The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

July 18th, 2004

When we’re afraid to trash a religion or three we’re lost

The one thing that unites British society, or ought to unite it, or used to, is a love of freedom. It is a love of freedom that informs the best of British philosophy, political thought and social reform, as well as British inventiveness, eccentricity and comedy. It is also a love of freedom that has drawn foreigners to this country, in preference to other places.

People’s deep respect for freedom here is something I’ve taken for granted, for as long as I can remember. Perhaps, however, I’ve been mistaken.

In retrospect it seems to me that many freedoms have been gradually eroded here – in particular, freedom of speech. It is not just that it has been curtailed in some ways, both by law and by the politically correct thought control that has overtaken public services and education.

Worse still, perhaps, the unthinking presumption in favour of free speech, the unexamined respect for it, has itself become weaker. The wish to silence people and a pusillanimous willingness to be silenced, both legally and socially, have been growing stronger.

Traditionally, the standard British form when anyone said anything monstrous was to mutter about defending to the death his right to say it. There are so many excellent reasons for taking this line that it is hard to know where to start. One is that if people freely say what they think, then you know them for what they are, and you can publicly denounce them and their views. But now, increasingly, when someone says something seriously offensive there are cries on all sides not only to bully him into silence, but to pass a law to make it illegal for anyone to say anything of the kind.

Last week Nick Griffin, leader of the British National party, said some very offensive things about Islam and Muslims on television in an undercover documentary. For example, he described Islam as a “wicked and vicious faith” which teaches that Muslim men can have any infidel women they can take by force or by guile. In the programme he claimed, inaccurately, that he could go to jail for talking like that. In fact he was wrong.

Trashing a religion, or religious beliefs, or people who hold certain beliefs, is not against the law. Not yet. But sure enough, cries went up all round for there to be a law against it. To be more precise, there were calls for David Blunkett to hurry up and produce the legislation he has promised to make incitement to religious hatred illegal.

The Muslim Council of Britain said that the programme underlined the urgent need for the government to introduce legislation not only outlawing incitement to religious hatred but ensuring that it is unlawful to discriminate against anyone on religious grounds.

The same repressive cries went up when Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a Muslim cleric, came to London earlier this month as the guest of our preposterous mayor of London. Al-Qaradawi is said to hold views that are absolutely loathsome to most people here, including me. He is supposedly in favour of child suicide bombing, wife beating and executing homosexuals by burning or stoning to death, in the name of Islam. Public figures rose up, united in their indignant demands that he should be driven from the country. That was nonsense.

Unless he was planning, while he was here, to say something illegal, in contravention of British laws on incitement to violence or incitement to racial hatred, al-Qaradawi was entitled to the freedom to say whatever he liked. And as only he could know in advance precisely what he was going to say in his speeches here, it would have been quite impossible to arrest him in advance on the suspicion that he might say something unlawful. Hardly surprisingly, he did not.

By a ridiculous irony, if legislation were indeed passed in Britain that effectively prevented anyone from attacking religious beliefs, it would then be impossible to denounce those such as al-Qaradawi, whom the bien pensants were so anxious to silence, unless one took the view that by giving vent to such views he was, just by doing so, himself inadvertently exciting religious hatred against Muslims.

For there can be little doubt that there are some views held by some Muslims, even by an allegedly moderate scholar like him, that do indeed arouse hatred and contempt here among many in the non-Muslim majority.

It should have been axiomatic to everyone in this country that al-Qaradawi and Griffin must be free to say what they like about religion, however offensive anyone else might find it, and however ignorant and misguided they might be.

The idea of a law against free speech ought to be outrageous to us one and all, yet we have a home secretary who does not even appear to understand the problem. A law to curtail the freedom to criticise
religion, or a law with that effect if not precisely that intention, will be a social and political disaster.

I cannot count the distinguished British philosophers who have argued decisively that truth and understanding can only be approached by free and open argument.

Scientific knowledge can only develop by argument and counter argument; for centuries organised religion has opposed free argument, the Inquisition silenced Galileo, and all theocracies that suppressed free speech have kept their societies in poverty and ignorance. An ill-conceived respect for religion, for any religion, and a fear of offending should not be allowed to do that again in this country.

I have often wondered how and when it became true that there began to be “so many things one can’t say”. My readers’ letters over many years have constantly made that complaint, and judging from them,
there seem to be a great many ordinary people who are deeply angry that they are somehow being silenced, written out of the national plot. Read Michael Collins’s brilliant elegy to the white working
class of south London, The Likes of Us (see News Review, page 5). Read it and weep, as my colleague Bryan Appleyard says.

I suspect it began with Enoch Powell’s notorious “rivers of blood” speech. Its inflammatory, exaggerated tone, and his manipulation of the press at the time, made it impossible thereafter to speak at all
of the enormous pressure put upon the white working classes by mass immigration suddenly imposed upon them.

Silencing people is not just wrong. It is not just a serious cultural error, with very negative cultural consequences. It is also dangerous.

It is now known that one of the greatest sources of stress and concomitant depression and anger is a lack of a sense of autonomy -feeling powerless, unable to get and stay in the driving seat of your own life.

It is most common, obviously enough, among the poorest. And the people who suffer most when free speech is taken away are the people with least autonomy -free speech is the last freedom of those who
have nothing else, no other power – neither status, nor wealth, nor education.

A law that takes yet more free speech from them, as from us all, will probably have the effect of driving yet more of the dispossessed straight into recruiting offices of the BNP. Let people speak freely; if they are wrong, they will soon condemn themselves.