Censorship


mozilla firefoxFar too much of my teenage years was spent promoting a series of opinions that I now regard with embarrassment and distaste. In a phase of far leftist flirtation, during Israel’s 2008/9 attack in Gaza, I recall attending a demonstration in my hometown. At one point, we found ourselves standing outside the local branch of Starbucks. I think I had to ask someone why the heck we had stopped there but it turned out that it was because of the pro-Israel activism of its CEO. Well, whatever. There was no embassy around so it was as if it had to do. We stood in the drizzle and offered mild amusement to pedestrians.

This was stupid. Even if the man himself had been serving the coffee rather than some poor student it would have been stupid. Still, I do not think it is evasive to suggest that the campaign against the CEO of Mozilla Firefox is even more ridiculous. Our emotions and egos were under the spell of a war. The conflict that spawned this affair is purely cultural.

There is a dating website called OkCupid. It is known for hosting the profiles of weirdos but it appears that the strangest people work for the company. If one visits their homepage from Mozilla Firefox one is greeted with this message…

Hello there, Mozilla Firefox user. Pardon this interruption of your OkCupid experience.

Mozilla’s new CEO, Brendan Eich, is an opponent of equal rights for gay couples. We would therefore prefer that our users not use Mozilla software to access OkCupid.

Six years ago, you see, Mr Eich donated a thousand dollars of his own savings to a campaign to ban gay marriage in California. The campaign has since failed after the amendment that it spawned was ruled unconstitutional. We are being asked, then, not to use a company’s products because of its chief executive’s private, insignificant endorsement of a lost cause.

There is no actual harm to be avoided. It would make more sense to campaign against Central American drug gangs by boycotting films that feature Charlie Sheen. This campaign, though, is symbolic: seeking to demonstrate that certain opinions are unwelcome in the public sphere and that their advocates will face exclusion. When the advocacy is so trivial; that exclusion entails attempts deprive one of one’s livelihood and the opinion can be one that nobody would have thought controversial a decade ago it is obvious that a strange and passionate wave of feeling is upon us. Joseph Bottum may or may not be correct about the roots of progressive thought in Mainline Protestantism but it is undeniable that it is imbued with a religious ardour – and an intolerance of heretics.

Still, I am not going to boycott OkCupid over this. I will continue to avoid it for a more pragmatic reason. It is full of weirdos.

khomeiniTwenty-five years ago, the joyless cleric at the helm of the Iranian theocracy declared that Muslims should kill Salman Rushdie and everyone who was complicit in the publication of his book The Satanic Verses. One of our eminent novelists was forced to go underground, and while he endured years of frightened isolation others were even less fortunate. The offices of his publishing houses were firebombed. His Japanese translator was stabbed to death. His Norwegian publisher was shot and seriously wounded. Thirty-seven Turks were killed in an attempt to slay a maverick writer who had begun a translation.

Years passed and violence broke out time and time again. Theo Van Gogh was murdered and Ayaan Hirsi Ali went into hiding. Robert Redeker faced death threats. Lars Vilks was the target of at least three murder plots. Kurt Westergaard faced the threat of an axe-wielding assailant. Gibson Square was firebombed for publishing Sherry Jones. Molly Norris went into hiding over an Internet prank. Charlie Hebdo offices were torched over its mischievous cartoons. Lars Hedegaard was shot. This is without mentioning the thousands who have been killed or detained in Islamic nations.

I observed this week that some free speech campaigns are over instances of expression that are so uninspiring as to leave me with no stomach for the fight. It did not escape my notice, though, that when The Independent reported on the prohibition of materials boasting the image of the Flying Spaghetti Monster at an English university their article was accompanied by a picture of the thing. When it addressed the campaign against Jesus & Mo, though, it did not feature an image of the cartoon prophet. Its author admitted that this was an editorial decision.

These posters and drawing hardly seem to be the stuff of Voltairian pamphlets. They do not renew the liberal flames in me. What should inspire one, though, is the response to them. It is alarming that our national media feels that it cannot publish a drawing of a cartoon man for fear of violent reprisals. If people are scared to show innocuous cartoons, how might they react to a novel that may provoke controversy, or to academic research that might inspire outrage? (If Penguin India’s withdrawal of an irreverent study of Hinduism is anything to go by it may be with submission, though the media has had no qualms about showing its contentious cover image.) If, indeed, Rory Bremner is scared to joke, or Grayson Perry to make art, how many commentators, novelists and scholars have allowed their thoughts to be repressed?

