Senseless on Sensibilities

Well, here’s yet another article in the Comment is Free section of the Guardian, “Think Before You Speak” by Imran Waheed. He’s the media representative of the delightful Hizb ut-Tahrir Britain. Here, he responds to where Peter Tatchell accuses Waheed’s organisation of hypocrisy in “Respect is a Two-Way Street”. I didn’t like it much.

The crux of the argument about “free speech” is not, as Peter Tatchell has suggested in his comment piece Respect is a Two-way Street, that Muslims want to censor criticism of Islam, but rather, as the late art historian Lord Clark asserted, that courtesy is the defining quality of civilisation. Most people do not need Hobbes to tell them that absolute freedom is for “newborn savages” and even Tatchell has conceded that, “A harmonious, good natured society is one where people are civil and courteous to each other.” The suggestion that causing religious offence should be a tribute to the mettle of western society is repugnant.

Now, this sets the tone for the article nicely. Tatchell, remember, pointed out that it’s hypocritical of Waheed’s organisation to demand people stop insulting Muslims while insulting Jews and gays themselves. And Waheed is going to respond to these allegations by demanding people stop insulting Muslims. Nice.

Indeed, absolute freedom may well be for newborn savages, but in saying this, Hobbes, of course, was referring to absolute freedom of action and not absolute freedom of speech. But even if he were, being as serious proponents of free speech don’t actually advocate it as an absolutist notion this still wouldn’t communicate anything relevant about the issue at hand.

It seems that it has become easy to descend the slippery slope from freedom of speech to freedom to insult and then freedom to persecute. Following the comments of Jack Straw on the veil, verbal and physical attacks on the Muslim community have increased, Muslim organisations have received threatening emails, women who wear the veil or the headscarf have been on the receiving end of verbal and physical aggression and the Imam of a mosque in Glasgow was brutally attacked.

Well, firstly, and most strikingly, the “freedom to persecute” still doesn’t exist. Each of those acts of persecution are still firmly illegal and it doesn’t seem sensible to think that they’re going to be legalised any time soon either. So, that slippery slope doesn’t seem like one we have to take all that seriously. That should hardly need saying.

But forgetting that for a moment, according to Waheed, freedom of speech means the freedom to mock the beliefs of others and what invariably follows from that is the freedom to persecute. So let’s have a look at some of the evidence provided to bolster this claim.

Firstly, have these kinds of attacks actually increased? If they have, the article Waheed links to is no evidence of it. In fact, the closest thing to such evidence I can find is, in one case, one Mohammed Shafiq of the Ramadhan Foundation simply claiming it is so. Secondly, even if we have seen an increase in reports of attacks against Muslims since Straw made his comments, it’s not as if this alone means that this increase is because of those comments. And lastly, from the way Waheed included it as evidence, the attack on the Glaswegian imam is made to sound like it was carried out by some right-wing thug. Well, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to think it was motivated by religious or racial intolerance at all. In fact, it looks more like it was carried out by a fellow Muslim who was suffering from acute mental health issues.

But OK, let’s forget all that as well. Are we to think Straw’s rather temperate comments on the veil were nothing more than an example of someone indulging in a nefarious freedom to insult? And that consequentially they were little more than an incitement to violence and persecution? Surely pushing for the prohibition of, or at least the cessation of, these sorts of comments is exactly what wanting to censor criticism of Islam might entail. If this category is so broad as to include comments as moderate as these then seeking to curtail this kind of freedom seems not only draconian but positively malevolent.

But perhaps Waheed didn’t mean that. Perhaps he meant that Straw’s comments were not merely insults, but the aforementioned slippery slope came into play, they led to insults and then led to persecution. He hasn’t said that directly, nor provided any evidence for it, but I suppose it’s possible that’s what he’s implying. Either way though, this seems to put us in the same position; because, as Waheed would have it, even these non-insulting comments would eventually transgress into persecution, but we can’t have persecution, so, again, we shouldn’t allow or should choose not to make these sorts of comments to begin with.

As someone who grew up in an Australia in the 1960s, during a period of McCarthyite-style red baiting, some would have expected that Tatchell would have recognised the growing hysteria against British Muslims in recent days. Over the last year, we have seen the furore over the Danish cartoons, the Pope quoting descriptions of Islam as “evil and inhuman”, aspects of Islam labelled an “evil ideology” by Tony Blair and the use of the term Islamo-fascism by George Bush. On the domestic arena, comments by a succession of cabinet ministers seem to have fuelled an anti-Muslim frenzy – Jack Straw has alleged that the wearing of the veil by a small number of Muslim women affects community cohesion, John Reid has suggested that Muslim parents spy on their children and Ruth Kelly has made unsubstantiated allegations that some Muslim schools are breeding isolationism and extremism.

Well, yeah, Blair and Bush described certain aspects of Islam as “evil ideology” and “Islamic fascism”, but it’s worth bearing in mind that in both cases they were referring to aspects of Islam that influence people to carry out suicide bombings on trains and commercial airliners. So, in using those terms they were, what, just attempting to whip-up hysteria against Muslims were they? And this is because those terms are inappropriate? Or is it that, yes, they are appropriate, but they should have just shut up about it anyway?

