A couple of years ago, in fascinating debate in New York, the title of which was "Islam Is a Religion of Peace," the great Ayaan Hirsi Ali was on my side; and against us were two distinguished reformist Muslims of great charm, intelligence and seriousness. The debate was engaging and the audience engaged. And there was a single moment of congruence.
At the prompting of the chair, Ayaan Hirsi Ali mentioned something about the terrible threats to her life which have existed ever since she started to speak out against the fundamentalists in Islam. The audience were clearly reminded what a brave and extraordinary woman she was; you could feel them warming ever more to her. The other side must have sensed the same and in a fatal moment -- for their argument, that is -- one of them pointed out that they had al-Qaeda and other death threats on their heads too. Even though, strangely, the audience applauded, the other side, in revealing this truth, had fallen into a trap that no one had even intended to set. If everybody on each side of the debate -- those arguing Islam is indeed a religion of peace as well as those arguing that it is not -- had these death-threats hanging over them, then why were we even debating the matter? As I recall, once this was pointed out, a sort of collective groan of realization went up in the hall and the debate was over.
It is one of the strangest things in the debates around Islam that even the most vociferous progressive or moderate Muslims, who spend all their days talking about how everyone misunderstands Islam, now also find themselves coming to the attention of people not moderate.
This strange rule has just been proven again in Britain. Two Muslim commentators as well as the now stepped-down founder of the English Defence League have recently -- in one 24 hour period -- apparently all been visited at their homes by the police: they appear to have been named as targets in a new video released by the terrorist group al-Shabaab, which carried out last month's Westgate shopping-mall atrocity in Kenya. The threat is obviously most serious, and serious security precautions will have to be followed by all of them from now on.
There is, however, a horrible irony about all this. I will not name him here, in order not to add to his woes. But one of the Muslims who has apparently featured on this al-Shabaab target list is a notorious loudmouth who regularly poses as a very moderate cleric but in fact appears to have sympathies with some of the most regressive groups and ideas around. He has been repeatedly caught papering over the violent aspects not just of certain of his co-religionists but of the religion's sources. His greatest hobby of all is to spend inordinate amounts of his time -- almost adding up to a full-time job -- describing any and all of his critics as "Islamophobes." The problem in his view of the world seems not so much the Islamic extremists as the motivations of the people who criticize them.
Another Muslim apparently on the al-Shabaab hit list is another figure who has spent much of the last few years attacking all his critics as "Islamophobes." He runs an organization that has had some pretty serious Islamists on board, but it is the people who point such things out who have found themselves on the receiving end of his ire. He has nevertheless -- and perhaps this is why he has been targeted now -- been exceedingly critical, indeed superbly critical, of one issue in particular. In the now regular cases of the systemic rape of non-Muslim girls by Muslim men who have singled the girls out because of their non-Muslim religious and racial origin, this individual has been repeatedly outspoken. As pointed out before, it should be not regarded as immensely brave for a Muslim to speak out against the gang-rape of children: that says something in itself. Nevertheless he deserves credit for it, although it does not, or should not, also give him the right to describe all his critics in a manner that suggests they suffer from some irrational mental deficiency.
That these two men are now joined on an apparent hit-list by the former leader of the EDL -- a person who both the above would doubtless still describe as one of Britain's leading "Islamophobes" -- is no small irony.
These three have gone to-and-fro in recent months and years. They have almost completely opposite views of Islam. One is fiercely critical, the other two insistent that he is wrong and some variety of bigot. But once again, it does not matter what the personal disagreements and fall-outs are because historically, as in the French Revolution, in which eventually its founder Robespierre was guillotined as well, people of violence put you all in the same category. And if the people who think that the religion is violent, and the people who believe that the people who think that it is are all bigots, all end up on exactly the same death-lists, doesn't that tell us something about the subject under discussion?
There are many people who will still insist that exactly the same situation could have arisen after a discussion of Quakerism. But one cannot help getting the feeling that bit by bit, as the death-lists lengthen in scope, moderates, progressives, regressives, "Islamophobes," the lot of us, all strangely find our way onto the same lists. This thought might suggest in the end, even to some of the Islamists, that the problem is after all not everybody else's, but their own.