Islamic Totalism

YunusAccording to the Agence France-Press, protests have been spreading across Bangladesh. Bangladesh is a poor nation, with a government that is implicated in grave human rights abuses, so this is not a surprise. What may be a surprise is the target of the protests, and the event that inspired them. It is, apparently, Muhammad Yunus, Bangladesh’s only Nobel Prize winner, for the crime of opposing the prosecution of gay people in Uganda.

Little remarked at the time, it has since been seized on by the Islamic Foundation, a government religious body, and amplified through tens of thousands of imams on its payrolls.

Protests have been held, leaflets calling him “an accomplice of Jews and Christians” have been distributed, and a “grand rally” has been called for Oct 31 in Dhaka to denounce him.

I could not help being reminded of Abdus Salam, the theoretical physicist who was Pakistan’s only winner of a Nobel Prize. After his death, his grave was vandalised. Salam, you see, was an Ahmadiyya Muslim, and some of his countrymen were more outraged by his claim to be a follower of Islam than they were respectful of his achievements. According to the egos of such people, what is shameful is a cause for pride and what is deserving of honour is a disgrace.

Islamic totalism opposes all that which is worldly. Thus, adherents enforce a militant joylessness, wherein that which causes pleasure arouses suspicion as a potential source of enticement from the tenets of the faith. Thus, intellectualism provokes hostility, for independent thought is liable to draw one from its rigid doctrine. As appalling as its violence continues be, its worst crime may be its enforcement of cultural and intellectual stagnation. This deprives people of the pleasure and enlightenment that makes life feel worthwhile, and deprives us of the potential of these undervalued hearts and minds.

Dr. NickThe Islamic apologist Dr. Zakir Naik is at the centre of controversy after his books were found in a public library in Greenwich. Naik was banned from the U.K. because of fiery proclamations about Islam. One problem with merely banning Naik, it seems to me, is that it will lead the hundreds of thousands of Muslims who have followed his television and radio broadcasts to assume that he was silenced because nobody could give him a substantive response. “Mozlamic”, a Muslim on Twitter, wrote: “I don’t care what the govt or media says about Dr Zakir Naik, he is a genius and can destroy anybody in a debate”. This was retweeted 84 times.

Naik may know the Qur’an very well for all I know. What I would like to prove to his followers, though, is that he is either ignorant or dishonest when he writes or speaks on other subjects. He attempts to justify supposed virtues of his faith with reference to logic, ethics, science and history, and his attempts are so epistemologically inept that if I were a Muslim I would be tempted to believe that he was satirising the faith. It is knowledge of this incompetence, as well as his unpleasantness, that I feel should be promoted, as while there is a certain thrill from being associated with extremists no one wants to climb aboard the wagon of a fool. In a lengthy article about Naik’s book Most Common Questions asked by Non-Muslims, I explored numerous errors of fact and logic. To drive home the point, I have turfed up another book: The Quran and Modern Science: Compatible or Not. It is equally bad.

I am no scientist; indeed, I’m barely an informed amateur. I scraped through my GCSEs and promptly ditched the subject. Even I, however, am able diagnose Naik’s total failure to understand or explain its ideas. Here, for example, he discusses the creation of the universe…

According to the ‘Big Bang’, the whole universe was initially one big mass (Primary Nebula). Then there was a ‘Big Bang’ (Secondary Separation) which resulted in the formation of Galaxies.

This is more confused than Homer Simpson at CERN. The Big Bang theory does not hold that the universe became a mass of particles that exploded into galaxies in some violent event but that small variations in its density produced clouds of gas from which stars were formed. There was no second Big Bang. Otherwise it would have been the Big Bangs theory.

Naik is not just giving his take on science, though, but trying to align the fruits of its research with Islamic principles. According to him, its holy text expresses knowledge its authors could not have grasped without divine inspiration. Thus, he says…

It was believed by earlier civilizations that the moon emanates its own light. Science now tells us that the light of the moon is reflected light. However this fact was mentioned in the Qur’aan 1,400 years ago.

It was also mentioned by Anaxagoras 1,100 years before that. Aryabhata had such a good understanding of the fact that he explained intricate details of lunar eclipses decades before Muhammad wandered into the mountains. By the time the Qur’an was being written the fact that the moon reflects the light of the sun was old news. Claiming the discovery for the Muslims is like me suggesting that I invented the light bulb.

