Books: A Point of View: Legal Dilemmas |
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Legal Dilemmas : why we need dilemmas

(S03E07, broadcast 18th and 20th April 2008)

" Why we need dilemmas"

At a time when Iraqis who have risked their lives for Britain in Basra need a newspaper campaign to be allowed into this country, the radical cleric Abu Qatada apparently can’t be allowed out. The case of Abu Qatada might have been designed as an extreme test for the principle that the rule of law must be put before our feelings. My own feelings on the matter are quite clear. I feel that Abu Qatada should be locked up in a suitably padded cell with a television set he can’t turn off, the television set showing nothing except one episode after another of Big Brother.

So perhaps it’s lucky that I am not in charge of enforcing the law. Undoubtedly my chosen method of dealing with Abu Qatada would be a form of torture. Since the law is against torture and I am too, another set of feelings enters the picture to confuse my first set of feelings, which turn out to be not as clear as I thought. My first feeling that Abu Qatada, clearly a menace to all Muslims as well as everybody else, should somehow be made to vanish, is complicated by my second feeling, which is that he should not be rendered up to a government whose promise to refrain from torturing him is compromised by the fact that officers of its prison system have tortured people before. That sounds like an untrustworthy promise.

So to my mind, increasingly feeble instrument though it is, there is a dilemma. Abu Qatada has a record of preaching the desirability of doing unlawful things. But there is no lawful way of getting him out of the country. There might not even be any way of withdrawing the considerable amount of money his extended stay here has so far cost us, through the benefits system that he didn’t hesitate to invoke even while preaching death and destruction against all the workings of liberal democracy. So we are stuck for an answer, and, as people tend to do when they are stuck for an answer, we change the subject. If we can’t deal with him, who can we deal with?

Well, we can deal with people who have done less, or done nothing. At this point, Sir Vidia Naipaul handily makes himself available. Getting in ahead of the biographies that will reveal all after his death, Sir Vidia has cooperated with a biography that reveals all while he is still alive. Thus we have it on his own authority that he behaved badly to the three women who have shared the greater part of his working life. It isn’t a story that inclines me to share a drink with him, not that he is likely to ask me. But he has confessed to nothing unlawful and so far most of the reviewers of his biography have stressed the importance of separating the man from the work.

The Independent’s formidable journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, however, was not minded to do so. She avowed her intention of not reading anything by Sir Vidia ever again. Like anyone who has ever taken tea with Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, I have a lot of respect for her powers of argument. Three rounds with Buffy the Vampire Slayer would be a more comfortable encounter for her opponent. Were we to take tea again, however, I would attempt to raise the same question about Leo Tolstoy, Ernest Hemingway and Bertolt Brecht, all of whom, when it came to their treatment of the women who loved them, left Sir Vidia looking like a therapist. Has she stopped reading them?

And in Sir Vidia’s invidious case, the women could always have told the genius to go chase himself. None of them did, and it seems fair to assume that they put up with him because they thought he was an important man. Yasmin the Naipaul Slayer takes a lot on her shoulders when she declines to think the same. It’s possible that she got carried away by the relief of being able to discuss a clear-cut issue. I don’t think it is, quite, but it’s certainly a lot more clear-cut than another issue that she has been facing lately with a bravery that must be a tax on the nerves.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown hasn’t given up on her warnings about the injustice of marginalizing Islamic citizens of Britain. Nor should she. But she has also continued warning Islamic citizens against extremists. The price she risks paying for this is to be called racist, even though racism is the very thing she is arguing against, because the extremists really are racists. But among her fellow journalists there are all too many who are ready to employ the word ‘racist’ against anybody, even a Muslim, who calls for the great majority of law-abiding Muslim citizens to explicitly condemn extremism, instead of just tacitly disapproving of it.

Non-Muslims who agree with her, of whom I am one, can only help to earn her the title of traitor from some Muslims, even though we vocally believe in religious freedom, cultural pluralism and every other fruitful complication that makes for a living society. It takes equality before the law to ensure all that, but you can be called a racist for saying so. And of course there are non-Muslims who don’t believe in religious freedom one bit and yet they might be keen to give her their unwanted endorsement as a convert to their intolerant cause. Clearly she has the courage to face these possibilities, or she would not have spoken. But she is stuck with a dilemma.

It must be a whole lot easier to recommend that the books of Sir Vidia Naipaul should not be read. There is a dilemma in that too, however. It’s just not so easy to spot. But if we embark on a course of not reading books written by all the people we don’t approve of, we risk missing out on valuable knowledge about the world. Not just in his great novel A House for Mr Biswas, but in his subsequent volumes of non-fiction, Naipaul told a lot of awkward truth about the backwardness of the culture he came from, and the new creative energy in Bangalore today partly depends on the awareness — an awareness he helped to encourage — that there is such a thing as an historical dead weight that only creativity can overcome.

It’s only a few years since the British poet Philip Larkin got the Naipaul treatment. It happened after his death instead of before, but there were similar calls for his books not to be read. In his collected letters he had revealed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, and a lot of other kinds of ‘ist’ that nobody sensible could admire. But in real life he would rather have drunk water than be discourteous to anyone of any race or gender, and he also wrote dozens of the most magnificent poems to have graced our literature in modern times. They’re magnificent not just because they are lyrical even in their despair, but because they register the real world, in all its complexity. Poetry like Larkin’s, and prose like Sir Vidia’s, is still the best safeguard we’ve got against the rage for simplicity, the total view that wants to achieve a false peace by silencing everyone who might contradict us.

