Bruce Anderson: Stop cringing and stand up for our own values

Those who insist on living in a theocracy must find their way to the nearest airport
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The Independent Online

The embattled Danish newspaper has performed a valuable public service. It may have caused mayhem across several continents; is this the first globalised riot? But the cartoons did not create the tension. They merely highlighted it. They have forced Europe to face a problem which most political elites would rather ignore, although it will be one of the major questions of the next few decades: How are we to achieve peaceful coexistence with Islam?

A lot of soggy liberals now believe that if no one talked about the problem, it would just go away. Every day, people who used to think like that arrive, at last, in cancer specialists' waiting-rooms. In Christian-Muslim relations, such delay could be equally fatal.

The problems go beyond religion. It is not necessary to be a vulgar Marxist to believe that many Muslims have economic and political reasons for hating the West. It is also true that, for many Muslims, Westophobia is a displacement activity, giving them an excuse to blame their misfortunes on others. No one can predict what the Muslim world will look like in 20 years' time. There is only one point on which we can be certain. It will still generate many more grievances than it can consume.

But religion is crucial, and Christians are handicapped in dealing with this, at least in Europe - where most of them have forgotten to take religion seriously. This is linked to the decline of belief in personal salvation; once people no longer fear hell or hope for heaven, there is less incentive to cling to the Church's teachings. There is a related development. Christians have stopped believing in the superiority of their own faith.

Christians are surely obliged to believe that their faith is based on a unique and transcendent truth: Christ, His divinity, His sacrifice, His resurrection. A Christian in possession of such a truth ought not to be selfish. Indeed, he is enjoined not to hog it to himself but to share it with all mankind. Nor is he entitled to feel superior because he is fortunate enough to be a Christian. But he must believe in the superiority of his faith to the lesser doctrines professed by those who have not yet seen the light.

Yet most European Christians would find that idea indecent; almost worthy of a bill proscribing religious hatred. For the body and blood of Christ, read a purée of live and let live, tolerance and ecumenism. Such Christians have lost contact with historical Christianity and with history. As a result, they not only fail to understand their own religion. They cannot understand other faiths, especially Islam.

Islam has no concept of secularism and the division of authority between church and state. There are comparisons with the jurisdictional disputes between kings and popes during the Middle Ages. The Protestant/ Catholic conflict which had such influence on European history for several centuries is equally relevant (it is to be hoped that Christians and Muslims find a quicker, less bloody path to tolerance).

There are plenty of Muslims today - including British subjects - who would regard Hildebrand, that most intransigent of Papal imperialists, as a moderate, and whose faith resembles Calvin's or Philip II's. If keeping them quiescent requires the suppression of a few cartoons, it might seem a cheap price. But there are two objections. The first is cowardice; the second, that the cowardice would not succeed. The cartoons would not be the only concession. As the Danes have realised, there is no point in paying Danegeld. Once you start ordering from the menu of cowardice, you lose control of the bill. The Muslim extremists would be convinced that, stumbling between cowardice and cultural cringe, the West would always capitulate.

There have already been covert capitulations, especially in Koranic scholarship. Muslims are obliged to believe that the Archangel Gabriel dictated the Koran to Mohamed. No serious free scholar now accepts that the text which we have today was written by one man during a brief period. It underwent changes for a century and a half.

Although this is an interesting point, academics are curiously reluctant to publicise it. There are allusions in learned journals, which no doubt rely on their obscurity to protect them from fatwas (yet what could be more obscure than Salman Rushdie's prose?). The fear of Muslim reaction is already inhibiting Koranic scholarship.

It is time for us to stop cringing and to stand up for our own values. Over the past few decades we appear to have decided that there is a basic entitlement to free speech. Short of the laws on libel and slander and the prohibition against shouting "fire" in a crowded theatre, there are virtually no constraints.

Though we should always be restrained by the dictates of courtesy, we must be free to say what we like on public affairs. Those who find this intolerable and insist on living in a theocracy must find their way to the nearest airport.