from fatwa and book burning to jihad and hate laws:

twenty years of free speech wars

institute of ideas debate, bishopsgate institute, london, 12 february 2009

What should be the limits of free speech in a plural society? That’s the essence of the debate here. And the answer has changed dramatically in the past 20 years. In 1989 most liberals defended Salman Rushdie’s right to publish The Satanic Verses despite the offence it caused many Muslims. Today, many argue that whatever may appear to be right in principle, in practice one must appease religious and cultural sensibilities because such sensibilities are so deeply felt.

The extraordinary decision by Jacqui Smith to ban Geert Wilders – and even in these censorious times, it was an extraordinary decision – sums up the spirit of that change. For what Jacqui Smith is saying to Geert Wilders is, ‘You might upset a few people, so you can’t come in’.

Today the avoidance of cultural pain is as more important than what is regarded as an abstract right to freedom of expression. As Tariq himself has put it, ‘If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict, they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism.’ One of the ironies of living in a plural society, it seems, is that the preservation of diversity requires us to leave less room for a diversity of views.

The rise of the idea of ‘offensive speech’ has transformed the very ground of the debate about free expression. For much of the twentieth century liberals viewed freedom of speech as an essential good and believed that restrictions were acceptable only in exceptional cases, where speech caused harm. But now that we have elided the idea of giving offence and causing harm, then speech has become not essentially good but inherently problematic, because it is inevitable, especially in a plural society, that speech will offend. And once speech is seen as inherently problematic, then censorship necessarily becomes viewed as the norm rather than as the exception.

I take the opposite view. Freedom of expression needs to be less restricted precisely because we live in a plural society. In a homogenous society in which everyone thought in exactly the same way then the giving of offence would be nothing more than gratuitous. But in the real world where societies are plural, then it is both inevitable and important that people offend the sensibilities of others. Inevitable, because where different beliefs are deeply held, clashes are unavoidable. And we should deal with those clashes rather than suppress them. Important because any kind of social change or social progress means offending some deeply held sensibilities. The right to ‘subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism’ is the bedrock of an open, diverse society. ‘If liberty means anything’, as George Orwell once put it, ‘it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear’.

Ah, comes the response, but should we not also ensure that minorities are not deliberately denigrated? Is it not incumbent on a civilised society – and a civilised media - to protect the powerless and the vulnerable? Indeed it is. But ask yourself this: who is it that benefits most from censorship? Not the powerless and the vulnerable but rather those that possess both the power to censor and the necessity to do so.

It is often said in making the case for censorship that the capacity for free speech is in the hands of just a few – media barons or government ministries. Actually, the opposite is the case. The power to censor is in the hands of the few. But the capacity for free speech is in all our mouths.

The impact of multicultural censorship is in fact to undermine progressive movements within minority communities. Neither Rushdie nor his critics spoke for the Muslim community. Rushdie gave voice to some of the most progressive, forward-looking strands within Muslim communities. His critics represented some of the most reactionary strands. Their campaign against The Satanic Verses was not to protect the Muslim communities from unconscionable attack by anti-Muslim bigots, but to protect their own privileged position within those communities from political attack by radical critics, to assert their right to be the true voice of Islam by denying legitimacy to such critics. They succeeded at least in part because secular liberals embraced them as the authentic voice of the Muslim community.

The notion of giving offence suggests that certain beliefs are so important to certain people that they should be put beyond the possibility of being insulted, or caricatured or even questioned. The importance of the principle of free speech is precisely that it provides a permanent challenge to the idea that some questions are beyond contention, and hence acts as a permanent challenge to authority. This is why free speech is essential not simply to the practice of democracy, but to the aspirations of those groups who may have been failed by the formal democratic processes.

The real value of free speech, in other words, is not to those who possess power, but to those who want to challenge them. And the real value of censorship is to those who do not wish their authority to be challenged.

It is ironic, given all the talk about the need for censorship to defend minorities, that the main victims of the campaign against offensive speech are reactionaries like Wilders but progressive minority writers and artists - not just Rushdie himself, but people like Monica Ali, whose book Brick Lane drew protests that it was offensive; Hanif Kureishi, whose screenplay for My Beautiful Laundrette led, three years before The Satanic Verses, to protest marches by Islamist groups; Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, the Sikh playwright who wrote Bezhti; Sooreh Hera, an Iranian artist who had her work banned by the Hague museum because it was deemed offensive; the Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin, forced to leave the country after Islamic radicals sentenced her to death on charge of insulting Islam. And so it goes on.

That’s why groups such as Southall Black Sisters - an organisation of Asian women activists that for more than 20 years has been combating both racism and discrimination against women - strenuously oppose the idea that the giving of offence should be forbidden. As Rahila Gupta of Southall Black Sisters has put it, such censorship ‘will strengthen the voices of religious intolerance and choke off women’s right to dissent’. And this, she observed ‘is too high a price to pay to appease an alienated community.’

Multicultural censorship is not about defending the rights of minorities. It is about promoting the idea of victimhood, and about encouraging the notion that we should all be hurt at the slightest insult. What has happened over the past 20 years is that the liberal fear of giving offence has simply made it easier to take offence. What we have ended up with is what the novelist Monica Ali calls a ‘market place of outrage’. Where everyone is encouraged to say, ‘my feelings are more hurt than yours’.

A couple of years ago, Iqbal Sacranie, the then head of the Muslim Council of Britain made some derogatory comments about homosexuals. Ludicrously it led to a police investigation under hate speech laws. In response 22 Muslim leaders wrote to the Times demanding the right to be able to ‘freely express their views in an atmosphere free of intimidation or bullying’. Those same leaders denied such a right Salman Rushdie or to newspapers publishing cartoons about Mohammed. Many of those happy to see cartoons lampooning Mohammed draw the line at anything mocking the Holocaust. Gay rights groups want Muslims (and black raga artists) to be prosecuted for homophobia but want the right to criticise Muslims as they see fit.

You can see this process in the Geert Wilders affair. The Dutch foreign minister has attacked the British government for refusing entry to an elected MP. But in Holland Wilders is right now facing trial – and possible imprisonment – for promoting hate speech. Wilders presents himself as a martyr for free speech. Yet he campaigns for a ban on the Qur’an on the grounds that it promotes hatred and violence.

We can see here that the argument against free speech is really an argument in defence of particular sectional interests. And that is the best reason for rejecting restraints on speech. We can build a plural society in which free speech provides the means of engagement and dialogue between different parts of society. Or a sectional society in which restrictions on free speech help police the fragments. The choice is ours.