Saturday, 17 January 2015

Free Speech and Islam

by Will Dry. 

Ahmed Merabet, a French Muslim who died defending
the right of a magazine to satirise his religion
(source: Huffington Post)
Britain has an Islamic problem - and the problem is certainly not Islam's fault. 

British society has failed to understand and integrate with Muslims. The answer lies at the heart of the Charlie Hebdo massacre: responsible use of free speech will not lead to more terrorist explosions, but instead to a greater public recognition of what Islam - and, therefore, Muslims - stands for.

A significant proportion of Westerners have suffered from a fatally persistent case of confirmation bias - picking and choosing which stories they base their interpretation of Islamic culture upon. And if you think this is an American problem - or, perhaps, a German problem, after seeing the Pegida rallies - you are wrong. The issue is equally pervasive in our own country: 61% of Britons feel negatively about Islam. Your initial reaction might be 'Oh well, don't worry, it's all the old people and Nigel Farage - society's changed and they don't keep pace', but this is also an illusory thought: 27% of young people 'do not trust Muslims'. These views are compounded by other inaccuracies in our perceptions: British people believe that a quarter of the population is Islamic - even though the accurate figure is only 5%, a disparity that is matched by no other religious or ethnic group. 

TV and newspapers provide 98% of non-Islamic British people with their primary source of information about Islam; it is a suitable starting point for the upcoming exercise of finding out why British people are so wrong. The media, a collective institution whose role is to inform us, has clearly failed if our perceptions of Islam are so thoroughly detached from reality. With the great power of free speech comes a duty to improve our society, not fragment it. Nobody enters journalism with the aim of distorting public opinion; so where along the chain does it all go wrong? Richard Peppiatt, a former journalist for the Daily Star, recounts how he was told to write pieces about Muslims doing 'X,Y and Z'. He would then look at the facts and complain how 'they hadn't done that at all'. Peppiatt was fired from the newspaper after writing an open letter to the owner, Richard Desmond, which concluded with the point, 'You may have heard the phrase, "the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil sets of a tornado in Texas", well try this: "the lies of a newspaper in London can get a bloke's head caved in down an alley in Bradford"'.

hypocritical tweet
(image: Wiki Commons)
The journalists are merely the toy soldiers of a bunch of hateful editors and media proprietors preparing for the next outlandish assault on the truth; not so much 'lions led by donkeys', more 'graduates led by purposefully adversarial antagonists.' The chief commander is undoubtedly Rupert Murdoch, a man whose influence is global when it comes to news. He tweeted after the terrorist attacks, in an unfathomable display of ignorance, 'Maybe most Muslims peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible.' If it is true that we are responsible for the beliefs and actions of our ethnic and religious brethren, then on behalf of white Christians, I apologize for Rupert Murdoch. The hypocrisy of Murdoch is astronomical: Murdoch provided no apology for Anders Breivik - the Christian white supremacist who murdered 77 people in 2011 because he felt the West was being Islamicized - and Murdoch was right not to beg pardon from all other ethnic groups.  

Similarly, Muslims should not apologise, or feel any Western-related pressure to condemn the attacks, for the actions of people who simply were not genuine Muslims. Despite only 13% of British people associating Islam with peace, the second-root of the word 'Islam' is 'peace.' Islam is not commonly associated with liberty either - critics of Islam may look at the punishments for apostasy - but this is rather an indictment on the states of the countries where this law exists, rather than on Islam itself. The Qur'an actually says "The truth is from your Lord, so whoever wills - let him believe; and whoever wills - let him disbelieve." and that there should be "no compulsion in religion", clearly any law against apostasy stems at least in part from the state*, perhaps to maintain control and social order, rather than any genuine religious motive.  

In Britain, we do not have complete free speech. That is not up for debate, that is a fact: in Britain you are not allowed to threaten, defame, falsely advertise, and most importantly, you are not allowed to commit hate crimes: inciting racial or homophobic hatred. This is, unquestionably, a good thing: racial hatred does not scrutinize anything. And that is why drawing a cartoon which mocks Muhammad - and, by extension, the beliefs of Muslims - when trying to scrutinize terrorism is a flawed idea. Mocking Muhammad is unfairly offending Muslims, who bear no responsibility for the actions of terrorists. As Malek Merebet - the brother of the Islamic policeman, Ahmed Merebet, killed defending Charlie Hebdo - said a few days ago: 'these terrorists are not Muslims.. Mad people have neither colour or religion'.  

