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Why I will not sign the Pledge to British Muslims

Why I will not sign the Pledge to British Muslims

Author: Charles Moore
Publication: The daily Telegraph
Date: November 7, 2001

The week before last, I received a letter from Sher Khan, the national of the Islamic Society of Britain. As I was "one of an 40 key opinion formers", I was invited to sign "The Pledge to British Muslims". This would indicate my "long-term support for Muslim ", as part of Muslim Awareness, he said. Once signed, the should be returned to Hobsbawm Macaulay (not a theological body, but the PR firm half-owned by the wife of the Chancellor of the Exchequer).

The wording of the Pledge began with the horror of September 11 and the consequent need to promote religious understanding. Then it listed several things pledged, including "work for greater understanding of each other's faiths and ways of life", condemnation of attacks upon places of worship, and the need to "avoid using language of an inflammatory or discriminatory nature".

My first inclination was to sign. The Daily Telegraph is a newspaper that takes religion seriously. At the time of the Millennium, we protested that the event celebrated was not how cool Britannia had become, but the (supposed) 2000th birthday of Jesus Christ. We produced a part-work called AD which told the history of Christianity. Arguing that there is a strong common heritage in Judaism, Islam and Christianity, we have tended to take the side of belief against the scorn or ignorance of secularism. Earlier this year, before September 11, I met leading members of the Muslim Council of Britain and discussed ideas for telling our readers more about the nature and history of Islam. These ideas will shortly bear fruit in the paper.

I agreed with the sentiments in the Pledge. It is astonishing how little we know or care about other people's religions (and millions of people in modern Britain are almost as ignorant of Christianity as they are of Islam). Knowledge usually reduces hatred, and is intellectually and culturally valuable. We should all be trying to improve matters.

But then a couple of things gave me pause. First, it is probably unwise for editors to go around signing pledges about anything. The paper should arrive at its views independently, and publish them - it is generally best to avoid affiliation to other organisations.

Second, I noticed that the Pledge was not a pledge to all and sundry. It is called the Pledge to British Muslims. Why, I wondered, should editors, politicians, broadcasters and religious leaders have to make a pledge solely and specifically to Muslims? Didn't Christians, Jews, Sikhs and Hindus - and even poor, unled atheists and honest doubters - have just as much to fear from religious bigotry and misunderstanding? And wasn't there an implication of guilt in demanding such a pledge? What had the "40 key opinion formers" done to Muslims that they should have to make amends? It was usually ex-drunks who took the pledge of temperance: were we in similar need of total reformation?

Mr Khan's letter referred to "the beating of a Muslim cab driver in London and the attack on a young Muslim woman with a baseball bat in Swindon" as examples of why the Pledge was necessary. Certainly, these are horrible incidents, but what would Muslim leaders say if they were asked to sign a Pledge to British Jews/Sikhs/Christians against religious intolerance because of attacks on synagogues, or after the attacks on Sikh schoolchildren in Derby, or the incident, reported today, in which dozens of youths, allegedly Muslim, broke into a church in Bradford, tried to set fire to it, and attacked the vicar?

Of all the main religions in British society today, it is Muslims from whom people most want a pledge of tolerance. This is because Osama bin Laden loudly justifies his acts of mass murder as acts of religious duty. People want to hear from Muslim leaders that his claim is false. And although condemnations of bin Laden have certainly been forthcoming, there is a sense that too many British Muslims are hostile to the society in which they live and place their deepest loyalties elsewhere. As Hugo Young wrote in the Guardian on Tuesday, " out of concern for the defence of immigrants, we tiptoe round the values and norms that constitute the obligations that are central to being British".

Actually, I think it would be insulting to ask Muslims to sign any pledge. Most Muslims in Britain show by their actions, and many confirm with their words, that they accept Mr Young's norms: they shouldn't be bullied into putting it in writing. But if that is true for them, how much more is it true for everyone else? I decided not to sign.

One notes that the bullying of the non-signers has started. The new Conservative leader, Iain Duncan Smith, has been assailed on the Today programme. The Daily Mirror - which thinks that the Pledge is a "race test", though the word race is not mentioned - calls him "arrogant, ignorant and offensive". Lord Taylor, the Tory peer whose sole function seems to be to pop up when required to attack his own party, has once again obliged. Yet if an editor should not put his name along the dotted line provided by a religious organisation, the same applies, with knobs on, to the leader of a political party. He should never circumscribe his ability to take part in public debate, nor should he try to respond to "When did you stop beating your wife?" questions. He must answer to the electorate, not to the Islamic Society of Britain.

One does not blame the Islamic Society for trying the idea out on political leaders, who are fair game, but it is a test of those leaders that they know how to respond. Those who have rushed to sign remind one of the people who used to sign petitions in the name of "peace" run by those who supported unilateral nuclear disarmament in the days of the Cold War. By failing to see the difference between unobjectionable sentiments and the context in which they are framed, they show a lack of judgment.

But one does feel a twinge of irritation that the society is badgering religious leaders to fax their agreement to Mrs Gordon Brown. Why should the Chief Rabbi have to sign something got up by an organisation which also publishes documents describing Zionists as "savages"? And must the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has devoted much of the past 40 years to improving the understanding between faiths, be catechised by a pressure group? Both men have refused to sign. I feel in good company.

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