Demonstrating against Google? Because of the anti-Islam film? You’re kidding right?

by Rob Marchant

On Monday, the Telegraph reported an attendance of over ten thousand at a demonstration outside the UK headquarters of Google, over the controversial film “The Innocence of Muslims”.

The first point to note is that these are only a small handful of the 1.6 million Muslims who live in Britain, and who care passionately enough about the subject to get up and do something, in this case to try to ban it. Yes, we can and should respect the fact that some of our population are annoyed at the negative portrayal of their religion, and that they have the right to demonstrate (the vast majority of Muslims very likely see this news and merely shrug, or are possibly even irritated by the counter-productivity of the protests themselves).

But perhaps it is important is that those other thousands of sensible, free-speech-loving Muslims do not merely shrug, and that they can engage with the idea that, however irritating, banning is not the answer. In particular, it is important that their religious leaders, and so-called “community leaders”, do not merely shrug, or worse, indulge this silliness.

In part, it’s about free speech, but in part, it’s also about the long-term health of this religion: because there seems to be an existential crisis developing within it, a polarisation between moderate and extremist which has been slowly brewing for decades over the twentieth century which is making  for an explosive collision with progressive, humanitarian values in the twenty-first.

To condone, in short, is to encourage the sense of grievance which is insinuating itself into the minds of a small proportion of Muslims, and which demonstrably feeds extremism. And there is something else: that controlling impulse, to prevent criticism, smears millions of decent adherents to that historic religion with that same unhelpful image of illiberalism which dogs it in parts of the middle east and beyond.

Given that no other religion is seriously attempting to limit the right to free speech, in Britain at least, Islam is setting itself apart from the rest. And the extreme manifestation of this is a real and present danger for it: those whom the gods wish to destroy, as the old Roman quote goes, they first make ridiculous.

What do we mean? Well, the same Telegraph report that is hyperlinked above quotes the imam Sheikh Fayez al-Aqtab Siddiqui:

“…terrorism is not just people who kill human bodies, but who kill human feelings as well. The makers of this film have terrorised 1.6 billion people.”

Kill human “feelings”? “Terrorise” 1.6 billion people by making a film, probably only a tiny fraction of which will ever see it? What terrible rubbish.

Hearing this quote, it is difficult not to have not so much one’s sense of the ridiculous touched, as to be transported into the realm of outright satire. As if making a film, however obnoxious, can be compared with terrorising, killing or maiming people.

And, what is even dafter, we are not even talking about the people who made the film, who presumably have now long gone into hiding for their sins. We are talking about people several removes away: the company which allows people to access it through the internet, for heaven’s sake. Perhaps next we will see demonstrating outside the offices of BT, who provide the internet infrastructure. Or whoever supplies their offices with milk and biscuits. It’s madness.

If this kind of foolishness came from a TV evangelist, most Christians would probably shrug. Then again, there are not so many TV evangelists, in the UK at least, who might be open to encourage one of their flock go off to a training camp and learn how to carry out terrorist acts. In contrast, the evidence of radicalisation, leading directly to terrorism,that has taken place at British mosques is all too abundant.

Also, again in contrast, if this kind of intolerance were indulged by the British government, the entire Monty Python team would have been locked up long ago, for having done something far more damaging to Christianity: made a film that laughed at a religion, and used that humour to deadly effect in getting people to examine it with a critical eye. But no, Cleese, Palin and co. are still happily walking around as free men, although they were also, in their day, subject to death threats; an idea that now seems faintly ridiculous, and yet we almost accept it as an expected result of criticising Islam, thirty years on.

And, on that note, there’s more from the same Telegraph piece:

“Self-employed businessman Ahmed Nasar said he was worried the video could lead to violence in Britain in the same way as it had abroad. ‘If you push people too far,’ he said, ‘You will turn the peaceful elements into violence.’ ”

That is not what it might appear at first glance, a benign expression of peaceful protest, that we should all be civil to each other. It is rather a veiled threat: do what I say or there will be violence. It is passive aggression, writ large.

