The past four weeks have prompted intense debates around freedom of speech. The attacks on the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, in Paris on the 7th of January have intensified the need in some to defend certain values. The attacks have also, unfortunately, intensified the need to equivocate in others. I wrote a piece two days after the event, arguing that we shouldn’t forget the true victims of the attack: satirists murdered for drawing cartoons and, two days later, Jews murdered for being Jews. This piece, though, is about the necessity of free speech in light of these events, and a rebuttal to those advocating or apologising for blasphemy laws.
On February 13th in Queen Mary university of London, a debate is being hosted about freedom of speech. Four of the six guests invited to speak are Muslim and all four happen to be regressive. This is unsurprising. Not because being Muslim entails espousing regressive views-this is obviously not the case. It is unsurprising because the debate is being organised by IERA; a group infamous for its toxic brand of Salafi supremacism (detailed here), and infamous, I might add, for couching its supremacism in victimhood and urbane posturing. The four guests are: Yvonne Ridley – chairing the debate and former Respect party member; Hamza Tzortis – member of IERA; Moazzem Begg – founder of CAGE prisoners; Abdullah Andalusi – “intellectual” . The two non-Muslim guests are professor Peter Cave and the journalist Dan Hodges.
It is ironic that, in a debate about free speech, 4 out of the 6 guests don’t believe in it’s value. Freedom of speech means you have to right to say or express any idea as long as it doesn’t explicitly incite violence. Scrutinising religious belief is not illegal, and it certainly isn’t violent, contrary to some authors. The burden to censor should always be on the censors, never on the person censored; therefore, all the rhetoric about responsibility – in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack – was grounded in nothing less than victim-blaming. Two common arguments advanced against free speech include: What about hate speech laws and what about holocaust denial (this one especially gets their pulse racing).
All these arguments have a common theme: what about X. This theme distracts and obfuscates. It is attractive and easy. So attractive and easy, it is tailor-made for Mehdi Hasan. And, true to form, Hasan wrote quite possibly the worst piece about Charlie Hebdo. Incidentally, during operation protective edge in the summer, Hasan rallied fervently against what he perceived to be whataboutery, but in this case the alleged whataboutery of Israel’s supporters. Yet when talking about his religion and his beliefs, he cheerfully forgos this attitude. (See, I can do it aswell; we all can, ad infinitum). In short, he, like Andulasi et al, is a Chaucerian hypocrite. Unlike them, he isn’t a fascist. He does, however, recycle their tone and their arguments: victimhood, anti-western loathing and equivocation. He is a social conservative and the more this is said, the better. He isn’t the Muslim Martin Heidegger but the Muslim Malcolm Muggeridge. And his disgraceful attitude following the murder of 12 people should never be forgotten.
Andalusi, on the other hand, is more explicit in his animosity to the west. He detests ‘Liberalism (individualism), secularism andfeminism‘. He writes in a coolly philosophical tone, but his argument, when taken apart, reveal hot bullshit. For one, he doesn’t understand what he is criticising. He misunderstands free speech and, by corollary, misunderstands liberalism. He says in his piece:
The purpose of free speech, when expressing opinion, is the pursuit of truth. That is all, nothing more.
Nope. The pursuit of truth is an important aspect of free speech, but it isn’t sufficent. The purpose of free speech is free speech. Expressing an idea, a feeling, an impulse, not necessarily grounded in this or that- it is an essential right, not a consequential one. In any sense, scientists may argue religious ideas don’t pertain to any notion of truth, they are verifiably untrue. Indeed, they’re offensively untrue, and so shouldn’t be allowed hearing in public. Andalusi is arguing for his concept of truth, the truth of the Koran. An attack on this truth is, therefore, impermissible under his conception. After laying out what freedom of speech must entail, he lays out what it mustn’t:
Surely if something yields no benefits, and only offers harm and negative experience to human life, should it be tolerated amongst a society of civilised human beings?
He doesn’t define ‘harm’, presumably because his definition is loose: satirising the edicts of Islam may be harmful. But its harm is necessary. Its harmful to those who belief these ideas shouldn’t face scrutiny, and that those who scrutinise it should face punishment. His writing supports blasphemy laws in its variants – through law or through courtesy. We must continue harming and disfiguring this dogma.
