Yorkshire teenager Azhar Ahmed was having a rant last week on Facebook as many people often do. He had got apoplectically angry about media coverage of the deaths of six British soldiers in Afghanistan, contrasting it with what he saw as the silence that has shrouded the deaths of thousands of Afghani civilians:

People gassing about the death of Soldiers. What about the innocent familys who have been brutally killed.. The women who have been raped.. The children who have been sliced up..!

He added, ‘All soldiers should DIE and go to HELL! THE LOWLIFE FOKKIN SCUM!’

On Friday he had a knock on the door from the local police. He was arrested and charged with ‘racially aggravated public order offence’.

Ahmed’s rant was badly written, poorly-expressed, and would undoubtedly have offended some people. But what rant wouldn’t? It was a perfectly legitimate if ill-formed opinion. It is difficult to know in what way it was undermining public order (unless upholding public order is synonymous with ‘supporting the war in Afghanistan’), still less how it was ‘racially aggravating’. Ahmed never mentioned race, ethnicity or even culture or faith in his rant. As Padraig Reidy pointed out on the Index on Censorship blog, ‘the “racially aggravated” charge doesn’t stick unless one is willing to buy into the notion that Afghanistan is part of an ethno-religious war between “Islam” and “the West”’ – and that is the very line that jihadis have been promoting for years.

Azhar Ahmed was in effect arrested for being very angry. Even West Yorkshire police appeared to acknowledge this. ‘He didn’t make his point very well and that is why he has landed himself in bother’, claimed a spokesman. Is it now the job of the police to determine what is and is not a well-formed point? And if ‘not making a point very well’ is to be a criminal offence, then we should all expect a knock on the door.

Writing in the Los Angles Times last week, Jonathan Turley, professor of public interest law at George Washington University, pointed out the growing trend for the criminalization of speech. He observed, too, that the nature of state censorship is changing. ‘Where governments once punished to achieve obedience’, he suggested, ‘they now punish to achieve tolerance.’  Perhaps a better a way of understanding the shift is not so much that the state is now more concerned with tolerance than with obedience, but rather that ‘tolerance’ has come increasingly to mean ‘obedience’ or ‘conformity’.

The idea of tolerance has a long and convoluted history and its meaning has evolved over the centuries. Debates about tolerance have often been shot through with hypocrisy and double standards. I have written more than once about the refusal of John Locke, whose Letter Concerning Toleration is a key text in the development of modern liberal ideas about freedom of expression, to extend freedom and toleration to Catholics and to atheists. ‘No opinions contrary to human society, or to those moral rules which are necessary to the preservation of civil society,’ Locke insisted, ‘are to be tolerated.’

There has, nevertheless, been a fundamental shift in recent years in the meaning of tolerance. Tolerance, even given the hypocrisy and double standards, used to mean the willingness to air dissenting views that many found offensive and distressing. Today tolerance means, for many, the censoring of  unacceptable views to protect people from being offended or distressed.

Tolerance is all too often now about the constraining of speech in the name of promoting a plural society. For plural societies to function and to be fair, runs the argument, we need to show respect for other peoples, cultures, and viewpoints.  And we can only do so by being intolerant of people whose views give offence or who transgress firmly entrenched moral boundaries. As the British sociologist Tariq Modood puts 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.’ The preservation of diversity, in this view, ironically requires us to leave less room for a diversity of views.

I recently interviewed Flemming Rose, the culture editor of Jyllands-Posten, whose challenge to cartoonists to depict the Prophet Muhammad helped launch the Danish cartoon controversy, for an article for the upcoming issue of Index on Censorship. He, too, talked perceptively about the shift in the meaning of ‘tolerance’.  Tolerance, he observed, should be ‘about the ability to be exposed, and to accept things you don’t like’, the ability ‘to live with what you find distasteful. What you don’t like, what you abhor’. But the concept has, in recent years, been ‘turned on its head’. Tolerance ‘is no longer about the ability to tolerate things for which we do not care, but more about the ability to keep quiet and refrain from saying things that others may not care to hear.’ These days, Rose observed, ‘tolerance is something demanded of the one who speaks, or the one who draws the cartoon, or writes the novel, rather than something demanded of the one who listens, or looks at the cartoon or reads the novel. That’s why I say that tolerance has been turned on its head.’

One does not necessarily have to agree with either Jyllands-Posten’s views about Islam or Azhar Ahmed’s views about the Afghan war. But in either case, tolerance cannot be about forcing them not to say what they wish, but accepting that they have the right to do so.

