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too much respect

prospect, march 2006

'I believe in free speech. But...' That has become the rallying cry for the liberal left in the wake of the Danish cartoon controversy. The Guardian 'believes uncompromisingly in freedom of expression, but not in any duty to gratuitously offend'. For Jack Straw freedom of speech is fine but not if it leads to an 'open season' on religious taboos. 'I respect freedom of speech' UN Secretary general Kofi Annan has said. 'But of course... it entails responsibility and judgment.'

Free speech is good, runs the argument, but it has to be less free in a plural society. 'If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict', the sociologist Tariq Modood points out, '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 more plural society seems to be that the preservation of diversity requires us to leave less room for a diversity of views.

I believe the opposite is true. I think that Danish newspapers should be free to publish insulting cartoons about the prophet Mohammed; that Muslim demonstrators should be able to carry placards calling for the beheading of those who insult Islam; and that both the radical cleric Abu Hamza and British National Party leader Nick Griffin should be free to spout racist hatred. And they should all be free to do so because we live in a diverse society not in spite of it.

In a truly homogenous society in which everyone thought in exactly the same way then giving 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, say the would-be censors, the problem is that you poor secularists simply do not understand religious believers' depth of attachment to their faith, and hence their outrage at any insult to it. As Ian Jack, editor of Granta magazine, has put it, an individual might have the abstract right to depict Mohammed, but the price of free speech is too high when compared to the 'immeasurable insult' that the exercise of such right causes - even though 'we, the faithless, don't understand the offence'.

This argument might reveal how little attached many liberals are to their own beliefs (one can imagine Jack arguing about Galileo 400 years ago, 'He has an abstract right to depict the earth orbiting the sun, but imagine the immeasurable insult that the exercise of such a right would cause...') but there is no reason to treat Muslims (or, indeed, any religious believer) as a special case. Communists were often wedded to their ideas even unto death. Many racists have an almost visceral attachment to their prejudices. Should I indulge them, too, because their beliefs are so deeply held? In any case I would challenge anyone to show me how my humanism is any less intensely felt than the faith of a Muslim or of any other believer. There is something deeply pernicious, almost racist, about the claim that Muslims are somehow so different from everyone else.

Last October, the Egyptian newspaper Al Fagr published the cartoons in full - without a murmur of protest. The violence over the cartoons has less to do with religion than politics. It has emerged from a sense of grievance and victimhood that many Muslims feel about their treatment by Western societies, a sense that has been skillfully exploited by some Muslim organizations for their own ends.

Yet, even within this climate many Muslims remain opposed to censorship. B├╝nyamin Simsek is a councillor in the Danish city of Aarhus who helped organize a counter-demonstration to the cartoon protests. 'There is', he says, 'a large group of Muslims in this city who want to live in a secular society and adhere to the principle that religion is an issue between them and God and not something that should involve society'. He is not alone. But his is the kind of voice that gets silenced in the rush to censor that which is deemed to cause offence. In the name of pluralism, the censors are helping to strengthen the hand of the most conservative elements within Muslim communities.

It is true that there is nothing particularly laudable about the cartoons themselves. They are at best childish, at worst distasteful. But free speech is nothing if it is not the right to be distasteful, even racist.

The 'I believe in free speech but...' argument leads to a pick 'n' mix attitude to what is tolerable. When British Muslim leader Iqbal Sacranie's comments on homosexuality led recently to a police investigation, 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 deny such a right to newspapers publishing cartoons about Mohammed. Nick Griffin wants to be free to promote racist hatred, but wants to lock up Islamic clerics who do the same. Many of those happy to see cartoons lampooning Mohammed draw the line at anything mocking the Holocaust. It is fast becoming a case of 'My speech should be free, but yours is too costly'. What is, in fact, too costly is giving in to the demand not to cause offence. If we really believe in free speech, there can be no buts.