Friday, November 16, 2007

Terrorism and Poetry.

It is amazing what you find just trawling other people's blogs. Recently I came across this posting concerning, mayor of London, Ken Livingstone’s desire to make sure the British media are not portraying Muslims in a way that is unfair or insensitive. It seems Mr Livingstone’s Greater London Authority has commissioned a report entitled ‘The Search for Common Ground: Muslims, Non-Muslims and the UK Media’ An admirable effort one might think. Yet one that raises some interesting questions. (a detailed article on the report and its methodology are included here). But what interested me most about the post was a couple of sentences about the BBC’s coverage of Samina Malik, the ‘Lyrical Terrorist’. It rang bells.

The BBC report reminded me of how the IRA in Northern Ireland played a similar game. As though being ‘literary’ somehow validated a campaign of violence. I seem to remember early photos of Gerry Adams, (before his Armani days) in an aran sweater, smoking a pipe and gazing poetically at 'his writings'. For all the world trying to pass himself off as Sean O'Casey or Seamus Heaney. (though O’Casey’s history is a salutary lesson on the limits of nationalist tolerance). The suggestion was, I suppose, that one so sensitive could only have the best interests of all at heart. It was, perhaps, a policy of the armalite in one hand and the pen in the other. Or more readily, the armalite out of camera, the pen well in. Of course the connection between Irish Nationalism and Irish literature is well documented. WB Yeats being one its most famous purveyors. Yet Mr Yeats, once living under an Irish nationalist government, was not quite so gung-ho. And questions of his political judgment are certainly valid in light of the fact he had a flirtation, albeit brief, with the Irish Free State’s Blueshirts of the 1930s. The same Blueshirts who metamorphosed into the National Corporate Party –an unashamedly fascist organization – that later went to fight for Franco in Spain.

The BBC report reminded me of this because it demonstrates what seems to me is a failing of the British left. Romanticising terrorism when it is linked to literature or the arts. As though artists, writers or poets were incapable of misjudgment. And this, ironically in the light of Irish Nationalism, is a very British phenomenon.

The question of Muslim identity in the UK is at present fraught with difficulty. Not least because of a plethora of initiatives such as the one above. Muslims are invariably discussed by the new-left as an homogenous group, (a community) to which everyone else must be sensitive. But the definition of 'Muslim' is very much a European one. And it confuses Muslim with Arab or middle-eastern.

Initiatives such as the one above are set up, I presume, in order to underline what is good in Islam and more importantly to separate Muslims from Muslim fanatics. Yet it ignores the fact that many Muslims have some sympathy for the fundamentalists’ political agendas. No, they do not wish death and destruction on anyone but many are in broad agreement with the politics regarding women, non-Muslims, secularists, and intellectuals. Views most non-Muslim Europeans would disagree with.

People who practice Islam in the UK are from a variety of different geographical backgrounds. Their right to practice their religion is guaranteed. That same freedom also guarantees them the right to comment on other religions. So it should follow that non-Muslims have the right to comment on Islam.

Trawling the media for examples of Islamophobia is fruitless and an example of the sort of lame thinking that dominates our politics. It smacks of censorship. It would also seem to suggest that people who practice Islam are so sensitive, so unstable, so volatile that if non-Muslims were even to breath the idea that Islam should not be given unquestioning respect, they 'the Muslims' might immediately run out and become dangerous terrorists. Something I'm sure most practicing Muslims with a modicum of intelligence would reject.

The analogy with Northern Ireland is not irrelevant. The issue there in the late 60s was civil rights for British citizens. Catholics in NI were being denied the full margin of their civil rights as citizens of the UK simple because they were Catholics. Unacceptable of course. However the politicization of the situation as a struggle between Irish Nationalism and Irish Unionism only fueled violent campaigns from both Catholics and Protestants. Each was convinced they were fighting for their identity. Each convinced there was no such thing as a middle ground. The media and government played a huge part in this by pursuing a policy of referring to Northern Irish Catholics as Nationalists and Protestants as Unionists; religious connotations no doubt being distasteful to London politicians and editors. The English left in particular muddied the waters by stating their support for a United Ireland. As good as saying they supported Irish Nationalism - Republicanism. If you were facing down the IRA each day, this was no joke. And a growing IRA campaign inevitably set in motion the Loyalist response. All of which only ensured that reasonable people in NI became increasingly isolated and consequently the issue of civil rights was buried for good. The net result of this was the deaths of many people and a substantial drain on the British exchequer.

We are in danger of doing the same with the Muslim issue. We are not so much turning a religious issue into politics, but turning a political issue into religion. Pandering in the case of fundamentalists, to fanatics and medievalists. The problem for British Muslims is not that they live in a state insensitive to their needs but they live in state that is predominantly secular. In a secular state their right to belief is guaranteed. As are the rights of other religions. That does not mean no-one has the right to comment. Because if we cannot comment on Islam, soon we will not be able to comment on Christianity, Judaism or any other religion. If the Anglican or Roman Catholic Church were to ask for this level of ‘sensitivity’ there would be outcry. The BBC would lead the charge.

What we need to do, is demonstrate the value of a secular society for practicing Muslims. The Government needs to show that secular western society protects their right to their personal beliefs but will not let those beliefs infringe on wider generally held principles. Such as freedom of speech, the right of individuals to make their own choices, the right to intellectual questioning. Giving up on those is giving up the search for common ground.

Peter Millington (C) Copyright Nov 2007

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