Liberals argue that a more diverse society requires less diverse opinion. Nonsenseby Kenan Malik / March 22, 2006 / Leave a comment
“I believe in free speech, but…” That has become the rallying cry for the liberal left in the wake of the Danish cartoon controversy. The Guardian “believes uncompromisingly in freedom of expression, but not in any duty to gratuitously offend.” For Jack Straw freedom of speech is fine but not if it leads to an “open season” on religious taboos.
So free speech is good, but has to become less free in a plural society. “If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict,” the sociologist Tariq Modood argues, “they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism.” It seems that the preservation of diversity requires us to leave less room for a diversity of views.
I believe the opposite is true. I think that Danish newspapers should be free to publish insulting cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad; that Muslim demonstrators should be able to carry placards calling for the beheading of those who insult Islam; and that both the radical cleric Abu Hamza and British National party leader Nick Griffin should be free to spout racist hatred. And they should all be free to do so because we live in a diverse society, not in spite of it.
In a homogeneous society where everyone thought in exactly the same way, giving offence would be nothing more than gratuitous. But in the real world, where societies are plural, then it is both inevitable and important that people offend the sensibilities of others. Inevitable, because where different beliefs are deeply held, clashes are unavoidable, and we should deal with those clashes rather than suppress them. Important, because any kind of social change or progress means offending some deeply held sensibilities. The right to “subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism” is the bedrock of an open society.
Ah, say the would-be censors, the problem is that you secularists simply do not understand religious believers’ depth of attachment to their faith, and hence their outrage at any insult to it. As Ian Jack, editor of Granta, has put it, an individual might have the abstract right to depict Muhammad, but the price of free speech is too high when compared to the “immeasurable insult” that the exercise of such a right causes—even though “we, the faithless, don’t understand the offence.”
This argument reveals how little attached many liberals are to their own beliefs. One can imagine Jack arguing about Galileo 400 years ago, “He has an abstract right to depict the earth orbiting the sun, but imagine the immeasurable insult that the exercise of such a right would cause.” There is no reason to treat Muslims—or, indeed, any religious believers—as special cases. Communists were often wedded to their ideas even unto death. Racists have a visceral attachment to their prejudices. Should I indulge them because their beliefs are so deeply held? Of course not. In any case, I would challenge anyone to show me that my humanism is less intensely felt than the faith of a Muslim or of any other believer. There is something almost racist about the claim that Muslims are so different from everyone else.
Last October, the Egyptian newspaper Al Fager published the cartoons in full—without a murmur of protest. The violence over the cartoons has less to do with religion than politics. It has emerged from a sense of grievance and victimhood that many Muslims feel about their treatment by western societies, a sense that has been skilfully exploited by some Muslim organisations for their own ends.
Yet even within this climate many Muslims remain opposed to censorship. Bünyamin Simsek is a councillor in the Danish city of Aarhus who helped organise a counterdemonstration to the cartoon protests. “There is,” he says, “a large group of Muslims in this city who want to live in a secular society and adhere to the principle that religion is an issue between them and God and not something that should involve society.” He is not alone. But his is the kind of voice that is seldom heard. In the name of pluralism, the censors are helping to strengthen the hand of the most conservative elements within Muslim communities.
It is true that there is nothing particularly laudable about the cartoons themselves. They are at best childish, at worst distasteful. But free speech is nothing if it is not the right to be distasteful, even racist. The “I believe in free speech but…” argument leads to a pick ‘n’ mix attitude to what is tolerable. When British Muslim leader Iqbal Sacranie’s comments on homosexuality led recently to a police investigation, 22 Muslim leaders wrote to the Times demanding the right to be able to “freely express their views in an atmosphere free of intimidation.” Those same leaders deny such a right to newspapers publishing cartoons about Muhammad. Many of those happy to see cartoons lampooning Muhammad draw the line at anything mocking the Holocaust. It is becoming a case of “my speech should be free, but yours is too costly.” What is, in fact, too costly is giving in to the demand not to cause offence. If we believe in free speech, there can be no buts.