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Mobs in the Middle East, Salman Rushdie's new book, and how progressive Islam fell to the barbarians

Of course I have very deep sympathy for oppressed Muslims everywhere. But that is no excuse for this counter-productive rampage

It’s more or less over for progressive, liberal Islam. Many of us who’ve tried to keep alive the thoughtful, humane, cultured beliefs and practices of our parents and enlightened scholars can barely breathe or speak after the last wretched week when benighted mobs raved and killed across Muslim countries – some of them newly free and supposedly democratic. The Arab Spring turned to vicious winter and dashed naïve expectations and hopes. Casting out dictators does not necessarily bring wisdom, responsibility and self-control. Embassies were damaged, Western diplomatic staff killed and terrorised, flags burnt.

Once, we could say with some certainty that Islamicist fanatics, thugs, killers and mind-benders represented a minority and that most Muslims, quiet and sane were unseen and unheard. Today, I fear it is the opposite.

Modernist Muslims, amalgams of the West and East, comfortable with their multiple identities, have no part to play. We are written out, quashed. By whom? By the barbarians who have taken over mosques, schools, homes, hearts and minds. And also by Western political and cultural warriors and agents-provocateurs who derive inordinate satisfaction from playing and inciting Muslims, zapping away as if playing an electronic game.

The tawdry, internet film demeaning and abusing Islam’s Prophet was doing just that, knowingly pressing buttons. It started circulating around the anniversary of  9/11 and so deliberately brought up bad memories for Americans and rewound to those days when Muslims replaced Commies as the force of evil and the fearful “patriotic wars against terror” took off.

All this is happening as Salman Rushdie brings out a book about his days in hiding after Ayatollah Khomeini passed a fatwa calling for his death. You get to understand how the fatwa cruelly stole years of his life and sense of security. Many of his friends and other libertarians are up and about chanting hymns about freedom of expression in his name and having a go at religions and followers.

They might be more credible if, in the interim years, they had spoken out against powerful Zionist censorship, or commented on the hysteria over the pictures of Kate Middleton when other women’s bodies are routinely exploited, or stood up for the many British and American Muslims are spied on and imprisoned for thought-crimes.

So fixated are they on tyrannical Muslims that they cannot or will not see all those other ways  that speech is controlled and punished. Those double standards, are in turn frequently used by anti-Western bigots of the worst sort.

Many of them have started a blazing row over the Channel4 film on the historical roots of Islam based on a book by the historian Tom Holland. A screening of the film has been cancelled. The next generation of Muslim obscurantists, who must have been kids when the Rushdie conflict broke out, are furious. There must, one assumes, have been serious threats. Holland is an evocative writer although some of his theories about Islam are outlandish. His critics could engage with him but instead they  are told to get angry and so they do. Most of the protesters will know nothing about the film or book. But  their emotions are as easily inflamed as tinder.

Do they have no capacity for those Allah-given gifts, language and reason? Are they free or always slaves to their religious commanders? We know the answer to that. Even after Rushdie, 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq, there is no decline in fundamentalisms or collective emotional excess on all sides. The enemies of Islam rejoice every time its volatile adherents “prove” that they are backward and don’t get the complex modern world.

I completely empathise with Muslims who live in hopeless economies, who feel the pain of Palestine, whose destinies have been controlled by the West and their own ruthless ruling cliques for decades. That does not give them permission to behave like rampaging beasts even if severely goaded and provoked.

Those crazies detest their brethren who are unwilling to defend or join in with their grotesque street revelries. Even more hated are insiders with independent minds who criticise enemies of progress.

Samir Kassir was an extraordinary public intellectual, a proud, Christian Arab. He fought ceaselessly for Palestinian rights and criticised America for its foreign policies. But in Being Arab, he also scrutinised Arab feelings of persecution, self-hatred, deep disquiet, malaise, cults of misery and death. “There was a time when [we] could look to the future with optimism ... How did we become so stagnant?” The book was published in 2004; he was assassinated in 2005.

George Bush’s dictum “You are with us or against us” has proved to be frighteningly potent and prescient. That’s the rule. A Muslim primary school teacher told me on Friday: “We have so many enemies. But every day we want to make more. Even at this school, this week, some Islamophobic teachers abused me. Those Libyans who killed Americans gave them a reason to be more Islamophobic. But I can’t say that to my family or friends.”

When reasonable reconcilers and honest brokers are silenced, societies fall apart, the fragile human ecology becomes unsustainable. I thought we’d learnt that lesson but we haven’t.