Here is my speech at today’s Blasphemy Conference in London:
There have been a number of recent attacks on free expression here in the UK. They include 17 year old Rhys Morgan being forced to remove a Jesus and Mo cartoon or face expulsion from his Sixth Form College and demands by the UCL Union that the Atheist society remove a Jesus and Mo cartoon from its Facebook page. There has also been a threat of violence, police being called, and the cancellation of a meeting at Queen Mary College where my One Law for All co-spokesperson Anne Marie Waters was to deliver a speech on Sharia. More recently, LSE’s Student Union has passed a resolution ‘No to racism; no to Islamophobia’ and told the Atheist society to remove its affiliation with the Student Union again over a Jesus and Mo cartoon on its Facebook page.
None of this is new. Having been involved in the fight against Islamism and the Islamic Republic of Iran for some 25 years now I have faced many such threats, attempts at intimidation and censorship, bans, calls for the cancellation of events, and bogus accusations.
But for Islamism, this is business as usual even if it is a university Student Union acting as its go between. Islamism has been wreaking havoc in the Middle East, North Africa and elsewhere for several decades – with a majority of its victims being ‘Muslims’ or those labelled as such. Where it has political power, Islamists forgo all niceties reserved for western public opinion about ‘respect’ and ‘not causing offence’ and imprison and murder anyone who speaks their minds and ‘offends’ their norms and sensibilities.
Despite their track record, it is absurd how the fundamental debate on Islam and free expression here in the west is framed within a context of offence, racism and Islamophobia.
In some ways, these bogus accusations serve Islamism in the same way that Sharia law serves them where they are in power. It helps to threaten, intimidate and silence criticism and dissent. In my opinion, charges of offence and Islamophobia are the equivalent of secular fatwas.
It is a warning by the powers that be – whether it be the state, or the university student union, a sixth form college headmaster or an employer – of what is acceptable and what is not; of what is sacred and cannot and must not be challenged.
The devious thing about using offence to silence people is that it is subjective. We’re not all necessarily offended by the same things. The religious are usually offended more often than not. And Islamists are offended all the time. They are offended if you are gay, if you are unveiled, if you leave Islam, if you listen to music, if you dance, if you have religiously unsanctioned sex, if you’re a woman, if you want to shake hands with a member of the opposite sex, and on and on.
By hiding behind the excuse of offence, Islamists (and their apologists at Student Unions, in the Government, and in the media like the Guardian) are basically saying that because it is deemed offensive, with the person who is offended making that judgement call, you must limit your right to free expression!
And what’s even more interesting is that not all offensive expression is off-limits. What offends me isn’t off-limits – not that I want it to be. Islamists will often say that adulterers must be stoned to death, that gays must be killed, that women are the source of chaos and fitna in society, or that there must be two women for every man testifying at a Sharia court because ‘it’s the difference between a man and a woman’s brains’. And many of them freely say so on the very university campuses that want to deny atheists the right to post a Jesus and Mo cartoon on their Facebook pages!
Islamists are free to say what they choose quoting the Koran and Hadith but if you or I criticise or mock Islamism and its banner Islam, we are the ones who are causing offence. Go figure.
I mean seriously, whilst we are on the topic of offence, is there really anything more offensive than Islam and religion?
Adam Walker a spokesperson for the so-called moderate Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association at UCL which organised against the Atheist Society’s use of a Jesus and Mo cartoon, has said: ‘The principle [of not causing offence] is more important than who is being attacked – this time it is Muslims and Christians but in the future it could be atheists themselves’.
But not causing offence is not a principle. If it were, they would be the first to be censored because every other word that comes out of them, the Koran, the Hadith, Islamic jurisprudence as well as the Bible and Torah… is offensive.
And as if the charge of offence is not enough, they want to know if you were ‘intentionally offensive’. In response, there are those who will argue that there was never an intention to offend, or that the Jesus and Mo cartoons can’t be considered offensive as they are not ‘crude’ or ‘savage’ as New Humanist Magazine has argued. Or that since the cartoon was on the atheist society’s Facebook page, none other than atheists were meant to see it making it somehow more palatable. Some will even say that offence is an unintended side-effect.