One final point. From the six-year prison sentences handed out to Muslim protestors for ‘inciting racial hatred’ and ‘soliciting murder’ during a rally in London against the publications of the Danish cartoons, to the imprisonment of radical preachers such as Abu Hamza and Abu Izzadeen, to the conviction (later rescinded on appeal)  of Samina Malik, the so-called ‘lyrical terrorist’, there has in recent years been increasing criminalization of Islamic dissent. The arrest of Azhar Ahmed, while different in character to those other cases, can be seen as part of a trend in which unacceptable Islamist or anti-British views are criminalised.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the war on terror has provided a pretext to impose a clampdown on civil liberties. Ironically, the authorities have been aided in this by the actions of many of those now crying foul. They have been able to curtail Islamic dissent by exploiting a culture of censorship that already existed, a culture created by campaigns against offensive, blasphemous and hateful speech, campaigns often pursued in the name of ‘anti-racism’ and of protecting the rights of minority groups. Western government have grabbed the idea that it is wrong to give offence and transformed into a weapon against radical Muslims as well as against critics of Islam, or racist bigots. Liberals and anti-racists have long argued that not just harmful actions but bad thoughts and evil ideas, too, should be a matter for the criminal law. The authorities are now applying that belief not just to bigotry but to all kinds of ‘unacceptable’ dissent.

The moral of the story is that one should be careful about what one wishes for. If we invite the state to define the boundaries of acceptable speech, we should not be surprised if it is not just speech to which we object that gets curtailed.


  1. Floyd

    Kenan, I agree with most of what you have written..the only thing i would add is that the right to argue and counter-argue is sancresanct. Otherwise we end up with situations where someone can have the right to be racist/sexist etc with no rights of verbal or written re-dress. Certainly that is the stance I take when defending free I’ll defend the alf garnet figuare whose bellows “to many bloody foriegners” long as I can shout back…”thats a bloody lie”..

  2. Chris Wallis

    “still less how it was ‘racially aggravating’. Ahmed never mentioned race, ethnicity or even culture or faith in his rant.”

    Perhaps in the mind of the Yorkshire police, an offence is racially aggravated if the offender is a member of a race.

    More seriously- This is appalling. Who on earth is taking these decisions?

  3. Basically I think I agree with you. Still I think matters are complicated. In Norway, where I live, some of the leading politicians of the ruling Labour party advocated in the wake of the mass murders of Behring-Breivik that debaters had to show ‘ytringsansvar’, meaning responsibility for one’s statements. It is far from clear what exactly is meant by this term. However it should be no doubt that by the introduction of it, one suggested that there is a link between the actions of Behring-Breivik and the ideas he used in order to justify them, and that the expression of any of these ideas hence is morally irresponsible. Even though the violence is unambiguously condemned by nearly all, many of the ideas and at least larger parts of Behring-Breivik’s world view are shared by quite a few. So then, is it really morally irresponsible to utter any of these ideas or to e.g. publicly declare ones opinion that muslims are about to take over the world with the assistance of “cultural marxist” intellectuals and politicians? In a way, I could be tempted to say yes. Such views easily lead to false images of who the enemy is, fear and subsequent violence. But the point is that it is not legally forbidden to promote the claims others would perceive to be immoral. And this is done all the time. A lot of Christians react with disgust by gay marriage, perceiving it not only as a practice, but as an aggressive statement attacking the moral foundations of the society at large. Recently, a lot of people in Norway get upset as a woman wearing niqhab visited secondary schools all over the country telling the children about her experience of wearing the garment and why she thought wearing it was to the right thing to do. Her tour was perceived as a statement that attacked the principle of individual freedom. Now, the proposal of ytringsansvar has been said to be nothing else than a badly concealed effort of delegitimizing opposition to the current immigration policy and criticism of islam and the patriarchal practices that is said to dominate among large groups of non-European immigrants. Ytringsanvar is of course not a juridical term and might not refer to anything else than a moral responsibility not to confuse ideas and people (to paraphrase Malik) or otherwise refrain from putting ones argument in ways that incite hatred against specific populations. If somebody claims that your arguments are irresponsible, you still have the opportunity to explain why you think they on the contrary are responsible. The problem is however that opposition the immigration policy, or to immigration in general, tend to be shaped within contexts dominated by authoritarian ideas of social and cultural purity. But then again, is it irresponsible to express one’s ideas of purity?

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