Naik’s book collapses into odd misunderstandings. “Only a couple of centuries ago,” he claims, “Humans came to know that honey comes from the belly of the bee. But this fact was mentioned in the Qur’an 1,400 years ago.” Humans learned that bees produce honey two centuries ago? The Egyptians were beekeeping thousands of years before Christianity, let alone Islam.  “We are only now aware that honey has healing properties,” Naik continues, blissfully unaware that this has been thought for so long that the Hindus, those dratted polytheists, were discussing its supposed medicinal qualities thousands of years before the Qur’an was written.

Naik takes a moment to skirt into nutritional science, which, given his performance in Most Common Questions - where he stated that pork should be avoided because it is high in fat and can contain tapeworm, without explaining why this would not put beef off-limits – was decidedly unwise. He insists that honey is “rich in…vitamin K”. Vitamin K is largely found in vegetables. There is none in honey. Eat some kale, Dr. Naik. I fear that you might have a vitamin deficiency.

As I said in my first article on Naik, mocking peoples’ strange dogmas can be unpleasant: no more than a pompous affirmation of one’s own superiority. What makes Naik fair game is the scale of his following. This guy has toured the length and breadth of the globe and commands audiences of millions. What makes him a pleasure to dissect is the hideous arrogance of his ideas. He is a man who argues that people should be banned from being promoting non-Islamic ideas on the same grounds that a maths teacher should be banned from telling their students that two plus two equals three. Both things, to his mind, contradict obvious and undeniable truths of the universe.

One might respond by observing that one is, in fact, allowed to preach that two plus two equals three, but it is also worth saying that for a man who thinks that galaxies were formed out of a second big bang; that the Greeks believed the moon emitted light; that honey is a great source of vitamin K; that plants can feel emotions; that cows must be eaten or they will outbreed us; that consuming pork makes one sexually unfaithful and that homo sapiens “died out about five hundred thousand years ago” to state that he has such a confident understanding of the nature of the universe and the meaning of life that he can ban all other interpretations from being expressed is as comically absurd as it is sinister. As long as Islamic supremacists try to defend and enforce their ideas they will be both.

BalletVivian Salama writes in The Atlantic on the nerves of Egyptian artists, who can see the eyes of the Muslim Brotherhood narrowing. A lawmaker of the Salafist Nour Party, for example, has described ballet as “the art of nudity, spreading immorality and obscenity among people”. I would like to defend the ennobling qualities of the form but as someone who has never transcended youthful prejudices against it I can only say that if it was the art of nudity we would have been far more interested in it as teenagers.

I have commented before on the militant joylessness of theocratic ideologues. For them, worldly existence is little more than a test of one’s suitability for the Heavens. They are, then, quite relaxed about inflicting pain and repression on men, women and children. What is abstention from drink or the lash of a whip compared to the joys of paradise or the agonies of the hellfires? This attitude also leaves theocrats to believe that worldly pleasures serve merely to tempt us. Booze should thus be spilt with more enthusiasm than that of the Untouchables. Female faces should be disguised. Art, at best, is an object of great suspicion.

This can be inspired by the fear that self-expression will lead one to the greatest physical indiscretions. I think of Alomgir Ali of the Tayyibun Institute, who told women that their features and voices are so desirable to men that they should cover them and stay quiet. Even this, though, for Ali, left too much room for the threat of male libidos being stoked. It “is best for her to stay in her home”, he decided, as the home is a natural form of a hijab. This neuroticism could seem amusing if there was not so much religious scholarship behind it, and if so many women did not have to or feel as if they have to live according to it.

Yet this puritanism does not demand that worldly pleasures lead to sinful acts. Worldly pleasures tend, for some, to be sinful in themselves. I love music: listening to it and trying, with various degrees of failure, to perform it. Sheikh Muhammed Salih Al-Munajjid, who runs IslamQA, disagrees. He quotes his God as saying that singing and music represent “idle talks…to mislead (men) from the path of Allaah”. Muhammad ibn Adam al-Kawthari believes that music is so pernicious that it is “a direct ploy of the Non-Muslims”, intended to sway believers from the course of righteousness. It “affects one’s emotions”, he says; “increases arousal in terms of alertness and excitement” and distracts one from God’s message that he created humans  “only that they serve me”.

