Which Islam are you afraid of?

Fear and obsession narrow the mind

It cannot have escaped the attention of anyone who regularly reads the blogs on the NS website, and particularly those of my colleague Mehdi Hasan, that many who post comments are obsessed with and fearful of Islam. When I blogged the other day about the American Justice of Peace who refused a marriage licence to a mixed race couple the first comment, from "Matt", was: "Good call there, Sholto. Any excuse to ignore the Islamisation of Europe."

Quite apart from the fact that this seemed a rather off-beam response (should I not have blogged about it?!), I am left less angry and more saddened and baffled that so many people appear to identify this one major world religion as such a threat - to their way of life, to their values, even to the very future of western civilisation, according to some. Because what they are doing is taking the views and actions of a minority of extremists and then claiming that they are representative of all Muslims.

It's one thing when controversialists use this odious tactic to further their media presence. When I interviewed the US commentator Ann Coulter in New York a few years ago, she consistently used the world "Muslim" when she meant "Muslim terrorists". Her response when I picked her up on this was merely to say: "You can make that argument, but all I see is Muslims killing people." (A further flavour of the irrepressible Ms Coulter's views can be found in her response when I asked her to imagine how she might feel if she had been brought up as a Muslim. "In that case," she said, "I would like a steak knife, please, so I can cut your throat and disembowel you. And then I shall kill all the Jews!")

It's another when otherwise reasonable, well-intentioned people -- and I am willing to admit that some of those posting pretty vehement comments may be precisely that -- do so too. Over lunch after the London bombings a very old friend of mine, who might be regarded by some as such a caricature of the relativist British liberal that he is even the son of a "gay vicar", told me he was scared about "Muslims". "What do you mean," I asked. "Which ones?" "All of them," he replied.

I found this honest response profoundly chilling -- not least for the ignorance it showed about the many and varied shades of Islam as it is practised around the world. Yes, there are countries that have incubated terrorism and blind hatred of the West. But that is just one extreme. What about the other hundreds of millions of Muslims? What about the liberal, syncretist cultures of Malaysia and Indonesia, the compromise with state secularism in Turkey, and the many countries, such as in the Maghreb, where Islam is more identified with than observed?

Even in Saudi Arabia, a country always viewed as a stern, backward-looking, Wahhabist monoculture, my family found plenty who differed when we lived there in the 1980s. "Please don't think this is true Islam," were some of the first words spoken to us by the Qureshis, our Pakistani neighbours in Riyadh, a family who exemplified the warmth and hospitality I have found in every Muslim country I have visited.

Some may consider these virtues, as well as an interest and appreciation of different cultures that makes an embarrassingly large proportion of British expats appear unblushing philistines in comparison, to be cultural rather than specifically religious. Perhaps so. Perhaps the ingrained sense of family, respect and courtesy that the west has discarded in favour of an individualism that celebrates freedom above all else -- too often failing to realise that it is a brutal indifference that is being placed on a pedestal -- is also primarily cultural. Nevertheless, they are characteristics that can be found in Muslim countries; and I think that religion can claim credit for their presence too.

So, two points to end with:

1.I don't know what "Islamisation" of Europe means. Again, I ask, which Islam? (Let's leave aside quite how this is supposed to happen; base scaremongering about millions of immigrants overwhelming the continent is just too ridiculous to bother engaging with.)

2.But if "Islamisation" means learning from what is best in Muslim countries around the world -- certainly the ones I spend a lot of time in -- then frankly, I'm all for it. The idea that the West could be some kind of liberal utopia if only "alien" religions are kept out or kept underfoot is not only offensive but nonsensical. Anyone who thinks so needs to collect a few more stamps on their passport.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.