Learning how to tolerate debate

Voltaire is reputed to have said “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. The controversial barring from the UK of Dutch MP Geert Wilders shows that, among our leaders anyway, Voltaire’s attitude is now about as fashionable as shell suits.

Foreign Secretary David Miliband resorted to the old saw that opponents of free speech traditionally use, saying “We have profound commitment to freedom of speech but there is no freedom to cry ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre”. But Wilders isn’t planning to scare people in an Odeon. Besides, if the theatre in question was showing Wilders film Fitna Miliband is unlikely to be troubled. When asked whether he’d seen the film he described as full of “extreme anti-Muslim hate”, he said no.

Free speech is not simply a convenient cloak for the ‘far right’ to hide racism. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights defines freedom of speech as “the right to hold opinions without interference. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression”. Left wing icon Noam Chomsky wrote “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all”.

I won’t address whether Wilders is right or wrong to call the Koran a “fascist” book. What will be addressed is whether Wilders is a racist. He may be, he may not, but his film isn’t for the simple reason that being anti Islam is not the same as being racist. Islam, after all, is not a race but a religion. You are born black or white, you are not born Muslim anymore than you are born Communist.

So if Islam is not a race but a religion is it still open to criticism? In a democracy, the answer has to be yes. For example, The Communist Manifesto has been accused of sending millions into gulags and killing fields but you don’t get communists in the UK clamoring for the people who say this to be banned or prosecuted.

Communism is an ideology, Islam is a religion. But if you don’t believe in God there isn’t a difference. Then Islam becomes, not a path to paradise, but a way of viewing the world just like Communism. And in a modern secular society the right to criticize competing ideologies is vital. Revealingly, when Communists did get the power to set the limits of debate they sent those that disagreed to the gulags and the killing fields.

Christianity has learned to live with democratic debate and, in some cases, simple abuse. In 1997 Cradle of Filth released T shirts declaring “Jesus is a Cunt”. In 2005 the BBC screened Jerry Springer – The Opera which depicted Jesus as a gay baby. In 2006 Richard Dawkins wrote in The God Delusion that “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction”. In none of these cases was action taken by the authorities worried that the Archbishop of Canterbury was about to declare a fatwa.

Considering the lengths which our leaders go to to say that Islam is a peaceful religion it certainly seems odd that free speech has to be curtailed so as not to provoke violence. Indeed, the majority of Muslims, like most people right now, are probably more worried about their jobs and homes than a previously obscure documentary made by an extravagantly coiffured Dutchman.

Miliband and others have demonstrated in this episode not just contempt for free speech but a singular lack of faith in Muslims to take part in a plural democracy. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said “Censorship reflects society’s lack of confidence in itself”. In this case the real lack of confidence is that of our leaders in their Muslim constituents.

Printed in London Student Issue 10, 02/03/09