Music is a powerful force that can be used for ill. Through inspiring emotion and provoking excitement, though, it can be beautiful, enlightening and fun. For these men, this makes it dangerous. For them, humans exist to respect Allah’s creation. To create things for their own enjoyment and illumination is to spend time and energy on themselves that should be spent on God, and to free their hearts and minds from a course that has been so rigidly defined for them. Thus, they not only demand that pain be inflicted but that pleasures be abolished: exploration, creativity, enjoyment and, well, everything that makes life feel valuable. To their minds, indeed, it is not.

Zakir NaikIn the world of Islamic evangelism, Dr. Zakir Naik is hot stuff. The founder and President of the Islamic Research Foundation, he also heads up Peace TV, from which he broadcasts nations as far-flung as the United Arab Emirates and the United States. He is invited to address audiences from Italy to the Maldives. He was banned from Britain, but his global influence is such that Oxford University still organised to have him contribute to a debate by way of a satellite link.

He is also a fool, a fraud or both.

I regret the need for bluntness. Most of the Islamic ideologues that I write of are clever men. Evangelists like Hamza Tzortzis trade in pseudo-scholarship but they do it with a subtlety that speaks well of their brains. In the latest case of extremism on campus, though, students from the Islamic Society of Keele University distributed a pamphlet by Dr. Naik entitled Most Common Questions asked by Non-Muslims. (To their credit, several members have since disavowed the incident or apologised for it.) I was curious enough to track down a copy that has been posted online, and it is, among other things, an embarrassment to the faith: a parade of fallacies, mistruths and grotesque value judgements.

Laughing at people who are either cursed with a natural foolishness or have crippled their intellects with dogma can be unpleasant – more an affirmation of one’s smug superiority than anything of value. Yet Naik is so influential that it is worthwhile. Not only have students thought this work so astute as to be worth disseminating as a means of winning over nonbelievers but it was reproduced in its entirety in a book titled The Comprehensive Guide For Da’wah In Mosques. That such a respected man is so unworthy of respect deserves to be appreciated both by people who promote him and by people who are the targets of this promotion.

In Most Common Questions…, Naik tries to address objections to Islam. He begins by defending its tolerance of polygamy, claiming that there are far more ladies in the world than blokes, and asserting they have to share men or they will be compelled to live alone. There are more women in the world than men but only as they have been blessed with longer lives. I doubt that Dr. Naik or, indeed, all but a minute proportion of men want to get hitched to widowed octogenarians, and I suspect the feeling is mutual.

Ignoring this, Naik writes this extraordinary passage…

Even if every man got married to one woman, there would still be more than thirty million females in U.S.A who would not be able to get husbands (considering that America has twenty five million gays)…Suppose my sister happens to be one of the unmarried women living in USA, or suppose your sister happens to be one of the unmarried women in USA. The only two options remaining for her are that she either marries a man who already has a wife or becomes public property. There is no other option. All those who are modest will opt for the first.

The obvious moral problem with this claim is the idea that women cannot simply live alone but must seek marriage or become “public property”. Who does Naik think he is to make such demands of people? Another equally obvious intellectual problem is its apparent ignorance of lesbianism. Can someone drape an arm around Naik’s shoulders and tell him that some women do not want to have husbands?

Naik proceeds with a brisk justification of the fact that women are ordered to wear the veil, and, indeed, under his conception of Islam, to loose, unglamorous clothing. He asks us to imagine twin sisters walking down the street…

One of them is attired in the Islamic hijaab…The other sister is wearing western clothes…Just around the corner there is a hooligan or ruffian who is waiting for a catch, to tease a girl. Whom will he tease? The girl wearing the Islamic Hijaab or the girl wearing the skirt or the mini? Naturally he will tease the girl wearing the skirt or the mini. Such dresses are an indirect invitation to the opposite sex for teasing and molestation.

Imagine twin brothers walking down the road, one of whom has a mobile phone and some loose change and the other of whom has neither cash or accessories. If a thief is present, who will he assault? The former. If I tried to confiscate all of Naik’s money while insisting that I was protecting him, though, he would doubtless suggest that I should not make his life unpleasant but go after the thieves, who are, after all, responsible for the crime. The hypocrisy is blatant.

Naik speak of rape statistics in the U.S., and proposes that if American women wore the hijab their lives would become safe. In Egypt, more than eighty percent of women claim to have experienced sexual harrassment. The majority of the victims wore headscarves.

One of the more amusing passages of Naik’s tract is his defence of the Islamic endorsement of meat consumption. He answers hypothetical vegetarians by insisting that “even plants can feel pain”, and that “latest researches show that the plants can even feel happy and sad”. I would love to see this research but, alas, Naik offers no references. He is too busy asserting that if everyone became a vegetarian it would lead to “overpopulation of cattle in the world, since their reproduction and multiplication is very swift”. Not without silage to eat and fields to live in, Dr. Naik.

