"I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth." (Karl Popper)

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Are we to tolerate aggressive intolerance?

Some of the Muslim protests against the Danish newspaper cartoons purporting to represent Muhammad turned nasty. The violent protests in the Middle East are clearly far beyond te realm of legitimate protest. The more interesting question concerns those protesters in London who carried placards, reading variously "Islam will conquer England"; "Slay those who insult Islam"; "Europe you will pay, extermination is on the way"; "Butcher those who mock Islam"; "Prepare for the real Holocaust"; "Massacre those who allow free speech", and so on. (Scott Burgess at Daily Ablution has collected some of this material and reaction to it here and here.) At one such protest (at the Danish Embassy in Knightsbridge), hundreds chanted “UK you must pray, 7/7 is on its way”; others carried banners praising the London suicide bombers as the “Fantastic Four”.

When should such statements be regarded as actionable?

The first point to make is that free speech cuts both ways. In my opinion, free speech should allow a paper to publish insulting cartoons, such as the ones published by Jyllands-Posten. They are defensible as provocative artistic expression. I would consider it wrong for the Danish authorities to legally sanction the newspaper. That is not to say the decision to publish was a particularly bright one. Ben MacIntyre of The Times quite right to say that anyone who pokes cruel fun at religion is a fool. The cartoons were meant in a humourous fashion. I haven't seen them; they don't sound very funny to me. But no one's safety was harmed by publication. I would consider the cartoons to be on the same side of the line of free speech legitimacy as historian David Irving's bizarre Holocaust denials. (Any alternative approach would be no better than Turkey's law banning discussion of the Armenian genocide in the First World War.) Indeed I believe the House of Commons' decision to reject the incitement to hatred bill (even though it came aboutin faintly comical circumstances) was probably correct. No one has the right to legal recourse against having their feelings hurt. This gives licence to essential discussion and criticism, but also to what most fair-minded observers would regard as the expression of cruel or bigoted opinion. So be it. As Der Tagesspiel has written:
"When a society allows itself to be guided only by the 'feelings' of a group of people, then it is no longer free."
It seems to me, however, that incitements to violence are of an entirely different order of seriousness. As The Guardian has written:
"For centuries, English law has been crammed full of legal powers to arrest people who threaten violence or murder in public, or who go around terrifying ordinary people. On Friday, dozens of prima facie examples of such offences were committed during protests against Danish cartoons which offended Muslims by depicting the prophet Muhammad. One man was dressed in the garb of a suicide bomber, arguably an overt attempt to terrify of the kind that has been illegal in this country since at least the Statute of Northampton in the time of King Edward III, in the 14th century. Others carried placards demanding 'Massacre those who insult Islam', 'Butcher those who mock Islam', 'Europe you'll come crawling when Mujahideen come roaring', 'Britain you will pay: 7/7 on its way', several of which appear to breach the law dating from Victorian times that outlaws soliciting to murder. A toddler on the march was dressed in a hat that said: 'I love al-Qaida.' Many adults on political marches over the years have been convicted of breaches of the peace for much less than that."
Similarly, Martin Wolf of The Financial Times (Feb. 8th) put the point thus:
"Those who threaten violence put themselves outside the sphere of civilised discourse. There must be no equivocation over this fundamental principle.Expressions of opinion that some groups regard as intensely offensive are quite a different matter. These may be impolite, even disgracefully so, but that is not sufficient reason to make them illegal. The indiscriminate use of the law against every activity or expression that some group dislikes is a route to the disappearance of freedom of expression altogether."
Against this, there is the argument that we are better off knowing about such views. Unfettered free speech, it is argued, is thus in our interests, because ignorance of such sentiment not only would leave us uninformed and no more safe. If such statements were likely to lead to prosecutions, then they might not be made. Driving such sentiment "underground" would not enhance the security of the general public. At least sight and sound of this evil might militate against complacency.

On the whole though, I would accept that persons who threaten those who disagree with them with massacres and beheadings should be held to have crossed the line of what European democracies should tolerate. Prevention of direct incitement to violence or intimidation is a legitimate restriction on freedom of expression.


Blogger Branedy said...

I would agree, these people stepped over the line. It may be their belief that unrestricted freedom of speech allows them to threaten violence. But that is another example of ignorance of, and arrogant defiance of the culture in which they have chosen to live. All they are reinforcing is a far right view that such people should not be allow to emigrate into the west. I do not doubt that these people have been identified, and are now being watched. Stepping over the line always carries a price, they just have not paid the price yet. Freedom does not come free.

Sun Feb 12, 11:49:00 AM GMT  
Blogger Karole said...

Well said.

Fri Feb 17, 10:31:00 PM GMT  

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