Defend free speech – now more than ever
Laws against 'incitement to religious hatred' and 'indirect incitement' to terrorism can only make matters worse.
We have been told many times since the London bombs that we need to stand together to defend freedom and ‘our way of life’ against the terrorist threat. However, it has also become clear that the freedoms we are being asked to defend do not include freedom of speech.
Everybody seems to agree in principle that we need more discussion about why and how those British-born Muslims came to bomb London transport, and where we should go from here. The Conservative Party’s Muslim vice-chair, Sayeeda Warsi, has even called on the government to engage with ‘the radical groups who we have said in the past are complete nutters’.
Yet in reality, all sides of the political class appear to fear free speech today. They want to suppress ideas and words considered too offensive, provocative or inflammatory. At root, this reflects the fear and loathing with which the authorities view sections of the population. They fear the white working class, which they see as an Islamophobic pogrom waiting to happen, apparently requiring only a spark of hate from political extremists to set it off. And they fear Muslim youth, whom they view with increasing dread as one big suicide bomb that could readily be detonated by extremist preachers. In both cases, the proposed solution is to censor the offending words and hope that the underlying problems go away. The outcome, however, is likely to make matters far worse.
Even before the London bombs, the New Labour government was already proposing a new law to outlaw ‘incitement to religious hatred’, primarily motivated by a desire to protect the Muslim faith but applying to all religions. This is a basic attack on our freedom to criticise and even ridicule religious obscurantism – a freedom that was hard won in the creation of a secular society.
The proposed law has attracted a lot of flak over recent months. Yet in the aftermath of the bombings, the government is apparently planning to tighten its planned controls further still. And even before that controversial measure becomes law, the authorities have already been ordering us to behave ourselves and watch our Ps and Qs where Islam is concerned. Police commanders have issued extraordinary warnings not to use the words ‘terrorism’ and ‘Islamic’ in the same sentence. Meanwhile, every government minister or official spokesman has emphasised their commitment to defend ‘tolerance’ – which, in the Newspeak of New Labour, means that they will not tolerate anything that they deem to be intolerant of Islam or Muslims. All of this pre-emptive censorship seems likely to intensify a sense of grievance among some white people, and to allow the likes of the British National Party to pose as the champions of free speech and open debate.
In addition, the authorities now also want to crack down on free speech among preachers and others accused of leading Muslim youth astray. There are plans to create a new offence of ‘indirect incitement’ to commit terrorism. Such a law would cross the line between criminalising deeds and words.
It has long been a principle of a civilised system of criminal justice that people should be held accountable in law for their actions, not their ideas or opinions. The creation of thought-crimes, by contrast, has normally been associated with authoritarian regimes. The law on incitement has been a grey area in Britain, one where words could be criminalised if a court accepted that they had led directly to violence or some other offence in specific circumstances.
In recent years, the line between words and deeds has been blurred in British law by the creation of racially- or religiously-aggravated offences. Under these laws people can not only be punished for what they do, but further penalised for what the courts decide they were thinking at the time. In recent cases, the definition of incitement to violence has also been broadened to include the general preaching of hate towards a racial or religious group.
Now, however, the creation of an offence of ‘indirect incitement’ threatens to erase the legal line between words and deeds altogether. What is now to be defined as indirect incitement sounds like what used to be called expressing an opinion – albeit one that is offensive to some. Asked to explain what the new laws might mean, the Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer told the BBC that people ‘attacking the values of the West’ or ‘glorifying the acts of suicide bombers’ could be imprisoned for ‘long periods’ and ‘deported wherever possible’ (1). Hazel Blears, the police minister, said that indirect incitement would include ‘people who seek to glorify terrorist acts, perhaps by saying “Isn’t it marvellous this has happened; these people are martyrs”’ (2).
Leave aside the small matter of how many imams have been heard to describe suicide bombers in such jolly hockey sticks language. The real question is, why should we be afraid of words? Is our society so fragile that it cannot withstand the horror of some crank preacher (or anybody else) daring to ‘attack the values of the West’? Are we so fearful and insecure that we have to treat a speech about suicide bombers as equivalent to an explosion on the Underground? Such counterproductive censorship, exposing a sense of fear and panic at the centre of British politics, seems likely to recruit more self-righteous martyrs for the terrorist cause than any extremist preacher.
On spiked we have always insisted that free speech is not divisible; we either have it, or we do not. It cannot mean only the freedom to say what others agree with, or the freedom to be inoffensive. Nor is this purely about defending the rights of speakers to spout whatever rubbish they see fit. It is about the freedom of the rest of us to decide what to believe for ourselves as autonomous adults, rather than having our ears covered up for us by the government or the courts.
But free speech is far more than an abstract democratic principle. It is also the only practical way that we can hope to tackle the sort of problems we face in Britain and the West today. Indeed, many of those problems have been stored up by the authorities’ past attempts to suppress debate and stifle freedom of expression.
For more than 15 years, under both Tory and New Labour governments, the British authorities have often sought to bury tensions and avoid divisive issues to do with race and religion. A key moment came back in 1989, when Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses sparked a wave of angry protests among the Muslim communities of British cities. There was clearly far more going on there than the publication of a work of fiction that few people had even read. All sorts of issues to do with Britishness and identity were becoming mixed up with race and religion. The immediate response of the authorities was to try to close down the debate. While condemning the death threats and fatwas against Rushdie, both Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher and her foreign secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe were at pains to assure everybody that they, too, found Rushdie’s book ‘offensive’ for its criticisms of Islam.
The Satanic Verses episode set the pattern for the suppression of debate and controversy, along with the making of concession after concession to those who protest about ‘offensive’ words and images. We have seen numerous examples in just the past few months, from government ministers effectively condoning the closure of a play in Birmingham after violent protests by some Sikhs, to Tony Blair claiming during the General Election campaign that he did not know how many illegal immigrants live in the UK.
The worthy-sounding aim is always to avoid conflict by curtailing debate on divisive and controversial issues. The outcome of all these measures, however, has been to make matters worse. We are left with a polite but empty public discussion about the correct etiquette to be imposed on racial or religious matters. Meanwhile, far deeper problems are left to smoulder away under the surface of society. Then we all seemed shocked when they suddenly and violently explode into view, as they did in London on 7 July.
The alternative must be an honest, no-holds barred debate. By free speech we do not mean – contrary to the crazy suggestion of the Muslim Tory spokeswoman – having a nice dialogue with ‘complete nutters’. We mean defending the freedom to tear into the religious and political beliefs of others. An open debate will mean giving others the freedom to express ideas we might find offensive. But it will at least give us the chance to get at the truth and know where we stand, by clarifying issues, cutting through all of the crap and seeing what it is that can unite and divide us today.
In his major speech to a Labour conference at the weekend, Tony Blair seemed very clear that the terrorist threat must be confronted, not just through security measures, but ultimately ‘by the power of argument, debate, true religious faith and true legitimate politics’ (3). Yet in practise his government’s response is to try to outlaw ideas and opinions which do not meet its standards of legitimate politics and true religion. That does not suggest he has much faith in the true power of argument and debate, or in the freedom of speech that ought to be the bedrock of any way of life worth defending.
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