In Sunday’s Observer, columnist Nick Cohen wrote a piece about censorship, and indeed about a self-censorship brought about by fear. Censorship in the UK. (He was on World Have Your Say tonight on a discussion about the same topic.) What he criticises most of all is the lack of principles, the lack of integrity in an artist who claims freedom of speech yet exercises it in a cowardly fashion, criticising only “safe” targets and fearing to criticise those who might strike back.

The particular concern expressed is about religious fundamentalists, with an accusation that writers and artists are too scared to criticise them for fear of censorship or reprisals.

Such people demand respect for their religious beliefs and, where they also form a distinct ethnic group, their ethnicity. They often claim that criticism of their religion, or of the actions of their co-religionists, is so offensive and blasphemous that it ought not to be allowed and amounts to bigotry, prejudice and discrimination. Where there is a dimension related to ethnicity, they often claim that criticism of their religion or of the actions of their co-religionists is not only offensive but also racist. Thus we commonly hear Israelis cry “anti-semitism!” and Muslims cry “islamophobia!” and Christians cry “why isn’t our religion protected when all these dodgy foreigners are allowed to demand protection for theirs?”

Cohen thinks that too often writers, artists and the media go along with this claim that religious faith is entitled to a respect that precludes insulting, offensive or critical remarks being made about that faith – regardless of the consequences for free speech.

All this is rather timely from my point of view, as I have just started reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s The Caged Virgin. Ali writes a polemic in which she criticises Islam, and Islamic culture, accusing it of backwardness due to, among other things, its refusal to self-criticise or to countenance any external criticism. She also takes the West, especially the lefty West, to task for being so in love with an ideal of multi-culturalism and cultural respect that we refuse to criticise other cultures even when they are oppressive and otherwise fly in the face of all our liberal Western democratic values.

(Ali is also a significant feminist figure, however I won’t go into that now as I plan to blog more about this once I’ve actually read the rest of the book. Also worth noting in the context of this post is the fact that she wrote the short film Submission Part 1, which was directed by Theo Van Gogh, a film for which he was murdered and she received death threats.)

My initial thoughts about this whole issue are that it is certainly true that lefty types like me are reluctant to criticise other religions and other cultures than our own. Since I have no direct personal experience of the Islamic faith and culture, and only a limited factual knowledge about Islamic faith and culture, I do not feel well placed to make considered judgments about it.

I can see that many, most or perhaps all Islamic countries afford women fewer rights than we enjoy here in the UK*. I criticise that. I strongly suspect that this overt oppression and repression is very probably rooted in something about the Islamic religion and culture. I know that the Koran and other religious texts do not say very nice things about women, but then nor do the Bible or the Torah.

[* I say “fewer rights”. I do not say that British women have more freedom, or more respect. We have a different kind of oppression.]

I see that Islamic fundamentalists seem very much less tolerant of criticism than those of other religions, and much more prone to doing violence in response. I criticise that, and it may be that Ali is onto something when she suggests that there is something insular about Islam that breeds this kind of response. I also remember that, in centuries gone by, Christian religious leaders were equally intolerant, and much un-Christian violence was often done to heretics or unbelievers, all in the name of the Lord.

However, although I see these aspects of Islamism, and although I do criticise them from time to time, I am very cagey in how I express my views and very wary of going further than a brief comment hedged around with caveats.

Is this fear?

I hardly think the local people here are about to rise up against me and start issuing death threats. I guess I am more worried about being accused of arrogance, insensitivity, racism, Islamophobia, bigotry and all those other bad things. I am worried that if I tried to wade in too far or too freely, with insufficient understanding, that I would in fact be fully deserving of such slurs.

But, more than that, I think my reluctance to wade in is based mainly on a consciousness that there are battles I cannot fight. I cannot liberate oppressed Muslim women. That is not my fight and I am not qualified to engage in it. Only they can fight that battle.

But to say “it’s not my battle” is also a tremendous cop-out and is precisely the sort of thing that both Nick Cohen and Ayaan Hirsi Ali are complaining about. Because to stand idly by and let the suffering go on, in the name of sensitivity or multiculturalism or whatever you want to label your squeamishness about the debate, is not a moral response either.

So what is the answer? Are we damned if we do get involved, and damned if we don’t?

My responsibilty, as I see it, is to educate myself about the experience of Muslim women, to listen to their voices, and to learn.

My responsibility, where I have the opportunity to make a difference, is to let those voices make themselves heard and to prevent them from being silenced.

My responsibility is to try and cut through the multiplicity of points of view to find something that is true – not necessarily something that I was looking for based on my own preconceived notions, but something that I have come to, from the voices of these women themselves. To find something that is true, and to support that truth.

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