Or it would be the best safeguard, if the law wasn’t even more important. Without a structure of reasonable law, art can do little to shape opinion. And there are no laws, however reasonable, that do not produce dilemmas. I don’t think China should ever have been awarded the Olympic Games. That having happened, I don’t think the British section of the torch relay should have been allowed any scope beyond a single lap around the Millennium Dome while the Chinese security heavies were locked up for re-education in Raymond’s Revue Bar. But that’s just what I think. Less than that, it’s merely what I feel. The law allowed a torch relay. Luckily it also allowed demonstrations in protest. The reason that protests should not be violent is that the law disallows violence, not that it disallows protests. You can’t help wondering, though, whether some of the young people all over the world who think they are helping the oppressed people of Tibet by embarrassing China really have any idea of what China has been doing to Tibet over the last half-century.

When China intensified what it called the peaceful liberation of Tibet, the world hardly cared. Anyone who knew about it also knew that there was nothing they could do. The Dalai Lama persuaded the United Nations to make some resolutions but China ignored them. The Dalai Lama got a better hearing from Richard Gere. Tibet’s fate was news outside China but the news made few waves. Inside China, Tibet’s fate was never news at all. Inside China there was no news except news controlled by the state, and there was no law that applied, so there were no dilemmas. If the Chinese leadership had ever been faced with their own equivalent of Abu Qatada they would been in no doubt about what to do with him.

Our best hope for China now is that it is has entered a new stage where dilemmas will be possible. A dilemma is the surest sign that the rule of law exists. By that measure, China started coming back from the dark in 1978 when the Chinese people were invited to read wall posters about the Four Modernizations that would make China an advanced society. A student called Wei Jingsheng wrote on the poster that none of these four modernizations would mean a thing without a fifth modernization, democracy. He was thrown into jail more or less for ever, but they didn’t kill him. Occasionally he was even allowed out, until he said something untoward and they threw him back in again. His first short break from jail happened in 1993, when China was bidding for the 2000 Olympics. In 1997 he was deported to the US. Perhaps this year the Chinese will ask him back, to carry the torch into the stadium.


Since I didn’t see any prospect of sweeping away a whole religion, and didn’t even think that a very good idea, I stuck with my argument that the real task, with regard to the Islamic minority in Britain, was to protect it from its own extremists, if necessary by encouraging the mass of law-abiding Islamic people to separate themselves from any of their religious leaders who had trouble understanding the general implications of the message that Allah is merciful. Esteemed contemporaries such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens preferred to believe that religious extremism is a product of religion, and will be a menace as long as religions exist. I didn’t believe it. Religious extremism is a product of extremism. It’s a disposition. Systems of belief can undoubtedly exacerbate that disposition but no amount of rationalism can entirely eliminate it. The kind of man who wants to deal with an insubordinate daughter by cutting her to pieces would want to do that whatever form of worship he favoured, and would still want to do it if he worshipped nothing at all except the knife in his hand. Multiculturalists who, in order not to offend the Islamic culture, wished to soft-pedal any criticism of repressive behaviour by Islamic men towards their women — the perverted concept of ‘honour crime’ was the most conspicuous example — were thus making what the philosophers used to call a category mistake.

But it was easy for me, speaking from the bleachers, to push that line. For Yasmin Alibhai-Brown it was more difficult, so I tried to give her credit for her courage. Nobody should ever underestimate the sheer amount of physical danger waiting to be unleashed. In 2010, in Blackburn, some young Muslim male dimwit recruited three other young Muslim male dimwits to help him in the task of firebombing his sister, who had ‘dishonoured’ the family by breaking free of a husband she had not chosen and falling in love with someone who more closely resembled a mentally functional human being. The four dimwits firebombed the wrong house, wiping out a couple who were entirely innocent: not that the daughter had ever been guilty of any crime under British law. Despite all the usual protestations put up by the local ‘community’ about the supposed requirements of honour, the four dimwits were tracked down, tried and found guilty. The trial lasted six weeks; keeping them in jail will cost more than sending them to Eton; and the total expense will probably end up exceeding the annual bill for running a Trident submarine. One thinks automatically of a deterrent, but of course there is none: except, that is, the law of the land, strictly applied. To do them credit, Lancashire Constabulary were unequivocal on the subject, pursuing the miscreants without fear or favour and never employing the word ‘honour’ without qualifying it with the compound adjective ‘so-called’. If only the media could do the same.

Those of us who have managed to grow out of our religious faith might think that we are left with the question of whether we want the same outcome for everyone. But we are getting ahead of ourselves, because the capacity, if not the need, to have faith of some kind tends to linger. I myself am well aware that I am professing faith when I assume that prosperity will bring justice. It might not. Under Hitler, the German population recovered its lost prosperity but a hideous injustice was part of the price. It still seems fair, however, to call anyone a dreamer who thinks that there is a natural justice to be found in poverty. Wealth has to be created before it is shared. That puts Bangalore ahead of most of the subcontinent when it comes to the potential for, if not yet the actuality of, social fairness. It was instructive that the Bangalore IT tycoons instantly saw the desirability of investing wealth by giving it away. It took Bill Gates a large part of his lifetime to reach that conclusion. Early on he was too busy.