Claire Fox Replies on “no Platform”

A few days ago I wrote a response to an article by Claire Fox, from the Institute of Ideas, who had argued in an article for Index on Censorship that the attempting to anathematise the BNP is a form of censorship. This is Claire’s reply to me:

Now that the BNP have had two MEPs elected, those obsessively targeting the far-right group as the greatest threat to democracy are having a field day – much wailing and gnashing and egg throwing. Forget the inconvenient truth that they only won these seats by gaining a greater share of the vote in the wake of Labour’s collapse and received 3000 and 6000 fewer votes compared to the 2004 Euro Elections (in the North West and Yorkshire respectively). Forget the fact that the national increase in their vote share from 4.9% to 6.2% hardly merits the fear-mongering headlines, ‘Not in My Name’ Facebook campaigns, and mainstream political angst forewarning the rise of neo-Nazism. Whatever the hyperbole, this seems a good time to respond to Andy Newman’s reply to my pre-election article for Index about the dangers of liberals sleepwalking into censoriousness whenever the bogeyman of the BNP appears on the political landscape.

So Andy – you claim to want a climate that encourages “vigorous, democratic disagreement”. I couldn’t agree more. But that is precisely why we need to allow those we vigorously disagree with to have a voice in the democratic debate. For the purposes of this article, I will accept that at least some of the BNP voters had sympathy with the party’s views on immigration and race (even though it is more likely that they attracted the disillusioned, anti-political elite protest vote as much as UKIP and the Greens). Surely the best way to deal with these prejudiced views is to have them out in the open and to expose their bigotry and bile for all to see?

It is laughable when you accuse me of “calling for people to self-censor [their] own sincere opposition to fascism”. Oppose away – indeed upholding free speech for those whose views we find abhorrent doesn’t mean allowing objectionable views to go unchallenged. Instead we should go on the attack against every racist speech and against attempts at scapegoating immigrants, whoever delivers those views. But to do so requires unfettered freedom of speech precisely to persuade other people in the public arena that those views are wrong, inaccurate, divisive.

You suggest I am asking immigration minister Phil Woolas to self censor his views. But Woolas approach to the MBNP proves my point. In his article that I quote, he doesn’t argue against the BNP, he simply blusters moral outrage and fear-mongers about fascism on the march. On the substantive political question about immigration, if anything he panders to the BNP’s agenda rather than argues against it. We can declare racism no-go and kick it out of polite political debate, but unless we have won hearts and minds, too often this allows reactionary sentiments to go unchallenged, merely outlawing them to fester under the surface. Meanwhile mainstream immigrant-bashing by our respectable politicians is let off the hook, comparing itself favorably to its more extreme BNP manifestation.

You are right of course that no-one has an obligation to provide a platform for the BNP and you misunderstand completely if you think I’m arguing for their mandatory right to speak whenever and wherever. Elections aside, I have more important foes to take on. However, when my fellow anti-racists make a principle of denying the BNP a platform, too often it just means avoiding their arguments, surely the ultimate act of self-censorship. Now the BNP have won hundreds of thousands of votes, we despair at the gullibility of the electorate. My concern is that No Platform-ers don’t even show electors the coutesy of trying to convince them politically about the merits of their own agenda, refusing even to enter let alon win the battle of ideas. This exhibits a complacent and cowardly reluctance to take on the hard task of trying to win the argument against views dismissed as ‘byond the pale’. Far easier to: ban the debate; refuse to deliver leaflets to appease your conscience; shout “BNP no way – Nick Griffin go away” on demos or that old stand-by, throw eggs.

You explain that censorship is not at stake here at all, but rather the changing “social construction of shared moral and political values” means it is now OK to treat the BNP’s views as “beyond the pale”. But in reality what has been socially constructed is a widely censorious climate in which far too many views are considered as “beyond the pale”. Too many people bite their tongue and walk on eggshells to accommodate the intolerance of a ‘You can’t say that’ society. The “pariah status”, afforded to the BNP in this instance, is a constant threat to anyone who dares offend liberal orthodoxies more generally. Try challenging climate change ‘truths’ or the panic about child protection or indeed no platform for ‘fascists’ and behold chattering class illiberalism in all its glory. Surely even Socialist Unity has views that might be considered offensive, provocative, dangerous, inflammatory or even beyond the pale by those not yet convinced of your glorious programme. I certainly do. Anyone interested in challenging the status quo should be wary when political debate is reduced to the anodyne, thin diet of “only acceptable ideas allowed”.