This actual fear works alongside a cultural hypersensitivity that dissuades people from investigating the beliefs of others. In the 80s, and afterwards, people from John Le Carre to Jimmy Carter fretted about Rushdie’s irreverence. Such knee-jerk responses have now solidified into an ideological opposition to critical analysis. One need not even raise a threat to cause many to hold their tongues. Their biases will do the work.

I am not at all sure, then, that a novel like Rushdie’s would be published today. Yet the issues that it raised are more relevant now than they were twenty-five years ago. Then Islam was of no clear relevance to the West. Samuel Huntington was still writing about Brazil. Now, sectarian warfare has spread across the Middle East. Saudi-style Wahhabism is promoted across the globe. Organised theocrats preach within our borders to audiences of thousands. (It is almost enough to make one pine for the 80s.) Rarely has there been such a need for clear-eyed investigation and rarely have we been worse placed for its execution.

Be careful with your speech, then. Damn careful. But for fear of doing an injustice to the truth – not of provoking hair-trigger sensitivities.

ToleranceThe European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs is rarely of interest to anyone outside of Brussels but last month it did something intriguing. It played host to a group going by the unassuming title of the Eminent Legal Experts from the European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation. This group, formed by numerous ex-presidents and prime ministers, was promoting its Framework Statute for the Promotion of Tolerance, which makes for a fascinating read.

I am not an absolutist defender of free speech, and, indeed, think that few people beyond the fringes of libertarianism are. I would convict people who incite violence against others, and exclude people who cleave to oppressive values. On the other hand, I am daunted by the scale of censorship that the European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation demands…

Penal Sanctions

(a) The following acts will be regarded as criminal offences punishable as aggravated crimes

(i) Hate crimes as defined in Section 1(c).

(ii) Incitement to violence against a group as defined in Section 1(a).

(iii) Group libel as defined in Section 1(b).

(iv) Overt approval of a totalitarian ideology, xenophobia or anti-Semitism

(v) Public approval or denial of the Holocaust

(vi) Public approval or denial of any other act of genocide the existence of which has been determined by an international criminal court or tribunal.

My attitude towards censorship depends, in large part, on social context. A society in which a group faced high levels of violence against minorities, for example, would have more reason to prohibit radical speech than a society in which bigoted attacks were rare. Given that most European countries do not host endemic levels of upheaval and conflict, I see no reason for the breadth of these measures. Why, for example, should people be convicted for approving of totalitarian ideologies? What harm are the poor fools of the Stalin Society doing?

The threat against people who commit “group libel” is intriguing. Here is the definition of the offence…

(a)”Group” means: a number of people joined by racial or cultural roots, ethnic origin or descent, religious affiliation or linguistic links, gender identity or sexual orientation,or any other characteristics of a similar nature.

(b)”Group libel” means: defamatory comments made in public and aimed against a group as defined in paragraph (a)–or members thereof –with a view to inciting to violence, slandering the group, holding it to ridicule or subjecting it to false charges.

I like to think that I would not ridicule anyone for their privately held beliefs, still less for physical characteristics. I do not see the point in going out of one’s way to be offensive. Yet it is sinister that people would convict those who disagree. The kind of atheist who insists that religious people are stupid is obnoxious, but why should they be arrested? And what of those people who have been accused of being insulting? By these standards, yes. Unless they’re young, of course, in which case they’d be sent to “undergo a rehabilitation programme designed to instill in them a culture of tolerance”. This defies satire.

To enact these rulings would demand unprecedented levels of authoritarianism. If we are to take the proposals literally, Stalinists, fascists, Islamists, revisionists, Christian fundamentalists and anyone who is overtly critical of or rude to a faith, race, sex or culture would be taken in by the police. Millions of others, meanwhile, would live in fear of offending anyone who might tar them with the devastating label of intolerance; stymieing efforts to debate or research the ideas that concern them. We would be left not with peace and open-mindedness, then, but fear, suspicion and the fraud of insincerity. Is this among the “mutual concessions” that the authors begin by demanding that we make in multicultural societies? It is not a sacrifice that I believe is merited.