Naik defends meat-eating, then, but he is bitterly opposed to the consumption of pork. Eating pork can lead one to diseases, he writes, and “one of the most dangerous is Taenia Solium, which is in lay man’s terminology called tapeworm”. No, in layman’s terminology it is called the pork tapeworm. There is also taenia saginata, which is the beef tapeworm, and diphyllobothrium, which is the fish tapeworm. If a viewer of Peace TV gets lazy cooking burgers and then finds that an unwanted lodges has moved into their intestines I guess they will know who to blame.

Pork, Naik argues, “has very little muscle building material and contains excess of fat”. This “can cause hypertension and heart attack”. Pork loin contains more protein and less saturated fat than ground beef. I have no objection to your abstaining from pork, Dr. Naik, but you have no rational grounds on which to spare them and slaughter cows.

Perhaps realising this, Naik makes the irrational argument that if you eat pig you are bound to act like a pig. Pigs, he says, “invite [their] friends to have sex with [their] mate[s]”, and in America, where pork is eaten, “they have swapping of wives”. Male ducks are known for the gang rape of female members of their species. They are also known for being consumed in posh restaurants. I do not think this has led foodies to sexual assault.

There are more bizarre assertions but readers may tire of them. It is worth observing, though, that they are not restricted to this eccentric work. My attention was drawn to a speech in which he turns his tongue to evolution. In five minutes, among other howlers, he asserts that Galileo was executed – he was not – that Darwin did not believe in natural selection – he did – and that – and this is my favourite – homo sapiens “died out about five hundred thousand years ago”. We are homo sapiens.

This would be more entertaining if it was not for how brutal Dr. Naik’s dogmas are. The naïveté towards the existence of lesbians would almost be touching had he not saidthe punishment for homosexuality is death”. The sexual puritanism might seem quaint had he not insisted that fornicators should be given “100 lashes”, and that adulterers should face “stoning to death”. His futile attempts to prove that Islam was not spread through violence could seem well-meaning if he had not claimed that vocal apostates should be executed.

Say what you like about religion, and this religion in particular, but men like Avicenna and Averroes were scholars with a desire to reveal the facts of the universe. People who lead the defence of their faith in a modern age include men with this pitiful disregard for truth, and it is they who have the audacity to inform us that they are so enlightened as to be justified in forcing us to act according to their judgements. Muslims or, indeed, non-Muslims who find totalistic visions of Islam attractive should ask themselves whether they want to trust and, indeed, be associated with a man who claims that there is no good reason for women to be unmarried; that animals must be eaten lest cows overbreed; that plants can feel sadness; that eating bacon makes one porcine and that human beings died out thousands of years ago. He offends the heart and he insults the brain.

TahaThe Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain have announced that the 14th March shall be an International Day to Defend Apostates and Blasphemers. A worthy occasion. As they note, such courageous people as Alex Aan, Hamza Kashgari, Asia Bibi and Saeed Malekpour are enduring jail sentences or awaiting executions for the “crime” of describing the universe as they see it.

Governments have not executed religious dissidents in some time – it would too bad for PR – but vigilantes among their populations are happy to. Last year alleged blasphemers were murdered in Pakistan; attacked by mobs in Indonesia and stoned in the Maldives. Just last week, in an event that was extreme even by the standards of the region, 150 houses and shops in Christians in Lahore were burnt to cinders after some from the community was charged with using blasphemous language. The nation’s governors, meanwhile, are occupied with the blasphemy case that has been filed against its US ambassador. She faces capital punishment, ironically, for suggesting that blaspheming does not call for execution.

I have written a great deal on the treatment of blasphemers and apostates across the Islamic world but I have never really stopped to think how it must feel to be one. Have you ever had an opinion you have felt lonely in holding or awkward in expressing? I have. The extent to which exploring unorthodox ideas is described as “brave” is evidence of the self-importance of Western culture but, still, it not fun to think that words could earn one rejection or opprobrium. There is no idea, though, that could assure one’s alienation and provoke hostility on the scale that nonbelief, conversion and dissidence have done for courageous souls in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and elsewhere.

