Secularists shouldn’t support anti-Muslim bigots.

In the process of editing this blog, it came to my attention that the Mohammed exhibition has been cancelled . I don’t know the reason why, but if it was due to external pressure and or overt coercion then that would be a shame. I didn’t support the exhibition because I think the main speakers are unsupportable, but their right to host the exhibition should be paramount and free from coercion or any external pressure. So bear in mind that I had written this piece without knowledge of the cancellation of the event. I think some of the general points I make are still salient though.

Part 1 – Principles

Perhaps the most stinging attack that is levelled at left wing people who side with Islamists is the accusation of hypocrisy: as progressives ostensibly dedicated to advancement of individual liberty and human rights, it is hypocritical to work with those who support the antithesis of these principles. This reasoning justified the angry response against Amnesty International for their alliance with CAGE; it also explains why, for example, Islamist apologist groups like the NUS have faced considerable opprobrium from some quarters. It is a straightforward appeal to moral integrity.  

Of course it is sensible to work with those who, although they disagree here and there, broadly share the same vision as you. This does not, however, entail working with people whose vision and agenda are wholly different. To fight one form of intolerance by accommodating those who carry with them extreme intolerance of their own is to empty your fight of moral integrity – all you have is righteous indignation; your principles have been irrevocably polluted. This is the argument levelled at left-wing people who side with Islamists, and this argument is correct in principle. 

So it is curious, then, to witness a parallel phenomenon taking place. The Lawyers’ Secular Society – a group created to support and advance secular principles – is supporting an event organised by an online magazine called Vive Charlie. The event is a Mohammed cartoon drawing exhibition organised by Vive Charlie in concert with former parliamentary candidate for UKIP and head of ShariaWatch, Anne Marie Waters. The event and exhibition has a goal: to demonstrate implacable opposition to Islamic blasphemy codes, and the ideology of political Islam that fosters it. 

Or is it Islam itself that they’re opposed to? Or is it, in fact, Muslims? 

For the main guests invited to speak at the exhibition, the distinction between the three are entirely dissolved: Paul Weston, head of Liberty GB, wants Muslims to be banned from public office; Geert Wilders, Dutch politician, holds that Muslim immigration poses an existential threat to European society, and wants to ban the building of mosques. So you have secularists – whose remit includes promotion of equality and opposition to discrimination – supporting a conference whose main speakers hold discriminatory and bigoted views; in other words, you have a demonstration of hypocrisy and a betrayal of principle. You have a case, therefore, analogous to the alliance between “progressives” and Islamists.

To expand on the analogy further, take the example of CAGE. A group of Bath academics have written an article for OpenDemocracy which said it is important to work with CAGE – an Islamist lobby group – because they share with the academics an opposition to the governments counter-extremism measures. They argue:

Islamophobia needs to be understood as centrally related to the interests of the British state, and the practices of the security apparatus in particular. This is why Cage’s work is so important and why it should be defended.

So the obstacle faced by CAGE, their alleged victimhood at the hands of the British state, means we have to support them – irrespective of other comsiderations, such as principle. This reasoning, that our support of something should be dictated by how it is treated by our enemies, is similarly acceded to by secularists who support anti-Muslim bigots: those who draw the prophet and risk the wrath of Islamists deserve not just support for their right to do so, but support for the exhibition itself. Morality is shaped by ever-changing circumstance, rather than being derived from a general set of principles. (I’m not making a direct moral equivalence between the British government and Islamists here. Rather, I seek to highlight that is improper to subordinate your moral principles to considerations of who is most oppressed at a particular time.)

It’s important to note a distinction here – between supporting their right to host the event, and supporting the event’s agenda. Supporting the right to blaspheme Islamic precepts is axiomatic: it is essential for any self-regarding liberal society that no idea or doctrine is beyond scrutiny, and no taboo beyond the scope of satire. Those who say otherwise, and buttress their objections with reference to the alleged oppression of Muslims in the west, undermine the beating heart of a free society. It is just as important for Muslims as non-Muslims that blasphemy codes be abolished. The abolishment of blasphemy codes will constitute a leap to modernity, whereby dissenting Muslim voices are at liberty to challenge the core taboos of their faith without coercion or fear. It will constitute a liberal ideal.  

