardino, Sydney, Bali, New York, Bombay and many other places have been white, black and brown, rich, poor and middle class, male and female, gay and straight, immigrant and native, young and (now) older. The one thing they have in common is that they had been radicalised by religious preachers claiming to interpret the Koran.
Moreover, while a few sick individuals find within Islam justification for murder and terror, a far larger number find justification for misogyny and intolerance. We must be allowed to say this without being thought to criticise Muslims as people.
Islamist terrorism has become more frequent, but criticism of the faith of Islam, and of religion in general, seems to be becoming less acceptable, as if it were equivalent to racism or blasphemy. The charge of Islamophobia is too quickly levelled. Friday’s press release from Malia Bouattia, president of the National Union of Students, is a case in point. It failed to mention by name the murdered policeman Keith Palmer, and highlighted how Muslims “will be especially fearful of racism”. Race and religion are very different things.
I admire many religious people. I am prepared to accept that being religious can make some individuals better people, though, as a humanist, I also think it is possible and actually preferable to be moral without having faith. I am even open to the possibility that the best defence against extremism is a gentler version of religion rather than none at all — though I need to be convinced. But I think that, rather than there being good religion and bad religion, there is a spectrum of religious belief from virtuous, individualist morality at one end to collectivist, politicised violent terror at the other.
At one end are people who are inspired by faith to think only of how to help those in need. At the other are people who kill policemen and tourists, throw homosexuals off buildings, punish apostasy with death, carry out female genital mutilation and throw acid in the face of women who have stood up against the male code (there were 431 acid attacks in Britain last year).
In between, though, are positions that also contain dangers, albeit more subtle ones. There are people who would not commit violence themselves, but think women should be the chattels of men, wearing of veils is mandatory and that Sharia should reign. Then there are people (and here I include those in other Abrahamic faiths) who think homosexuality is sinful, contraception is wrong, evolution could not have happened and slaughtering animals by cutting their throats is more moral than stunning them. I do not condemn such beliefs as evil, but nor do I respect them.
On LBC radio last week the journalist James O’Brien said of those, like Masood, who have made the journey from faith to extremism: “Don’t we have to start mocking the early stages of that journey? People who believe that chopping off a child’s foreskin is going to make it easier for them to get into heaven. People who believe that eating fish on Fridays is somehow going to please their god.”
In 1979, some Christians took offence at Monty Python’s Life of Brian, a witty if mordant satire on the phenomenon of cults (and Romans). The Christians were angry but the Pythons did not go into hiding.Two years ago, in the wake of the murder of his fellow satirists at Charlie Hebdo, the late Australian cartoonist Bill Leak went further than simply saying “Je suis Charlie” and drew cartoons of the Prophet. As a result he was forced to sell his house and move to a secret location. That does not feel like progress to me.
In 2004, after the media was filled with discussion of how the Boxing Day tsunami was an “act of God”, I said to a friend, in all seriousness: the tsunami was not an act of God, but 9/11 was. I was consciously echoing Voltaire’s mockery of the argument that the destruction of Lisbon in an earthquake must be a punishment for the sins of its inhabitants. Would I dare say the same today about the events of last week, or would I pause now to consider how it would get me into trouble?
Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali wrote recently of the “creeping Islamisation of communities” and called for an Islamic reformation to respect freedom of religion, abjure legal punishment for blasphemy or apostasy and agree that women should be free and equal in law. Yet, despite two decades of partly religion-inspired violence, those who call for an Islamic reformation, such as Mr Nawaz, or the ex-Muslim campaigners Sarah Haider, Taslima Nasreen and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, are increasingly vilified by many on the left.
Three days before the Westminster attack, the BBC’s Asian Network quite rightly apologised for asking “what is the right punishment for blasphemy?” shortly after an outspoken atheist had been hacked to death in Coimbatore, India, for expressing his views. There have been 48 murders of atheists in Bangladesh in recent years. Yet it is now more acceptable to attack “militant atheists” than militant theists. Blasphemy is back.
We can and must make an offer to the fundamentalist Muslims: abandon your political ambitions and become a religion as this has come to be understood elsewhere in an increasingly diverse and tolerant world — a private moral code, a way of life, a philosophy — and you will find the rest of us to be friends. But threaten the hard-won political, intellectual and physical freedoms now accorded to every man and woman, yes even and especially women, in our essentially secular society and you will be resisted and, pray god, defeated.