Saturday, January 10, 2015

Battle lines

As a general rule, I don’t make New Year’s resolutions; but I did promise to myself that this year I would blog more regularly (or blog at all, actually). Little did I know that 2015 would begin with such a horrific story: Islamic terrorists shoot dead half a dozen cartoonists. And it’s not the sort of thing I really wanted to blog about, but sometimes you just have to. You have to, because there are times when you have to make a stand, lest history later judges you on your silence.

The generally accepted narrative is that these terrorists are brainwashed madmen who want to impose their narrow, bigoted ideas on the rest of the world and rob us of our freedom of speech; that they are religious fanatics who are prepared to kill in the name of a fairy tale.

That’s the narrative that has long been accepted by large numbers of people in the west; ever since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, suggestions that there might be a more rational explanation have largely gone unheeded. It’s clear what the tactics are: to cause a backlash, to provoke us westerners into persecuting Muslims in order to make ordinary Muslims want to — need to — fight back.

And it’s working. Our local paper contacted some local Muslim community leaders to get their response; most declined, citing their own fears in the light of attacks on Parisian businesses run by Muslims. For weeks now, various people have been quoting figures at me that literally make no sense in the light of my own personal experience: that 50% of Germans support the anti-Islamic PEGIDA organisation, or that 80% of British Muslims truly believe that cartoonists who depict Mohammed deserve to die. These are representative surveys conducted by reputable agencies, or so I am told; they don’t represent anyone I know.

And obediently following the terrorists’ agenda and stoking the fires of sectarian violence blunders Richard Dawkins, a man who is a world expert on evolutionary biology and a complete idiot on everything else. It’s almost as if he had never opened a history book in his life. He certainly has never opened a book on theology, and is even proud of the fact: that sort of makes him less an expert on how religious people really think than he is on subjects he’s actually studied.

There is a sense here of battle lines being drawn up, of positions being taken, of the identification of allies and enemies. It feels like what the writers of Doctor Who would call a “tipping point”: what we decide now will decide our futures. Are we going to declare war?

And in the middle of these thoughts, I stumbled over one cartoon by Joe Sacco that gave me something to hang my thoughts on. The pen is mightier than the sword — indeed, mightier than the Kalashnikov — and that makes it a weapon. Like all weapons, those who wield it must do so responsibly.

It’s not that I would want to see the freedom of speech curtailed, at least not by legal or religious fiat. But I have long said that those who wish to exercise their freedoms must take responsibility for the consequences. How many times can you poke a sleeping tiger with a sharp stick before it bites your arm off?

At this point, it is important to state very clearly that of course the attacks we saw in Paris — and attacks we have seen elsewhere, including 9/11 in New York, 7/7 in London and more recently in Sydney — are atrocious crimes and are to be condemned in the strongest possible terms.

But, as Sacco pointed out, the staff of Charlie Hebdo were being highly provocative, and very irresponsible. Not — I repeat — that they deserved what happened to them; but that it did isn’t surprising.

Free speech is now being used as an excuse to provoke, which is not what those who espoused the idea in the first place had in mind. But here the “insane” terrorists are doing a better job, because they haven’t deluded themselves that the other side will back down: they’re counting on us to lash out. They’re counting on us to churn out, in a show of defiance, yet more cartoons and articles designed to vilify entire belief systems, and by extension demonise sincere adherents to those belief systems; they are deliberately planting in our minds the idea of Islam as inherently violent and murderous, and therefore dangerous, so that we will drive them out of town and into the welcoming arms of IS.

And they are succeeding. In this war, we are already losing the first battle. That first battle is not for our freedom of speech, it is for our hearts and minds.

It’s not too late, but it soon will be. We can win this battle, but we first have to acknowledge that this is the battle we are actually fighting.

I mentioned earlier that the surveys showing how divided we have supposedly become don’t square with my own experiences. Let me relate, by way of presenting a glimmer of hope at the end of this uncharateristically pessimistic piece, just one of those experiences.

I live in a small, secluded valley in the extreme north-west of Bavaria. It is staunchly Catholic, and staunchly conservative: the only mayors around here that are not members of the right-of-centre CSU are independents. Immigration around here is low, and low immigration is usually associated with low tolerance towards immigration. In short, if ever there was a place you would expect ordinary folk to reject Muslims, statistically speaking, this would be it.

And yet when shelters for asylum seekers started opening up in the villages around here, the locals rushed to help out. They visited the shelters, made the people feel welcome, talked to them, listened to their stories, swapped recipes even. These weren’t trendy young folk determined to cement their credentials as revolutionary rebels kicking against the reactionary nature of their parents’ generation: they were sixty-year-old ladies with time on their hands and a sense of duty.

One of these shelters is in my own community, and houses several refugees from Palestine. The local priest was delighted to discover that their native language was Aramaic, “the language spoken by Our Lord,” as the local paper quoted him, and this despite their being Muslim. A reminder, said the priest, that we must accept everyone, regardless of origin or religion.

This is where we must begin: by refusing to draw battle lines. The terrorists want us to demonise Muslims en masse. Let us instead meet Muslims individually, and swap recipes. Our salvation lies, I am quite certain, in the example of housewives who just want to help out.


  1. I think your next to last statement sums it up for me. I am an individualist about everything, especially politics and religion. I understand people " grouping up" into herds for safety and protection; but it concerns me when I see them doing membership drives in order to consolidate power. It is scary because it is almost always successful. And, it scares the other side into thinking they must campaign for membership in order to be as powerful. Pretty soon you have mutually assured stupidity. My personal interpretation of "do unto others as you would have others do unto you" is " I will keep my nose out of your business as I would have you keep your nose out of mine", but if those Bavarian ladies feel the duty to help, I applaud them.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly with you. At the same time i think you misrepresent Richard Dawkins here, i think he would also very much approve of what you are saying. At the same time he would tell you that islam is a dangerous idea, but it's about ideas, not people.