William Ewart Gladstone (1809–1898) was Prime Minister of Great Britain four times: 1868–74, 1880–85, 1886 and 1892–94. He called the Qur'an an "accursed book" and once held it up during a session of Parliament, declaring: "So long as there is this book there will be no peace in the world."
Times have changed a great deal. Now the votaries of the book he saw as such an impediment to peace have triumphed: an Islamic reading room is being set up at the library Gladstone founded near his home in North Wales. In this BBC audio report (thanks to Andrew), Gladstone's great grandson Christopher Parish and Professor Richard Aldous, head of history at University College Dublin, tie themselves into knots trying to come up with a reason why Gladstone would have approved of this reading room. Gladstone, you see, was a man of his time, but he actually made favorable comments about Muhammad in the margins of a biography of the founder of Islam, and his remarks weren't as extreme as those of some of his contemporaries...
It doesn't add up. The text of the Qur'an has not changed from the late 19th century to the early 21st. What has changed is the prevailing attitude toward the book. Now it has become a manifestation of bigotry and hatred to see in the Islamic holy book anything but peace and tolerance. But the text of the book remains the same. If it was an impediment to peace in Gladstone's day, it is now. If it is an uplifting exhortation to peace and tolerance now, then it was in Gladstone's day as well.
Yesterday Geert Wilders said: "I view Islam not as a religion, but as a dangerous, totalitarian ideology - equal to communism and fascism. Aren't I allowed to say so?"
No, he isn't allowed to say so. If he had been born two hundred years ago, he might have become Prime Minister of the Netherlands. Instead, he is a hunted man. Likewise Gladstone, were he miraculously transported to the House of Commons in 2009, would be excoriated for "hate speech" if he dared to repeat his view of the Qur'an today.
But the Qur'an remains the same. Eventually, Europe and America are going to deal with the implications of that fact, one way or another.