To lose one’s faith as a citizen of such nations is not merely to become freakish among one’s compatriots but to know that vast numbers of them would wish you dead. This must inspire a sad feeling of disunion from the people one dwells among but also a fear of them. One is a mole without a mission, and has no cause or allies to provide consolation and the chance of escape. It must be frighteningly lonely to harbour questions or disbelief, and simply frightening to express them or be exposed.

Asia BibiThe comparison to undercover agents is especially apt not because heretics and nonbelievers commit betrayal but as they know that this is the thought their rejection of their beliefs will inspire among their peers. Muslims often treat one’s membership of Islam as others might one’s loyalty to one’s homeland. In the Maldives, for example, citizenship is defined by one’s status as a Sunni Muslim. To convert, then, and to criticise one’s past ideas, is, in the words of Abul Ala Maududi, to become “traitors”.

This belief that the religion is entitled to dominate is evidence of both undeserved assurance and unconscious insecurity. I am far more receptive to the theories of religions than other participants in this event but it seems obvious to me that a belief that respects the importance of truth must tolerate criticism, and believers with any faith in their righteousness must tolerate rejection and mockery. Whatever the strength of religious or ideological men and women who are averse to doubt or disrespect, their intolerance exposes intellectual and spiritual weakness.

The victims of this supremacist censoriousness have not merely been the apostates and blasphemers themselves but all those believers who have been sheltered from the scepticism that might have inspired their doubts. The intolerance of its internal critics have protected the religion from reform. Mahmoud Mohammed Taha, a Muslim opponent of sharia law, was executed in Sudan in 1985. Turan Dursun, a Turkish atheist and critic of Islam, was shot in Istanbul in 1990. Farag Foda, a secular academic in Egypt, was gunned down in 1992. Salman Taseer and Sahbaz Bhatti, Pakistani politicians, criticised their nation’s blasphemy laws and were swiftly assassinated. Thus has Islamic literalism been defended not been words and thoughts but fists and weapons.

Turan DursanWe should not fetishise free speech or free expression. There are, I am convinced, such things as good speech and good behaviour and they are the ends we should pursue. Liberty, however, has provided the means through which contests of concepts and experiments with actions have allowed truths and valuable styles of living to emerge and the abuse of these dissidents reminds us of its preciousness.

There is little we can do to help apostates and blasphemers in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. Islamic supremacism is inherent to the cultures of their societies and it is their business to decide whether it is valuable enough to maintain. We can make use of the freedom we enjoy, though, to express the doubts that others are oppressed for bearing: to encourage the study and criticism of the faith and its different forms. As information is globalised, these efforts cannot be ignored. After Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino were killed their images were sprayed on sheets and walls above the slogan, “You did not kill them: their ideas walk on our legs”. I make no claims for my insight or character but I know I have been blessed with the freedom to pursue inquiries and uphold causes that brave, intelligent souls were forced to abandon. It is a pleasure to honour them.

WhipForget that the Maldivian girl sentenced to a hundred lashes for sleeping with a man is fifteen. Forget that she allegedly admitted to having consensual sex in the course of accusing her step-father of rape. It is hard, I know, but do it for a moment as the fact is that if she had been eighteen and the product of a loving family the pain would be as real as the whip dug into her flesh, and the embarrassment as awful as she slumped before her captors, and it would be just as ludicrously unsuitable a response to what was at worst an ill-advised personal choice. The government claim to recognise that she is a “victim” yet she is not just of a victim of her stepfather – if indeed her accusations were correct – but of the brutal and irrational system of sharia law, and this would be true of anyone who faced this judgement.

One hundred and four people, of whom ninety three were women, were ordered to endure a hundred lashes throughout the course of 2011. This, disturbingly, was a low number of sentences compared to previous years. The victims have been known to be so distressed that they pass out and require hospitalisation.

Navanethem Pillay, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, visited the nation and asked its governors to revise their policy. The Islamic Minister, Abdul Majeed Abdul Bari, dismissed the notion by observing that it had been drawn from the Quran and insisting that “a tenet of Islam cannot be changed”. As I have explored before, governors of these beauteous yet bedeviled islands heed the demands of religiopolitical officials and organisations, who have formed a culture where Islamic literalism is so supreme that heretics are not driven out have been forced to apologise or commit suicide. Even as the government’s spokesman admits that it is averse to the latest sentence, then, he says, “Since this is an Islamic affair we don’t want to unilaterally say things”.

