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Waleed Aly must step up on Muslim free speech at Voltaire Award

On July 23, Waleed Aly will be presented with the Voltaire Award for free speech from Liberty Victoria. It would be rather charming were he to give a speech on that occasion reflecting on Voltaire’s play Mahomet, which depicted Islam as based on false miracles, personal ambition and ruthless fanaticism.

For some time Aly has been the go-to person for commentary on Islam and avoiding what is widely dubbed “Islamophobia”. It is safe to say he does not share Voltaire’s assessment of Islam.

Yet Voltaire remains a figure for our time, and free speech on the subject of Islam has become extraordinarily problematic. Imagine Mahomet being produced in Paris today! The truth is, if we truly want to buttress a tolerant, multicultural society, we have to confront more honestly the underlying realities that generate “Islamophobia”, however awkward this may be, especially for those such as Aly who are stranded between Islamic culture and secular society. The occasion of the Voltaire Award for free speech is an opportunity for Aly to make this clear.

In April, Aly was interviewed at length by Robert Manne under the rubric “Islam: What are We Afraid of? Waleed Aly and Robert Manne in conversation.” Their conversation was lucid, temperate and fascinating. In some ways, it was a model of intellectual discourse in civil society. The problem is, they did not answer their own question, to say nothing of answering it as Voltaire would have done.

Aly observed correctly that Islamist terrorism had got only worse since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and especially since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

He distinguished thoughtfully between European, American and Australian reactions to Muslim immigration and made intelligent points about Islamic State, Iraq, Syria and the debacle of the briefly promising Arab Spring. He described the short rule in Egypt by the Muslim Brotherhood as “a disaster”. However, neither he nor Manne raised serious questions about Islam itself; simply gliding over it as “one of the world’s great religions”; the fear of which is, implicitly, irrational, phobic, ignorant and, in Aly’s words, hardly worth engaging with.

They described Islamic State as a rogue operation whose atrocities had nothing to do with Islam but were aberrant even by the standards of al-Qa’ida.

Aly compared beheadings by Islamic State to the Jacobin Terror in 1793 France but didn’t mention beheadings in the history of Islam. Neither mentioned movements towards Islamisation — from North Africa via Turkey to Indonesia — or the disturbing phenomenon of Muslim “militants” murdering journalists and others for mocking Islam.

Consequently, they failed to explain why there would be any reason to feel uneasy about or even hostile to the growing presence of Islam in the West. One might have expected at least passing reference to the many centuries of confrontation between Europe and an expansionist Islam up to the late 17th century. But the only confrontation discussed was the Western invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11.

Clearly, this is an immensely sensitive subject and it is easy to lapse into polemic about it, inflaming rather than tempering debate. If, however, we are to answer the question “Islam: What are we afraid of?” we cannot avoid raising certain characteristics of Islam that do in fact give cause for concern to many people in the West, and many of those trapped in Muslim-dominated states. We know far more than Voltaire did, and what we know is not reassuring.

Karen Armstrong has portrayed Mohammed as “a prophet for our time”. But the classic Muslim sources (Ibn Ishaq, Ibn Kathir, Waqidi, al-Tabari, going back to the 8th and 9th centuries) make clear that he was a very dubious figure even in his own time. He founded a religion at the point of a sword, plundered infidels, arranged for the murder of his critics (even poets), massacred or expelled communities of Jews in Arabia, condemned apostates to death, was an unscrupulous poly­gamist and taught that women were inferior to men.

The Muslim sources themselves are completely explicit on all these points. It is simply dishonest to pretend that none of this is true or to pass it off on the basis that Christianity and even Judaism also have their dark or dubious characteristics. The modern world (Voltaire being a leader) fought its way free of Judeo-Christian dogmatism and error through trenchant criticism of religious claims and practices. There are no good grounds for sparing Islam similar critical treatment; all the more so because we are seeking to integrate into Western societies millions of human beings who happen to be Muslims.

Outside the West, the problem is much worse. In wide swathes of the Muslim world, other religions are persecuted and apostates are hunted to death with judicial sanction. Blasphemy is violently attacked and Muslim “heretics” hounded. Homosexuals are condemned to death. Women and girls are denied freedom and education. The Jews are viciously denounced on racist and religious grounds, quite apart from the political issue of Zionism.

What are we afraid of, then? A world in which, from Bangladesh to West Africa, a savage version of Islam is being championed by armed groups; in which the Indonesian Ulama Council has issued fatwas denouncing secularism, pluralism and liberalism as “sipilis” (syphilis); in which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last year publicly lionised historic Muslim conquests and called for the reconquest of Europe by Muslim immigration.

All these things cause unease and fear. Should they not? We need to address them honestly and intelligently, not dismiss fear of Islam as phobic or bigoted. It would have been good had Manne asked Aly questions about these difficult matters and had Aly addressed them. In accepting his Voltaire Award, Aly needs to step up and champion freedom of speech in the Muslim world and freedom to criticise Islam itself, including the Prophet — as Voltaire himself did.

Paul Monk is the author of The West in a Nutshell (2009), Opinions and Reflections: A Free Mind at Work 1990-2015 (2015) and Credo and Twelve Poems: A Cosmological Manifesto (2016).

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