Indeed, to return to my trade union analogy, even if we want to do a base deal with the extreme, self-appointed spokesmen of Islam today, we should recognise that they cannot deliver. Everything is in flux. We are seeing a battle about modernity. The struggle to replace the old, tribal immigrant leaders is led, on one side, by a rigorous revolutionary creed, a sort of God-intoxicated Militant Tendency which thinks it is in the vanguard of history. Hizb ut Tahrir, for example, sells itself as an organisation that scorns most of what happens in mosques, puts little emphasis on prayer and even holds out the prospect of much wider marriage opportunities than are traditional. It acts modern.
On the other side are those genuine reformers who long to live at peace in the free Western world, who are in Britain by choice as well as by chance.
I think the extremists are as brittle as was Arthur Scargill and, unless we are so foolish as to help them, they will not prevail. The bearded men who brandish placards calling for the beheading of those who insult Islam because of a few harmless cartoons will quite soon come to look as outdated as those pickets with their mutton-chop whiskers gathered round braziers and shouting ‘Scab!’ in the 1970s.
Conservatives, who have the advantage over the Left of being unembarrassed by British history, should study the interesting fact that tens of thousands of Muslims volunteered — they were not conscripted — to fight for the British Empire in two world wars. In the first, they fought against the Ottoman Empire, to which, in theory, they owed spiritual allegiance. Why did they do so? Not, surely, because they were offered multiculturalism, but because they felt themselves respected and secure in the self-confident British political culture of that time.
We should bear in mind the importance of the individual rather than the group. A believing Muslim will naturally regard his belief as encompassing his whole life, but that will not mean that he makes no separation between his personal beliefs and his politics.
Our Western language of rights and freedom puts great stress on the fact that each person is entitled to choice and autonomy. We must never allow our respect for any organised religion to allow us to forget the individual rights of its adherents and of the rest of us. We must not fall into the trap of speaking of Muslims as being defined, for purposes of most public policy and law, by their religion. For most purposes, we do not need to speak to Muslims through self-appointed gatekeepers. Muslims here, like Jews and Hindus and Sikhs and Christians and nothings and don’t knows, are individual men and women and they are British.
But it may also be that, purged of its current political deformations, Islam will indeed have things from which British society can profit. I am in correspondence with a Muslim thinker who criticises the ‘identity politics’ pursued by so many Islamist leaders. He says such attitudes produce only anger and pride. Muslims are enjoined, he says, to be ‘scholars of the heart’. In Islam, the word ‘honour’ does not have to go with the word ‘killing’, but can have a real meaning which it has too often lost in our secular society. So can ideas of dignity, of obligation to elderly parents, of community. He quotes a Sufi saying: ‘If every man were to mend a man, then every man would be mended.’ Our broken society, of which conservatives rightly talk so much today, has need of such mending.