Why Mr Masari is good for us

The courts are to test the Saudi dissident's case for asylum. His values will test all thinking liberals
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The day before the deadline for his deportation to Dominica yesterday, Dr Mohammed al-Masari, the Saudi dissident, filed his asylum appeal. It will be some months before his case is heard and until then he will continue to run his campaign for the downfall of the corrupt and despotic regime of the Fahd monarchy.

In his north-west London flat, he and his followers break off to pray at regular intervals, bowing down to Mecca among the whirring, humming and clicking electronic appurtenances of a modern propaganda machine that sustains an underground cell structure in Saudi Arabia. Much has been written of Mr Masari's campaign, his torture and persecution by Saudi authorities. That the Saudis are a bad lot is not at issue among reasonable people not in their pay.

Rather less attention, though, has been paid to the question of what sort of state Mr Masari's Committee for the Defence of Legitimate Rights seeks to establish. I wanted to find out a little more about exactly what political values we in Britain are being asked to protect.

His campaign wants to establish an Islamic republic. In his theocracy, he says, the clergy would only be advisers, while politicians would be elected democratically by both men and women. Would all political parties be able to stand? Yes, of course - but only if they were Islamic parties, committed to ruling the country strictly according to the laws laid down in the Koran. No one else? No.

His campaign is translated somewhat conveniently in English as the defence of "legitimate" rights, apparently using the language of the United Nations Charter of Human Rights. The Arabic word, however, is not "legitimate" as we understand it, but shari'a - giving citizens rights only under the Islamic law of the Koran. Experts had warned me that terminological inexactitudes litter the work of Mr Masari's group, allowing them to sound easy on Western ears in English, yet lean more strongly towards Mecca when addressing the Arab world.

I tried to get some idea of what kind of freedoms there would be under Mr Masari's Islamic republic. Did he admire the late Ayatollah Khomeini? "Yes, he was a very brilliant and shrewd man, a unique personality." Was he right about the fatwa on Salman Rushdie? "No, it could not be said to apply in a non-Islamic state. But I think every country in the world should adopt strict anti-blasphemy laws so that no religions are offended, then we would not have these problems." (This does not quite tally with the impassioned, unqualified defence of freedom of speech he made in an article for this paper recently.)

On crime and punishment, he would not change current Saudi law. "Execution by beheading is very shocking, but it is the most merciful, more merciful than the electric chair, and it is clearly ordered in the Koran. These head-flyings, where the head flies up from the sword, are very shocking to watch, and very educational for the people."

Ditto for other amputations for theft. "But people do exaggerate these things, I find," he says, complaining about the West's preoccupation with such punishments.

What about women? The Koran clearly states several times that women are a degree below men in all things. He explains that someone must always have ultimate authority. "That person cannot be the woman because the man is physically stronger and he will beat her up if she is in charge. He is the more cool and rational one. He earns the money, and spends it for the family. The mother must stay at home to look after her children, or otherwise they will have an unsound education and upbringing. This system protects her from conflict with the one with the muscle and the money."

Women must submit to sex with their husbands at any time, in any manner, otherwise they commit a sin. "That is because sex in marriage is an important safety valve in society to contain men's behaviour."

Western society, he says, is feeling the effects of badly brought-up children, divorce and single parenthood. "It may take a few generations, but single-parent families lead to the degeneration of the society."

What of his own family life? He has one wife in Saudi Arabia with a three-year-old son, Abdul. He has another wife in America with a two- and-half-year-old son called Abdullah. Then there is a divorced wife in America with a daughter - "about seven or eight, I think" - and another divorced wife in Saudi Arabia. He has two young daughters with him in London, but I lost track of who their mother was, and a 25-year-old son in America and a 20-year-old son in Saudi. "Divorce is a very good thing in Islam," he says. "It happens very amicably, very easily. No one has to prove in court that someone has committed adultery, which causes so much anger. My divorces have been very friendly, I would say."

But, I ask, if he is so strongly against single-parent families, how does he feel about having created two of them himself? He doesn't really follow my line of thought and looks mystified by my question. Hardly surprising, since I find it just as hard to follow his train of thought. We are talking to one another across such a chasm of cultural difference, across half the globe and down several centuries. And the gender divide makes all meaningful communication between us incomprehensible.

We progress to talk of adultery. He is very strongly against it: "There should be 80 lashes for sex outside marriage for those who are not married and 100 lashes for married people who commit adultery, but I do not support stoning."

So there you have it.

There are, of course, other strands of Islamic thought that interpret the Koran more generously. Although as an atheist, I doubt I would find any more sympathy for them. Tolerating people's religious beliefs doesn't mean having to be polite about them. Probing the full obnoxiousness of Mr Masari's views is really just an exercise in testing liberal values to near-breaking point. For quite apart from the 30,000 armaments jobs at risk, there can be few groups less congenial to the ethos of liberal Western democracy than these Islamic fundamentalists.

So why harbour such vipers? Because, between gritted teeth, we have to practice the freedom of speech we somewhat smugly preach at them. The principles that are easy to keep are rarely the most important ones, and this is one of the toughest: along with Voltaire, we may detest virtually everything Mr Masari stands for, but we are obliged to fight for his right to say it - and to say it here.