An open letter to the Muslim Action Committee
First of all, I would like to thank you for the work you did last week to help ensure that the rallies in Birmingham and London were peaceful occasions. When we chatted last night on Radio Five Live, I said that the Muslim and non-Muslim parts of our community tend to stare at one another in suspicion and hostility from heavily fortified bunkers. I think we have helped reduce this problem, if only slightly.
As I have told you during our telephone conversations, I asked people not to bring the cartoons on placards because I wanted Muslims to feel able to participate in our campaign if they agreed with the principles behind it, and for no other reason. I also told you it was not a bargaining chip of any kind. As you know, I had hoped it might help you change your mind and send a speaker to put your viewpoint to the rally but, disappointingly, you did not feel able to do so. Nonetheless, we heard a number of views from within the Islamic world.
Some people did feel so strongly about the cartoon issue that they brought them on placards. In every case, they did so in a way that showed their support for Denmark and their anger that artists are living in hiding after death threats were made against them by homicidal fanatics. I hope you will join with me in acknowledging and respecting the strength of their opinions, and their commitment to peace and freedom, even if you do not agree with them. Certainly, everyone who attended made sure the rally was a place where none of the Muslims I spoke to, including representatives of the media from the Islamic world, felt uncomfortable. The only complaint came from someone who came along specifically to try to find a reason to complain.
As I have told you on the telephone, I am not a Muslim and I am not bound by Islamic laws or taboos. I do not think the "Danish cartoons" were offensive and point out that almost nobody was offended when they were published. There was, in fact, almost no reaction to the actual publication. The trouble came later, after a group of Danish Imams toured the Middle East with a "dodgy dossier" specifically trying to stir up trouble. We all need to denounce this sort of deliberate troublemaking, and this sort of deliberate creation of tension and rifts within our community.
But even if they had been offensive, threats of any description are wholly unacceptable, and the mealy-mouthed waffling of the Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, when he failed to condemn the death threats but did condemn the cartoons, was the initial impetus for this campaign. Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani lists "unclean" things on his website. I am one of them (Kaffir). That is offensive. But I don't think he should be banned from saying this.
When I asked people not to bring the cartoons to the rally, I also said we would exhibit them subsequently. We are now going to arrange this. We propose to find a venue within which they can be shown and discussed. As I have told you, I support the right to offend, not because I advocate the giving of offense, but because without this there can be no freedom of speech or expression. But, even so, in this case nobody who might be offended by the sight of them need enter the venue.
The only grounds that any Muslim could object to this on would be that they sought to impose Sharia Law and Muslim taboos on non-Muslims, even when those non-Muslims are in private surroundings. This would be a nakedly fascistic line and, while I know there are some on the extreme fringes who might advocate this, I know this sort of view is as repugnant to moderate, mainstream Muslims as the terrorism these fringes resort to when they feel they have been thwarted, or when they seek to advance their agendas.
I know you would want to have this opportunity to make sure that no controversy ever gets started, and that good community relations are preserved, by stating now that you accept and support our right to hold this exhibition.
The next is more difficult, I know. We would very much welcome it if you were to attend the exhibition and debate the cartoons. I realise you might find this impossible, but dialogue is a two way street, as I think I have proved. Sometimes we have to take difficult and unpopular decisions in the interests of good community relations. You know I have received significant and frequently venomous criticism for having asked people to take into account Muslim sensibilities.
Now you have an opportunity to show similar courage in the name of reconciliation. This opportunity we both have to break down barriers is one of the best things to come out of the free expression campaign. I'm glad I had a chance to make a contribution first. I'm also very glad you now have a similar opportunity.