So I support the right to blaspheme, irrespective of those who do the blaspheming, because the ideal sustained by blaspheming – that no idea goes unchallenged, and dogma remains enclosed – is important to a liberal society. My support for this right does not, however, entail supporting the agenda and beliefs of whoever chooses to exercise it. I support, for example, the right for writers to publish books, irrespective of the books’ content, because I believe the right to artistic or intellectual liberty to be an essential one for any culturally vibrant society. This does not entail support for the content of a specific novel published or for the message advanced by a specific polemic. 

I support the right to host the exhibition, because such rights are axiomatic; I do not, however, support the agenda of the exhibition, because the main speakers hold racist views, and view Muslims as a threat rather than Islamists – a distinction which, for bigots, is meaningless anyway. 

 It’s also important to note that whilst being a conventional racist is not as morally objectionable as being a racist who supports medieval punishments, being a racist still carries with it an attitude towards fellow humans that should concern secularists for its own sake. 

Another distinction to lay out, therefore, is between someone who supports theocracy – straightforwardly anathema to the principles of secularism – and someone who is “merely” a racist. A theocrat embodies the antithesis of secular principles, but does a racist? Being a secularist means you believe certain belief systems shouldn’t have monopoly on state legislation. Implicit in this is the view that religious people and non-religious people should be treated equally; so a secularist supports equality and tolerance. Therefore, a secularist, animated by the value of equality, should oppose racism for the same reason he or she opposes Islamism: both breed intolerance. 

 The conventional racist in this instance breeds intolerance of the brown person or the Muslim; the Islamist breeds intolerance of the degenerate kuffar. Both, therefore, are contrary to the values fostered by secularism – the values of treating each person as an individual deserving of equal dignity, and scrutinising only ideas and doctrine. Supporting the agenda of an event headlined by either racists and Islamists should consequently run contrary to the values of a secularist. 

For secularists who are insufficiently hostile to Islamism, to argue that you shouldn’t associate with Islamists is to scaremonger about Muslims and undermine Muslim political activists. For secularists on the other side of the ideological spectrum, hostility to an alliance between secularists and bigots is a cowardly demonstration of political correctness. For both, secularism is a means to an end rather than an end itself. 

Part 2 – Lawyer Secular Society and Vive Charlie.  

A prominent member of the Lawyers Secular Society, Charlie Klendijan, blogged about the reasons why the group had decided to support the Mohammed exhibition. He argues for the principle of solidarity. The debilitating nature of the threat posed by Islamist violence means that whoever draws the prophet, and thereby challenges Islamic blasphemy law, deserves the moral support of secularists – irrespective of other considerations. Klendijan argues:  

Supporting from the sidelines by remarking banally, backside-coveringly and while subtly slipping in a dagger that “Everyone has the right to free speech, even bigots” is simply not good enough. It’s weak. Deep down, I suspect those who trot out this stock phrase know they’re being weak.   

 The best way to support an event like this; the best way to show the LSS is truly committed to free speech; and the best way to show solidarity with those who have been killed and who continue to risk their lives, is to publicly associate ourselves with the event and to speak there in a spirit of solidarity with the other speakers.

“A spirit of solidarity” is a powerful phrase. It captures something now distinctly lacking in progressive politics: solidarity with those who stand against a totalitarian doctrine held – inconveniently – by people whom the left assume to be innately victims. “Spirit of solidarity” is a powerful phrase because it captures that important value and it renders it elegantly. But solidarity with whom, exactly? Does this mean, then, that the ultimate worldview of whoever contests Islamic blasphemy code has no bearing in forging alliances with that person – if you happen, in that instance, to share the same specific goal. Does this mean, then, that progressives working with Islamists are morally legitimate in their alliance if the progressives share with the Islamist the same goal?  

