It was, of course, insensitive to allow a teddy bear to be named Mahomet. What self-respecting teddy would want to bear a name that remains mired in such controversy? But if Sudanese folk want to make themselves and their religion the world’s laughing-stock by over-reacting, then that’s their business.
The questions which the Gillian Gibbons case raise for us are questions about the organisation of our own society and the terms on which peoples co-exist, without the involuntary surrender of one to another.
Mutual cultural respect is independent of religion. One does not have to worship Allah to appreciate the Alhambra, the Dome of the Rock, Persian poetry or Bengali cooking. Any more than one has to be a devotee of Amun-Ra to comprehend the Pyramids, the Valley of the Kings or the temple complex of Karnak. Culture is not compulsory; you take it or leave it and if you leave it the consequences are not usually fatal. It is inclusive, and because it forms part of the outer life it hangs lightly, like sand over the bedrock of being.
Mutual religious respect is another matter. Religion essentially deals with the inner life and, with few exceptions, is exclusive. Sometimes there are penalties for rejecting it, which can even mean being killed by those you have left behind. Or even by those you never agreed with in the first place. The more fervent the religious belief, the less respect for other beliefs is possible. For the devout Christian, Islam is at best the Mahometan heresy, at worst the work of the Anti-Christ. And the feeling can be mutual. The only alternative to mutual hostility politically is a rigorously secular state that takes no cognisance of belief. Thoughtful religions will appreciate that conversion by force of law is no conversion.
The distinction between culture and religion is therefore one of the most important distinctions of all, yet is increasingly neglected. Universal human rights are being exposed as a sham, determined less and less by objective principles, more and more by fear of those who shout loudest, those with the touchiest feelings and the most extreme forms of self-expression. Terrorism shows that the threats are real enough, though any target country with a long history of self-interested and often violent meddling in the affairs of other states might be judged to be getting no more than its just deserts.
Labour’s cowardice in the face of threats is obvious and understandable. Its power depends on appeasement because, within its heartlands, power depends on not losing the Mahometan vote. So it is with the issue of ritual slaughter. It wouldn’t be such a one-sided issue if the English truly were a nation of animal lovers. If fox hunting was banned for animal welfare reasons, as stated (and that’s a very big ‘if’), then ritual slaughter cannot be tolerated either. If it’s against the law for atheists, Christians and pagans to do it, then Jews and Mahometans should be treated no differently, where they do not form the majority. Different regions could have different laws, according to regional preference, but Wessex, with a tiny Mahometan population, would be unlikely to maintain the exemption. Those who dissent can, if necessary, be either vegetarians or emigrants. At the very least, proper labelling should be mandatory so that everyone eats what they think they are eating.
In multi-cultural Britain, the one culture conspicuous by its absence is ours. It’s not one of which we should be ashamed in any way. If it cannot thrive in its homeland, where can it thrive? By ‘ours’ is not meant just English culture in the round but our specific Wessex dimension, still looked down upon by the London media as the butt of ‘West Country’ jokes. Substitute blacks or Irish and see if the jokes are still politically correct. (Wessex folk, it must be said, can be every bit as bad about the Cornish, just as the Irish joke about those from Kerry, and Kerrymen in their turn about the folk of West Kerry.) That’s not to say that we want to take up the standard assigned role as victims. Political correctness – politicheskaya pravil’nost – was invented under Lenin, so we know where that’s taking us. It shouldn’t be necessary to kick up a fuss in the first place and life would indeed be better without ever-more intrusive legislation criminalising thought and choice. Common sense and common respect is all we ask for, not bureaucratised bullying to take the place of every other kind, nor the idea that those who don’t live in London are intellectually and morally retarded by lack of exposure to the big wide world.
We can take care of ourselves, thank you. And so can the world. A common reaction to events in Sudan has been ‘no more aid for ungrateful Africa’. It’s been over 50 years since independence and it’s true that Africans should by now be able to stand on their own two feet. Believing otherwise may be good for a sense of post-colonial guilt but it does Africa no favours at all. Simply contrast what little the decades of aid have done for that continent with China’s runaway success almost entirely from its own efforts.
It’s inexplicable that any teacher from Britain should give priority to teaching Sudanese children over ‘charity begins at home’. Children here are leaving primary school unable to read. One might question whether they should even be going to school until they can, always assuming that their parents are literate enough to give them that start in life. Our education system is in meltdown and centralist attempts to save it have only made matters worse. The National Curriculum was supposed to raise standards, not lower them. But that’s what happens when schools are taken out of the hands of the community and subjected to patronising interference by Whitehall-knows-best. Thanks to the National Curriculum, all schools now teach at the level of the worst and all initiative has been throttled. Transmission of culture has given way to novelty for its own sake. Labour, instead of confronting the teaching profession’s abdication of responsibility constructively, is throwing billions at unnecessary new school buildings. A huge waste of money, accompanied by school re-foundations that wipe out any continuity of ethos. The oldest of the buildings at Eton College is from the 15th century; the fact doesn’t seem to deter parents who can from sending their children to be taught there, nor stunt the pupils’ careers.
The mess created by centuries of centralism will not be put right overnight but the principles are easy to define. We all of us start from where we are and work outwards. Our local community comes first, then our region, and we help the rest of the world with what’s left over. All those who wish to join us in the task of repair are welcome; those who come to sneer, whinge or exploit are not. We mean others no harm and we expect no less of them.