This punishment for this crime is, as Dr. Bari states, mandated by the Quran and scholars such as those of the Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America affirm that it is still considered to be a tenet of Islamic law. There are reformist perspectives on matters of behaviour and belief but they have been accepted by a minority of believers. This explains my annoyance when I see commentators like Mehdi Hasan insist that “extremism” is to Islam what the BNP is to Great Britain. It is in blatant defiance of the state of opinion among the authorities and adherents of the faith, and obscures the magnitude of the reform that would be needed to eliminate atrocities of the kind so many promote.

Not that we should bear imperial illusions about the chances of this happening, still less of our prompting it. The religious can decide for themselves. Yet we should exclude the beliefs of fundamentalism, and let governments know that if they want aid, trade or tourism they should struggle to minimise the worst of its practices. The latter, of course, is especially relevant now. It would seem unpleasant to bear one’s back to the Maldivian sun in the knowledge that halfway across the island someone may well be having theirs whipped.

HedegaardLars Hedegaard, a Danish writer who has been critical of Islam and Muslims in the West, is reported to have survived an assault by a gunman whose bullet flew past his ear. Hedegaard is said to have punched him, causing him to drop his weapon and flee the scene. The nature of the incident cannot be asserted with absolute confidence but it seems probable enough that we can ask if it represents the continuation of a pattern.

God, I wish it didn’t. Unfortunately, you would have to have been living under a boulder to be too surprised by this. The list of people who have insulted, opposed or questioned Islam and Muslims in their words and then faced violence in response is daunting. Theo Van Gough was butchered in the street. Kurt Westergaard was forced to hide with his 5 year-old granddaughter as an axe-wielding thug rampaged through his house. The offices of Charlie Hebdo were bombed. The publishers of Sherry Jones were burned. Lars Vilks has faced the plots of terrorists; an arson attack; an assault and at least one egging. All of this, let us remind ourselves, was because these people drew cartoons, made films and published novels.

I am sure that there are people who would explain this not as religious supremacism but as the response of embattled people to persecution. This explanation collapses underneath the weight of the objection that violence against real and supposed heretics and blasphemers is more prevalent in nations where Islam is dominant. Never mind a place like Pakistan, where people are often killed for challenging blasphemy laws as well as for blaspheming. In the Maldives Ismail Rasheed could be stoned and stabbed; in Indonesia Alexander Aan faced a mob attack; in Nigeria, a man was macheted to death after he mispronounced a name and it sounded blasphemous.

European governments, of course, amid this irregular war against the freedom of expression, have been busily extending restrictions on speech to cover that which is held to be insulting and offensive. Hedegaard himself was fined about £600 for anti-Muslim statements that a blogger chose to publish. That people can say foolish and unpleasant things is undeniable. I do not know Hedegaard and cannot judge whether he tends to fall within or outside of this category. This, though, hardly matters. Opinions can be ignored and gunmen can’t, and when you are in the vicinity of both it is not hard to judge which should be your priority.

It is vital that these thugs be frustrated in their desire to live free of criticism and questions. As we have observed before, people have taken the fear of being offensive to heart. It it true, of course, that it would be pointless and mean to set out to wound people. Hypersensitivity, however, should not be indulged or it will not have to adapt. Where indulging it would constrains intellectual progress and threatens social harmony it has to adapt. Others have censored themselves for fear of risking their own necks. This is understandable – I am very attached to my neck – but it is also unwise. Allowing the hypersensitive to remain comfortable feeds their sense of entitlement. It will only make them angrier when your ideas and values inevitably clash. And, besides, cases like that of the Nigerian or the girl in Pakistan whose “blasphemous” misspelling prompted riots are evidence that trying to be polite need not save one from outrage.

That words alone can defeat the violent is, of course, delusive. This conflict is the inevitable consequences of unchecked multiculturalism and the grimmer business of excluding theocrats and supremacists from and within our societies remains crucial. Yet words are important. The more that good-natured satire and critical scrutiny is applied to religions the more their followers will accept that intimidation is a blunt and unwieldy weapon in the cause of facing it. Others are likely to find critiques so unanswerable that they are forced to adapt their creeds to fit new premises, and where the fundamentalism has been punctured the aggression deflates.

It is far from rare to hear commentators in the West being described as “brave” merely for expressing opinions that are slightly unorthodox. In facing pejoratives and, perhaps, the occasional insult many of us appear to seem that writers are being courageous. If we are so sensitive to the verbal assaults that people can endure after expressing their opinions we should appreciate the scale of the horror wrapped up in the fact that people assert a view and then be faced with eggs, axes, bombs and gunmen.

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