Perhaps it is not worth getting too bothered by this paper. It is not close to being accepted as policy. Yet our leaders have embraced preposterous assertions of “tolerance” before. Caroline Ashton, head of the EU’s foreign affairs, signed a statement that insisted on respect for “all prophets, regardless of which religion they belong to”. Joseph Smith? Reverend Moon? L Ron Hubbard? Large numbers of people, meanwhile, have been detained for posting offensive tweets or Facebook updates; measures that, somehow, has failed to end Internet rudeness. There is cause to be troubled.

It is sad, in a way, that the pluralist dream of the open exchange of ideas and acceptance of cultures has been replaced by this tyranny of tolerance; where different people are united by their mutual unease. It is a dreadful idea, though, which should not, I think, be tolerated.

DongleAt a technology conference in America a self-styled “developer evangelist” was sitting behind two men who had begun to make mildly off-colour jokes about “big dongles”. (Dongles being devices that plug into computers and enable bits of software.) One can see how this might have been irritating, and could sympathise with someone who turned round and asked them to be quiet. This woman, though, went further. She turned round, took their photograph and uploaded it to Twitter. One of them was promptly fired, which, he said, “sucks because I have 3 kids and I really liked that job”.

The self-righteous grandstanding of his accuser, who would later take to Twitter and compare herself to Joan of Arc, was deplorable. If she felt so strongly about ribald humour that she wanted to publically criticise it she could have done so without shaming the men in public and exposing them to reprisals. Can anyone who is not a monk, a hermit or a fan of Aled Jones claim to have never exchanged blue jokes? As her critics soon discovered, this person couldn’t. This is sad proof of how the Internet has encouraged our venomousness, as it seems she felt unable to express her feelings to their faces. This does not excuse the denizens of 4Chan, though – some of whom took it upon themselves to shower her with abuse and crash her employer’s website. They promptly fired her, which makes sense from a PR perspective, I suppose, but should have been unnecessary.

Such actions of warriors of the web are obnoxious when they are directed at any non-evil target but they are also baffling in their pointlessness. There will always be people who climb onto high horses, because some humans are so attached to the view up there, and this was not even too egregious a case. The woman did not seek to have this bloke sacked and had this not transpired the whole affair would have been forgotten like so much Internet drama. Unless they were privy to important information that has yet to be exposed, the most shameful parties were the employers who took the unprompted decision to fire the guy and boast about their “dedicat[ion] to gender equality”.

Some employers are bafflingly fast in displaying their intolerance to disesteemed behaviour and sentiments. They can be a bit like people who rat out their comrades to the secret police despite the spooks having no particular interest in either of them. When Adrian Smith was demoted for voicing mild disapproval to the institutionalisation of gay marriage, for example, his employers had faced no pressure from the media or flak from law authorities. It was, indeed, the press that took up Mr. Smith’s cause and the High Court that gave him victory in his legal action.

Some are doubtless sensitive to offence themselves and order their staff to leave from atop their own high horses. Others, though, must be scared of being disfavoured by association, or, indeed, must hope to invite approval with the gusto with which they disassociate themselves. This suggests that political correctness and other forms of overbearing social censoriousness can be more powerful in perception than in real life, and that if sad incidents such as this are to be avoided it is the people that choose to punish the undeserving should face polite pressure to account for their actions or degrade themselves in the eyes of observers and consumers.

Ag gagLast year, the Humane Society released a video from inside a Wyoming hog farm facility that showed its employees beating, sitting on and screaming at the pigs as they cried in pain. Nine employees faced criminal charges for their torture. The year before, Mercy for Animals released a video from inside a turkey factory farm that showed birds being kicked and thrown against metal beams. Two employees faced charges for their cruelty.

The industrial agriculture businesses have responded to these outrages. Not that they think the savage abuse of sentient creatures is outrageous, mind. They appear think it is the exposure of this abuse that is the problem. They have lobbied for the introduction of what the New York Times columnist Mark Bittman calls “ag-gag laws”: laws that prohibit photographing or videotaping farms without the farmers’ consent. In Iowa, in 2011, for example, it became illegal to “produce a record which reproduces an image or sound occurring at [an] animal facility”. Yes, this is the kind of urgent legislation that U.S. politicians devote themselves to creating.