Like Andalusi, Tzotzsis detests freedom of speech. And, like Andalusi, Tzortzis supports blasphemy law. He argues:
use good speech. God doesn’t love the actions of evil speech.” […] “Just be human. Because a civilised society isn’t a society that basically degrades each other, defames and dishonours, and uses vile speech. We are human beings. So let’s be human being.
Once again, an appeal to civility is made. A proscription upon using speech that doesn’t defame, degrade and dishonour is again also made. And once again degradation isn’t precisely defined; its lack of precision invites loose and encompassing application. IERA operate on the slippery, the hinted. They’re allergic to plainness and clarity- it uproots their ideology. Only one plausible conclusion can be drawn: The Charlie Hebdo cartoons, even in portraying the prophet sympathetically, degrade and defame. Attacking the cartoonist’s right to portray the prophet is not reasonable or tolerant in any sense; it is the deliberate intrusion of blasphemy codes into secular society.
Andalusi,Tzortzis, Ridley and Begg all argue freedom of speech doesn’t entail the right to offend. They’re wrong, it does. Freedom of speech entails the right to offend, otherwise it wouldn’t be free and, because offence is taken not given, circumscribing free speech on this basis is incoherent: what is offensive to one person is inoffensive to another. I find Andalusi’s views on liberalism, Tzortzis’ views on child marriage, Ridleys view on Israel and Begg’s views on shariah punishments, all very repugnant. Yet I’ll rightly defend their right to host the debate at Queen Mary, or host any other debate, and express their repugnant views.
The argument from offence invites slippery slopes and privileges the arbitrary. This is what is at stake here. Free societies endorse the possibility of offence. They thrive in its presence, and recoil in its absence. Robust debate means somebody is offended, ideas can be tested and, consequently, values can evolve. It means, in essence, you can be progressive. However, those advancing the argument from offence desire blasphemy law and, therefore, are not. They want their beliefs insulated from criticism. They don’t accept irreverence and they detest religious scrutiny. This makes the issue more profound; an essential conflict in values. One in which on one side stand supporters of regressive speech codes; and on the other, those supporting Enlightenment principles stand steadfast, but with their numbers dwindling.
Post-modernism and post-colonial dogma is ensnaring their principles; universalism is now hostage to the ‘white man’s guilt’, unfettered reason is seen as threatening. Modern Anti-racists don’t understand cultures, values and ethnicity – all is elided. They only understand one thing: what is primarily evil and what is secondarily evil. Details are pruned to this axiom. We are primarily evil, Islamists are not. Moral equivalence is internalised: we judge acts with reference to ourselves, our deformities and our ignominies. We can’t confront evil directly, and thus, we let it flower.
People who are unwilling and unable to confront evil always equivocate. The ‘buts, whataboutery, on the other hands’. The irrelevant context bolted inelegantly. They complicate the transparent and, in turn, placate the implacable. What is a totalitarian revolt against liberal values isn’t that, but something else. What is x isn’t x, but x and y and z, because x frightens. Cowardice is exhibited, these forces are emboldened and evil continues. Islamists thrive amidst euphemism. They also thrive under the aegis of victimhood. They are victims inveighing against western oppressors. The benefit of the doubt, therefore, is their right and theirs alone.
But, with this in mind, what about their victims? Progressive Muslims who face charges of blasphemy; both punitively or through social stigma. What about the virulent abuse they receive? More damaging than pointing out Andalusi doesn’t understand liberalism. Their victimisers, the Islamists, escape unburdened with scrutiny and unchallenged by liberal principles. IERA don’t face the same level of hostility as the BNP. If contesting inhumane beliefs can only be done consequentially – challenging only those with ostensible ‘privilege’ -Muslims by accident of birth will continue to suffer indefinitely. This is unpardonable. Nevertheless, this is our current state. Silence on our part debilitates and destroys: only speaking is revolutionary; only speaking is progressive; debate, dialogue and scrutiny are emancipatory, silence is not. This is why free speech is important, and this is why its enemies should be directly confronted.