Tolerance means less passion and more disagreement

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The Independent Online
he relationship between the Islamic world and the West seems to be living through one of the famous interregnums defined by Antonio Gramsci, in which the old refuses to die, so that the new cannot be born, and all manner of morbid symptoms arise.

Both between Muslim and Western countries, and inside Muslim communities living in the West, the old deep mistrusts abide, frustrating attempts to build new better relations, and creating much bad blood. For example, the general suspicion felt by many ordinary Egyptians about America's motives has created a heightened, almost paranoiac atmosphere around the investigation of the crash of EgyptAir flight 990. Now, all information pointing to Gamil al-Batouti's responsibility for the aircraft's fatal dive is believed to be tainted, in spite of indications that (a) he pulled rank to take over the controls from the co-pilot, even though it wasn't his shift, and (b) the now notorious religious mutterings immediately preceding the aircraft's steep downward plunge.

Meanwhile, theories exonerating the pilot are being propounded in Egypt almost daily - it was the Boeing malfunctioning, it was a bomb in the tail, it was a missile, and, in any case, it was America's fault. The many proponents of these anti-American theories see no contradiction in believing with great fervour notions for which there is as yet no shred of proof, while vilifying the FBI for seeking to draw premature conclusions from such evidence as there is.

A more dispassionate version of events is needed. The FBI is perhaps excessively prone to see air disasters as crimes rather than accidents. That was certainly a problem after the TWA 800 crash. On that occasion it was the National Transportation Safety Board that eventually made the case for a systems failure causing an explosion in a fuel tank. But this time it's the NTSB's preliminary examination of the data that has thrown up the possibility of a pilot suicide.

The much-criticised leakiness of the investigating bodies could also be seen as reassuring: with so many loose tongues around, in the end the truth will out. By contrast, the state-controlled press in Hosni Mubarak's Egypt is likely to reflect the government's nationalistic unwillingness to concede Egyptian responsibility for the crash, which could further damage the tourist trade.

Unreason and emotion have by now thoroughly politicised this investigation. Let us hope that those who fear a US cover-up do not create an atmosphere in which American and Egyptian politicians and diplomats seek to cover up the truth in the interest of their bilateral relations.

Muslims living in the West also continue to feel defensive, suspicious and persecuted. Hard on the heels of the dispute about the EgyptAir tragedy comes a demand in multi-faith Britain that all religious beliefs, not just the established Church of England, be protected from criticism by the law. The West's so-called Islamophobia means that Islamic demands for the new law have been by far the loudest.

It is true that in many Western quarters there is a knee-jerk reflex which leads to anti-Islamic rushes to judgement. It is also true that British Muslims' sense of injury is frequently justified. But the proposed solution is the wrong cure, one that would make matters even worse than they are.

The point is to protect people but not their ideas. It is absolutely right that Muslims - that everyone - should enjoy freedom of religious belief in any free society. It is absolutely right that they should protest against discrimination whenever and wherever they experience it.

It is also absolutely wrong of them to demand that their belief system - that any system of belief or thought - should be immunised against criticism, irreverence, satire, even scornful disparagement. This distinction between the individual and his creed is a foundation truth of democracy, and any community that seeks to blur it will not do itself any favours.

The British blasphemy law is an absurd, outdated relic of the past, has fallen into disuse, and ought to be abolished. To extend it would be an anachronistic move quite against the spirit of a country whose leadership likes to prefix everything with the word new.

Democracy can advance only through the clash of ideas, can flourish only in the noisy, rough-and-tumble bazaar of disagreement. The law must never be used to stifle such disagreements, no matter how profound. The new cannot die so that the old can be reborn. That would indeed be a morbid symptom.

Once again, a clearer form of discourse is needed. Western societies urgently need to find effective ways of defending Muslims against blind prejudice. And Islamic spokesmen must likewise stop giving the impression that the way to better relations - the path to the new - requires the creation of new forms of censorship, of legal blindfolds and gags.