THE BLOG

We Need to Be Able to Talk About Islam

30/11/2015 11:07 GMT | Updated 26/11/2016 10:12 GMT

The Sun's front page poll last Monday claiming that one in five British Muslims have sympathy for Jihadis was widely scorned and ridiculed, and rightly so, for its dubious methodology and all round misleadingness. Such stories fuel prejudice against Muslims and encourage a dangerous irrationalism which doesn't' distinguish between Islamist extremists and standard, law abiding Muslims. These concerns aren't hypothetical- in the wake of the Paris attacks, hate crimes against Muslims in Britain rose by 300 per cent.

But it would be damaging indeed were anger against reckless commentary on Islam, such as The Sun's, morph in a culture of censoriousness, where, because Muslims are a vulnerable group, there is no discussion about Islam at all. There should be open discussion about Islam, just as there is about other religious and non-religious ideologies. A mark of a strong, fair and pluralistic society is whereby all belief systems are discussed by both insiders and outsiders. Tolerance for others doesn't negate criticism of them. Questioning certain aspects of Islam is acceptable, just as many question recent stances of Christianity on gay marriage and female bishops. Credible reports, research, and discussion by think tanks, newspapers and other which might consider how for instance Islam impacts on terrorism, shouldn't be put in the same category as bigoted slanders of Muslims, nor be criticised on the basis that doing so is 'Islamophobic' or 'aids ISIS'.

Nor should it provoke fury, as it did among some, to suggest that Muslim leaders have a special responsibility to condemn terrorist attacks, as the Labour London Mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan suggested. This isn't because these leaders should apologise or are in any way culpable. But because they are in the unfortunate position of sharing a religion with those who also claim they are also Muslim. Cicero pointed out with his notion of 'ethos' that the character and background of someone saying something matters. It is likely to be a more powerful antidote to morons who might want to attack Muslims in the street, or morons who might want to turn to terrorism, if it comes from Muslim leaders themselves, rather than other civic leaders. It's a basic notion within the concept of responsibility that the pragmatic consideration of how much impact can be made, matters.

Someone shouldn't be labelled as Islamaphobic if they hold concerns about the views of certain sections of the Muslim population that are particularly hostile to free speech about Islam. According to a poll for the BBC-a source that is likely to be viewed with less suspicion than The Sun - over a quarter of British Muslims feel some sympathy with the motivations of those who killed the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. Even though 'sympathy' is an ambiguous concept, polls should be treated with caution and the 'overwhelming majority of Muslims' don't have any sympathy at all, the fact that 27 per cent might have some sympathy for murder-which in raw numbers means over half a million Muslims within Britain- should be recognised, and not hushed up.

Many politicians after the Paris attacks said that they had 'nothing to do with Islam'. It could be said that such sentiment, which is dutifully repeated after every Islamist terrorist attack, is necessary to try to stop attacks against Muslims during a volatile period. There are multiple reasons why Islamists commit terrorism, non-religious factors such as political and socio-economic ones prime among them. But to say that the motivations of terrorists have literally nothing with Islam, as terrorists cry 'Allah Akbar' upon committing murder, is not only disingenuous, but also irresponsible.

Islam is an ideology, a set of beliefs. Like other religious or political religious ideologies, its texts and beliefs are susceptible to being used to legitimise reprehensible acts. To claim that there is only one 'true' Islam-the more moderate, law abiding one-might be comforting. But it is as ridiculous as claiming that there is only one 'true' standpoint within the Labour Party, or only one 'true' culture within a country of many. Belief systems are based on ambiguous concepts and descriptions, where people who give themselves the same label might hold incompatible standpoints. This should be acknowledged, rather than denied.

One of the reasons for not discussing Islam, especially not mocking it, is fear of violent reprisal, which was caused among other things by the Salman Rushdie affair or more recently with the Charlie Hebdo attacks. It seems that another, as suffocating reason-fear of criticising a vulnerable group-might be emerging. But hushing concerns about Islam, not discussing them, and not challenging misperceptions in the open, might backfire. Just as hushing concerns about immigration or multiculturalism nurtured irrational misperceptions, so censoring discussion about Islam might nourish xenophobia and prejudice.

The motivations of those who want less discussion about Islam might arise from compassionate concerns. But appreciation of the responsibility of discussing a vulnerable group doesn't mean the beliefs within it shouldn't be discussed or criticised at all at all. To do so would not only undermine the challenge against Islamist extremism, but also undermine the free and open discussion that is so valuable for society, and which is often taken for granted. Free and open discussion isn't guaranteed, but is contingent and must be fought for, upheld by defending free speech on a case by case basis such as this one.