A couple of weeks ago, journalists Mehdi Hasan and David Aaronovitch debated “the right to offend” at the LSE. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Hasan was on the side of self-restraint tantamount to onerous levels of self-censorship , though to be fair, he has also criticised British Muslims (it is something of a sign of the times we live in that the only liberals who seem to be able to get away with this are Muslims themselves). But there is a vital point here about the right to be offended: as Aaronovitch said, we “simply cannot afford to be offended every time someone retweets something obnoxious”.

And this is especially true in the age of the internet. Banning is futile: on the internet things will find a way, especially if controversial or funny, regardless of your efforts to suppress them.

But there is not even the need to be absolutist about this, as are many journalists and commentators. Free speech, for many of us on the left at least, does not have to include allowing the BNP to march into your neighbourhood and spit at people. It is for that that we have the crime of incitement to racial and religious hatred, for all its faults. And this particular issue is miles from this definition (in fact, a Lords amendment specifically excluded “abusive and insulting” texts from the Act, precisely because the concept is too vague and subjective).

As the New York Times’ Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted on Monday, referring to the astonishingly brave 14 year-old Pakistani girl, shot in the head by the Taliban for speaking out about girls’ education:

“If only British Muslims would hold a mass rally against Malala’s would-be assassins, rather than against Google.”

It’s a good point. Let us not on the left, please, licence this idiocy through our support, tacit or otherwise. Free speech, even when caveated by the law to avoid true extremes, still includes this silly film. And even if it were right to try to ban the film, which it is not: to lobby Google is about as relevant and effective as lobbying Tim Berners-Lee for having invented the worldwide web.

17/10/12 1252 Update:

Mehdi Hasan has asked us to point out that he has not asked for the banning of the film, we accept this and note for clarification that the comment about banning referred to his position in the debate on free speech with David Aaronovitch, not to the banning of the film.

18/10/12 1221 Update:

The article was amended to correct the representation of Mehdi Hasan’s position in the debate with David Aaronovitch on the “right to offend” at the LSE. He was not in favour of banning but self-restraint.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left

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11 Responses to “Demonstrating against Google? Because of the anti-Islam film? You’re kidding right?”

  1. swatantra says:

    Good article, but like so many do-gooders they’d like the situation to continue as i is and not do anything in the name of ‘free speech’ and deteriorate even further until we get to that inevitable blood bath. Rubbish. We need intervention and now.
    When Tim invenrted the internet he didn’t envisage it tto be used to peddle hatred; when S invented Facebook he didn’t inend it to be used to peddle pornographic material and allow paedophiles to go about their business .
    I for one want Google to take greater conrol and that means greater editorial control of the material that they distribute, and stamp on the racial hatred and fundamentalism of bigots that invade the cyberspace. which frankly is a nutters charter at the moment.
    There is something rooten in the state of Islam at the moment and its god that peoplke like Medhi Hassan are prepared to stand up and be counted. A pity that the majority of Muslims don’t actually come out in visable and vocal support of Malala as suggested; there should be a mass rally instead of sitting on hands and turning a blind eye. The video is an irrelevance, an excuse, much in the same way as the cartoons. And if the silent majority of Muslims don’t speak out soon then we’re all heading for the precepice. It really is that bad.

  2. davidc says:

    and then ,after the demo finished, they all moved on to the pakistan embassy to demonstrate their support for a policy of educating girls

  3. @swatantra: I think we agree on the problem, my only quibble is about the where we take the solution. By the way, I am not as absolutist as David Aaronovitch, Nick Cohen or a number of other commentators in this area – I’m not against the Racial and Religious Hatred legislation at all, imperfect though it is.

    My point is more that you won’t solve it by going further and banning more things, and I don’t even know the extent to which that is possible. I think we are becoming less tolerant of each other’s views, and that’s not good.

