Facing Up To The Fanatics

"Our decent desire to be polite, combined with our indecent concessions to fear, make reform of Islam less likely"

Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Says we need to look at the bad parts of Islam (Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0)

Six years ago Maajid Nawaz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali were on opposite sides of a debate in New York titled “Islam is a religion of peace.” I was on Ayaan’s side in arguing “not so much” and the audience ended up by triumphantly agreeing with us. Not least among the debate’s memorable aspects was that it was conducted so freely. For once we dived straight into all the tricky stuff — Muhammad’s personal life, the Koran, and so on. Three years later Ayaan and Maajid discussed the same matter on another stage in America and found some common cause. Six years later they were sitting here in London for a one-on-one discussion as colleagues in the same fight against the fanatics.

The audience included Islamic clerics, making the evening’s final appeal from Ayaan all the more pertinent. We don’t study Nazism without studying the teachings, writings and beliefs of Hitler, she pointed out. We don’t teach our children about Communism without reference to the writings of Karl Marx. Likewise, she stressed, you cannot understand Islam or Islamism without looking at the teachings, behaviour and writings of Muhammad. Including the bad bits. Admittedly the venue was once again very well guarded, but nobody stood up and started screaming. Here was an actual discussion. There are problems in the tradition and rather than skirt around them or pretend they are not there, it is better for everyone — Muslims and non-Muslims — to face up to them.

Afterwards I found myself reflecting on how people’s minds change. It never does happen just there and then, with someone saying, “Yes — I see, I was quite wrong and you’ve changed my mind.” But over time the bits of your own argument that have become unsupportable simply crumble away, usually without you even acknowledging it.  But one thing of which I am quite certain is that in order to stand any chance of change or progress on the subject of Islam, the facts and opinions have to be confronted frankly.  Our decent desire to be polite, combined with our indecent concessions to fear, make the possibility of reform less likely. But for one night at least one saw the fruits of progress in action.


There wasn’t so much progress the week before when I took part in an Intelligence Squared debate on taking action against IS alongside General John Allen and against Ken Livingstone and Rula Jebreal. Aside from talking over her opponents incessantly, the strangest thing about Ms Jebreal was that she began her case by complaining about having to listen to “two white men” on our side. She seemed to have fewer problems with the other person on her own side, who was not just white and a man, but also — crime of all crimes today — old. I hope that in my lifetime the use of someone’s skin pigmentation will become unacceptable as a means of attack. But for now it appears to remain fine so long as it is in one direction. It leads me to wonder if there are things I would not say against an opponent. I think so. For instance Ms Jebreal is married to an American multi-millionaire, a fact some people might suggest undermines her strident pose as a poor suffering Palestinian. But — as when debating left-wing heirs and heiresses far richer than I shall ever be — I always think this too personal a point to make.


The closure of the Independent is sad for the editor and staff, but the paper itself is not a loss. Though the final editor reined in its worst excesses, it is hard to forgive the organ’s shift from independence to extreme far-left activism. During the 2000s in particular, it was an unrelenting source of anti-Americanism, anti-Westernism and anti-Semitism. Everybody has their favourite example, but my own will always be their correspondent Robert Fisk’s description of being beaten up by a mob in Afghanistan. Only a journalist at the Independent in those days could have been attacked in such a way only then to write a piece explaining why he — as a Westerner — deserved it. I am sorry for the loss of jobs but cannot be sad that the masochistic tendency in our press has been reduced.


How polite our European partners are suddenly being. In discussions with Germans I am now told that they need the UK to stay in the EU to protect them from the French. The French, by contrast, tell me that they would like Britain to stay in the EU to protect them from the Germans. The Scandinavians and Southern Europeans, meanwhile, say they need us to remain to act as a ballast for them against the French, Germans and each other.  From being vilified as headbangers, we outers are suddenly being not just pandered to, but wooed. We should enjoy it while it lasts, because however Britain votes in June, this flattery will not last much longer.

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