Klendijan argues specific viewpoints are irrelevant. He argues that the threat of Islamism looms larger than the squabbles and disputes one may have with Weston and Wilders. He argues thus:   

Individual views towards Wilders and Weston will differ but in the context of this event those views are irrelevant, for this reason: we mustn’t create a “hierarchy of victims” of blasphemy codes where Charlie Hebdo are at the top but others, for whatever reason, are at the bottom. 

It is correct that we mustn’t create a hierarchy of victims, all victims of Islamist terror uniformly deserve our support. But I’m not sure how refusing to endorse an exhibition headlined by racists will make the speakers any less deserving of our sympathy if they’re attacked by armed Islamists. Isn’t supporting the right to do something – a necessary precondition for any committed Liberal, and one desecrated by armed violence – and supporting the agenda of something being conflated? If to refrain from supporting an agenda implies that I think the people expressing that agenda deserves to die, then anything threatened by murderous ideologues deserves not just the support for the right of that thing, but also support for the thing itself. This is a dangerous elision. It would, for example, entail endorsing the event if BNP members and more explicit Neo-Nazis headlined as main speakers. It would essentially mean being obliged to endorse something because circumstances out of your hand dictates you do so – not very liberal. It would mean transforming Voltaire’s apocryphal dictum from “I may detest what you say but I’ll defend to death your right to say it”, to “I’ll defend to death your right to say something which means I endorse that thing itself”. 

This is not very liberal from Klendijan. And not very secular either. Because secularism means opposition to racists as well as Islamist ideologues, and supporting an event headlined by either constitutes a betrayal of secular principles – even if that event is threatened. Yes, supporting the right to host that event should be unwavering, and this unwavering support should stiffen in the face of Islamic fascism. But supporting the right to something is not the same as endorsing that thing, unless, perhaps, that thing isn’t headlined by racists but people with eccentric views on immigration. For this is how Klendijan presents Wilders and Weston:  

Wilders and Weston are considered controversial perhaps primarily because they have strong views on immigration. Immigration discussions are not possible without “racism” accusations – think making an omelette without breaking eggs.

 This is a clunky attempt at euphemism by Klendjian. Wilders and Weston view Muslims as a demographic threat to European society, and neither distinguish between doctrines and people – the very definition of bigotry. 

Weston is an advocate of the white genocide theory: he believes that the demographic rise of non-white people in Europe threatens the existence of white people, the result of which would be a civil war. His constituency and support are “native” white Europeans, terrified by the prospects of brown faces infiltrating European society. In his words:  

.So it’s not going to work, cultural nationalism is not going to work, which is a great shame because at one stage it perhaps could have done. But the numbers are now so great we now have to look at the only viable option on the table, which is to remove Islam from Britain.

In other words, he supports repatriation and discrimination. And this is his further view on immigration:

What is a dreadful, awful thing to happen is for the white English to be reduced to a minority in their own country – which is something that they were never asked about – in the face of people who are implacably hostile to us. This is, I believe, – and this is something the Left wants to happen, this is what they [are] deliberately engineering – I believe this is the greatest racial crime that has ever been committed in the history of mankind. And asking people to go back to their own countries as an alternative to fulfilling this racial crime of reducing us – the indigenous us – to a minority in our own country … there is absolutely nothing wrong with asking people to go home. There is absolutely everything wrong with doing this awful racial crime to the white English.

In other words, he is a racist – and I don’t use the term lightly. His supporters will, doubtless, accuse me of political correctness. But if political correctness means identifying racist people as racist, then I’m enthusiastically, passionately, unapologetically politically correct.  

Wilders also supports discrimination. He supports trying to stop the building of mosques, a clear infringement on religious liberty exclusively against Muslims. He also supports halting immigration from Islamic countries, which suggests he views Muslims as a threatening mass. 

Weston and Wilders, alongside Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller, are the lodestars of the counter jihad movement. A movement animated not by concern about particular Islamic doctrines, and its manifestation in the form of Islamism, but by hostility to Muslims – expressed through hyperbole, conspiracy theories and open demonisation. It is important for avowed secularists to morally oppose them because secularism means freedom of religion as well as freedom from religion, and the counter jihadist movement is clearly against freedom of religion for Muslims, endorsing the exclusion of their citizenship in the west, and consequently their entitlement to equal rights. 