    Btw, I’d also point out that Mehdi Hasan has criticised the Muslim community for being too obsessed by some subjects, like wars on the other side of the world. That said, to be equally fair I believe he’s also been far too soft on it in other areas, such as hate preaching or defending unpleasant regimes abroad (he of course would disagree). On balance, I feel his writing is perhaps more feeding the sense of grievance than diminishing it, but that’s just my view.

    @davidc: oh no they didn’t. Quite.

  4. Sam says:

    It’s a particularly duplicitous point to scold “the Muslim community” (which Muslim community? The tiny amount of people that protested against this film?) for not protesting regarding Malala, why don’t Jeffrey Goldberg and Rob Marchant express similar outrage for the killing of little Pakistani girls by drones? Of course, it’s hard to care about someone who has been incinerated. The “Muslim community” in Britain (which is every single Muslim in the UK) did not protest against this film – some Muslims did. Your entire article is littered with lazy Islamophobia.

  5. @Sam: whaddaboutery and blatantly incorrect. I refuse to take offence at your offensive remark – that is what the piece is about, after all, but name me one thing I have said which is Islamophobic.

    You cannot, so I suggest you retract that stupid remark.

  6. Sam says:

    Actually, Rob, I do retract the Islamophobia comment. I apologise for that – nothing you wrote can be considered as Islamophobic, but Jeffrey Goldberg is a well known Mulsim-baiter and a committed supporter and apologist for the crimes of the state of Israel. My response was a juvenile and emotional one, so I do regret calling you Islamophobic. I hope you accept my apology as genuine.

  7. Sam says:

    However, I find the following problematic:

    “Given that no other religion is seriously attempting to limit the right to free speech, in Britain at least, Islam is setting itself apart from the rest.”

    What you’re doing here, whether you know it or not, is considering “Islam” to be monolithic and single-minded. Islam in the UK is made up of individuals, and the vast majority of them are not calling for any kind of censorship. Also, your article completely omits the context, one in which the media is exclusively hostile to Islam and Muslims. In other words, not only is Islam scrutinised freely and vociferously in the UK, but the actual quality of such is scrutiny is often gratuitous and overtly Islamophobic. This renders the notion of “you can’t criticise Islam” as being patently absurd. I hope the more discerning of your readers will realise this. Also, Rob, why do you find it necessary to “call out” Muslims for not protesting against the barbarity of the Taliban? The implication in this is that Muslims in the UK identify or agree with the Taliban, which is utterly false. You are holding Muslims up to impossibly high standards, which is very worrying. Why should Muslims, most of whom you know absolutely nothing about, have to prove themselves to people like you and Jeffrey Goldberg? Can’t you see the perfidy inherent to this kind of argument? Once again, I wish people like you cared as much about the incinerated victims of drone attacks as you do about Malala. I also hope that you, as a white British male, protest violently every time an EDL thug beats up an Asian British person? I mean you wouldn’t want to be accused of hypocrisy, would you?

    But, of course, it’s okay for white British people to glory the occupation of Afghanistan, and ignore or negate its victims, or for Jeffrey Goldberg to justify every instance of Israeli barbarity, but Muslims must constantly and actively disassociate themselves from the actions of a barbaric, totalitarian movement such as the Taliban. Like I said before, I was wrong: this isn’t Islamophobia (I don’t believe you are an Islamophobe), but it’s sailing pretty close to it. Otherwise, it’s just fallacious nonsense mixed with a particularly insidious strain of liberal populism regarding fetishised notions of “free speech”, and the threats posed to it, which all too often come in the shape of the distinctly foreign “other” living in our midst. Let’s try to keep things in perspective.

  8. @Sam: Ok, apology accepted. Regarding your other comment, it is more interesting.