Aren’t you at all nervous about handing over the permissible parameters of these socially constructed “moral and political values” to the authorities? I found your apologia for companies’ and institutions’ use of “Codes of practice…to prevent bullying and to demand courtesy” most chilling. Today’s workplace relations have become impossibly divisive precisely because such codes are used to silence dissent, stifle controversy, discipline ‘troublemakers’ and victimise trade-unionists, too frequently accused of offensive bullying tactics etc. Let’s imagine what the corporate code of practice response to the “heavy-handed” “bullying” of flying pickets would be.

Isn’t it dangerous to let those in power decide who can speak in public, and who can hear all sides of the argument? (and then pretend that it’s the public’s decision). You seem happy with recourse to the criminal law “in extreme cases”, when viewpoints are “regarded as abhorrent because we judge that promoting those views will lead to social harm”. No wonder this government has got away with draconian incitement and hate-speech legislation in its supposed fight against ‘terrorism’; the ultimate ‘social harm’ in many people’s eyes.

Finally, I am really not that interested in upholding the right of free speech for Nick Griffin and his nasty bunch of anti-immigrant party goons. What is at stake here is the freedom for the rest of us to – the public, the electorate – to hear ALL political views – even those as divisive as race, stupid as well as sensible, reactionary as well as progressive – precisely so that we can make our own minds up and judge for ourselves whether or not to vote for these ideas, ignore them, agree with or argue against them.

It’sworth remembering that Free speech is a two-way communication, the right to speak but also the right of the audience to listen to whatever they want rather than having this dictated to us. This means taking audiences seriously, as our peers and equals, respecting their ability to make autonomous judgements on the most contentious issues, and trusting them to be open-minded enough for you, or me, or anyone to have a chance of changing their minds in a political row. That is the core principle at the heart of political change. You have to win the row. Go on Andy – a challenge – go win some rows.

Danish Cartoons Revisited

I reproduce below a particularly fine article, though with some reservations on certain issues, from the latest edition of the New Humanist. Written by the philosopher Tzvetan Todorov, it concerns the question of the Danish cartoons that made such a stir a while back. Mr Todorov covers much of what I myself wrote in response to the glib liberals, for whom freedom to offend translates as freedom to offend the right (or should that be wrong?) people. You will note that there has not been a peep from our fierce guardians of liberal values when, in a very recent case in Spain, a judge ordered thousands of magazines to be recalled for offending the Spanish Royal Family, the cartoonists names to be disclosed, with the cartoonists now facing a possible two-year stretch in the slammer for a “libel against the monarchy”. The judge commented that the cartoons were “objectively defamatory” and “could damage the prestige of the Crown”. The self-declared bastions of free speech said and did, er, nothing. There were no protestors outside the Spanish Embassy with placards declaring “We Are All Spaniards Now”.

One need only browse through the excellent Index on Censorship to grasp how many cases the gliberalistas can get behind, but always, coincidentally, seem to rally behind those with a whiff of Islam. And one can only imagine what the reaction from the glib liberals would be if, say, Sudan was about to prosecute a woman for “insulting the Prophet Mohammed”. Need I point out that consistency is not part of gliberalism’s vocabulary? Anyway, Todorov’s excellent ruminations on the matter now follow.

Let us start by recalling what actually happened. The Muhammad cartoons were published at the end of September 2005 by a conservative Danish daily with the stated intention of proving that there are no limits to freedom of the press in Denmark. We should keep in mind the context: the Danish coalition government needed the support in parliament of the populist Danish People’s Party (DF) whose programme can be summed up by its anti-immigrant stance, particularly towards immigrants from Muslim countries.

Muslim community leaders, who felt offended by the cartoons, collected 17,000 signatures and delivered the petition to the prime minister, with no effect. They then turned to the ambassadors of Muslim countries in Denmark and asked them to speak to the prime minister on their behalf but he refused to see them too, explaining that he could not interfere with the laws protecting the freedom of the press in Denmark. Community leaders then turned to a slew of religious authorities in Muslim countries who organised or ignited violent demonstrations. During the demonstrations not only flags but buildings belonging to several European countries were set on fire and destroyed, and death threats were issued. Police crackdowns resulted in the death of several dozen protestors in various countries in Asia and Africa.