In the early stages of 2013 ag-gag laws of varying severity have been passed in Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Tennessee and Wyoming. Industrial agriculture lobbyists have been shoving money into the pockets of politicians, and have their own members and alumni on the inside. In Minnesota, the bill was drafted by one Representative Rod Hamilton, who has worked in the swine industry since 1986 and is Director of Communications for Christensen Family Farms, “one of the top five pork producers in the United States”. In Iowa, the bill was drafted by one Representative Annette Sweeney, who is the former Executive Director of the Iowa Angus Association. Such people are all too used to producing porkers and bull.

It is important to emphasise how frequently abuses have been exposed. In 2011 employees on a dairy farm were filmed caving the skulls of cows in with pick axes and tossing dying calves onto piles of dead animals. In 2010 a worker on another was found to have stomped on and stabbed pitchforks into cows. In 2009 Iowa farmers were shown beating pigs with rods and, in one case, shoving a cane into a sow’s vagina. In 2008 workers in a slaughterhouse that produced beef for Californian schoolchildren were filmed dragging sick and injured cows and ramming pick-up trucks into them. These, given the extraordinary fortune of activists – and it is always activists, not policemen – being able to obtain and respond to tip-offs, almost certainly represent a minute fraction of the crimes. To make it even more difficult to expose suffering represents daunting levels of callousness and cynicism.

Such incidents will remain frequent while the intensive farming of animals – and possibly large-scale farming of any form – continues. The perpetrators of these incidents are rotten in the head, of course, but who has done the rotting? If you give people unpleasant, poorly paid careers they are going to feel frustrated, and if you keep animals trapped in cages; pumped full of drugs and surrounded by the fumes of chemicals and shit they are going to see them as worthless sacks of flesh against which they can relieve their vexation. It is an awful product of an awful system.

The attempts to obscure it, though, are especially dreadful, not only because of the violence and neglect that they are liable to abet but as they are suggestive of a total indifference to the consequences of the system and a complete unwillingness to address them. This is a phenomenon we can observe throughout the U.S. political and corporate spheres, where whistleblowers are often treated harsher than the criminals they have exposed. Bradley Manning is not alone. After the illegal wiretapping of the National Security Agency were revealed the U.S. government was moved to prosecute not the officials involved but Thomas Drake, the employee who had leaked the information.

Modern consumerism is, in large part, about giving us beautiful experiences without the need to concern ourselves with the ugliness that has allowed for them. Americans, then, are being given the freedom to pay small change for their bacon, pork and beef without the knowledge that the animals it was attached to held its swollen body in one place for day after day before, it’s possible, being taken out and stomped, stabbed or violated. That’s freedom alright. Freedom from responsibility.

HedegaardLars Hedegaard, a Danish writer who has been critical of Islam and Muslims in the West, is reported to have survived an assault by a gunman whose bullet flew past his ear. Hedegaard is said to have punched him, causing him to drop his weapon and flee the scene. The nature of the incident cannot be asserted with absolute confidence but it seems probable enough that we can ask if it represents the continuation of a pattern.

God, I wish it didn’t. Unfortunately, you would have to have been living under a boulder to be too surprised by this. The list of people who have insulted, opposed or questioned Islam and Muslims in their words and then faced violence in response is daunting. Theo Van Gough was butchered in the street. Kurt Westergaard was forced to hide with his 5 year-old granddaughter as an axe-wielding thug rampaged through his house. The offices of Charlie Hebdo were bombed. The publishers of Sherry Jones were burned. Lars Vilks has faced the plots of terrorists; an arson attack; an assault and at least one egging. All of this, let us remind ourselves, was because these people drew cartoons, made films and published novels.

I am sure that there are people who would explain this not as religious supremacism but as the response of embattled people to persecution. This explanation collapses underneath the weight of the objection that violence against real and supposed heretics and blasphemers is more prevalent in nations where Islam is dominant. Never mind a place like Pakistan, where people are often killed for challenging blasphemy laws as well as for blaspheming. In the Maldives Ismail Rasheed could be stoned and stabbed; in Indonesia Alexander Aan faced a mob attack; in Nigeria, a man was macheted to death after he mispronounced a name and it sounded blasphemous.

European governments, of course, amid this irregular war against the freedom of expression, have been busily extending restrictions on speech to cover that which is held to be insulting and offensive. Hedegaard himself was fined about £600 for anti-Muslim statements that a blogger chose to publish. That people can say foolish and unpleasant things is undeniable. I do not know Hedegaard and cannot judge whether he tends to fall within or outside of this category. This, though, hardly matters. Opinions can be ignored and gunmen can’t, and when you are in the vicinity of both it is not hard to judge which should be your priority.

