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Polemics and posturing on free speech

Polemics and posturing on free speech

Categories: Latest News

Tuesday January 13 2015

The cold blooded murder of the editor, cartoonists and staff at Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris last week and the siege at a kosher supermarket in the city in which four French Jews were killed, has predictably unleashed a barrage of polemical commentary reinforcing the ‘clash of civilisations’ narrative claiming that Muslims in the West impose either censorship by arms or compel self-censorship by force of fear.

In the Daily Mail last week, Douglas Murray, no stranger to diatribes when horrors unfold (an opportunity no doubt to revisit his argument on why “all immigration to Europe from Muslim countries must stop”), argues that the murderers, like those who have intimidated cartoonists at Jyllends-Posten in the past, are driven by a campaign “to place that religion – Islam – above the level of all other religions or ideas and make it immune from criticism.”

Murray goes on to elaborate the unflinching commitment to free speech espoused by Charlie Hebdo stating, “The magazine, which laughs at all religions, politics and beliefs, argued that if you are to be free you cannot allow any ideology to hold such a privileged position as to be above criticism. And so they lampooned Mohammed, and ISIS – as well as other targets like critics of Islam and the Far Right politician Marine le Pen.”

Murray ignores Hebdo’s retreat from ‘free speech’ when its editor in 2009 asked cartoonist Maurice Sinet to apologise for a cartoon deemed anti-Semitic and fired him when he refused. And as we know from the retraction of a cartoon by the Economist last year or the apology advanced by Rupert Murdoch in response to a cartoon by Sunday Times’ cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, which too were regarded as ‘anti-Semitic’, the variable geometry of the principle of free speech in practice is a lot greyer than ideologues like Murray want to believe.

Murray goes on to suggest that Muslims are alone in reacting to matters deemed offensive with violence, he writes, “Imagine that a Christian – any Christian – were to have responded to those cartoons or images by decapitating or gunning down the editor or staff of the magazine, newspaper or art gallery in question. Would we blame his victims, saying they had provoked the outrage? I think it highly unlikely.”

What of violent reactions by the likes of Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in 2011 in Utoya and Oslo because of his deep-hatred for multiculturalism and his violent rejection of ‘Eurabia’, the fantasy of a Muslim takeover of Europe? Breivik was responding not to cartoons but to ideas, falsified ideas at that. Is his crime less egregious because his manifesto and its maniacal fantasy didn’t bear the comic value of cartoons?

The idea that Christians, or so-called Christians, have not reacted in a violent manner to what they regard as a defilement of Europe’s Christian heritage is not borne out by the facts. And though their motives were not prompted by the ridicule of cartoons, in their use of violence to preserve what they believe to be sacred, these murderers share similar traits to the French killers. Murray’s polemics are intended to make it seem as though violence against self-perceptions of the sacred are peculiarly Muslim afflictions. They are not.

Leo McKinstry in the Daily Express is another who adds to the argument that Western values are at threat and that Muslims are at the heart of the problem.

McKinstry claims that “Any compromise over freedom of expression would be an abject surrender to these brutes who despise our liberal values.”

And yet, he must know that in no society is freedom of speech an absolute value. Whether one regards the limits imposed by laws on blasphemy, libel and slander, or laws on incitement to hatred, which in the case of groups defined by race; such as Jews and Blacks, clearly criminalise the use of “abusive or insulting” words or behaviour, the parameters of free speech are restricted by law. Moreover, there exist a tacit set of rules governing free speech which, for example, dictate the sorts of cartoons footballers share on their Facebook page. The idea that Muslims stand between the west and an untrammelled right to free speech is a false narrative though one that has got quite an airing in recent days.

McKinstry adds a further point of ignorance in claiming that “The country [France] has a huge army of disaffected Muslims who feel no allegiance to France. The same is true of Britain, where many Muslims refuse to integrate.”

He goes on to cite as ‘evidence’ a flawed survey by none other than Douglas Murray and the Centre for Social Cohesion to back up his claim overlooking more solid empirical evidence which suggests that Muslims identify with Britishness far more than all other groups in society bar British Sikhs. It is sad to see such a tragedy being used to score petty points via poorly constructed polemics.

Melanie Phillips in the Times yesterday argued, as she is wont, that “Jews, not cartoonists, are Islam’s real enemy”.

Phillips writes, “But to deny this terror is rooted in a valid interpretation of Islam is delusional. The Muslim world, which insists terrorism has nothing to do with Islam, must now take responsibility for its own religion. But it never will if the west continues to endorse this evasion.”

Phillips echoes the claims of Rupert Murdoch who last week tweeted “Maybe most Moslems peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible.”

There are also echoes of the comment by the Culture Secretary, Sajid Javid, who said that it is “absolutely fair to say that there is a special burden on Muslim communities because whether we like it or not these terrorists call themselves Muslims.”

Should Muslims then hold the whole of the US responsible for the views of Erik Prince, the CEO of security company Xe, which provided security for US convoys and diplomats in Iraq, who was accused of murdering Iraqis because of his ‘Christian Crusader’ views?

Should Muslims blame the US or British Government, or wider British society which PM David Cameron would prefer was more ‘evangelical’ about its Christianity, for the ill-treatment and murder of innocent Pakistanis, Afghans and Iraqis since the launch of our ill-fated adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Indeed, should society hold all Jews responsible for the disproportionate use of force by Israel against civilians in Gaza which led to the brutal killings of almost 2000 men, women and children this summer?

It is ever right to make a people responsible for crimes committed by the criminals alone?

And what would Melanie have to say about the role of the Israeli embassy in Ireland, which tweeted mocked up images of European landmarks plastered with Islamic symbolism declaring ‘Israel first, Paris next’ or ‘Israel first, Dublin next’. Would she countenance the proposition that “to deny this state sponsored terror is rooted in a valid interpretation of Judaism is delusional”? We didn’t think so.


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