Thursday, 25 March 2010

Freedom to criticise religion under threat again

Some people have a real problem understanding the difference between violent hatred of Muslims and legitimate criticism of Islam. And the same people often seem to have a pretty feeble commitment to principles of free speech.

Two cases in the news today by way of illustration:

Case 1 (via B&W)

Anjona Roy, Chief Executive at Northamptonshire's Rights and Equality Commission, called in the cops on a local MP who criticised the veiling of Muslim women. Philip Hollobone, Conservative member for Kettering, committed the heinous offence of describing the burqa (I think he meant the niqab) as 'the religious equivalent of going around with a paper bag over your head'.

OK, so it may have been a crude way of drawing attention to a serious issue, and I'm no great fan of Mr. Hollobone's politics, but I'm in complete agreement with him when he argues that 'the whole idea of the burka is offensive to women, it demeans women and also shuts off those who wear it from the rest of us in society'. After all, much the same thing has been said by some Muslim women: is Ms. Roy going to inform the police about them too?

Perhaps the scariest thing about this report is Anjona Roy's claim that the decision to make a formal complaint about possible racial hatred was taken 'following discussions with local Muslim groups'. This is worrying for two reasons. Firstly, it comes close to giving a veto over issues of free speech to religious groups. And secondly, it looks suspiciously as though Ms. Roy fomented the 'offence' herself by spreading the word among those she thought likely to be offended.

This is just the kind of thing that campaigners warned would happen if the Racial and Religious Offences Act had been passed in its original form. But it appears that some over-zealous officials don't need an actual law to support their campaign to shut down criticism of religious beliefs and practices. Thankfully, the Crown Prosecution Service has decided to take no action.

Last time I looked, there was no right not to be offended in the Human Rights Act - but there is a right to freedom of expression. Surely a 'Rights and Equality' commission should be defending basic human rights, not shutting them down?

Case 2 (via Harry's Place)

An alliance of the Usual Suspects of the pseudo-left, plus some surprising additions, have added their signatures to a disingenuous letter in today's Guardian. The letter tendentiously seeks to link the thuggish activities of the English Defence League with the investigation by Channel 4's Dispatches of extremist activities at some British mosques:

We are concerned by the rise of Islamophobia, the negative coverage of Muslims in the media, the violent street mobilisations of extreme rightwing organisations like the English Defence League, and the rising electoral support for the British National Party. Following Channel 4's recent inflammatory documentary, Britain's Islamic Republic, which saw concentrated attacks on the East London Mosque, the English Defence League marched through central London with placards including the demand 'Close the East London Mosque now'.

This is typical of the rhetorical sleight-of-hand employed by the pseudo-left. Leave aside for a moment the spurious non-word 'Islamophobia', which carelessly elides criticism of Islam with hatred of Muslims. Are we supposed to believe that a legitimate journalistic investigation is comparable to right-wing street-fighting and fascist politics? And are we being asked to swallow the illogical argument that a Channel 4 documentary somehow caused these expressions of violent hatred? As if the bullyboys of the EDL needed an excuse to attack a mosque; I shouldn't think many of them would be able to find the Channel 4 button on their remotes.

The underlying argument seems to be this: we shouldn't draw attention to Islamist extremism (which actually has a lot in common with the fascism that the letter-writers claim to oppose), in case it leads to a backlash against Muslims. Shouldn't just a little of their condemnation be reserved for the mosques that harbour extremist preachers, thus bringing mainstream Islam into disrepute and besmirching the reputations of law-abiding Muslims?

As to why the likes of Helena Kennedy, Eric Hobsbawm, and Dr. Edie Friedman of the Jewish Council for Racial Equality, allowed their names to be added to this bricolage of illogicality (alongside the depressingly predictable litany of fellow-travellers like Ken Livingstone, Andrew Murray, George Galloway and Selma Yaqoob): perhaps they thought they were signing a bog-standard Great-and-the-Good protest letter against the BNP and the EDL, and the bit about Dispatches was added by someone on the letter-writing committee as an afterthought.

Some bits of the letter certainly look awkwardly cobbled together:

The East End of London is not new to having its communities attacked by fascists and the media. The 1930s saw the Battle of Cable Street when Oswald Mosley's blackshirts attempted to march into the Jewish community in the area. We cannot allow this terrible history to repeat itself. Further, the documentary, and articles since, have attacked the participation in politics by the Muslim community. We cannot stand by and watch this continue without remark or action.

'Attacked by fascists and the media': so it was the newspapers that oppressed East Enders in the '30s, not just those nasty blackshirts? This 'blame the media' line, creating an equivalence between fascist violence on the one hand and documentaries and newspaper articles on the other, is reminiscent of Chavez's Venezuela or Ahmadinejad's Iran.

And what on earth do they mean by 'attacked the participation in politics by the Muslim community'? Could this possibly refer to the recent furore over attempts by the fundamentalist Islamic Forum Europe to infiltrate the Labour Party and subvert democratic politics in East London? Are they questioning the right of journalists to report this kind of Islamist entryism?

Either the liberals and progressives who signed this letter genuinely believe that investigative journalism is somehow on a par with fascist thuggery, in which case they can no longer claim to be liberals or progressives. Or they are naive dupes of the Islamist-hard left agenda that underlies the slippery rhetoric of this letter.


Minnie said...

'Slippery rhetoric' is right, Martin: excellent post & analysis. I agree wholeheartedly.
A fellow expat and I were talking about this sort of thing earlier, grateful we no longer have to endure what seems increasingly like an widespread poisonous atmosphere in England.

KB Player said...

Great post - would have written one myself but you've done it for me.

Has anyone come up with one factual error in that Dispatches documentary?

KB Player said...

Another thing - as you say the EDL are not likely to have been influenced by documentaries on Channel 4. I would say, however, that the ridiculous amounts of coverage given to Anjem Choudary in the tabloids & Daily Telegraph has had some affect on fanning anti-Muslim flames.

Martin said...

Thanks for the comments.

Minnie - a poisonous atmosphere is about right - but the question is, do they order these things any better in France...?

Rosie - I agree that the media prominence of the more fundamentalist / extreme faces of Islam hasn't helped. But when 'moderate' Muslim voices like those from Quilliam struggle to be heard, they're shot down in flames (especially from the 'Left') as Uncle Toms, neocon stooges etc (see The Guardian, passim). If Choudary et al really are unrepresentative, then mainstream Muslim leaders - MCB, etc - need to make this clear again and again, and not play the victim card whenever criticism comes their way.