If cartoonists wish to scrutinize terrorists, the one below does the job (see below the break). Western society - and especially the media, perhaps - have failed to grasp this simple concept. On Question Time last week, David Davis MP, stated how ideally, he would have got the media together and made them all print the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo. I was shocked at the ineptitude of our current politicians; it is no wonder the public's perception of reality is so distorted if our politicians, the people with all the figures and facts in front of them, fail to understand who printing pictures of Muhammad genuinely offends. It is worth giving some thought to the idea that maybe the terrorists want the Western media to print the cartoons mocking the beliefs and prophet of regular Muslims - it helps to justify their actions and gives them a pretext for more attacks. More worryingly, the cartoons may estrange British Muslims, as they see Western culture is incompatible with their beliefs. Free speech, often viewed as the holy grail of Western civilization, still plays a hugely important role in our society: the role of scrutiny. There is a clear distinction between hateful mocking, and comedic scrutiny: a cartoon depicting Muhammad kissing another man is unnecessarily insulting Islam, a cartoon pointing out the hypocrisy of Al-Queda leaders is scrutinizing them. 

Cartoon by David Pope, in response to the Charlie Hebdo killings

Free speech is pivotal to scrutinising rules, institutions and traditions which have been integral to our culture for centuries. That is why it is a tragedy when this right to scrutinize is removed; North Korea provides an apt example of what happens to a society when nothing is publicly questioned. PGS, generally, does pretty well on the 'free speech' front; we have our own blog where we can air our views, there is a student council to voice concerns, and you can email any teacher in the school to give them a piece of your mind - at your peril. There are tensions within the collective pupil cohort on important matters: does religion have a role in school life? was a member of the Royal Family a suitable choice to open our new Sixth Form Centre? It is crucial that nobody hides away from confrontation: the response to these tensions when they are articulated is to allow a debate to sprout from the differences in opinion. The ideal response - the response that heralds free scrutiny - is for the reasons for and against certain decisions to be put out in the open. This helps people understand why things are what they are - and, even if it fails to help people understand, defending decisions is key to increasing respect towards those decisions. An atmosphere where no defence is offered or - worse - one where criticisms are not allowed to be levelled, is one which fosters tensions, misinformation, and disgruntlement. 

For those of you who don't know, our Headmaster is a debating world champion: in 1991 he won the World Individual Debating and Public Speaking Championship. Other teachers are not too bad either: Mr Doyle debated (and beat) Will Wallace in a debate about the legacy of Margaret Thatcher, and Mrs Morgan is certainly not averse to the concept of arguing. If I am permitted to speak on behalf of us pupils, we are quite an argumentative bunch too: as any member of MUN, debating society or even the band of people who attend Socialism Club - infamously infiltrated by right wing extremists - can testify (actually, after listening to their views, it clearly would be grossly inappropriate for me to class these great minds as 'people' - the title 'demigod', or the collective term, 'the enlightened ones' , seems much more suitable).  

One of the speakers responds to
the cancellation of the Oxford abortion debate
We should make the most of the attributes that we are blessed with - debate should be encouraged at every opportunity: to ease tension and to inform and form opinions. Unfortunately, Britain as a whole seems to be heading in the reverse.  Earlier this year, a horde of irate feministic Oxford students, all mechanically spouting the same feeling of outrage, demanded that a debate about abortion should be called off on the grounds that two men, who possessed no uteruses, should not be able to debate the topic. The debate was called off by the college. At an institution, which is the pride of Britain, and the pinnacle of political thought, free speech was defeated by people who were too lazy to debate. In a liberal society, when people hold views different to our own, it is necessary to listen to them, and challenge them.  

Free speech can provide us with the answer to Britain's Islamic problem. The more the public understand the true virtues of Islam - peace, devotion to Allah - and understand the composition and mechanics of our society - the more integrated our society will be. George Orwell once said "If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear", but this definition is only applicable if you combine it with another Orwellian phrase "One defeats the fanatic precisely by not being a fanatic oneself." Our hate for the terrorists should not be fanatical, should not extend to anyone associated with them and should not extend the definition of free speech to incorporate abhorrent speech: it must have justification - the proper use of free speech must involve proper scrutiny.  

*I accept that the Muhammad was clear in his belief that the death penalty should be the punishment for apostasy, but due to the conflicting nature of the matter in the Qur'an, the states of these Islamic countries have clearly chosen one view given in the Qur'an, not primarily for Islamic reasons.  


  1. Excellent read.

  2. Really interesting article Will. I think I am in complete agreement with you here.

  3. good article. its ironic how terroist organisations such as the kkk are not associated with christianity in any way despite the fact it is made up of white christians. whats more when white people shoot up schools (a regular occurence) they are deemed mentally unstable instead of terroists. yet another example of white privilege

  4. a very good article, Will. Most Thought-provoking.


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