Why is it so many people seem to be hell bent on silencing others? Neither should the Quran be banned, nor the film attacking it.
The self-righteous have this annoying tendency to refuse to see the contradictions in their own positions to the extent that they seem blissfully blind to the holes in their arguments which are often big enough to bury an entire herd of disgruntled elephants.
First up is Geert Wilders, the far-right founder of the Party for Freedom, famous in Holland for his signature bleached blond hair and his increasingly nutty views on Islam. Appealing to the higher authority of freedom of expression, the anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant politician has expressed his determination to release his anti-Quran film.
Meanwhile, the same champion of freedom of expression has gone from demanding the censoring of the Quran to calling for its outright banning. In the UK, Boris Johnson has also suggested that Islam's holy book needs censorship. Amusingly, now that he is running for London mayor, he has back-pedalled furiously along the cobblestones of his bumbling diction, trying to clean up the mess with his blond mop. He has even evoked the spirit of his late Turkish grandfather to vouch for him.
Are you as confused by Wilders's logic as I am? Here is a man who demands his right to express himself freely, even if the views he expresses are intolerant and openly hateful of his fellow citizens and no matter what the consequences may be for his country abroad.
At the same time, he wishes to prohibit perhaps the world's best-selling book after the Bible and a source of spiritual sustenance for hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world.
While I have little interest in holy scripture, even I find Wilders's wilful tunnel vision irritating and offensive, since it ignores the fact that the vast bulk of the Quran has nothing to do with violence and war.
It also raises the question about the consistency of Wilders's stance. In the Netherlands, for instance, it is legal to own and lend copies of Hitler's inflammatory autobiography, arguably the most destructive piece of literature in Europe's modern history. If Wilders wants to ban something, wouldn't he be better off focusing his attentions on Mein Kampf, particularly since he views himself as a great friend of Israel?
Moreover, how far should such book-banning fervour go? By the same token, we should ban Sun Tzu's the Art of War, purge our libraries of any form of military or revolutionary literature and, while we're at it, ban violent films and music.
Comparing like with like, why does Wilders wish to outlaw the Quran and not the Bible or the Torah, which also have their own concepts of what constitutes holy and just war? In fact, the Bible even contains passages justifying the slaughter of “sinners” and Judaism defines two types of acceptable war: milchemet mitzva (commanded by God) and milchehmet reshut (expansionary war).
While I have no respect for Wilders' brand of intolerance and hate, I must admit a soft spot for irreverent wit and humour and am glad that the vigorous campaign to ban the Life of Brian did not succeed, although the Catholic Church in Italy has just succeeded in getting a harmless ad which employs the Nativity to humorous effect pulled off screens.
I also find the hate-filled fury with which some Muslims react to such provocations unpalatable, even though many Muslim leaders have called for calm. Of course, people have a right to express the insult they feel peacefully. But why the calls for collective punishment, such as sanctions? I am constantly baffled by the logic of self-appointed “defenders of the faith”, whatever their religious persuasion, who feel it is their duty to silence, sometimes permanently, anyone who does not agree with their worldview.
I find such intolerance particularly shocking when the victim has no political agenda and is not seeking to spread hatred. A good case in point is Salman Rushdie, a capable and talented novelist who has had to live under constant guard for the last two decades following the publication of his allegorical novel, The Satanic Verses.
For anyone who has actually read Rushdie's work, there is a sad irony in the fact that the writer in the west who has perhaps most humanised the post-colonial experience is also the most hated by many of the people to whom he gave a compassionate and sympathetic face in the English language. In addition, as Katleen, my wife, points out, Christianity and other faiths hardly get off more lightly than Islam in Rushdie's works.
And what good would killing Rushdie or other “heretics” do? Does the potential assassin really think that God in all his presumed might and omnipresence needs the protection of a mortal thug? Does Muhammad or even Jesus, living it up, as they are, in seventh heaven and basking in the eternal light of the Lord really give a monkey's about what kind of press they are getting on earth?
And what if God turns out to hate murderers more than blasphemers? These self-appointed executioners may find themselves in hellishly hot water. Hot-headed extremists should heed the advice dished out to millions of Muslim children every day: if someone insults them or something they hold dear, they should simply walk away saying “May God forgive you”.
The best policy – and one that is a win-win for all concerned – is for the faithful to leave the “sinners” to get their just desserts when they go to meet their maker. Or do they not possess enough faith to leave matters to divine justice?
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 6 March 2008.