The most intractable conversation I had with Kashmiri and Pakistani-origin constituents, during my nine years as MP for Wycombe, wasn’t about the Iraq war, Israel’s two military campaigns against Gaza, its incursion into Lebanon against Hezbollah, or the Afghanistan war. Discussion about all these was often difficult, but it was always straightforward – debate about what Britain’s foreign and security policy ought to be.
No, it was about the so-called Danish cartoons – the twelve illustrations published in Jyllands-Posten, a newspaper in Denmark, which depicted Mohammed. I met with a delegation of these constituents for a discussion about them – though, on second thoughts, I withdraw the word “discussion”, which implies a common basis for talking about a subject, however swiftly or strongly disagreements about it then emerge.
There was no such shared ground. Instead, the group and I talked past each other for the best part of half-an-hour. Their starting-point, though seldom directly stated, was that cartoons of Mohammed should not be published. It wasn’t clear whether they believed that the state should ban any such illustrations, or whether artists should simply self-censor: this seemed to shift back and forth. But what quickly became evident was that two conflicting worldviews were present in the room that spoke different languages. They were like the lines in Marvell’s poem that “though infinite can never meet”.