But this is all irrelevant. That is if we agree that the right to offend is fundamental to the right to free expression. Then why apologise?
Whenever you speak about Islam, there are countless prefects waiting to admonish you. And it is not just the Islamists and their usual apologists (in the Guardian, or the likes of George Galloway, Unite Against Fascism and Socialist Workers Party) that do this. You’ll hear this from many others too. You are being too provocative; you being deliberately provocative. Why establish the Council of Ex-Muslims to publicly renounce Islam and say you are an atheist? Never mind that you need to do this to break the taboo that comes with such a renunciation especially since it is punishable with death? The Egyptian blogger and atheist Aliaa Magda Elmahdy should never have posted a nude photo of herself as a scream against misogyny; nudity is offensive. Your colleague was threatened at a meeting on Sharia law at Queen Mary College – well what do you expect when you discuss such matters (something the security guard said before the police arrived)? And on and on.
Excuse me but it is my right to free expression, isn’t it? May I choose how I do it? And you do it your way. Please don’t barter away what is permissible to say on my behalf.
Anyway whether you like my form of expression or not is irrelevant just as irrelevant as what a woman was wearing when she was raped.
This constant barrage of unsolicited ‘advice’ only helps to restrict expression further. In the UCL incident, ‘particularly inflammatory articles about the situation’, exaggerating it beyond its actual scope’ was blamed for the situation in a letter to the very Ahmadiyya group that organised against the Atheist Society. All this unfairly puts the blame squarely on those who dare to dissent or refuse to comply because it implies that Islamists would be able to accept dissent if only things were phrased more politely.
Had we known that manners were all that was needed, we could have prevented the slaughter of an entire generation in Iran. Wrong. Wrong again.
Defence of ‘polite and inoffensive’ free expression only aids and abets Islamism at the expense of those living under it, opposing it or questioning it. And deliberately or naively, whether out of pragmatism or other matters of self-interest, this poor defence of free expression – which is no defence at all – fails to recognise the realities of a medieval movement with political power that is spearheading an Islamic inquisition and that is the cause of incalculable misery and barbarity.
Despite this it is the causing of offence that has come to mean being ‘discriminatory’ and ‘racist’. The atheist student groups that have posted the Jesus and Mo cartoon have been accused of everything from ‘harassment’, ‘intimidation’, and ‘harm to the welfare of Muslim students’. Criticising Islam and Mohammad is seen to ‘upset’ ‘social harmony’, ‘inclusion’, and ‘tolerance’. Who knew?
People, citizens don’t matter anymore; it is all about the inclusion and respect of beliefs, however reactionary and misogynist.
Bu there is a crucial a difference between prejudice against a group of people and criticism of a set of beliefs. A Jesus and Mo cartoon has nothing to do with attacking believers. After all, the Jesus and Mo comic pokes fun at Christianity and Jesus too. So why not pass a resolution on Christianity-phobia similar to the ridiculous Islamophobia resolution passed by the LSE Student Union?
Well, we know why. There are many reasons for it.
Partly it has to do with the racism of lower expectations. ‘We’ can handle offence; ‘they’ can’t. It’s ‘their culture and religion’ imputing on innumerable people the vile sensibilities of Islamism…
Partly it has to do with the climate of intimidation and fear that Islamists have created, leading to censorship and self-censorship.
Partly it has to do with the perception that Islam is an oppressed religion bullied by US imperialism as if US-led militarism and Islamism are not two sides of the same coin or that Islam is a ‘minority’ religion, as if there are no ‘minority’ freethinkers, atheists and ex-Muslims.
Partly it has to do with multi-culturalism, which gives identity politics supremacy at the expense of individuals within a constructed homogeneous ‘Muslim community’, thereby portraying and legitimising Islamist sensibilities as the offended sensibilities of all ‘Muslims’.