    It is true that Islam is not monolithic, and that those ten thousand Muslims do not at all represent all British Muslims (thank heavens). The problem is for them, that the only religion which is asking for censorship on religious grounds in the UK *is* Islam. Therefore, it is difficult not to conclude that they are making the whole community be seen in a poor light. People do not stop to ask the question “are these people representative?” – they do not have long enough attention spans, sadly.

    But it is pretty obvious that many will see clips of this demo and draw conclusions about all or the majority of British Muslims, conclusions which are likely to be incorrect, as you point out. But what would be helpful would be if Muslim leaders uch as MCB and others could be more clear in saying that this behaviour is unhelpful, whereas they only start to condemn when it results in violence.

    Regarding the media being hostile, I simply do not agree with your opinion on this. In fact, I wrote about it here, in (another) response to Mehdi Hasan: Where I might agree that you have a point is in right-wing media on Islam in the US, especially in the US. But here in the UK, I disagree. Read the piece, and I can also recommend the highly tenuous submission to Leveson from iEngage linked within that piece.

    “Why do I find it necessary to “call out” Muslims for not protesting against the barbarity of the Taliban?” – well, I am quoting Goldberg here, but my context is that I am calling out, like him, the people on the demo, not all Muslims. They clearly could find something better to demonstrate about, if they want to make a fuss about something that happened thousands of miles away.

    If you had seen my tweets today on the BNP, by the way, you would see that I have no truck for any kind of racism whatsoever.

    Ok, so you disagree on Afghanistan, but it’s hardly glorious for anyone. And just because you don’t agree with Allied troops being there, hardly makes anyone who does against Muslims. Don’t forget that the Labour government did many things with the motive of defence of Muslims, including Kosovo and Iraq, whether you agree with the outcome of the latter or not. On Goldberg, I think you are wrong, I don’t think he is a rabid right-winger at all, but by all means post me a link to the contrary.

    Finally, as I point out in another reply above, I am not (unlike David Aaronovitch, whom I admire but sometimes disagree with) in favour of “unfettered free speech”, I agree with the offence of incitement to racial and religious hatred, for example. So this is not “fetishism”, and things are not quite so black and white as you seem to be painting them. Less anger, more reasoning!

    Also, you also haven’t commented whether you agree or not with the idea of enforcing a ban on videos like this. Personally, I don’t, but I am interested to see your argument as to why you think it is justifiable.

  9. Sam & Rob: Other major religions are grouping together to limit freedom of expression. If you look back over the last few decades you will find ecumenical calls from the CofE, Catholic Church and some Rabbis when it comes to defending manufactured offence, whether over cartoons, novels or plays. And the well-funded campaigns to bring back the dark ages to Africa over AIDS?

  10. Sam says:

    With all due respect, Rob, you’re doing it again: “The problem is for them, that the only religion which is asking for censorship on religious grounds in the UK *is* Islam.” Can’t you see why this language is problematic? “Islam” is doing nothing of the kind – *some British Muslims are*, but the vast majority are not. While this may be a question of semantics, I’m sure you’d agree that the way we use language is incredibly important in issues such as this. I actually think that British Muslims should be commended, given the media’s preoccupation with misrepresenting their faith and reducing it to violence, hostility and a general sense of sinisterness, or for the fact that far right groups have carried out veritable pogroms in their communities, while one million of their fellow citizens voted for an openly racist, neo-nazi party committed to demonising and, if you take what their members say literally, *destroying” Muslims. It’s actually remarkable, for a minority so often depicted as being intolerant, that they have tolerated so much.

