Leading article: Beware loose talk about a clash of civilisations


An increasing number of people see a dark cloud hanging over Europe. They fear that the birthplace of the Enlightenment and the cradle of free speech is being silenced by the growing assertiveness of an intolerant strain of Islam. And they would seem, on first inspection, to have no shortage of evidence. Robert Redeker, a French philosophy teacher, has received death threats since airing his extreme views on Islam in a newspaper. A German opera company last week cancelled a production of Mozart's Idomeneo, fearing a particular scene could cause offence to Muslims. In Spain, a number of parades commemorating the expulsion of the Moors are being scaled back.

Last month, there was a furore over an address by the Pope, who quoted an inflammatory verdict on Islam by a long-dead Byzantine emperor. Before that there were protests across the Islamic world in response to offensive cartoons of Mohamed printed first in a Danish newspaper. Then there was the murder of Theo van Gogh and the persecution of Salman Rushdie. All this is cited as evidence that a resurgent and intolerant Islam is changing for the worse the way we live.

But we must beware the temptation to conclude that we are living through some great "clash of civilisations". Of course, the right to free speech cannot be circumscribed. But in a democracy, we also have a responsibility to be mindful of the sensitivities of those around us. Where there is a substantial minority Muslim population, that means thinking carefully about how Islam is presented. Those who reprinted the Danish cartoons even after their inflammatory character knew they were being provocative. Nor does it undermine the principle of free speech to say so.

The problem is that the lessons of this episode do not seem to have been learnt. Much of the Western world seems mistrustful of its Muslim populations. On the one hand there are those, such as M. Redeker, who seem intent on adding fuel to the flames. And on the other hand there are those going to the other extreme and indulging in faintly ludicrous acts of self-censorship on anything even vaguely related to Islam. There was no need to cancel the entire run of Idomeneo. The offending scene, involving the severed head of Mohamed, could easily have been removed. It is hardly integral to the plot, having been introduced by a theatre director three years ago. The same is true of the Moorish parades in Spain. There has been no evidence of Spain's Muslim community taking offence at these festivals.

Excessive self-censorship could be just as damaging to community relations as mindless insults, by fuelling resentment among non-Muslims. The situation has not been helped by the confusion of the authorities. When a small number of fanatics marched through London in the wake of the cartoon dispute, calling for new terrorist attacks, police took too long to prosecute those responsible. Many in Britain were left with the unfortunate impression that there is free speech for Islamic fanatics, but not for secular cartoonists.

One of the unsigned threats addressed to M. Redeker claims: "1.3 billion Muslims are ready to kill you". This is preposterous. The overwhelming majority of Muslims in Europe - and indeed around the world - are reasonable people who abhor violence. We must guard against assuming that a small number of extremists speaks for the majority. And we must guard against pushing any of them into the arms of fanatics by gratuitous offence against Islam. These are unsettled times. But we must always remember that the traditions of free speech and religious freedom can co-exist in today's Europe. And we must do everything possible to marginalise those - on both sides - who would have us believe otherwise.

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