Johann Hari: Moderate Muslims: the fightback begins

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Seventeen years ago, the streets of Westminster and Bradford filled with smoke and shrieks as Muslim protesters threatened to "burn alive" a man who had dared to use his freedom of speech in a way they disliked. On the surface, it seems like little has changed since the Rushdie affair, when a theocratic dictator demanded the slaughter of perhaps our greatest novelist, and much of the democratic world equivocated. But this time there is a difference - an inspirational difference.

This time, moderate Muslims are fighting back. Slowly, steadily, a stream of heroic Muslims are loudly refusing to be defined by fanaticism and death-threats.

Across Britain, Muslim women are refusing to bow to fundamentalists who believe beheading is a legitimate form of literary criticism. While criticising the cartoons of Mohammed as "distasteful", Fareena Alam, editor of the Q News, damned the protesters, demanding to know "what the parents of the child wearing the 'I love al-Qa'ida' cap would say had their son been on the number 30 bus that terrible day."

At a massive conference of young Muslims organised by Fareena last week, one speaker said the way for Muslims to express their faith was "to mobilise to end the conflict in Congo, or to make generic Aids drugs available where they are not", to roof-raising cheers. Sairah Khan, the Muslim near-winner of The Apprentice, said the "Death to Freedom" protesters were "far, far worse" than the cartoonists, adding "If you don't like it here, go and live somewhere else."

This rebellion is happening across the Muslim world. In Jordan, the newspaper editor Jihad Momani has risked his life to publish the cartoons alongside an editorial demanding, "What brings more prejudice against Islam, these caricatures or a suicide bomber who blows himself up during a wedding ceremony in Amman?"

The right are busy hyping this fight as a Clash of Civilisations between democracy and Islam - but that is a betrayal of democratic Muslims like Jihad and Fareena and Sairah. This is a clash within Islam between democrats and totalitarians, and demonising all Muslims will simply ensure the wrong side wins. The British Muslim community is genuinely divided, as a recent Populus opinion poll proved: some 12 per cent of Muslims my age believe suicide-murder in this country can "sometimes" be justified and 34 per cent believe British Jews are "a legitimate target", although at the other end of the spectrum more than half of British Muslims believe Israel has a right to exist. These are much better than the figures at the time of the Rushdie affair, showing that Muslim opinion is in flux - and can be swayed.

Only a fierce, fighting moderate Islam can win this struggle. In France's Muslim ghettoes, an amazing movement of Muslim women called "Ni putes ni soumises" (neither whores nor doormats) has risen up, initially to fight against the epidemic of domestic violence in their communities but increasingly to craft a liberal - even feminist - brand of Islam. In the past fortnight, we have seen the first stirrings from their British sisters.

I live round the corner from the East London mosque, and most weekends there are stalls of jihadists perched outside, preaching sharia law and suicide-slaughter. However tempting it might seem, I don't want to see these young men driven underground (or Underground) through censorship and the introduction of thought-crimes like the Government's ban on "glorifying terrorism". I want to see every one of their stalls matched by a stall of Muslim women like Sairah and Fareena, ridiculing their bizarre beliefs and manifest moral and sexual inadequacy, and offering young Muslims a different and better brand of Islam. Don't suppress the battle within Islam - let's have it out on the open and on the streets, led by amazing Muslim women like Fareena and Sairah.

It's one rule for the Camerons...

David Cameron is expecting more than one kind of bounce from his baby this week. Now his wife Samantha, right, has delivered the latest mini-Dave, we can expect a flurry of soft-focus features about how the Camerons cope with their severely disabled four-year-old Ivan - but there's a hard political coda to this violin concerto.

As a child of millionaires with a super-sympathetic boss - the Tory whips - Cameron has been able to take as much time off as he needs. But tens of thousands of parents of disabled children - mostly stuck in miserable low-wage jobs - aren't so lucky. They can't rearrange their working hours after a night sitting up with a screaming child in agony, or rush off to hospital appointments without risking the sack.

But when the Government proposed to give them this right in law - making flexitime for parents of disabled kids mandatory - Cameron condemned it as "a burden on business", and voted against it. It's the same old Tory philosophy - freedom for People Like Us, and market discipline for the lower orders.

* Whenever I hear people calling for more, more, more prisons, I think of Anthony. He is a 45-year-old man I met in the dank bowels of Wormwood Scrubs last autumn, jailed because he was found wandering the streets naked. He was swiftly diagnosed as severely brain damaged, and when we spoke he didn't seem to know where he was. At one point, he thought I was a judge with the power to release him; at another, he thought I was an old friend of his father's. He drooled and cried incoherently.

On every prison visit, I meet scores of helpless, hapless men like this. Luke Sergent, the governor of the Scrubs, told me in despair, "It's quite common," and some experts believe half the people banged up are mentally ill.

Care in the Community has become Care in the Cells - and more prisons will simply mean more Anthonys. The people who pine for this should be ashamed.