Tolerating Intolerance

Viewing Europe's Muslim communities in ethnic or racial terms was certainly not foolish in its own right, especially since it avoided applying the blanket religious label to such very diverse communities. And as we have seen, an ethnic approach works well in explaining recent riots and disorders. In practice, though, the American analogy encouraged a multicultural model, in which the state acknowledges group identities, and recognizes and celebrates diversity, allowing a generous latitude in interpreting differences. The problem with this approach, of course, is that it assumes a broad consensus between minority and majority communities about core beliefs and cultural values, which is the basis of any effective pluralism. As we have already seen in matters of gender and family, though, that assumption is not always correct. Mul-ticulturalism is also challenged when minority groups hold views or pursue activities that are anathema to the mainstream society, which reject its most deeply cherished beliefs.4

The bitterest conflicts have arisen over words or images that offend religious believers and that are seen as an attack on the religious system itself. Many European countries provide some protection for religious sensibilities, and blasphemy laws at least exist on the books in some. With a few exceptions, though, such laws have not been enforced in recent years. Muslim societies, however, have never given up their religious sanctions against blasphemy, and these laws returned with new force during the Islamic revival of the 1980s, in Pakistan and elsewhere. The clash of cultures emerged with full force in 1989 with the Rushdie affair. Fierce protests in European countries regularly involved book burning, an action with horrible connotations of the Nazi past, while protesters openly demanded Rushdie's death. In Britain, the secretary of the Bradford Council of Mosques, said: "Muslims here would kill him, and I would willingly sacrifice my own life and that of my children to carry out the ayatollah's wishes should the opportunity arise." At one meeting, Kalim Siddiqui demanded, "I would like every Muslim to raise his hand in agreement with the death sentence on Salman Rushdie. . . . [Muslims] are rapidly coming to the conclusion that they will have to fight to defend Islam in Britain."5

While it is easy to dismiss such remarks as empty rhetoric, they do indicate a fundamental conflict over the acceptable limits of speech, with most Europeans regarding the casual death threats with just as much horror as Muslim activists regarded The Satanic Verses—or at least, regarded reports of it: surely none of them ever read the book. Henceforward, many secular Europeans began to question older assumptions about the possibility of living easily alongside Islam and indeed asked worrying questions about Islam itself, at least in its contemporary political manifestation. Put crudely, the Rushdie affair raised questions about the presumed equality of religions and whether some might be actively harmful or dangerous. In the stark words of Melanie Phillips, from this point onward, "the promotion of Islam in Britain became fused with an agenda of murder."

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