This week I was due to give a talk to students at Queen Mary College, London on sharia law and human rights. Rather fittingly – and as if to prove my point – my human rights were quashed by a person demonstrating one of the effects of sharia law; the threat of violence for criticising religion.
Or to put it another way, both are instantiations of theocracy. Both are what you get when you have theocracy. You get god-centered everything, with humans expected to obey the imagined god slavishly and harsh punishments if someone thinks god is being defied.
Just before I was due to start, a young man entered the lecture theatre, stood at the front of the room with a camera and proceeded to film everyone in the audience. That done, he informed us that he knew who we were, where we lived and if he heard a single negative word about the Prophet, he would track us down. (I am told he made further threats as he left the building).
The young man is a theocrat, who thinks god is everything and people are nothing.
I am left wondering what exactly we could have done. I would love to say that we stood up to him and carried on bravely in a valiant defence of free speech, but it was a frightening experience and I know that people felt genuinely threatened and upset. In any case, is it the role of speakers and students to face off against potentially violent Islamists in defence of our free speech, risking our safety in the process? Just whose job is it to defend freedom of speech and can we be expected to fight for it when the state and other powers refuse to back us up?
Hell no. The choice may be forced on us, but it’s not our job. We shouldn’t have to ask theocrats for permission to speak.
Freedom of speech needs to be defended from above. We need prosecution and punishment of those intent on frightening people into staying silent. Until the state speaks out and makes it clear to the likes of this guy that this behaviour is not acceptable – no excuses, no apologies – these things will continue to happen and more and more people will be frightened in to shutting up. We can then say goodbye to freedom for good.
So we have to keep speaking out to make that point, whenever possible without any threatening young men interrupting.