Religion cannot be protected from debate and criticism

When Khalid Masood drove his car over pedestrians on Westminster Bridge with nothing but anger and a vague notion of Jihad in his heart, it was not the first time that Britain had been the victim of a religious zealot. Nor will it be the last. In our assessment of Islam in the 21st Century and the impact of its political (and frankly unreligious) arm we can too easily be bogged down by scripture and interpretations. Grand, sweeping questions like ‘is Islam or Christianity a force for good or evil in the World?’ cannot be succinctly answered. And nor should they.

What is of relevance is the impact that religion has had and continues to have over the individual. The Enlightenment did much to challenge the unaccountable and unquestioned religious authorities of its time, but we need a new discourse to finish the job, or at least move the debate forwards. Religion continues to maintain privilege in modern public debate, a position elevated by a liberal intellectualism that protects religious practices as a choice without scratching the surface of what it supports underneath.

As alluded to in opening, doctrines within Islam cannot be held accountable for the actions of a man with a history of violence carrying out a personal atrocity. Nor can peaceful believers be expected or allowed to bear the crimes of states who carry out crimes against their own people in the name of their God or their religion. However, as believers in liberty we must consider religion in the same way that we deconstruct Communism and its socialist counterparts. Without the creeping dogmas of one, the other would not exist.

The quest to avoid offence to the religious follows the same disastrous liberal model as all other similar projects. In order to protect the interests of the few it must be necessary to construct a ‘collective will’ and restrict any debate that strays outside of what is perceived as being central to that ideology. The blame for criminal acts is placed at the feet of the victim for having brought the injustice upon themselves. The murdered cartoonist should not have attempted to satirise, however crudely, the Prophet Muhammed. The author could not have expected to avoid a fatwa for writing such a distasteful novel. How can Britain expect to be free from terror if it engages in conflicts overseas?

Sentiments such as these benefit no-one. It precludes events such as the War in Iraq from the proper scrutiny that would result in valuable lessons being learned. Instead we simply swallow consequences without attempting to gain a comprehensive understanding of the increasingly complex picture that is emerging. If we had attempted to deal with ‘the Troubles’ as a merely religious conflict, then there never would have been reached even a tentative resolution.

After the attack on Westminster an image circulated social media of a Muslim woman walking carelessly away from casualties on the side of the road. This image, deliberately misleading, is the prime example of how the British public can be trusted to undertake debate on these issues without the need of guidance or patronising. The image was exposed as a deliberate omission of truth, selectively chosen as it was to show the least amount of fear and just the right amount of apathy. It was not believed. The truth was exposed, people were not as willing to digest ignorance as some would have us believe.

When our civil liberties are curtailed in the name of anti-terrorist measures it is because of moments like these. Shrouding a religion or culture in secrecy, protecting it from debate and criticism, breeds greater fear than bile and hatred would. When deliberate acts of sabotage or racism are clear to the public, they are more generally exposed than one might expect. It is when bigots are pushed underground that they do the most damage, in the cold light of day, they are seen for what they are.

It is possible to discuss the interplay between Islam and terrorism without being Islamophobic. One can find deplorable the acts of the Government of Israel without being an anti-Semite. When racism is proclaimed boldly, it is rejected and replaced with compassion and hope. We should not be so afraid of each other as we have become. Nor should we be so afraid of offending or being offended. A failure to understand this leaves us more exposed to terror and the subsequent erosion of our own liberties.

This is truly when terrorism wins. With open, honest and informed debate: we can defeat it.

Daniel is a Secondary School teacher in Buckinghamshire and a member of the Wycombe Conservative Association. Follow him on Twitter: @danielrdownes

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The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty

Photo courtesy of Tony Burgess