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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.