the second great European lie. Which is that for free and democratic societies the answer to radical Islam is another form of Islam. It makes 9/11 probably the single most successful act of Islamic proselytism since the death of Muhammad. It ensures that, whatever the problem, the answer is Islam. If people fly planes into towers, then that is bad Islam. The response must be to build Islamic structures to counter bad Islam. The response to “bad” Islam must be the pushing, promotion and support of “good” Islam.
It is this belief that has been the guiding force for governments in Britain and across the continent for the last decade. And there are obvious reasons why it has political appeal. It differentiates between the moderates and a minority of active extremists. And it suggests an immediate and practical solution. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been spent in Britain pursuing it. And it has only one major flaw: it is built on a lie. The answer to radical Islam in Western democracies cannot be to start extolling or transforming an only very recently imported religion whose history sadly suggests the severe difficulties of reform. Rather, the task of Western democracies must be to shore up our own societal defences — our own culture, our own values.
Instead, European governments are searching for a moderate Islam. The result is akin to the error of the man at closing time in the pub who sees two people quarrelling, inserts himself into the middle of their argument and finds himself the victim of their quarrel.
The problem that America and Europe today face was summed up by that exchange. Islam is not our belief system yet people in that religion have successfully persuaded our governments and legislatures that our future and theirs is predicated on successful reform of that religion. A reform which has so far proved impossible but which, we are told, might be achieved this time. The attractions are obvious. But it means that Western societies end up promoting something we do not believe in. It means we must pay to proselytise something we do not support. It means that we must hope that something we consider untrue can be accepted by others as true.
As we come to the tenth anniversary of 9/11, we can begin to discern certain patterns in our recent behaviour. For the last decade, we have fought the war against Islamic extremism on exactly the wrong terms. And though Britain has led the charge in the wrong direction, the US is now following.
Defeating the Soviets during the Cold War required a large box of tools. They ranged from the doughtiest Washington-based Cold Warriors to Polish socialists who disagreed with tenets of Russian communism. In the same way, the war against Islamic extremism will only be won by a large toolbox approach. That will include Muslim reformers who will work for many years to try to wrench their religion away from its magnetic literalism. But it will also include those like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and others, who believe that we must be allowed to say what we see when we look at this religion and retain the right to shine a light on it.
The tragedy is that for many of the so-called reformers
their task can, they believe, only be fulfilled by attacking those who speak the truth about Islam. They attempt to retain what little credibility they have by denying what are to very many of us self-evident and demonstrable truths about Islam. It has become the default position of European — and now American — governments to ground their resistance to Islamic extremism in the bolstering of people who are going out and telling what to our societies must be seen to be untruths. It is as though we had fought the Cold War while disallowing any criticism of communism.
Imam Rauf and his wife have revealed a lot about themselves in recent months. But America has revealed more. The particular debate may blow over but its consequences will not. At its heart are some of the great questions of our time. Do Western liberal democracies have the right to say the truth as we see it or must we be truth-neutral? Must we pretend we have no past but rather simply a clean slate on which whoever is loudest can write most surely? Are our societies to be forced to have every debate not on our own terms but rather in an increasingly Islamic key? Are we always to be the aggressor or are there times when we can justifiably claim to be the victims?
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How America responds to these questions will have implications for us all. It may also decide whether — if the era of American power is to end — it does so with a whimper before the bang.