Free speech has been a huge topic of contention in recent weeks, the same weeks which saw the deaths of 75 people and violent rage across several countries in reaction to a horrendously made YouTube video entitled “Innocence of Muslims”.
Debate has been rampant ever since regarding what constitutes the limits of free speech, and what rights we have, if any to offend “sacred” ideas and beliefs. New calls have been made to the UN for a Blasphemy Law and the ever-present cries of “Islamophobia!” are as tediously frequent as baby photos on a Facebook news feed.
Amid all this apologist rhetoric, one point seems frustratingly absent, or marginalised:
It is wrong to murder/react violently simply for being offended.
A failure to stand up for this point, and this point alone, is a failure to respond as a responsible human adult.
It is true that bigoted far right groups capitalise on Islamic unrest in order to advance their racist agenda and we should afford them no more than our dissent. This, however should not distract us from the genuine concerns we have with the unique and reactionary nature of Islam.
Islam is a religion. An ideology. An ancient belief system. Not a race. I fear that contrasting reasoned criticism of Islam with racism, homophobia and hate speech is incredibly dangerous and lazy. Islamophobia has, to my annoyance become the buzz word for many fellow secular liberals. It’s sometimes almost robotic in its delivery, at other times a desperate pre-emptive declaration of “I’m not a racist!”, bleated solely due to the discomfort experienced by the mere mention of Islam, which is all too revealing in itself.
I have one rule, and one rule only in regards to racist bigotry, and it is thus: Do not be a racist bigot. Ideas, beliefs and concepts however, especially bad ones should be valid topics for criticism, or even ridicule.
I’ve lost count of the number of times i’ve heard “Yes, but do you know how many Muslims there are in the world? This is but a handful in the grand scale of things”.
This is correct. Given the total number of Muslims on the planet, the actual number behaving in this reprehensible way is virtually none. Anyone with a basic understanding of base rates will realise however, this is completely irrelevant.
The relevant questions are: “What is the probability that a violent religious mob will be Muslim?” What is the probability that the next person to commit suicide via explosion in a crowded area, plane, train or bus, will be a Muslim?”.
It is obvious these questions have an easy answer, yet people are still committed to convincing themselves and others that all religions are the same, and any implication that Islam may be worthy of special consideration is instantly charged down with accusations of Islamophobia. Weekly headlines of suicide attacks in the middle-east are so common place as to fail to raise an eyebrow. This is frightening.
I was fortunate enough to attend the recent NSS Conference in London. Many wonderful guest speakers were present, including Professor Richard Dawkins. Professor Dawkins is somewhat of a hero of mine, and I wasn’t going to waste my opportunity to grab a few seconds with him for a photo and a question. I was contemplating asking him a scientific question, relating to the intricacies of natural selection, or how he felt about the proliferation of faith schools, but instead settled on “Not wearing your crocoduck tie today Professor?”. Quite.
Wasted opportunity aside, I was thoroughly inspired by the address given by guest speaker Maryam Namazie, which received a standing ovation. You can read it here. Maryam Namazie is spokesperson for the One Law For All campaign and The Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain. These are shining and reasoned examples of how to highlight the serious concerns relating to Sharia Law and Islamism without being a far-right crackpot. I can’t recommend enough for you to support the great and ever more important work they do. Her work ranges from opposing Sharia law in the UK, to offering support to ex-muslims. As is clear, no-one suffers more at the hands of Islamism, than Muslims themselves.
This brings me to the topic of this post, a recent Guardian article by Mona Eltahawy.
Mona Eltahawy is an egyptian-american journalist and Muslim, currently based in the United States. I must confess, before this incident was brought to my attention, I was unfamiliar with her work. A small amount of research has revealed her to be a champion of womens rights and a strong advocate of Islamic reform. These important and worthy (award-winning) endeavours make this episode all the more baffling.
The incident relates to recent pro-Israel advertisements placed in the New York Subway, seen in the image opposite.
The adverts were paid for and placed with due consideration to the relevant advertising standards and procedures by the far right group AFDI. The advert is clearly intended to be provocative (as are most effective advertisements) and by all accounts the AFDI are less than palatable in their attitudes and politics.
Mona Eltahawy took it upon herself to take action against this perceived “racism and hate” by spray-painting over them, which eventually led to a less than dignified confrontation and ultimately, her arrest, all caught on camera. Please see below for the full incident and subsequent arrest.
The title of Monas Guardian article is “If anti-Muslim ads are protected, so must be my free speech right to protest” with the subtitle of “I support freedom of speech – even Pamela Geller’s right to her Islamophobic subway posters. But I will always challenge hate”.
One viewing of the rather unfortunate incident is enough to conclude her actions violate reasonable expectations of free speech, whilst existing firmly in the realms of criminality and suppression of free speech. Free speech does not extend to vandalism and assault. A rather bizarre argument is made in her article about pink spray paint being somehow an exception to vandalism.
Vandalising or attempting to deface a legally placed statement, however distasteful you may find it, is nothing short of censorship. Censorship goes against the very essence of free speech. In what can only be described as something that resembles a tantrum of toddler sized proportions, Mona fails to realise that free speech is also there to protect the things she doesn’t want to hear or see too.
In contrast, and also a lesson in class, the response from the Jewish human rights group, Rabbis for Human Rights, can be seen in the image on the left.
The group decided to respond by creating these pro-Muslim posters. This is clearly a more reasoned and dignified method of responding to ideas you disagree with, not to mention more effective. Not only are the Rabbis for Human Rights promoting a more positive message, but have also smartly managed to distance themselves from the far-right sensibilities of the AFDI.
Opposing viewpoints being granted the freedom to inhabit the same space and means, without violence or censorship is vital in order to foster discussion and debate.
It appears that Mona, by reacting in this criminal and hot-headed manner, has accomplished nothing except embody the traits of Islam that are currently cause for so much concern: Reactionary, destructive and anti-free speech. I fear this kind of behaviour will only serve to fuel the momentum of far right groups such as the AFDI in a time where vocal Muslim advocates of free speech are desperately needed.
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