The conviction yesterday of Abu Hamza, the notorious imam of London's Finsbury Park mosque, is a fitting punctuation to several days of worldwide fulmination over the limits of free speech. In the past, police have complained that our laws are not robust enough to secure conviction for a man such as Abu Hamza. Indeed, only a few days ago the Government failed to get backing for a law making incitement to religious hatred as serious and specific a crime as the incitement to racial hatred that eventually hobbled the extremist cleric. Yet now that Hamza has started his comparatively modest sentence, the great question is: "Why did it take so long?"
No doubt there are many reasons for the delays that left Abu Hamza apparently under the impression he had the green light from the authorities to continue with his activities. There is a belief that fear of upsetting Muslim sensibilities is the chief problem. Other matters, such as overly bureaucratic police procedures, probably played their part as well.
Yet I find myself wondering more and more if part of the problem is that we don't take Muslim extremism seriously enough. I don't mean by this that we don't take seriously the threat to us. We are certainly frightened. But beyond the fear, there is nothing but bemused incredulity, sometimes erupting into indignant outrage that rather too much urine is being extracted. We fear Muslim extremists. But we also think they are a joke.
Take the controversy around the publication of those cartoons in Denmark. The belated and frightening protests were ramped up by clerics like Abu Hamza, who really believe Islamic jihad must end in the establishment of a Muslim state that encompasses the entire planet. They are on the lookout for any perceived infringement of Muslim dignity to feed the idea that Muslims worldwide are being specifically targeted or oppressed.
Yet while we can see the anger with which certain Muslims react to the insult of a cartoonist's depictions of Mohamed, we Westerners, with our ironic sensibilities finely tuned by countless Friday nights in front of the television comedy, can see all too easily how absurd their protests are. We simply can't believe the disproportion of the protest.
How can these people be angry that this cartoon associates Mohamed with bombing, we ask, when they themselves glory in Islam's initial commitment to violent proslyetising and are committed to carrying it on into a contemporary setting? How can they wave placards demanding that people be killed for exercising freedom of speech, when our own generous dispensation of the same is all that allows them to do this without achieving the arrests and charges they deserve?
We are all too alive to the logical absurdity of the fundamentalist position. We despise the irrationality and the lack of intellectual rigour of these men, while remaining perfectly alive to the fact that this very quality is what makes them so very dangerous and so very hopelessly impossible to bargain with.
Abu Hamza is himself a walking contradiction. With his hook for a hand and his semi in Shepherd's Bush, he is the perfect example of a cartoon villain, living in a fantasy world, preaching hate against the West while he lives on benefits and squanders legal aid, then goes home to watch EastEnders. Truly it is amusing that he avoided being extradited to Yemen years ago, because Britain refuses to send citizens for trial in countries where they may be sentenced to death, when his whole life is dedicated to getting rid of democracy worldwide and instating the Sharia law he's so keen to dodge.
No doubt some extremists will react to his imprisonment by attempting to make out that Britain operates one law for those vilifying Islam and another for those defending it. Bizarrely, of course, since targeting people for their race is illegal, and targeting people for their religion is not, they will for once, have a grain of truth in their hysterical complaints.
There is cause for amused comment too, in the main thrust of the arguments that have been most persuasive in swinging Britain away from a religious hatred law. Led by Rowan Atkinson, a party of concerned satirists mutter darkly of a world without Life of Brian or Jerry Springer: The Opera. Their concerns are much exaggerated, of course. But when the response to the Mohamed depiction row is for British Christians to start wailing about how it isn't fair that they get blasphemed against all the time just because they don't issue death threats, you do start wondering whether throwing logic out of the window and embracing murderous mayhem instead will really catch on.
Anyway, Christian Voice did issue a death threat to Stewart Lee, the librettist of Jerry Springer: The Opera, and also made a concerted attempt to get him charged with blasphemy. In his stand-up act, which forms a retaliation to his tormentors, Lee points out that the charge was chucked out by the High Court "on the grounds that its not 1508". Sometimes I think that we are simply unable to perceive these mullahs as really existing at all on the same grounds.
I'm certainly not arguing that we should engage more with the Abu Hamzas of this world, and indulge further in what the right in this country dismiss as "self-hating liberal breast-beating". But we do have to escape from that double-bind whereby we have only contempt with which to combat our own fear.
Of course, the fundamentalists should not be taken seriously. But the old concern, about the provision of a landscape that fundamentalism can thrive in, is still the only real way we have of combatting their entirely senseless threat. Bombing Afghanistan and bombing Iraq, I think we all ought to be able to agree, had, to say the least, limited success in this direction. Yet we must beware of falling into the trap of dismissing every scrap of resentment that the fundamentalists claim as untouchable ground.
The charge that there is a "war on Islam" around the world is as patently absurd as much of the fundamentalists' other febrile propaganda. But the fact remains that there are Muslims who continue to live in unspeakable deprivation of their identity and nationhood and freedom of expression and pretty much all else besides.
Palestine, as John Pilger's film so catchily put it, "is still this issue". At the time the film was made, this scrap of nationhood called so ironically an "Authority" was secular and forward looking. Now, gunmen spill bullets round the Danish embassy, and the people have turned to a religious and terrorist organisation to shake off their stalemate. Abu Hamza doesn't want Palestine sorted out, because the present situation gives him fine propaganda and a wonderful recruiting ground. Which is as good a reason to start asking what happened to the road map as any.Reuse content