    There has been numerous studies carried out on the representation of Muslims in the British media, such as the comprehensive one authored by Kerry Moore, Paul Mason and Justin Lewis of Cardiff University, entitled “The Representation of British Muslims in the
    National Print News Media 2000-2008″, which found not only that the vast majority of representations of Muslims in the British media were negative, but that they all adhered to a certain narrative, namely one that Muslims in the UK were inherently violent, increasingly terroristic and a threat to “British culture”. I read the article you recommended and it’s fair to say that I almost completely disagree with it. Without turning this into an essay, it’s pretty obvious to most people that the Daily Star, for example, has actively engaged in a campaign to demonise Islam (probably for the sake of profit as opposed to any overtly ideological considerations), whether it be the instances cited in your article, or in its disturbing flirtations with the EDL, which did at one point come close to an outright endorsement of that group. The other Desmond paper, the Express, has been similarly Islamo-obsessed and Islamophobic. Don’t even get me started on the Mail…

    I’m certainly not accusing you of being aligned to the BNP, Rob. I was simply attempting to demonstrate that asking Muslims, who like many of their other fellow citizens are too busy working, raising a family, going to school, etc, to “do more’ (which is something I hear often) to “challenge extremism”, is like me asking white people to “do more” to oppose the EDL, or the BNP, or, in the case of Malala, asking Christians to “do more” to oppose the barbarity of the Lord’s Resistance Army. All of these would be, to varying extents, utterly ludicrous demands to make to entire demographics merely because they happen to share a belief, skin colour, etc. Muslims have been fighting against the Taliban long before the US-UK-NATO intervention and still continue to do so. British Muslims have no obligation to protest against the behaviour of the barbaric obscurantism of the Taliban.

    I completely disagree with you on the Iraq war, and perhaps a debate about the motivations for the New Labour government’s various military interventions should be reserved for another time.

    I actually don’t think it should be banned, even though I think the motivations behind the video were far more sinister than many have intimated. The creator of this video called Islam and Muslims “a cancer” and, like certain instances of Holocaust denial, was intended not to “celebrate free speech”, to incite hatred against Muslims as a part of the strategy of the fascistic “counter-Jihad” movement, to which Anders Behring Breivik, the EDL, Geert Wilders, and other Islamophobic extremists, all belong to. I am not opposed to legitimate historical discussion and enquiry regarding any aspect of Islam, but we must differentiate between that and clear cases of incitement to hatred. However, banning this film would have been highly counterproductive.

  11. @Clem: it’s true that there are periodic attempts to limit free speech from other religions. But I would argue these are usually not calling for banning, and have very little support outside their own little groups. I would say that in recent years, Muslim activists, in the context of banning, are easily the most vocal. This is especially remarkable if you consider the very small proportion of population which is Muslim versus (nominally) Christian. However, as ever, and particularly since this is tough to measure, always interested to hear counterexamples.

    @Sam: With all due respect, Sam, while you’re quibbling about the semantics of the argument, a small group of British Muslims are ruining the good name of the majority of British Muslims. You missed the point, by the way, in that nowhere did I suggest that ordinary Muslims should be getting up in the morning and going out to “challenge extremism”. I did however say that their “community leaders” should be – they are supposed to be leaders, after all. Plus specific mosques which have consistently invited “radical” preachers with links to highly questionable organisations (read up on the Finsbury Park and East London mosques if you don’t agree with this). Both parties really can and should do more. I am not asking ordinary Muslims to do anything, except tolerate (almost) free speech. Which I am sure the vast majority already do.

    On the Islam and the media question, you missed another point, which was that my piece made a specific exception for Express Newspapers, but said there is no “general” bias. It is pretty clear that none of the broadsheets, for example, are remotely Islamophobic. I don’t agree with you about the Mail either, btw, much as I despise it.

    One final thing: it’s clear that the video’s makers are quite unpleasant and Islamophobic people. However, from what I saw of the video itself, it was simply an appallingly badly-made C-movie, which was merely idiotic. Nowhere was there any obvious incitement to religious hatred that I could see, but I’d be glad to be proved wrong. So there is a difference between the movie and the people who made it, and I am glad you agree on the banning thing.

    Anyway, it’s been a pleasure debating with you, now I have to go and write my LabourList piece for Tuesday…

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