Perhaps the story of the past week has been controversy over the Director General of ASIO, Duncan Lewis, publicly rebuking a number of politicians and urging that they curb their outspokenness regarding Islam. Lewis had made two crucial points: that intemperate criticism of Islam risked inflaming Muslim opinion, making ASIO’s job harder; and that it was ‘blasphemous, to the extent that I can comment on someone else’s religion’ to suggest that Islamist terrorism springs from Islam itself.
It is, surely, rather unusual for the head of the security service to rebuke senior politicians for their remarks; but that a man of Lewis’s character and calibre felt the need to do so throws into high relief the delicate situation he believes we face within at least certain sections of the Muslim community. His task is to keep the lid on things. He fears that open criticism of Islam could blow that lid off. The problem is sufficiently delicate, it would appear, that he sees calls for a reform of Islam as inflammatory.
Yet the need for quite sweeping reforms and liberalization within the Islamic world are patent; whether in Shiite Iran, which groans under a theocratic tyranny; or reactionary monarchist Saudi Arabia, with its state-sponsored Wahhabist religion; or in any number of other Muslim countries, in which cruel penal codes, religious intolerance and misogyny are entrenched and oppressive. Islamists are trying to impose from Pakistan and Afghanistan, through much of the Middle East, in Libya, the Horn of Africa and parts of West Africa a brutal and misogynist rule. They declare this to be mandated by the Qur’an and not by any other authority.
It beggars belief that Duncan Lewis is oblivious to these realities. One must infer, therefore, that he simply thinks we should tip toe around them, lest we stir up a hornets nest. Doesn’t this suggest that the Muslim community contains a large body of opinion that he fears could all too readily swing behind the jihadists if riled? There is clear empirical evidence from overseas that a substantial number of Muslims approve of what their violent co-religionists are doing. Without doubt, it is this body of opinion that the Islamists seek to mobilize in order to further their benighted cause. Is Lewis hoping against hope that, by exercising extraordinary restraint (and requiring it of our political representatives) we can avoid this happening here? I think we should assume so.
Not content, however, with calling for the use of temperate language on the part of political figures, he states that it is ‘blasphemous’ to suggest that terrorism springs from Islam, to the extent that he ‘can comment on someone else’s religion’. Here there are two problems, which throw into even higher relief the nature of our present difficulties. Firstly, the terrorism in question is uniformly practised in the name of Islam. This makes cleaning it up primarily a problem within Islam. Secondly, we are and must remain perfectly free to comment on the religious belief of others. We cannot maintain a free and secular society by pretending that anything done in the name of religion, or any religion itself, is immune from criticism.
The Islamists themselves, from Sayyid Qutb and Ayman al-Zawahiri of the Muslim Brotherhood and al Qaeda to the ruthless foot soldiers of the Taliban or of Boko Haram, to the merciless killers of ISIS declare outright that their jihad is sanctioned by the Qur’an. Even our own Waleed Aly describes their claims as an ‘austere scripturalism’. Note that phrase. It simply will not do, therefore, to pretend that there is no basis for violent jihad in Islam and that it is offensive to call for major changes in how Islam is taught and held.
The question is not whether there is a problem with Islam, but what to do about it. Our answer, as a secular Western democracy must be to insist that Muslims can live alongside the rest of us on the understanding that they fully accept the rules of co-existence, which preclude religious fanaticism; require that their religion remain open to criticism and change; and encourage the adoption of cosmopolitan norms in the place of reactionary beliefs and practices. This may take a while, but it must be our common goal.
It is striking, therefore, that Duncan Lewis would imply that one cannot, past a certain point, even comment on someone else’s religion. How, without freely doing so, could we ever have created a secular society or a scientific worldview? Two hundred and fifty years ago, Voltaire openly called for the abolition of Christianity and Judaism as infamous superstitions. Are we now to say that even calls for reforms within Islam are too inflammatory for public figures to utter?
There is no sound basis for treating religions as if they deserve inordinate respect – except the kind of prudence that Mr Lewis urges, out of a concern that religious rancour will get out of hand. But that means that it is the religious rancour that is the problem, not calls for its reform. Religious beliefs are all too often patently absurd. New-fangled cults and millenarian movements regularly remind us of this. Islam is by no means an exception and cannot be spared criticism merely because some of its adherents threaten violence on that account.
Duncan Lewis is a knight protector of the realm. We are fortunate to have him running ASIO. He is doing all he can to keep the peace and maintain social calm. Let’s not, therefore, make too much of his recent remarks, or hound him on account of them. But let us not, on the other hand, lose our confidence or assurance so far as to self-censor when it comes to religion in general, including Islam, and the defence of civilized norms. What is called for is not silence or mealy-mouthed platitudes, but sustained honesty and well-informed debate about how to overcome rancorous religion and continue to build a prosperous, secure and cosmopolitan society.