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Monday, October 24, 2005

Life of George

Continuing the train of thought from my last post...

What utterly different cultural universes we are dealing with here. A spiritual leader who not only admits to laughing at his own faith but thinks it is good for him. And the people who riot, or worse, if they sense an insult to their faith. What would the would-be executioners of Salman Rushdie make of Lord Carey? The successful murderer of Theo Van Gogh? The theatrical censors of Birmingham’s Sikh community?

The bill’s backers are simply not, in my opinion, being honest about whose hatred is the problem. The more clear-sighted of them must know the business they are in is not integration but appeasement. And because the bill has this basic dishonesty at its heart, I am anything but reassured when I am told that a politician will decide whether to prosecute. What happens when people expect the Attorney General to take action in the kind of situation which, we are assured, the bill is not meant to cover, and his/her party needs their votes?

Before the state takes upon itself the job of policing faith communities on behalf of the orthodox, the intolerant and the humourless, let’s not forget that it is above all the subversive voices from their own communities that these want silenced. Like Rushdie. Like Theo Van Gogh’s collaborator, the Somali woman Ayaan Hirsi, now living permanently under police protection. Like the young Sikh woman whose play was forced off the stage by a bunch of male bullies.

I don’t often think of myself as a patriot. Didn’t Dr Johnson say that patriotism is the last resort of scoundrels? But when I picture an Evangelical archbishop laughing heartily as the crucified Brian breaks into the chorus of ‘Always look on the bright side’ I feel he embodies something profoundly precious in the culture that has shaped me. Yes, let’s not mince words, it makes me proud to be British. I want that culture to be open to people who want to be part of it, and I hope that that will include many Muslims. I want it to retain precisely this capacity for self-criticism and self-mockery. But I don’t want it messed about with to placate those whose reaction to the laughing archbishop is uncomprehending contempt.

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