BEN LOWRY: Years of Western weakness towards Islamic fanatics

News Letter deputy editor Ben Lowry
News Letter deputy editor Ben Lowry

There are many ways of illustrating the muddled, even cowardly, way that we in the West respond to the sort of Islamic extremism that slaughtered 12 people in Paris yesterday.

But here is an example that sticks in my mind.

In 2005, I was at a performance at the Belfast Festival by the comedian Stewart Lee in which he mocked Tony Blair’s plans for an Incitement to Religious Hatred Bill.

There was much talk at the time about a possible Christian-inspired blasphemy case against the musical that Lee had co-written not long previously, ‘Jerry Springer - The Opera’ (and indeed there would be a later failed prosecution bid).

It was thought that the bill could replace the outdated blasphemy laws, and so it was drawn in a way that could have had the effect of making it hard to “insult” religion.

Lee was right to ridicule this misguided Blair initiative, but went about it the wrong way.

He told a long story about Jesus offering himself as a loving, forgiving and selfless receptacle for the physical excesses of a drunken night out.

I have a vague memory that two people on the lower level of the Elmwood Hall (I was sitting upstairs) walked out. 
Mostly the crowd loved it. Lee had a cool sign-off along the lines of: ‘That’s what happens Mr Blair when you threaten us with a new version of blasphemy laws.’ (As it happens, the then prime minister’s bill was later watered down by the House of Lords.)

Had Lee taken a different approach, I might have applauded his bravery, Instead, I emerged feeling contempt for him.

It was not because he had insulted Jesus, although I know many people who would have found the story unutterably obscene. It was because he didn’t have the courage to insult the Prophet Mohammed.

Now before anyone starts threatening me, this is not to say that I wanted to hear such insults or that I would ever be inclined to issue them.

But if — emphasis on if — Lee was going to use the device of heaping abuse on religious leaders as a way of defending the freedom to criticise religion, then the only honourable course was to insult the religion that poses the biggest threat to such freedoms.

It had been plain for almost 20 years before Lee’s Belfast show that this was Islam.

In 1988, Martin Scorsese’s film the Last Temptation of Christ showed Jesus being tempted by sexual thoughts, sparking Christian fury. But the response was not even remotely as menacing as the terrifying Islamic reaction to Salman Rushdie’s book of the same year, Satanic Verses, which was disrespectful towards Mohammed.

That a state, Iran, should have placed a bounty on a foreign writer on the grounds of blasphemy was an unpardonable international crime.

The British government’s response was in one respect excellent: no expense was spared protecting Rushdie.

But, overall, it was weak. Iran got away with it.

Notice was served on the decadent West the day that the Ayatollah issued the fatwa.

After this came the lunacy of the Taliban in the mid 1990s, the Bin Laden bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and then September 11 2001.

And yet, after all that, after the 2004 Madrid bombs massacred almost 200 civilians and after the 2005 London blasts slaughtered 52 civilians, who was the target of Lee’s satire? Jesus.

You might say that Christianity is guilty of immense crimes down the centuries, including the Crusades, and is richly deserving of being mocked. OK. Then why did Lee not bring Mohammed into his sketch and mock both?

I believe the answer is simple. If he had toured with such content, he would have been murdered long ago.

Lee is only one in a multitude of fools to have missed the target. Weeks after that Belfast performance, the Danish cartoons that insulted Mohammed led to fresh violence. I felt then that every UK publication should have re-printed them in solidarity, regardless of their artistic merit. It would have been hard for the extremists to attack each media outlet.

The cartoons saga was fresh evidence of the threat that Islamic fanatics pose to fundamental freedoms of speech, honed in countries such as Britain, France and America over centuries, and in newspapers such as this one (founded 1737, at the outset of the Enlightenment).

But what was actually said about the cartoons? The Irish President Mary McAleese condemned their publication, as did Jack Straw. The normally sensible Shirley Williams later condemned the knighthood given to Rushdie, because he had insulted Muslims.

None of what I write is to deny that most of the Muslim world is deeply civilised and moderate. I have received hospitality in countries that I have adored from Turkey to Kosovo to Tunisia to Mali (the latter now struggling with fanatics). I was even treated for malaria in an Iranian clinic in Bamako.

My point is that there are pockets of deranged extremists that are an existential threat to ordered, liberal societies. There is no equivalent Christian threat.

Evangelical Christianity is flourishing in many parts of the world such as central America, and it remains powerful here, but in the West it has dwindled markedly in the last 50 years. They are mostly not fundamentalists, who in Christianity now have minimal potency — and in any event are not planting bombs.

Our failure to say this loudly, to denounce the greater threat after episodes such as the Rushdie affair or Danish cartoons, was the precursor to yesterday’s massacre.

• Ben Lowry is News Letter deputy editor. This is his personal view