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The Culture War that dare not speak its name

The Geert Wilders affair exposes an elite more interested in battling imaginary Islamofascists or Islamophobes than having an enlightened debate.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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So, what is the greatest threat in twenty-first-century Europe?

Is it ‘Islamofascism’, as the Dutch filmmaker and MP Geert Wilders, who was excluded from Britain last week, would have us believe? The rising Muslim birth rate, the influx of radical Islamic preachers from ‘over there’, the free availability of an allegedly evil holy book – the Koran – which Wilders describes as being ‘like Mein Kampf’? Or is it, as Wilders’ critics and censors argue, ‘Islamophobia’? Not Islam itself, or its extreme adherents, but those who fear and loathe Islam, those who are intolerant of difference and multiculturalism and who might be inspired to join an anti-Muslim pogrom upon watching something like Wilders’ 17-minute, Islam-baiting film Fitna?

It’s neither. Europe is not threatened by ‘Islamofascism’ (there’s no such thing) or ‘Islamophobia’ (which is vastly exaggerated). Instead, the greatest threat in modern-day Europe to freedom and genuine debate – even to security – is the elite’s own Islamo-obsession. It is the tendency of both the left and right to view every major issue through Islamo-goggles – from peace to free speech, community relations to migration policies – that is denigrating liberty, obscuring truth in public debate, and potentially nurturing separatist and even violent tendencies. The Geert Wilders affair reveals that we are living through a Culture War that dare not speak its name, where thinkers, politicians and officials put the case for progress or tradition, Western civilisation or censorship, not openly and honestly, but under the cover of various Islamo-nightmares.

The British authorities’ refusal to allow Wilders entry into the UK, where he had been invited to show his film Fitna to some peers at the House of Lords, marked a new low in censorship. Whatever you think of Wilders’ film (I think it’s shrill, hysterical, repetitive and badly made) or Wilders himself (his deeply entrenched hatred of Islam is enough to make even a critic of the therapy culture like me wonder if he was perhaps interfered with by a bearded man when he was a toddler), he should have been free to come here and make his case. Just as others should have been free to argue or protest against him. In blocking Wilders from Britain – on the basis that his presence would ‘threaten community harmony and therefore public security’ (1) – the British authorities did not only irritate an elected MP from Holland; they also profoundly insulted us, the British and European public.

Wilders was excluded on the deeply censorious basis that words and images are toxic, damaging, even potentially lethal, and therefore we, the public, must be protected from them by any means necessary. Such an outlook has guided every censor in history, from Torquemada (who, with ‘excessive rigour’, burnt at the stake those heretics whose beliefs threatened Christian stability) to Joseph McCarthy (who thought that the ideas harboured by Reds Under The Bed threatened America’s ‘social fabric’) (2). Today they say ‘community harmony’ instead of ‘social fabric’ or ‘Christian orthodoxy’. Justifying the exclusion of Wilders, UK foreign secretary David Miliband said: ‘We have a profound commitment to freedom of speech but there is no freedom to cry “fire” in a crowded theatre.’ In his reliance on that cliché – which has been so warped over time, transformed from a libertarian defence of all but the most directly inciting forms of speech into a casual justification for everyday censorship – Miliband revealed how New Labour views the public: as volatile, unpredictable, irrational, for whom seeing a controversial film is the equivalent of hearing ‘fire!’ in a crowded theatre, in the sense that it might generate screaming, scrambling and stampeding.

The banning of Wilders from Britain was motivated by the axis of prejudices that always underpins censorship. First by the idea that the public is incapable of dealing with difficult or dodgy ideas, and instead hears only ‘fire!’ or ‘panic!’ or ‘kill, kill, kill!’ when it encounters inflammatory material. Second by the idea that there is some abstract greater good – ‘social fabric’, ‘public security’ or ‘community harmony’ – that must be guarded from the pollution of dangerous ideas. And third by the notion that it is the job of the authorities to decide what is appropriate and inappropriate material for public consumption and to airbrush from Britain any thinking judged too pernicious or poisonous. New Labour now polices the borders not only to keep out the ‘wrong’ people but also the ‘wrong’ ideas. The Wilders affair has set a very dangerous precedent. A Miliband-designed Thought Forcefield has been erected around the country. Britain is a little more unfree following last week’s Wilders exclusion.

