Aldous Huxley once defined an intellectual as someone who had found something in life more important than sex: a witty but inadequate definition, since it would make all impotent men and frigid women intellectuals. A better definition would be a freethinker, not in the narrow sense of someone who does not accept the dogmas of traditional religion, but in the wider sense of someone who has the will to find out, who exhibits rational doubt about prevailing intellectual fashions, and who is unafraid to apply critical thought to any subject. If the intellectual is really committed to the notion of truth and free inquiry, then he or she cannot stop the inquiring mind at the gates of any religion — let alone Islam. And yet, that is precisely what has happened with Islam, criticism of which in our present intellectual climate is taboo. The reason why many intellectuals have continued to treat Islam as a taboo subject are many and various, including:

- political correctness leading to Islamic correctness;

- the fear of playing into the hands of racists or reactionaries to the detriment of the West's Muslim minorities;

- commercial or economic motives;

- feelings of post-colonial guilt (where the entire planet's problems are attributed to the West's wicked ways and intentions);

- plain physical fear;

- and intellectual terrorism of writers such as Edward Said.

Said not only taught an entire generation of Arabs the wonderful art of self-pity (if only those wicked Zionists, imperialists and colonialists would leave us alone, we would be great, we would not have been humiliated, we would not be backward) but intimidated feeble Western academics, and even weaker, invariably leftish, intellectuals into accepting that any criticism of Islam was to be dismissed as orientalism, and hence invalid.

But the first duty of the intellectual is to tell the truth. Truth is not much in fashion in this postmodern age when continental charlatans have infected Anglo-American intellectuals with the thought that objective knowledge is not only undesirable but unobtainable. I believe that to abandon the idea of truth not only leads to political fascism, but stops dead all intellectual inquiry. To give up the notion of truth means forsaking the goal of acquiring knowledge. But man, as Aristotle put it, by nature strives to know. Truth, science, intellectual inquiry and rationality are inextricably bound together. Relativism, and its illegitimate offspring, multiculturalism, are not conducive to the critical examination of Islam.

Said wrote a polemical book, Orientalism (1978), whose pernicious influence is still felt in all departments of Islamic studies, where any critical discussion of Islam is ruled out a priori . For Said, orientalists are involved in an evil conspiracy to denigrate Islam, to maintain its people in a state of permanent subjugation and are a threat to Islam's future. These orientalists are seeking knowledge of oriental peoples only in order to dominate them; most are in the service of imperialism.

Said's thesis was swallowed whole by Western intellectuals, since it accords well with the deep anti-Westernism of many of them. This anti-Westernism resurfaces regularly in Said's prose, as it did in his comments in the Guardian after September 11th. The studied moral evasiveness, callousness and plain nastiness of Said's article, with its refusal to condemn outright the attacks on America or show any sympathy for the victims or Americans, leave an unpleasant taste in the mouth of anyone whose moral sensibilities have not been blunted by political and Islamic correctness. In the face of all evidence, Said still argues that it was US foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere that brought about these attacks.

The unfortunate result is that academics can no longer do their work honestly. A scholar working on recently discovered Qur'anic manuscripts showed some of his startling conclusions to a distinguished colleague, a world expert on the Qur'an. The latter did not ask, "What is the evidence, what are your arguments, is it true?" The colleague simply warned him that his thesis was unacceptable because it would upset Muslims.

Very recently, Professor Josef van Ess, a scholar whose works are essential to the study of Islamic theology, cut short his research, fearing it would not meet the approval of Sunni Islam. Gunter Luling was hounded out of the profession by German universities because he proposed the radical thesis that at least a third of the Qur'an was originally a pre-Islamic, Christian hymnody, and thus had nothing to do with Mohammed. One German Arabist says academics are now wearing "a turban spiritually in their mind", practicing "Islamic scholarship" rather than scholarship on Islam. Where biblical criticism has made important advances since the 16th century, when Spinoza demonstrated that the Pentateuch could not have been written by Moses, the Qur'an is virtually unknown as a human document susceptible to analysis by the instruments and techniques of biblical criticism.

Western scholars need to defend unflinchingly our right to examine Islam, to explain its rise and fall by the normal mechanisms of human history, according to the objective standards of historical methodology. Democracy depends on freedom of thought and free discussion. The notion of infallibility is profoundly undemocratic and unscientific. It is perverse for the Western media to lament the lack of an Islamic reformation and wilfully ignore books such as Anwar Shaikh's Islam — The Arab Imperialism, or my Why I am Not a Muslim. How do they think reformation will come about if not with criticism? The proposed new legislation by the Labour government to protect Muslims, while well-intentioned, is woefully misguided. It will mean publishers will be even more reluctant to take on works critical of Islam. If we stifle rational discussion of Islam, what will emerge will be the very thing that political correctness and the Government seek to avoid: virulent, racist populism. If there are further terrorist acts then irrational xenophobia will be the only means of expression available. We also cannot allow Muslims subjectively to decide what constitutes "incitement to religious hatred", since any legitimate criticism of Islam will then be shouted down as religious hatred. Only in a democracy where freedom of inquiry is protected will science progress. Hastily conceived laws risk smothering the golden thread of rationalism running through western civilisation.

(First published in the Guardian and reproduced by kind permission of Ibn Warraq.)