It is vital that these thugs be frustrated in their desire to live free of criticism and questions. As we have observed before, people have taken the fear of being offensive to heart. It it true, of course, that it would be pointless and mean to set out to wound people. Hypersensitivity, however, should not be indulged or it will not have to adapt. Where indulging it would constrains intellectual progress and threatens social harmony it has to adapt. Others have censored themselves for fear of risking their own necks. This is understandable – I am very attached to my neck – but it is also unwise. Allowing the hypersensitive to remain comfortable feeds their sense of entitlement. It will only make them angrier when your ideas and values inevitably clash. And, besides, cases like that of the Nigerian or the girl in Pakistan whose “blasphemous” misspelling prompted riots are evidence that trying to be polite need not save one from outrage.

That words alone can defeat the violent is, of course, delusive. This conflict is the inevitable consequences of unchecked multiculturalism and the grimmer business of excluding theocrats and supremacists from and within our societies remains crucial. Yet words are important. The more that good-natured satire and critical scrutiny is applied to religions the more their followers will accept that intimidation is a blunt and unwieldy weapon in the cause of facing it. Others are likely to find critiques so unanswerable that they are forced to adapt their creeds to fit new premises, and where the fundamentalism has been punctured the aggression deflates.

It is far from rare to hear commentators in the West being described as “brave” merely for expressing opinions that are slightly unorthodox. In facing pejoratives and, perhaps, the occasional insult many of us appear to seem that writers are being courageous. If we are so sensitive to the verbal assaults that people can endure after expressing their opinions we should appreciate the scale of the horror wrapped up in the fact that people assert a view and then be faced with eggs, axes, bombs and gunmen.

Can I express my sympathy for Adrian Smith without endangering my chances of finding a job? Mr Smith voiced mild disapproval of the institutionalisation of gay marriage on Facebook and, after a colleague complained about his opinion, found himself being demoted and his pay being slashed.

Perhaps there’s a complication that’s been obscured from the public view but all the information that’s available suggests that this is another example of the draconian enforcement of progressive ideals.

If it’s an attempt to save peoples’ feelings from “offence” this policing of speech fails as it instead makes people nervous, distrustful and, in cases such as this, impoverished. In furthering the idea that being exposed to disagreeable opinions is a naturally traumatic thing to face, meanwhile, it ensures that people are more liable to feel the torments of being “offended”.

I suspect for others it ensures that their opinions seem more legitimate. As a means of winning an argument I’ll grant that acting as if you haven’t merely triumphed but discredited your challengers to such an extent that they’re forbidden from existing is remarkably efficient. On the other hand, it’s also quite unjust.

There’s another reason I’d like to express my disapproval of the treatment of Mr Smith, though. He’s said to have been demoted because he broke the code of conduct of the housing company he worked for. How was this, I thought, when it was his personal Facebook page? Apparently it was because he’d named the company as his place of employment on its “work and education” section. I suspect, then, that they weren’t raging liberals but were concerned about what raging liberals might have thought of their being linked with Mr Smith.

Can’t we take it as read that personal opinions, expressed out of the workplace, are not and shouldn’t be considered representative of whoever we work for? There are some exceptions – a social worker, for example, would rightly provoke alarm if they were found expressing their impassioned support for Jimmy Savile – but in the overwhelming majority of cases it doesn’t and shouldn’t matter what you happen to believe. If I wanted a plumber, a flautist or a thespian their views on marriage, tax and David Cameron’s face would not interest me. I’d want to know if they could fix my pipes; play the flute and embody Falstaff.

I express this point, perhaps, with more than my usual vigour because I’m personally invested in it. There are lots of potential employers who, if they stumbled over this ragbag collection of thoughts, might conclude that they want no association with me. On that note, can I express what intelligent, beautiful and downright kingly souls they are…

The bas…Oh, wait, am I still typing?

I went to an all-boys secondary school where “sick” jokes were currency. Man, we had Diana jokes; Michael Jackson jokes; even “murdered baby” jokes. Here’s a sample…

What was the last thing Charles said to Diana?

Wipe that Merc’ off your face.

