Free(d) speech

Ajmal Masroor, one of the imams on Channel 4’s Make me a Muslim programme, has a piece at Comment is free criticising Tony Blair for converting to Catholicism and not Islam.

I think Masroor had his tongue lodged in his cheek somewhere when he was writing this piece, though I am sure others will have different views. In whatever way you read the piece, the website of a major British newspaper has allowed a Muslim to engage in polemics against another faith and touch some controversial points. So, if the Guardian happens to invite a Catholic blogger to type a piece criticising Muslims for not leaving Islam and entering the Church, I hope we do not see the kind of outrage we have seen in the last couple of years by some Muslims and cries of Islamophobia — this sort of exchange of views is ‘free speech’, however strained, in action.

Across the Atlantic a somewhat similar argument on free speech has been unfolding, involving Mark Steyn and his rant against Muslims, which was published in a Canadian magazine. There a Muslim organisation, the Canadian Islamic Congress (CIC), is using the law to demand some kind of remedy against Macleans, the magazine which published Steyn’s polemic.

I am against this sort of ‘solution’ to rebut anti-Muslim bigots. As has been pointed out by people with as differing views as Ali Eteraz, Inayat Bunglawala and the bloggers at Austrolabe [1, 2], such legal remedies will only come to hurt Muslims, their beliefs and causes they hold dear. What if Christians take exception to their beliefs being criticised by Muslims as ‘idolatry’? What if a staunchly pro-Israeli organisation demands space in a pro-Palestinian media outlet to respond to criticisms? There is nothing to stop the arguments used by some Muslims to curtail the freedom of others to criticise their own beliefs from being applied to Muslim criticism of Christianity, Hinduism, secularism and materialism. Indeed, as Sunny Hundal points out, it is Muslims living as minorities in liberal societies who will bare the brunt of such attempts to curtail public utterances.

Despite my reservations of the move made by the CIC, I would say that I do not think an abstracted freedom of speech under threat in cases such as this, the Danish cartoon fiasco or Popegate, largely because the state or its agencies are not directly intervening to prevent publication (there is no board of censorship which reviews suitable material prior to public release — that would be a direct attack on freedom of speech). Rather, most of the fuss is caused after the event. In the Macleans case, for example, a Muslim group with its allies are using a legal avenue to try and remedy a grievance they believe they have. I assume this legal body will review the case, and if the case is as flimsy as defenders of Macleans say it is, then it will be dismissed. I also assume this will have the added side affect of helping future cases to define what is and isn’t ‘free speech’.

In addition, speech, like our ‘conscience’, is always ‘free’: we are free at all times to utter words, have beliefs and so on. What is really at stake in discussions such as these are the consequences, if any, a society metes out for holding specific beliefs and expressing them in public. Despite pious assertions, liberal democracies seek to restrict and regulate our public utterances too: a wide variety of reasons are invoked to curtail what can be said such as the right to privacy, the national interest, symbols of cultural importance or protecting the vulnerable from harm (whether this is a good thing or not is a separate discussion). What some Muslims living in liberal democracies would like is for their beliefs to be held in such regards with respect to the law; but in liberal democracies, religious beliefs are generally not deemed worthy of legal protection from scrutiny or even ridicule — doing so would lead to the problems highlighted by Eteraz, Bunglawala and Austrolabe [1, 2].

It might be worth nothing that there is some tension here with Burke’s criticism of abstracted rights as laid out in his attack on the French Revolution. Burke attacked the ‘pretended rights’ of those who created abstracted theories of rights, by pointing out that an talk of such rights (e.g. the right to food or medicine) is all when and good, but what good is it if there are no farmers or doctors? Similarly, it might be said that while one may talk of the right to free speech for all, what good is it without the ‘vehicle’ to express these views? This is what at least one individual directly supporting the case against Macleans has suggested. I think this tension can be resolved by looking at the actual case of Muslims in Canada, and Canadian society in general (which is what Burke’s critique forces us to do). Examination shows that Canada is largely a tolerant, multicultural, society in which people are largely provided means to get an education, earn a living and engage in society in a variety of means (yes, these are all generalisations, but fair ones). There are no records of state-sponsored pogroms against Muslims. Those Muslims who found Macleans to be in the wrong when publishing Steyn’s piece were not totally powerless to respond. Avenues open to them included writing letters, starting boycotts, getting pieces written in magazines more sympathetic to their situation (rivals of Macleans), setting up public debates, raising funds to start their own magazine, and a whole host of other initiatives suggested by Eteraz — all of which, I assume, are legal in Canada. These would have been better means in which to respond to Steyn; they would certainly have been more effective.

The Macleans affair reminds me of a similar case that arose in France several years ago. Then the author Michel Houellebecq was accused of racism after an interview he gave to a magazine in which he called Islam a ‘stupid religion’. Houellebecq was eventually acquitted in court. That case was similarly a short-sighted moved by Muslim organisations, albeit the situation in France for its Muslim minority is vastly different to those in Canada.

Once again, I am forced to conclude with the insight by Atif Imtiaz that too many Muslims living in liberal democracies remain ‘cultural delinquents’ (Imtiaz is discussing British Muslims, but I think it is fair to extrapolate to this case in Canada). The first response of some Muslims, or at least the organisations that claim to represent them, to situations such as the Danish cartoons and the Macleans case is to resort to law and politics rather than engage through rhetoric and the arts — look at this piece by Chris Morris as an example. With time, however, I am more confident now than I have been in the past, that this will change.

Related:
Muslims and the Western media: giving credit where it is due

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3 Responses to “Free(d) speech”


  1. 1 sarah December 28, 2007 at 1:49 am

    “the first response of some Muslims, or at least the organisations that claim to represent them, to situations such as the Danish cartoons and the Macleans case is to resort to law and politics rather than engage through rhetoric and the arts”

    I wonder how much of this response is due to the uncle ji’s who run these muslim organisations being lawyers and doctors, and in some cases immigrants themselves, who may have experienced racism and feel assaulted by this bigotry.

    And also how much of your response (or the second generation response) is due to a sense of belonging in the culture and a kind of confidence to engage in the debate of ideas.

    you can’t really talk about free speech without talking about power. who has it and who doesn’t.

    either way- yes we’ve got to support our writers and artists!!


  1. 1 The religious and ethnic divides of Europe’s Muslims « pixelisation Trackback on December 27, 2007 at 1:43 pm
  2. 2 Odious pricks should be allowed to express their views too « pixelisation Trackback on January 7, 2008 at 8:50 pm

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