Not one of us

Nick Cohen in Standpoint (via):

a significant part of British Islam has been caught up in a theocratic version of the faith that is anti-feminist, anti-homosexual, anti-democratic and has difficulties with Jews, to put the case for the prosecution mildly. Needless to add, the first and foremost victims of the lure of conspiracy theory and the dismissal of Enlightenment values are British Muslims seeking assimilation and a better life, particularly Muslim women.

It’s the word ‘significant’ that leaps out at me – that, and Cohen’s evident enthusiasm to extend the War on Terror into a full-blown Kulturkampf. I think what’s wrong with Cohen’s writing here is a question of perspective, or more specifically of scale. You’ve got 1.6 million British Muslims, as of 2001. Then you’ve got the fraction who take their faith seriously & probably have a fairly socially conservative starting-point with regard to politics (call it fraction A). We don’t really know what this fraction is, but anecdotal evidence suggests that it’s biggish (60%? 70%?) – certainly bigger than the corresponding fraction of Catholics, let alone Anglicans. Then there’s fraction B, the fraction of the A group who sign up for the full anti-semitic theocratic blah; it’s pretty clear that fraction B is tiny, probably below 1% (i.e. a few thousand people). Finally, you’ve got fraction C, the proportion of the B group who are actually prepared to blow people up or help other people to do so – almost certainly 10% or less, i.e. a few hundred people, and most of them almost certainly known to Special Branch.

I think we can and should be fairly relaxed about fraction A; we should argue with the blighters when they come out with stuff that needs arguing with, but we shouldn’t be afraid to stand with them when they’re raising just demands. (Same as any other group, really.) Fraction B is not a good thing, and if it grows to the point of getting on the mainstream political agenda then it will need to be exposed and challenged. But it hasn’t reached that level yet, and I see no sign that it’s anywhere near doing so. (Nigel Farage gets on Question Time, for goodness’ sake. Compare and contrast.) The real counter-terrorist action, it seems to me, is or should be around fraction C. Let’s say there are 5,000 believers in armed jihad out there – 500 serious would-be jihadis and 4,500 armchair jihadis, who buy the whole caliphate programme but whose own political activism doesn’t go beyond watching the Martyrdom Channel. What’s more important – eroding the 5,000 or altering the balance of the 500/4,500 split? In terms of actually stopping people getting killed, the answer seems pretty obvious to me.

Nick Cohen and his co-thinkers, such as the Policy Exchange crowd, focus on fraction B rather than fraction A. In itself this is fair enough – I think it’s mistaken, but it’s a mistake a reasonable person can make. What isn’t so understandable is the urgency – and frequency – with which they raise the alarm against this tiny, insignificant group of people, despite the lack of evidence that they’re any sort of threat. “A small minority of British Muslims believe in the Caliphate” is on a par with “A small minority of British Conservatives would bring back the birch tomorrow” or “A small minority of British Greens believe in Social Credit”. It’s an advance warning of possible weird nastiness just over the horizon; it’s scary, but it’s not that scary.

What explains the tone of these articles, I think, is an additional and unacknowledged slippage, from fraction B back out to fraction A. What’s really worrying Cohen, in other words, isn’t the lure of conspiracy theory and the dismissal of Enlightenment values so much as the lure of Islam (in any form) and the dismissal of secularism. (What are these Enlightenment values, anyway? Nobody ever seems to specify which values they’re referring to. Somebody should make a list). Hence this sense of a rising tide of theocratic bigotry, and of the need for a proper battle of values to combat it. This seems alarmingly wrongheaded. Let’s say that there’s a correlation between religious devotion and socially conservative views (which isn’t always the case) – then what? A British Muslim who advocates banning homosexuality needs to be dealt with in exactly the same way as a British Catholic who advocates banning abortion – by arguing with their ideas. (Their ideas are rooted in their identities – but then, so are mine and yours.) And hence, too, that odd reference to British Muslims seeking assimilation and a better life, as if stepping out of the dark ages must mean abandoning your faith – or, at least, holding it lightly, in a proper spirit of worldly Anglican irony. Here, in fact, Cohen is a hop and a skip from forgetting about all the fractions and identifying the problem as Muslims tout court. Have a care, Nick – that way madness lies.

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4 Comments

  1. Posted 31 January 2009 at 17:51 | Permalink | Reply

    Slightly OT, there was a nice piece in the Independent this morning about a Pakistani who ‘undertook 23 A-levels in a single year’ and who describes ‘himself as “a balanced rather than devout Muslim”.’ Both his parents and his sister are doctors, which suggests that they’re balanced rather than devout too (because modern medicine is one of the triumphs of the Enlightenment, and because they clearly believe in education for women). There are a lot of such Muslims around, as should be obvious to anyone.

    I think Nick’s position is simply cynical. Contra Douglas Adams, a book with ‘PANIC!!’ on the cover (in large friendly letters of course) would sell very well. Nick, like Michael Gove and Mad Mel, is just interested in writing what we might call ‘pulp non-fiction’. Some people like being given the creeps: they’d be better off reading M R James of course.

    Shorter me: all this hue and cry isn’t a real intellectual position, more a sort of McGuffin to kick the plot off. Harry’s Place, Nick, and Mel are just fodder for the spluttering classes. Their problem is that political incorrectness was mad to start with.

  2. Chris Baldwin
    Posted 1 February 2009 at 00:05 | Permalink | Reply

    “Nick, like Michael Gove and Mad Mel, is just interested in writing what we might call ‘pulp non-fiction’”

    I think you’re doing a disservice to pulp writing here. Conan the Barbarian will easily outlast the works of the aforementioned authors.

  3. Guano
    Posted 1 February 2009 at 11:30 | Permalink | Reply

    The Enlightement. I agree with Dan Hind on this one. The Enlightenment is mainly about scientific enquiry, and rational discourse and discussion. If the Enlightenment is under threat, the threat comes from spin-doctors and other purveyors of illogical arguments. Just because the Muslim world didn’t have something called “The Enlightenment” doesn’t mean that that part of the world has more than its fair share of illogical arguments. And just because Europe did have something that was called “The Enlightenment” doesn’t mean that everything that is said in Europe is logical. I find the run-up to the invasion of Iraq deeply disturbing because so much of what was said made very little sense (such as Blair saying that France was making a war more likely by not voting for the resolution that would start a war!) and a large part of our political elite though that this sort of nonsense was just fine and dandy.

  4. Posted 1 February 2009 at 12:16 | Permalink | Reply

    Aren’t you taken Cohen a bit too serious? Even if there was only one British muslim willing to martyr themselves for the cause of Islamism, Cohen would be Writing with Alarm about it, because it helps his own causes.

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