The event itself is organised by two products of the counter jihad movement: Sharia Watch and Vive Charlie. Vive Charlie is a magazine journal conceived in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks – where 10 cartoonists (and 2 guards) were murdered for the purported crime of blasphemy. The journal exists as a tribute to the bravery of a magazine which, initially threatened by intolerant ideologues, continued to draw the prophet and, after losing 9 of its staff, still continued to draw the prophet – warmly, humanely and compassionately, with the words “all is forgiven” attached to the issue following the attack. In short, they faced the consequences of religious fascism and didn’t capitulate. The raison d’être of Vive Charlie, like Charlie Hebdo, is iconoclastic: viciously satirising Islamic precepts and the taboo that demonstrably accompanies it. Unlike Charlie Hebdo, though, who were explicitly anti-racist, and came from a tradition that welcomed ethnic diversity but despised toxic doctrines, Vive Charlie is polluted by a propensity to produce racism. The values that inform Charlie Hebdo, the warm humanism and cheerful, indiscriminate irreverence, is markedly different from the values that inform Vive Charlie – which is a repository for cultural chauvinism and anti-immigrant sentiment.  

For example, In a recent issue cover, they portrayed a group of migrants as swarms and insects, being hosed down by Boris Johnson – in effect, dehumanising them. 

NoisyKaffir, one of the founders of Vive Charlie, contends in a tweet that: 
 

Secularists that accuse other secularists of being islamophobic forget that even moderate Muslims believe every word of the Qur’an.

Forgetting the word “Islamophobic” for one second, he is effectively encouraging his followers to distrust Muslims who claim to be moderate. He is fomenting distrust and suspicion. 

Similarly, JihadistJoe, another founder of the journal, is renowned for recycling anti-Muslim cartoons. For example, when referring to Syrian civil war in a tweet, he says

In a battle between Muslims, there is no good side. 

He has also directly compared Muslims to Nazis. (Not Islamists, but Muslims). 

So Vive Charlie comes from individuals who recycle and propagate anti-Muslim or anti-immigrant bigotry. This should concern anyone who finds such sentiments objectionable. It should concern any well-meaning and principled secularist. 

The right of Vive Charlie to pursue their objectives and agenda is paramount, especially when they are faced by those who would shut them down. And those who would shut the event down similarly deserve our scrutiny, for they too are betraying, in a sense, not just liberal values, but the concept of Muslims as autonomous and mature beings. We should subject HopeNotHate to scrutiny. 

HopeNotHate is an anti-racist group that recently wrote a report decrying, not just the agenda of the exhibition, but also their very right to hold it. They argued that the exhibition would incite Muslim violence and spark the first flickering of a civil war – endangering and potentially undermining social cohesion. This sounds scary. It isn’t, however, true. And what follows from it isn’t a liberal proposition either; in fact, it’s the antithesis of liberalism in almost every sense. HopeNotHate posits in the report

We believe that the authorities have to prevent the cartoon exhibition from taking place in Central London because it is clearly an attempt to provoke a violent reaction and divide communities.

This argument rests on two premises: that the exhibition will provoke violence; and that Muslims are provoked into violence by offensive cartoons. To view Muslims as a group incapable of witnessing offence without recourse to violence is to view Muslims contemptuously. This reasoning rests on a denigration of Muslim autonomy. Muslims are the noble savage, recast in contemporary multicultural Britain, whose sensitivities must trump the freedom of wider society – and also the freedom of Muslims themselves, as stated earlier, to challenge and scrutinise aspects of their own faith and culture. HopeNotHate are presenting the progressive case for de facto blasphemy law. 

It homogenises Muslims into a mass of grievance-mongers, dangerously coinciding with the vision presented by anti-Muslim bigots. But a more elementary problem is this: freedom of expression involves the freedom to say and host things that may offend other people. HopeNotHate argue, “this is not a case of free speech but incitement”. But when you try to ban something, and your justification is based – through the conceit of incitement – on not offending certain groups, it is evidently a freedom of speech issue. If you arrest a person without a warrant, it becomes a law and order issue; if you ban something without compelling justification – that is to say, because it offends people – it becomes a freedom of speech issue. 

