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).
“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