The Wilders affair was also striking because it revealed one of the key divides in European public debate today: that between anti-Islamofascists like Wilders, who believe Islamic extremism threatens our civilisation, and anti-Islamophobes, who believe that intolerance of Islam threatens social harmony. More and more thinkers and officials are signing up to the Great Islamo-Divide. On one side stand the vast bulk of the old left and liberal commentators, and much of Western European officialdom, who claim that Islamophobia is on the rise and Europe is threatened by a wave of hatred and intolerance which all good democrats must resist. New Labour’s banning of Wilders was part of this trend. On the other side stands a band of conservative commentators and politicians, joined by a small but apparently brave group of pro-Enlightenment left-wing thinkers, who believe that Islamofascism is the darkest threat to European values and civilisation. Some refer to this as an ‘anti-Islamist intelligentsia’ which defends secular democracy against the ‘medieval ideology’ of the Islamists (3). Wilders’ film is part of this trend.

Sounds exciting, right: a good old-fashioned religious-political-culture war, upon which, according to one commentator, ‘the fate of the free world rests’? It’s certainly a bit more goosebump-inducing than the shallow politics of personality that has dominated much of Europe for the past 10 years. Don’t get too excited, however. The Wilders affair also shows that today’s Great Islamo-Divide is a shrill and shallow thing, a pantomime clash underpinned by myth and misinformation, which has spread, blob-like, into the politics-shaped hole at the heart of modern Europe.

For all their seemingly screaming differences of opinion, where both camps accuse each other of being ‘fascists’ and ‘Holocaust-mongers’, the most striking thing is how much the anti-Islamofascists and anti-Islamophobes have in common. Both are driven by the politics of fear. Both vastly exaggerate their pet threats to Europe. The left-leaning and liberal anti-Islamophobes claim there is an ‘orgy of Islamophobia’ in Europe, and even that Muslims in Britain are ‘subject to attacks reminiscent of the gathering storm of anti-Semitism in the first decades of the last century’ (4). This is simply untrue. The evidence suggests there are a very small number of prejudicial attacks on Muslims in Western Europe. In Britain in the year after 7/7, for example, when the authorities predicted there would be an upsurge in anti-Muslim fury, there were only 43 cases of religiously aggravated crime, 18 of them against Muslims (or ‘perceived Muslims’). This represented a decline from 23 anti-Muslim crimes in 2004-2005 (5). There is no impending Kristallnacht against Muslims. Instead, claims of widespread Islamophobia are being spread and exploited by the authorities to justify tougher interventions into working-class areas of Britain in particular, where more policing is apparently needed to keep the baying mob and the victimised Muslims apart.

On the flipside, the anti-Islamofascists vastly exaggerate the threat posed by Islamic radicalism. You can see it in their use of the f-word – fascism – as if ragtag collections of Islamic nihilists are somehow comparable to the Nazis. Amongst the anti-Islamofascist brigade in Britain, there has been some embarrassment over Wilders’ comparison of the Koran to Mein Kampf, yet this is only the brute logical conclusion to recent claims by respectable ‘pro-Enlightenment’ commentators that radical Islam is ‘the most psychopathically anti-liberal ideology since Nazism’ (6).

Wilders even argues that there is no such thing as ‘moderate Islam’; it’s all extreme, and it’s all threatening. In truth, as David Cook argued in his book Understanding Jihad, perhaps the most striking thing about contemporary violent Islamism is its inability to recruit large numbers: ‘The fact that the majority of contemporary Muslims do not actively participate in jihad demonstrates a decisive rejection of which the radical Muslims are keenly aware.’ (7) We do not live in a new ‘age of terror’. Terror attacks have fallen over the past 30 years. In the Eighties, there was an average of 360 international terror incidents worldwide each year; by 2000 it had fallen to just 100. In Western Europe, the number of such attacks fell from 200 in the mid-Eighties to under 30 in 2004; in the US, it fell from more than 40 a year in the mid-Seventies to under five every year from the mid-Nineties onwards (8).

