A long voyage

As in India, the maintenance of social peace requires strict controls on free expression
March 22, 2006

The Bush administration is, for once, correct when it says that Europe needs to be much more serious about combating terrorism. Europe is in much more danger than the US. Its vulnerability is vastly increased by the presence of large and disaffected Muslim minorities. The decision of several European countries to support US actions in the middle east inevitably makes them targets. In fact, there is a good chance that the US and Israel will eventually plunge into conflict with much of the Muslim world, and that Europe will serve as one of the chief battlefields.

Equally, fear and suspicion of Muslim minorities among European majorities means that terrorism in Europe has the potential to cause a chauvinist backlash that could endanger pluralist democracy in the long term. If the spread of technology leads to greatly increased terrorist slaughter, such a backlash may be inevitable.

Declining birth rates in most European states, coupled with high Muslim birth rates and continued immigration, mean that the Muslim share of the European population is bound to grow steeply over the next few decades—to a quarter or more of some nations. And as citizens, Muslims will have the same right to make their collective voices heard as any other big group in western democracies. This development would have been a severe challenge to European democracy even without the addition of Islamist terrorism.

Getting serious about terrorism requires a toughening across Europe of the laws concerning both the planning and justification of terrorism, and the incitement of religious and ethnic hatred. This means the swifter imprisonment of figures like Abu Hamza, and ending the legal protections such as those that allowed the acquittal of known members of al Qaeda in Germany, or led to a ten-year delay in extraditing Rashid Ramda from Britain to France. Stronger measures against illegal immigration, especially from North Africa, are also necessary.

However, taking the threat of terrorism and communal strife seriously also requires the prosecution of those European publications which, in future, commit offences like printing insulting cartoons of the Prophet. There is also a strong case for the revival and implementation of blasphemy laws across Europe and their explicit extension to cover not just Christianity but all the major religions.

If these cartoons prove the last straw that leads only a few more European Muslims to join terrorist groups and carry out successful terrorist attacks, then not just the terrorists, but the fools who started this scandal will have blood on their hands.

Even George W Bush knows that if the "war on terror" is seen by most Muslims to be a war with Islam, then that war will be lost. In the end, it is only Muslims—not only in the middle east, but in Europe too—who can isolate and defeat their own extremists.

Arguments that this is about essential rights of free speech are mere hypocrisy. As Simon Jenkins has pointed out, "No newspaper would let a cartoonist depict Jesus Christ dropping cluster bombs," or use vicious caricatures of Hebrew prophets to comment on the policies of Israel. This is especially true of those conservative newspapers, like Die Welt, which have chosen deliberately to fan the flames of this miserable affair.

My attitude to this kind of insult has been profoundly shaped by the years I spent in India. When a local Hindu paper in India prints offensive pictures of Muhammad, or a local Muslim one caricatures Hindu gods, no one calls this a "defence of free speech." The intention is to increase hatred, and all too often, in the communal violence that follows, men are killed, women raped, children burned alive, the image of Indian democracy tarnished and the fabric of Indian society weakened. In consequence there are strict laws against this kind of provocation. Given political realities and state weakness, they are often not implemented—just as the Danish police failed to enforce Denmark's own laws against the encouragement of religious hatred.

The original European decision to allow large-scale immigration from the former European empires may well have been a mistake. However, in that case we also should not have acquired those empires in the first place. And in any case, there is no point in debating this now, for to reverse that decision would take measures that would mean the end of western democracy.

In the officers' messes of the old Royal Navy, there was a strictly enforced rule that certain controversial subjects could not be discussed. This was because it was not a good idea to offend a man beside whom you may find yourself fighting for your life against the sea or the enemy, and with whom you are certainly going to have to sit down to dinner every evening on a voyage that may last years.

The peoples of Europe are engaged together on the longest of voyages. The shore is far behind us, and it is too late to think of changing the crew. In these circumstances, basic mutual courtesy is not a matter of social niceties or political correctness. It is essential to the survival of our ship.