This joke is only funny in itself if you think car crashes are inherently amusing. What made it hilarious to us was its offensiveness; the delight we took in our dauntless own irreverence. It’s this, as well as the general callousness and spite, that tends to make me dislike self-consciously shocking humour: the smugness its practitioners draw from being outrageous. Even when they don’t they’re typically miserable. (Derek and Clive had funny moments but Peter Cook only made it because he was angry and depressed.)

Many of us grew out of this phase but some people don’t. Matthew Woods was 19 when he posted a string of leering, sneering jokes about poor April Jones. The notorious troll identified by Gawker who enjoyed creating forums with names like “chokeabitch” and “niggerjailbait” to piss people off was 49. People can get sucked into eternal nihilistic snideness and it’s this, as well as the feelings of their targets, that ensures I’m all for social taboos to be upheld. Clownish sadists should be denied platforms and exposed to criticism. Kids who think they’re Bill Hicks for laughing about missing schoolgirls should be censured and informed of how they’re behaving. Most of us, if someone we looked up to had frowned and asked if we thought painful deaths were funny, would have eaten our words as fast as if they’d been pringles.

By modern standards, though, it’s plausible that we’d have been not told off but arrested. It makes me extremely uncomfortable to see people like Mr Woods being prosecuted for expressing thoughts – and not just because it means that I’m a felon who avoided justice. Woods was arrested, mind you, and then thrown into jail for two and a half months. In the same week, a Jedburgh woman who beat a housemate unconscious and a man who punched someone in Wokingham and left them scarred for life avoided jail. That’s a sick joke right there. Woods’ prosecution, and those of Azhar Ahmed, Barry Thew and others, are evidence of a draconian attitude towards “offensive” speech that’s unsettling.

Woods and Ahmed commented, as far as I can tell, on their Facebook pages. They were not, in other words, inflicting themselves on anyone who hadn’t chosen to observe them and it was only because of people doing the Internet equivalent of taping them in their own living rooms that a personal matter became everyone’s business. This is evidence that the distinction between private and public spaces are eroding. Who’ll be the first person who’s charged for mouthing off about something in their kitchen?

A feature of these cases has been the public outrage that inspired state action. Ahmed was targeted by dozens of irate commenters. Woods’ house was actually threatened by an angry mob. The magistrate in the latter case referenced “the public outrage” in justifying the sentence. Words should be taken seriously and the foolish and malevolent uses of them should be opposed. Yet the outbreaks of collective emotionalism that can be ignited over them is evidence that words can exploited for the purposes of stirring up self-righteousness; allowing for mutual catharsis and, sometimes, enforcing the ideas of particular tribes.When people respond with violent fury to a sentiment they shouldn’t be encouraged. I wonder if people who’d applaud this judgement have reflected on how such magistrates might behave next to a group of Islamic totalists are on the hunt for a blaspheming Brit.

I do not believe in the absolute freedom of expression. Come to that – does anyone? Should we allow a man with scat porn on his t-shirt to walk the streets unchallenged? You might think so. I don’t. While most of us accept that there should be a small preventive role for the state, though, I don’t believe its task is to shape the ideas of its citizens. This raises the threat of ideologies being enforced and the interests of the powerful being upheld. More than that, however, the severe punitive response to “offensive” speech, designed, seemingly, to intimidate people into being more civil, is a poor, unnecessary substitute for the dialogue and education that might encourage people to be more humane and thoughtful rather than cowing them into silence. It puts those of us who think obnoxious speech is a problem on the defensive, upholding the right to speak, rather than trying to promote better speech.

Did you hear the one about the Pope, the Irishman and the survivor of MS Costa Concordia, by the way? Neither did I but there must be a joke in it somewhere.

Catherine Ashton, head of the EU’s foreign affairs, has signed a ridiculous statement (h/t) that upholds “the importance of respecting all prophets, regardless of which religion they belong to”. I mean, why? Why do supposed prophets merit this respect? If they were really messengers of God that would be one thing but if we’re talking about those of all faiths at least some of ‘em must be fabulists and frauds. Does anyone but Mitt Romney and a few of his pals respect the dully named personage who invented Mormonism? I thought not. They might, I guess, deserve respect merely for the fact that they’ve convinced large numbers of people that they’re far wiser and more virtuous than they truly are but if we were to give particular on such grounds we’d have to throw in Polly Toynbee, Tony Blair and Simon Cowell.