Have you noticed how the ‘authentic’ Muslim voice is always the most regressive?
This perspective doesn’t see the woman who is forced to go to a sharia court, the girl who doesn’t want to wear the hijab, the young girl facing honour-based violence for falling in love with the wrong boy, the man or woman who is gay, the atheist and ex-Muslim or the many freethinking and secular youth, women and men causing offence within the ‘community’ day in and day out. It doesn’t see the many who are not offended by a Jesus and Mo cartoon or the Satanic Verses for that matter. It doesn’t see the many who themselves make more fun of Islam and its representatives than any cartoon could. It doesn’t see the resistance, the political, social and civil struggles, and class politics.
And this is something both the far-Right and post-modernist Left do – albeit for different reasons. The far-Right blames and scapegoats all Muslims for Islamism’s crimes and the post-modernist Left defends Islamism and its crimes as the ‘right of a Muslim minority’. Both sides oppose or defend Islam and Islamism at the expense of real live human beings.
‘Respect’ like ‘offence’ is another prescription for demarcating that which we are not allowed to question or challenge.
As the late Marxist Mansoor Hekmat said, ‘people’s beliefs are only respectable to themselves’.
Of course human beings are worthy of the highest respect but not necessarily their beliefs. I don’t respect far-Right, fascistic and racist beliefs [and by the way Islamism is our far-Right movement] and I don’t respect religious beliefs either. This doesn’t mean that people don’t have a right to their beliefs. Of course they do but as a private affair. Having the right to a belief does not include the right not to be offended or the right to have your belief respected, tolerated, and deemed equal and equally valid. Concepts such as rights, equality, and respect raised vis-à-vis individuals are being applied to religion at the expense of people and their rights and freedoms. And that’s why a criticism of Islam is erroneously being deemed racist and discriminatory.
Islamophobia is another bogus and political term used to scaremonger people into silence by attributing human qualities to Islam and Islamism in order to rule out and deem racist any opposition or criticism. But criticism, mockery, opposition to and even hatred of a belief is not racism.
In my opinion, concepts such as offence, respect, and Islamophobia are not there to protect Muslims from bigotry but to protect Islam. Which is why Islamists insist on blurring the distinction between Muslims and Islam or Islamism so they can feign representation and also ensure that Islam is off-limits.
But Islam like any belief system cannot be off-limits. It must be open to criticism and offence. Anything worth expressing will cause offence. Those who say that expression is offensive are looking at it from their own self-interest within the context of offence. They aim to challenge those that want to change things in society. It is a means of control, censorship and limiting rights.
Limiting free expression to that which is acceptable restricts the right to speak for those who need it most. Saying Islam and Islamism are off limits means first and foremost that the victims and survivors of Islamism are not allowed to do one of the only things at their disposal in order to resist. It’s telling people who need free expression most, that they cannot and should not speak.
There are those who say that the fight over the Jesus and Mo cartoon trivialises the real reasons behind free expression. But that misses the point. There is a colossal fight against Islamism and it is free expression that is challenging it. In an era when people are hung in city squares for crimes against chastity, are buried in ditches up to their waist or breasts depending on their sex and stoned until they are dead, where they are executed for offences such as enmity against god, nothing could be more relevant and important.
Progress in every era has always been linked to criticising that which taboo and deemed to be sacred – more often than not it has been linked to criticising or challenging religion. It is no different today. Our era’s progress is intrinsically linked to a criticism of Islam and Islamism.
As Kenan Malik has said: ‘the giving of offence is not just inevitable, it is also important. Any kind of social change or social progress means offending some deeply held sensibilities. Or to put it another way: ‘You can’t say that!’ is all too often the response of those in power to having their power challenged. To accept that certain things cannot be said is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be challenged. Human beings, as Salman Rushdie has put it, ‘shape their futures by arguing and challenging and saying the unsayable; not by bowing their knee whether to gods or to men’.
Clearly, if you are not angry, you’re not paying attention.