Needless to say that there’s been a wee bit of a debate going on in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo killings. Leaving aside, for a moment, that this debate has been stirred by the death of 12 people in Europe and not the 191,000 dead in Syria, it’s still worth looking at a few of the questions. Anyway.
Mehdi Hasan has written what I’d consider the best article on the subject, although I disagree with some of his assertions.
“Yet now, in the wake of another horrific terrorist attack, you appear to have updated Dubya’s slogan: either you are with free speech… or you are against it. Either vous êtes Charlie Hebdo… or you’re a freedom-hating fanatic. I’m writing to you to make a simple request: please stop. You think you’re defying the terrorists when, in reality, you’re playing into their bloodstained hands by dividing and demonising. Us and them. The enlightened and liberal west v the backward, barbaric Muslims.”
The “liberal pundit” may be pushing a false dichotomy but many of us are actually able to hold two orthogonal arguments in our heads at the one time. I’m a strong believer that divided we stand and united we fall: history has a harrowing message for us about this ideal of unity that people seem to seek.
At the moment, we should be acutely aware of the legislation that Cameron is wanting to push through Parliament: if we voluntarily cede any freedom of speech or expression, it’ll be gone for good and we’ll all pay dearly — Muslim and non-Muslim alike.
“Please get a grip. None of us believes in an untrammelled right to free speech. We all agree there are always going to be lines that, for the purposes of law and order, cannot be crossed; or for the purposes of taste and decency, should not be crossed. We differ only on where those lines should be drawn.”
Actually, we don’t all agree. There are people who believe freedom of speech should not be abridged at all, although most of them live in the US. The law in the UK however is fairly carefully drafted: it deals with law and order, not bad taste which is an entirely subjective notion.
“Has your publication, for example, run cartoons mocking the Holocaust? No?”
Well, I would have thought that obvious: millions of people died in the Holocaust. It’s not wise to mock an atrocity of that scale lest you legitimize the actions of the oppressor. In the UK – as far as I know – it is however not illegal (I’m open to being corrected on this point).
On the other hand, seeing a comic portrayal of a religious figure – even if it is your favourite Prophet or Deity – doesn’t tacitly approve of genocide nor cause people to suddenly drop down dead. Although if the latter did happen then it may lend some small amount of legitimacy to religious teaching.
“Consider also the ‘thought experiment’ offered by the Oxford philosopher Brian Klug…”
Definitely not advisable but not inconceivable either. For those of us who grew up in the West of Scotland, all I need say is “Orange Walk”.
“And why have you been so silent on the glaring double standards?”
Presumably because our mainstream press couldn’t blame the attack on the disabled or unemployed this time.
“Muslims, I guess, are expected to have thicker skins than their Christian and Jewish brethren.”
Not really. It was more that people ran out of material after Monty Python’s “every sperm is sacred number” in 1983… although Benedict V is still somewhat of an untapped goldmine. Where are all the satirists when you need them, eh?
Seriously though, most people deal with offensive comments on a daily basis, e.g. the Scottish have to routinely put up with lovely people such as Katie Hopkins; although, I was more offended that the Police investigated it than the comment itself.
The acid test of when it crosses a line is when people get hurt or actually oppressed. Did the Charlie Hebdo cartoons do so – did they actually cause real harm, or merely cause offense? Would it be wrong to levy criticism at the practice of Islam in the UK to tackle “honour” abuse/killings; after all, our comedians very much do take on the Catholic Church over child abuse?
“You ask Muslims to denounce a handful of extremists as an existential threat to free speech while turning a blind eye to the much bigger threat to it posed by our elected leaders.”
This, I agree with. Which is why I implore everyone to continue to relentlessly hold our glorious leaders to account, with vigour. David Cameron’s attempt to protect free speech by limiting free speech is a good starting point.
“Then there are your readers. Will you have a word with them, please? According to a 2011 YouGov poll, 82% of voters backed the prosecution of protesters who set fire to poppies.”
There are also veterans who are refusing to wear a poppy, cf. Harry Leslie Smith. I’d assume polls are also susceptible to the Hawthorne Effect (or such revised modern terminology) and how the question is drafted and posed.
Anyway, we’ve just past 317 years since Thomas Aikenhead was executed for blasphemy: a prime example that free speech, although difficult, is incredibly valuable and that criticism is not necessarily equivalent to lack of respect.