I fear the debate may polarise irrevocably. If it continues to widen, the options are equally bleak. Either you become an anti-Muslim bigot or you become apologist for political Islam. It is critical that such a situation doesn’t materialise. For that, people who believe it is wrong to subject people to bigotry and it is wrong to impose religious doctrines on society should plainly say so. 

I endorse the right of the exhibition to be hosted. And if the exhibition is attacked, no one is responsible but the attackers themselves. I don’t endorse the exhibition itself because I can’t subordinate my opposition to racism for an end-goal. Principles are important, too; and certain principles should be fairly unshakeable, such as the principle to morally oppose intolerance. The guests are racist, and I think racism is immoral. Therefore, I can’t endorse the exhibition. 

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7 thoughts on “Secularists shouldn’t support anti-Muslim bigots.

  1. “I fear the debate may polarise irrevocably. If it continues to widen, the options are equally bleak. Either you become an anti-Muslim bigot or you become apologist for political Islam. It is critical that such a situation doesn’t materialise. For that, people who believe it is wrong to subject people to bigotry and it is wrong to impose religious doctrines on society should plainly say so. ”

    Absolutely! Those liberals whose primary concerns are human rights and equality for all people regardless of race, religion, gender, sexuality should naturally come out against both Islamism and anti-Muslim bigotry. There should be no need or temptation to ‘pick a side’ and condone or endorse one of them, and it’s truly alarming that so many people are doing so.

    Excellent piece, as usual, Tom.

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  2. Tom as usual a great piece with which I broadly agree.
    I don’t wish to support Geert Wilders as I do believe him to be the racist you say he is.
    However are all ideologies compatible with western liberal democracies. Should we never stop immigration regardless of the ideology or do we hope that when are group arrives that our liberal democracies will win them over, change their minds. Now we can have a whole debate and some on wether Islam is compatible or not. But if we are to believe Islamists the. The answer is no. I hate to use the analogy but the vast majority of those who voted for the Nazi party were not extremists but they still supported the ideology.
    So what percentage of the followers of an ideology have to “go rogue” in order that we go against it?

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    1. Thanks Peter. I think it’s vitally important we try to embolden Muslim voices against extremists – so secularist and liberal Muslims. I think the battle against Islamist extremism can only be effectively won through civil society effort, so by viewing it as one would view racism from white supremacist groups. That’s one of the reasons why I really liked David Cameron’s speech.

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  3. My feeling is that millions of Muslims are allowed into the West if they merely are not terrorists. Over all, even though many are tolerant and compatible with liberal mores, the over all picture is one of decline for the West. If we were to allow in people on the basis of how they think, whether Muslims or non Muslims we would do better.
    Ahmadis, Kurds, Bahais, feminists and people who have a proven record of supporting liberalism in the Islamic World should be given priority. As it stands, persecuted Christians and Yazidis are are finding it difficult to access the West. This is shameful.

    Only one quarter of the World is Muslim. It seems like, possibly, because of the nearness of MENA a disproportionate amount of Muslims have been allowed into Europe. I would look to other sources for labor and put a desperate need for asylum on the part of people– who can be assimilated because of tolerant attitudes– as the prime motivator for acceptance

    John Coelho

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  4. Reblogged this on wallacerunnymede and commented:
    Although I strongly disagree with much of the Euston Manifesto, the arguments here are absolutely correct. Everyone should be free to ‘blaspheme’ or to ‘criticise,’ but everyone should also be free to disassociate with anti-Muslim bigotry. Neither jihadists nor counter-jihadists, neither theocrats nor haters of Muslims should find support from right-thinking, right-feeling people. It is a false dilemma. Neither pandering to quasi-fascistic bigots nor massaging the egos of political Islamists can be justified. It is a very fine line, or maybe not even a line, but it is worth treading carefully.

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