Both sides of the Great Islamo-Divide are also deeply censorious. The anti-Islamophobes call for the censoring or exclusion of anyone who harshly criticises Islam. They even pathologise political debate, presenting any attacks on Islam as a form of ‘phobia’, a kind of irrational fear or mental disorder. The end result is the UK government’s Religious Hatred legislation, which, in a flagrant attack on the hard-won right in our secular society to speak out against superstition, makes it a crime to ridicule or offend Islam and other religions. On the other side, the anti-Islamofascists call for the exclusion from Britain of radical Islamic preachers. They argue that speech can give rise to terrorism. The end result is a British law that criminalises the ‘glorification of terrorism’, or anyone seen to be ‘attacking the values of the West’, as the Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer said when asked to elucidate on the matter. This further circumscribes what is acceptable and unacceptable political speech (9).

Both sides of the Great Islamo-Divide also share a profound inability to justify their political outlooks on their own terms. So instead they dress up their concerns, their beliefs, their desires in Islamo-garb. The anti-Islamophobia movement, from officialdom downwards, is driven by a powerful feeling that society is spinning out of control, that there is a growing lack of respect for the institutions and ideas of authority. But instead of seeking to inspire people with new ideas, or work out how to constitute a future-oriented vision for society, it seeks to dampen down the public’s allegedly out-of-control emotions, to curtail and control our speech, and to police more closely our everyday interactions. And, increasingly, it does this under the convenient cover of fighting Islamophobia. The anti-Islamofascists, meanwhile, are worried that Enlightenment values such as universalism, rationalism and Truth are being undermined. Yet rather than seek out and critique the homegrown origins of today’s anti-Enlightenment, they launch a fantasy war against Islamofascists who are allegedly working to ‘destroy Western civilisation’ (10). This is a Culture War that dare not speak its name, where instead of openly and honestly debating the values that should define the twenty-first century, commentators on both the left and right wage war against imaginary armies of Islamophobes or Islamofascists.

The irony is that it is this widespread and dishonest Islamo-obsession amongst the political and cultural elites that is most likely sustaining radical Islam in Europe today. The anti-Islamophobia industry can be seen as providing some alienated young Muslims with the narcissistic victim mentality required to indulge violent fantasies or launch a terror tantrum. And the end-of-days handwringing of the anti-Islamofascists might give some of them the fanciful idea that they are engaged in a ‘clerical war’ against the West that is rattling the ‘whole free world’. To the extent that Islamic terror exists in Europe today, it increasingly looks like a performance, with the script and the costumes provided by the Islamo-obsessives who rule over us.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Nathalie Rothschild thought trying to keep anyone with dubious political views out of the UK was impractical and illiberal. Brendan O’Neill interviewed both sides in the debate about banning homophobic Jamaican music and wondered whether Abu Izzadeen was guilty of the crime of talking bollocks. Amir Butler suggested Britain avoid the Australian error of trying to legislate against hate. Josie Appleton thought deporting clerics would solve nothing. Rob Lyons asked Who’s afraid of Snoop Dogg?. Or read more at spiked issues Free speech.

(1) Far-right Dutch MP Geert Wilders barred from UK over anti-Islam film, The Times (London), 1 February 2009

(2) The Legacy of McCarthyism: A Brief History with Documents, by Ellen Schrecker

(3) The new anti-Islamist intelligentsia, Michael Gove, Spectator, 27 January 2007

(4) Muslims need to take part, Guardian, 21 December 2006

(5) See Time for a backlash against the hate-obsessed state?, by Brendan O’Neill

(6) p29, Waiting for the Etonians, Nick Cohen, 2009

(7) Understanding Jihad, by David Cook, University of California Press, 2005

(8) The good news about terrorism, Spectator, 2 April 2005

(9) See See Defend free speech now more than ever, by Mick Hume

(10) Britain capitulates to terror, Melanie Phillips, Spectator, 11 February 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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