It’s strange indeed that Waheed should even mention the “furore over the Danish cartoons”. It’s not as if it were a case of Islam being sneered at and innocent Muslims being attacked as a result. In fact, it was quite the opposite. The responsibility for any bad press Islam may have received from the whole cartoon saga, I’d say, would lie with the fanatics who rioted, burned down embassies and killed innocent people. And also, with the Danish Muslim leaders who travelled to the Middle East to publicise the cartoons and added another, potentially far more offensive picture. In this case, one that was never printed by Jyllands-Posten nor even intended to be one of Mohammed. Growing hysteria indeed.

We have become accustomed to bemoaning the rise in anti-social behaviour, the loss of a sense of a community and the culture of disrespect in the classroom. However have we questioned whether the “freedom to insult” culture is contributing to these wider societal trends?

Presumably, Waheed has questioned it. And he thinks it is. Well, one unsubstantiated idea deserves another, I suppose.

Although Tatchell has “supported the right” of newspapers to publish cartoons satirising Islam, even he does not advocate free speech without restrictions, arguing for restrictions to free speech “when it involves incitement to violence or libel/defamation”. In reality there is no such thing as absolute free speech. Editors do not publish cartoons ridiculing the Holocaust, pictures of dead British soldiers in Iraq or articles promoting paedophilia. Paying someone a salary and giving them a Fleet Street office does not change the reality of what is, in all but name, censorship.

So, some editors choose to publish cartoons satirising Islam whilst choosing not to publish cartoons that ridicule the Holocaust or articles that promote paedophilia. And this shows, errr, that those editors consider an irrational belief system with some decidedly nasty elements to be a more appropriate target for ridicule than an act of mass genocide? Or acts of child abuse? Well, so what? No matter how much Waheed wants to equivocate on the term “censorship”, newspapers, in simply choosing not to publish certain things, are never going to be a meaningful example of it.

The real question is not whether Muslims should respect freedom of speech but rather whether society is able to accommodate people whose values and religious beliefs are different from our own. Those who wish to insult the beliefs of others should not hide away from robust debate under the façade of freedom of speech. However, there is a very real recognition from Muslim organisations, including Hizb ut-Tahrir Britain, for the need to intensify our engagement in discussion and dialogue with wider society.

Why is that the “real question”? I mean, that’s a fairly revolting thing to say. “Westerners value freedom of speech and Muslims [apparently, according to Waheed] value censorship – so westerners need to change”. And how exactly are people using freedom of speech to protect themselves from debate? How does that idea even work? Freedom of speech is a concept inherently at odds with that of censorship. So, how could anyone be using it to stifle debate? That’s like trying to stifle a fire by spraying paraffin onto it.


1 Response to “Senseless on Sensibilities”

  1. 1 Peter Melia January 11, 2007 at 8:20 pm

    Am I right in thinking that in our Anglo-Saxon society everyone, citizen or not, is equal under the law?
    Am I right in thinking that this right also extends to organisations?
    Thus a person can choose to start any society or club religion he or she wishes, and other persons have the right to agree with or disagree with the result, or to ignore it.
    And is it not so that in so far as any person or society behaves without harming or causing harm to others, then that person or the society cannot reasonably be objected to?
    Isn’t it also true in this society called Britain, persons have agreed that it is reasonable for the freedoms of individuals to take precedence over the rights of a society?
    Isn’t it also true that the only exception to this last “freedom”, as we might call it, is the society we call Britain, which we expect and allow to be operating in the best interests of the majority of the persons in the society, and in certain circumstances may claim an higher freedom than an individual?
    Don’t the above few statements form the basis of the free society we live in today, a free society which has been laboriously constructed over centuries of reasoning?
    Now suppose someone belongs in a society by virtue of being born. I myself am a Catholic by birth. I was baptised into the Church when just a few weeks old. So, I am a Catholic. However, in later years I began to question aspects of the Church’s teaching, and gradually fell “by the wayside”, to quote the individual the Church exists to honour. No one came after me, for defecting. It was my decision, even if drifted into. No, the matter is for my conscience and me.
    The individual who is the reason for the existence of the Church was one of the wisest who ever lived. He bequeathed to us one of the cornerstones of our society. The Great Principal, “Render unto God that which is Gods, and to Caesar that which is Caesars”.
    When I defected, the Church honoured that principal, and never harassed me in any way.
    Now, consider a Muslim girl.
    Any Muslim girl.
    Just like me, she was born into the faith. Her faith calls for (among other things) her to wear the veil. Should she, like me, defect from her born-into beliefs, the pressures on her will be quite intolerable. The entire male side of the family will hound her, until she recants and wears the veil again.
    So in the case of the Muslim girls, any Muslim girls, their freedom does not take priority over the freedom of the organisation to which she belongs. Rather the opposite.
    So these girls are not free, within the meaning of our society and as such not fully functioning members of our society.
    This is why, I think, we all, men & women, should insist upon Muslim girls being free to choose to wear the veil or not.
    This is not, I’m afraid, very elegantly put, but is it true?

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