By what scheme of ethics have Ashton and her co-signatories drawn the conclusion that we’re obliged to respect the prophets of even those faiths we don’t belong to? Given that at least some of them are bound to be daft, devious or dreamed up it’s hard to know how one could do this without sacrificing one’s intellectual honesty. What would be the point? As long as we’re allowed to pursue our own beliefs what does it matter how other people perceive them? As an agnostic I know millions of people will think I’m bound for the hellfires or, indeed, a cowardly fence-sitter and while that’s regrettable it’s a fact that I can live with. Our ideological differences shouldn’t ruin the possibility of societal accord.

Yet sometimes they do. I don’t suspect the European Union released statements to mark Piss Christ, Jerry Springer: The Opera or The Book of Mormon and this clues one in as to the prophet they refer to. The co-signatories are, it’s relevant to know, the secretary generals of the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. It’s grimly ironic that these men represent nations where religious minorities are bullied, imprisoneded and killed for being less than deferential. It’s only when their faith is being disrespected, it seems, that they care about levels of respect being shown to the faithful. It’s also blackly comic to see them “recognizing freedom of expression” when the head of the OIC recently called for a universal blasphemy law, and insisted that the West should “come out of hiding from behind the excuse of freedom of expression”. It’s just disturbing to see an influential European stateswoman going along with such nonsense and such ideologues.

There will be forms through which it’s unsuitable to convey one’s sacrilege. (People can be worthy of respect even when their views aren’t.) Yet civilisations have advanced, in large part, through the exposure of sacred beliefs to criticism and, thus, if an idea inspires a query it should be asked regardless of how people who adhere to it might feel. Respect is earned, not assumed, and all that our beliefs are necessarily due is a proper hearing.

You’ll have doubtless heard of Tom Holland’s documentary on the origins of Islam. I’m not so clued-up as to offer a judgement of its worth. Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed casts a few unfair insinuations in his critique – it seems odd to accuse Holland of a “colonial mindset” for observing that pre-Islamic Arabs were considered savages when (a) they were and (b) they were by Muslimsbut he offers substantive points that at the least deserve responses. May the experts debate and the truth be revealed.

Much of the backlash, however, has been obscurantist and hostile. There have been furious responses on Twitter – including diagnoses of Holland as a Jew and fantasies about his being stabbed in the face – but the most disturbing reaction has been that of the Ramadhan Foundation, which launched an extraordinary attack that made a couple of erroneous criticisms, warned that they’d find Islamic scholars to critique the film and then demanded that Channel 4 withdraw it and apologise. Yes – they wanted its withdrawal, and apologies, before they’d even found out if and how it was mistaken.

I can understand why religious people might have been sensitive to Holland’s film. It cast doubt on their most sacred of beliefs and this has to be painful. They believe it was fallacious and to have such a belief misrepresented must be aggravating. Islam hasn’t faced the scepticism Christian ideas have in recent centuries so doubt must, for many, be peculiar. Still, I’m sensitive as well. I’m sensitive to violent and censorious reactions to freethinking. It’s a touchy subject. You see, it’s my fundamental belief that human knowledge advances through the criticism of each others’ ideas and when I see people implying or asserting that their own are too sacred to be questioned I’m liable to become ill-tempered.

You can understand, looking across the world, why these sensitivies might cause me to grow heated. When people who share the violence of the Twitter bullies and the intolerance of the Ramadhan Foundation have power they exert a dreadful philistinic influence. The Iranian fatwa against Salman Rushdie is an infamous example but there have been multifarious more recent cases. After withdrawing copies of Irshad Manji’s heretical polemic from the nation’s stores Malaysian police have arrested its publisher. When Manji toured Indonesia in the spring she was assaulted, while elsewhere on the island a publisher faced outrage after releasing a book that disrespected Mohammad and was forced to apologise and burn all of his copies of it. Alexander Aan was beaten up and jailed for two years. Ismail Rasheed was stoned, stabbed and driven out of the Maldives. The Egyptian Gamal Abdou Massoud will spend the rest of his teenage years in prison. These examples are representative of an allergy to scepticism and irreverence that provokes destructive reactions against the freedom of individuals and the well-being of societies.

People who dislike and disagree with criticism of their religious beliefs are welcome and, indeed, encouraged to defend their ideas against it but those who assume they have a right to be untroubled are going to have to learn to cope with exposure to doubt because people who share the sensitivities I’ve admitted to are not going to become any more tolerant of obscurantism and censorship.

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