The Independent on Sunday published an article by Joan Smith yesterday in which she lambasts the British media for its failure to highlight the infringements to free speech demonstrated by recent events and the censorship being applied Muslims through threats of intimidation and violence.
“It's been a dreadful week for free speech. A meeting at a prestigious London college had to be abandoned on Monday evening when members of the audience were filmed and threatened by an Islamic extremist. Then the president of a student society at another London college was forced to resign after a Muslim organisation called for a ban on a joky [sic] image of the Prophet Mohammed. Finally, on Friday, the author Sir Salman Rushdie cancelled an appearance at India's largest literary festival, saying he feared an assassination attempt after protests by Muslim clerics.
“Almost as sinister as this series of events has been the reaction to them. The first has received very little public attention, despite the fact that students who belong to the college's Atheism, Secularism and Humanism Society were unable to go ahead with a perfectly legal discussion of sharia law. They'd come to Queen Mary, University of London to hear Anne Marie Waters speak on behalf of the One Law For All campaign, when an angry young man entered the lecture theatre. He stood at the front and used his mobile phone to film the audience, claiming he knew where they lived and would track them down if a single negative word was said about the Prophet. The organisers informed the police and the meeting cancelled.
“The fact that in a democratic country a religious extremist is able to frighten anyone into calling off a meeting is shocking – and so is the lack of a public outcry about this egregious example of intimidation and censorship.”
As regards the cancelling of the talk on sharia law (‘Sharia and human rights’) featuring a representative of the campaign One Law for All (which campaigns against ‘all religious laws’ in Britain but makes little or no mention on its website of concern for other religious laws/courts which exist under the Arbitration Act other than Sharia), the fact that someone intimidated the organisers and audience into cancelling the event says less about the ‘intimidation’ that a single individual with a camera phone caused, than what an appropriate and measured response to that intimidation should have been. From the reports of the incident it seems that it might have been appropriate to remove that individual from the premises, the confiscation of his camera phone and perhaps having the police take the individual in for questioning regarding his threats and disturbance of public order. To then make it appear as though the cancellation of the event was due to Muslim sensitivities is nonsensical.
Smith continues, “Tellingly, what has grabbed media attention is the second incident, when a secularist organisation at University College, London came under attack for publishing an image on its Facebook page of "Jesus and Mo" having a drink together. The Muslim group that wants to ban the image got a sympathetic hearing in the media, despite arguing openly for censorship. Extremist websites, meanwhile, reacted with the fanatical language that so often appears on such sites: "May Allah destroy these creatures worse than dogs," wrote one blogger.”
First of all, one can be almost certain that more than just one group of people would have been disturbed by the publication of a cartoon whose sole purpose is not to make any constructive point about any religion, but to be offensive - an irresponsible exercise of the right to freedom of speech. This is reflected in the fact that the UCL Union asked the publishers to remove the cartoon. Moreover, Smith does not substantiate her use of the words ‘sympathetic hearing’ to the media’s response to calls by some to ban it. She refers to the response on an ‘extremist website’ (no link is given) but makes no mention of the response of mainstream Muslim organisations/individuals/blogs, thus giving the impression that the ‘extremist website’ speaks for more than just the minority of idiots who wrote the blog.
In coming to a conclusion, Smith states, “Most people in the UK don't condone violence, but a worrying number think we should be careful around individuals with strong religious beliefs. This argument is mistaken, because it suggests that believers aren't as capable of exercising, or under the same obligation to exercise, judgement and restraint as the rest of us.”
Given the overall tone of her article, Smith would have been fair to state, in the interest of balance, that not just most people, but most Muslims in the UK do not condone violence or intimidation. By the end of her article, one could easily be left with the impression that the opposite is the case.
But then Smith has something of a track record of judging Muslims by unequal standards and it is rather bizarre that someone who champions the right to free speech devoid of self-censorship should regularly deny the right to free expression to Muslim women who chose to wear the burqa and niqab.
Smith’s article received a glowing appraisal by Nick Cohen in his Spectator blog, Cohen concurs writing that:
“Journalists, academics and authors turn away and pretend nothing is happening in case an admission of timidity tarnishes their image as fearless speakers of ‘truth to power’. The result is that this weekend Joan Smith is a lone voice rather than a singer in a chorus of disapproval.
“In my book I quote Pascal Bruckner, who put it better than I ever could. ‘It is time to extend our solidarity to all the rebels of the Islamic world, non-believers, atheist libertines, dissenters, sentinels of liberty, as we supported Eastern European dissidents in former times. Europe should encourage these diverse voices and give them financial, moral and political support. Today there is no cause more sacred, more serious, or more pressing for the harmony of future generations. Yet our continent kneels before God's madmen, muzzling and libelling free thinkers with suicidal heedlessness.’”
One would think defenders of free speech would be more interested in leveling the terrain to permit both Muslims and non-Muslims or ex-Muslims to articulate their views freely. Instead it seems as though the preserve of free speech belongs to those “liberal Muslims and ex-Muslims” (leaving aside the definition of ‘liberal’), who would no doubt throw their collective weight behind the One Law for All campaign. Another form of censorship one might rightly argue.
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