I do love the Guardian. As the years go by almost no publication continues to give me such constant amusement. This week has been no exception.
A couple of days after first reading it I still remain almost impossibly amused by the paper’s lead, front-page story from earlier this week. The banner headline read ‘Boris Johnson claimed Islam put Muslim world “centuries behind”.’ As the sub-header for Frances Perraudin’s piece put it:
‘Anger as 2007 essay lamenting ‘no spread of democracy’ in Islamic world comes to light.’
Comes to light, eh? Must be some under-the-counter pamphlet, previously hidden-from-public-view stuff. That impression is reinforced as we start reading Perraudin’s piece, a piece that sets off with a paragraph of scintillating promise:
‘Boris Johnson has been strongly criticised for arguing Islam has caused the Muslim world to be “literally centuries behind” the west, in an essay unearthed by the Guardian.’
‘Unearthed’. Wow, this must be exceptionally secret – as well as strong – stuff. So we have to keep reading to discover that the offence complained of did not occur during a rally in a Bavarian beer-hall, but in ‘An appendix added to a later edition of The Dream of Rome, his [Johnson’s] 2006 book about the Roman empire.’ So in fact when the Guardian’s intrepid correspondent, Frances Perraudin, talks about ‘unearthing’ something, what she really means is that she has read some of a book published a little over a decade ago. You can say many things about reading books, including reading books by prominent politicians, but the turning of research into ‘unearthing’ is the sort of self-glorification and task-inflation that could only occur in a trade that is dying.
And what is the ‘Anger’ which helps to make this Guardian front-page story about a published book? Have the Ayatollahs in Iran commented on ‘The Dream of Rome’? Has Al-Azhar issued any ruling on the permissibility of the 2007 appendix? It appears not. Firstly because they are probably not much bothered by it. And secondly because to get comment from such sources would require effort. Instead Perraudin in all likelihood called up the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) and ‘Tell Mama’ for comment. The way such organisations work is that journalists of the Perraudin school call them up to ask if they are outraged by something, the organisations then agree that they are outraged at this week’s outrage and thus the journalist gets a story and the group in question gets to continue to hold itself out as a representative body of some kind. Making everyone a winner.
Yet still this does not seem enough for a real story. Let alone a front-pager. So what we are really reduced to hoping for is that the contents of the book Johnson secretly published through one of the nation’s biggest publishers a decade ago must contain really frightfully incendiary stuff.
Alas here again we must be disappointed. For in his book Johnson apparently argued that the Islamic religion caused the Muslim world to be ‘literally centuries behind’ the West. He furthermore said,
‘There must be something about Islam that indeed helps to explain why there was no rise of the bourgeoisie, no liberal capitalism and therefore no spread of democracy in the Muslim world.
‘It is extraordinary to think that under the Roman/Byzantine empire, the city of Constantinople kept the candle of learning alight for a thousand years, and that under Ottoman rule, the first printing press was not seen in Istanbul until the middle of the nineteenth century. Something caused them to be literally centuries behind.’
The Guardian, and Perraudin, along with the MCB and Tell Mama and various other professional offence-takers think it not just outrageous but seriously provocative for someone to point this out.
So rather than counter anger with anger, I would like to respond in a spirit of charity and generosity. Thus do I hereby offer a box of Roses chocolates to any Muslim or non-Muslim organisation or spokesperson who can prove that Johnson was wholly wrong in the above statements, and that rather than being a plausible and legitimate interpretation of the historical record, the statements in fact constitute a set of wholly made-up hate-claims. I have purchased the box of chocolates. They are sitting beside me, temptingly, indeed coquettishly, as I write. Yet I will not touch them. All that Tell Mama, the MCB or anyone else needs to do to get them, is to prove that wherever and whenever the religion of Islam arrives in a society, that society sees a burgeoning of capitalism, democracy and the free exchange of ideas. It can’t be that difficult, can it? I await the deluge of applications.