Are Muslims a threat to free speech?

So asked Channel 4, in a programme which revealed the real problem is the West’s own politics of inoffensiveness.

Neil Davenport

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Back in the summer, British TV’s Channel 4 broadcast a programme called What Do Muslims Want?, hosted by its resident newsreader Jon Snow. Last night, Snow led a Dispatches debate on Channel 4 asking ‘Are Muslims threatening the right to freedom of speech in the UK?’. Next week, the channel is showing Women-Only Jihad, a programme about young British Muslim women calling for equality with Muslim men. If there were BAFTA gongs for Having Islam on the Brain, Channel 4 and Snow would romp home.

Of course, the question of whether speech should be censored to avoid causing offence to religious beliefs is a pressing one and deserves to be thrashed out. But why this automatic, and wrong, assumption that Muslims are at the forefront of applying the blue pen these days? And how come a programme supposedly aimed at championing the importance of open discussion ended up censoring itself? Could it be that, for all Snow’s ‘hey, I’m-easy-going’ liberalism, Channel 4 can’t resist an opportunity for marketable sensationalism? Scary and dramatic wordplay surrounding the word ‘Muslims’ is hardly a sober starting point for any debate – though it did set the tone for this programme’s slightly odd set-up.

The studio’s neon lights and roaming cameras aspired to the same bombastic glare as The Weakest Link and Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Indeed, at various interludes Snow even ‘asked the audience’ to vote on set answers – though none of the ‘witnesses’ (the featured guests) had the option of phoning a friend during their interrogations. Leading the cross-examination of those at the coalface of the ‘Muslim controversy’ were writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik and the Stephen Lawrence family lawyer, Imran Khan. Malik presented the case for why restrictions on free speech are a threat to social progress and social minorities. Khan, meanwhile, argued that the ‘free speech card’ is merely a cover by the rich and racist to viciously persecute Muslims in Europe.

First up in the witness box was the editor of a French newspaper who decided to publish those Danish cartoons. I didn’t agree with her implied comments that the cartoons issue represented the cutting-edge of the free speech debate. But her careful distinction between criticising Islam as a set of ideas and slamming Muslims as a people was an important one. Likewise, her passionate defence of liberty as a tool to aid equality was compelling. Disappointingly, though, she came unstuck when Khan asked whether she would publish the views of neo-Nazis, especially relating to the Holocaust. She became theoretically convoluted and tongue-tied.

This theme of what restrictions on free speech are acceptable dominated the programme. So some Muslim contributors said they, too, were in favour of open discussion and debate – just so long as they weren’t offended by it. Khan took the approach of drumming up lurid examples of ‘nasty’ free speech (racist propaganda, child pornography) to suggest that the anti-censorship lobby is morally reprehensible. As a consequence, a Dutch film producer who appeared in defence of free speech was made out by his opponents to be a woman-hating pornographer.

Commendably, he was unrepentant about championing free expression; this meant that Khan had to resort to bizarre non-sequiturs, such as ‘has your work emancipated women?’, as if free speech were a narrowly instrumental thing. For the record, free speech has historically been vital in aiding the extension of women’s rights.

In response to Khan’s assertion that only rich reactionaries champion free speech, Malik pointed out that such individuals are ‘more likely to have the power to censor and the need to do so’. Echoing similar sentiments, Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty made a key point: that the government, courts and petty officialdom are the real threat to free expression, not Muslims.

The highlight was the showdown between Malik and a spokesman for Hizb ut-Tahrir. The latter may have had a debating tone that made Darcus Howe sound like Minnie Mouse, but his bluster was quickly deflated. As he raged forth about the Pope’s comments on the prophet Mohammed last month, Malik quietly interrupted him to say: ‘Have you read the full speech? He was actually discussing the relationship between religion and science.’ The Hizb ut-Tahrir representative continued to bellow the same accusations until Malik uttered, ‘You haven’t read it, have you?’. It showed up that Muslims (like everyone else these days) are encouraged to take offence over any slight – real or imagined. Why worry about getting your facts right, when really you just want to feel offended?

Malik had earlier argued that everyone has become ‘touchy feely’ about ‘offensive’ ideas and comments. He was proved right in his exchange with the Hizb ut-Tahrir spokesman, who argued that restricting free speech is really about shielding his and others’ feelings from ‘hurtful’ comments. Oh dear. You couldn’t have asked for a better snapshot of how censorship infantilises society. Far from this being a Muslim problem, such views have been moulded by the very homegrown politics of identity and multiculturalism.

At the end, the studio audience was split 50/50 on the idiotic question, ‘Are Muslims restricting free speech?’. Snow summed up the mealy-mouthed character of the programme by declaring that, ‘Perhaps free speech is a high price to pay for a multicultural society’. Earlier, Channel 4 proved that, by refusing to show those Danish cartoons or clips of the film that so angered some Dutch Muslims. If there’s one thing we can be sure that Channel 4 won’t censor, it is its own bizarre obsession with Muslims.

Neil Davenport is a freelance writer and lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

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