Late last week, two stories relating to freedom of speech dominated the news in the UK. One has since become the global news story of the week.
The first was the Danish newspaper publication and republication in France and other European countries of cartoons that offended some Muslims. There were two layers of objection: that anyone had dared depict The Prophet Mohammed at all; and the insulting and incendiary way in which it was done (for example, one cartoon depicted the headdress of The Prophet as a bomb with a lit fuse).
The cartoons were the product of an invitation to 40 cartoonists to submit their impression of The Prophet. Twelve of the cartoonists responded. One of the reasons the newspaper (the Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten) did this was because an author had written a children’s book on the life of The Prophet and could not find an illustrator. Judging by the newspaper editor’s subsequent statements, it also wanted to needle a debate on freedom of expression the integration (or not) of Muslims into Denmark. (See the Editor-in-Chief’s statement)
Thanks to Moir
On the other side of the North Sea, the usually diverse British press was surprisingly unanimous in its concern that freedoms be exercised responsibly. I suppose it was an opportunity for Britain to show that it did things differently to the Continent, and the overall tone of the editorials was laced with a pride to be seen to be doing so. The UK papers’ line was simple: we are responsible and would not deliberately offend a good few of our readers, but it should be up to us to decide.
The British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, described the republications as gratuitously offensive, insensitive and wrong. Not one UK paper republished the actual cartoons, so readers could not easily see what the fuss was about, but the television news did discretely show certain images.
A few years ago when I lived in Australia, a cartoon much lauded at the time for its sense of humour landed in my inbox. It was a cartoon of two Muslim women dressed in the full hijab asking each other, ‘Does my bomb look big in this?’ This cartoon must have appealed to many Australians back then, given how widely it was disseminated. Among its many possible interpretations was a plea that religion not take itself so seriously. I wonder about the fate of such a cartoon in a newspaper today.
From the fleeting images on news bulletins and written descriptions, a few of the Danish cartoons did indeed appear to be a gratuitous swipe, and not amusing. The stands taken by the French and other newspapers in republishing the cartoons could be fairly described as deliberately provocative and, in today’s Europe, an unnecessarily fierce secular/Christian statement. Any cartoon that is a mere repetition of a religious or ethnic stereotype has less to do with clever satire or freedom of speech than the wilful goading of a minority.
However, whether one insensitive cartoon induces a smile in its audience while another does not is ultimately a matter taste. And to the extent it is a matter of taste, is it really better to err on the side of not publishing? And where does this end? The French newspaper editor was sacked.
The reaction to the cartoons made me reflect upon the relatively quiet response to another very public statement. Iqbal Sacranie, Secretary-General of the Muslim Council of Britain, is a man who was offered and accepted a knighthood, despite having called for the withdrawal of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses.
Sacranie is by no means representative of the Muslims I know. In early January, in response to the commencement of UK same-sex rights legislation, he linked homosexuality with disease and declared it was ‘harmful … and not acceptable.’ This view of homosexuality is a stereotype generated by religious puritans of nearly all faiths a nasty stereotype and one that may even incite violence.
Some people, such as myself, may well find the knighting of such an individual quite offensive, but I do not lobby the State or Her Majesty to apologise for this. I accept that certain views, such as the one about homosexuality, no matter how nasty, should be expressed freely. (You can tell from that last statement that I do reserve my right not to tolerate the content of certain beliefs that I would argue are wrong in all cases.)
Trying Race Hatred
The second story related to freedom of speech was the failure of the UK Crown Prosecution Service to achieve a conviction against the leader of the British National Party, Nick Griffin, when a jury cleared him of half the race-hatred related charges brought against him and could not reach a verdict on the others. As reported in a 2004 BBC documentary, Griffin said the sorts of things that one might expect someone leading a race-hate party to say notably, that the Koran permits Muslims to rape your White girls and conquer your country (link here). It was formulaic incitement at its very best (or worst).
Griffin’s public prosecution was indeed a high risk strategy in that, if it went wrong which it did it would give the BNP a level of oxygen in the media that it could only dream of which it also did. Prosecutors have confirmed that there will be a retrial on the counts on which Griffin was not acquitted.
I suspect, either way, the BNP wins. Either Griffin wins on the remaining counts and proves that he has beaten the State and everything its politically correct system threw at him; or he loses and goes to jail and is martyred beyond all perspective into racist legend, with the added prospect of a triumphant return.
So should the State try and prosecute its way into a public debate free from extreme views? On balance, and it is a difficult question, I don’t think so. The solution is for citizens and political leaders to make the argument loudly and clearly against such views in the places where those views are most popular. This actually takes more courage.
I remember a figure in Australia whose party won 10 per cent of the popular vote in an election not that long ago. I’m certain that the best way to counter this individual would have been to have leading figures in all political parties at the time standing up to her views, despite the electoral consequences. I know it would have made me feel better about Australia at the time.
This did not happen. In fact, a good deal of her support went straight back to the Coalition which, on some key issues, gave her supporters no real space to disagree. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that the worst approach would have been an attempt to prosecute her at the height of her popularity.
A Broad Mosque
Last Friday, one small but loud Muslim extremist group exercised their right to free speech in front of the Danish Embassy in London. They could be heard chanting, ‘Denmark, you will pay, 7/7 on its way.’ Another placard read, ‘Behead those who insult Islam.’ The usual parade of Muslim community representatives were wheeled out and interrogated. I imagine it’s quite frustrating when the media, which appears to assume otherwise, constantly asks you to disapprove and condemn such things. I also heard reference to a group of moderate Muslims who gathered in Denmark to defend the Danish newspaper’s right to publish the cartoons. It’s a broad mosque.
The least worst answer seems to be to allow everyone to speak freely on homosexualit
y, on religion, on immigration policies, on globalisation, on Palestine and Israel, and even on the Holocaust (let’s not forget that free-speaking Europe has David Irving, the notorious Holocaust denier, awaiting trial behind bars in Austria). At least then we can debate the facts and beliefs and their assumptions in cold, bright daylight.
To conduct this debate properly, we must ensure that the automatic right to freedom of speech does not approach any sort of demand to automatically respect the content of any message. This is one of the things that should continue to define a free society.
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