The first thing to say about this unpredictable sequence of events is that it shows the extent to which we are all living in the same space – I’d be tempted to say the same village – today. Who could have imagined that something published in some obscure newspaper in Copenhagen could provoke a riot in Nigeria? The instantaneous transmission of news and live TV images, which lends itself to immediate perception, is radically changing our relationship to the world. Our acts have many more consequences than we imagine and it is high time we internalised this new state of affairs.

Let’s examine the matter from the Danish and the European side. The principle of freedom of expression, with the consequent lack of governmental control over what newspapers publish, is one of the pillars of liberal democracy. It is not, however, the only one. Freedom is always restricted by other equally fundamental principles. For instance, depending on the legislation in different countries, stating publicly that all Jews are bankers who grow fat on other people’s backs, that all Arabs are thieves or that all Blacks are rapists may be against the law just as it may be forbidden to glorify terrorism, Nazism or rape.

Such restrictions on freedom of speech are grounded, like all restrictions on the freedom of the individual, in the need to safeguard public welfare and hence social stability, and to protect the dignity of other citizens – a requirement legitimated by the principle of equality. Between the right to act and the deed, there is a distance that one should traverse only after taking into account the eventual consequences of the act in a given context. This is why, as some said on the occasion of the cartoons, one should not throw a lighted match when there’s a barrel of gunpowder nearby, even if there’s no law against it.

What the Danish newspaper did was either stupid (not realising that running the cartoons in today’s context could have harmful effects) or provocative (setting a trap for the Muslim community to prove its obscurantism and intolerance, and thus reinforce its exclusion from Danish society). As for the reaction of the Danish government, it was basically tactless. Without resorting to legal measures (such as banning blasphemy as some Islamists were demanding), the government could have put to use whatever political latitude it had at its disposal. Since a sizeable number of individuals said they felt offended by the publication, the government should have met with them, shown them due respect and concern, and explained to them what legal form their protest could take.

A distinction should be drawn here between the different reasons for protest. Protesting against any representation of the Prophet Muhammad is a purely theological demand that the European media cannot take into consideration; on the other hand, the representation of Muhammad with a bomb-shaped turban is not an offence to theology but to Muslims themselves because the insinuation is that they are all terrorists. Such a reaction on the part of the government, without compromising on principles, would have calmed inter-community tensions in Denmark and saved a number of lives elsewhere.

This is by no means a matter of instituting censorship or renouncing freedom of criticism but simply of realising that our public acts take place not in some abstract space but in a specific context that must be taken into account. There’s a difference between criticising a triumphant ideology and criticising a marginalised, persecuted group: the one is an act of courage, the other an act of hatred. There’s a difference between making fun of oneself and making fun of others, between doing so in pictures or in writing. The media today wield enormous power which, unlike other forms of power, does not originate with the will of the people. To gain legitimacy it must, as Montesquieu said, impose limits upon itself. To put it in the terms of Max Weber, it is not enough to act in the name of an ethics of conviction; it is an ethics of responsibility that is needed, one that considers the probable consequences of acts.

So European societies have not come out of this affair with increased stature, but the image that Muslim societies have given of themselves is even more worrisome. Such disturbing signs did not, of course, appear out of the blue with the cartoon affair: no other religion serves today to justify terrorist attacks, murders and persecutions. Demonstrators against Denmark trampled on several distinctions that seem essential to Europeans: between religious principles and civil laws, between the laws of one country and those of another, between the will of the government and the will of individuals. The death threats voiced during the demonstrations in London come under the heading of a crime and British authorities were right to take legal action against them. If Western societies needed a reminder that their values are not universally admired and that they have many enemies in the world, now they had it.

The ease with which religious or political agitators were able to incite such enormous crowds to join them also reveals the degree of frustration and abandonment in which masses of people are living in these countries. This state of dissatisfaction is due, to begin with, to appalling economic conditions, massive unemployment and a lack of education and of widespread transmission of knowledge. It is aggravated by a feeling of humiliation inflicted by the West, a feeling that becomes a powerful motive for violent acts. It is fuelled by the Western occupation of Muslim countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, by the injustice inflicted on Palestine and by the images of prison torture from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. I’m not saying that all the ills of Muslim countries are due to outside causes, that they are imported from the West and that these countries are merely victims of neo-colonialism. I believe, on the contrary, that they mainly have their own leaders to blame for their underdevelopment. Nonetheless, the injustices of which Western countries can be accused have become emblematic in Muslim countries and have made it possible to find an easy scapegoat, dissimulating in this way the other causes of distress.

This contrast between Muslim countries and liberal democracies has led some people to conclude that the problem comes from the Islamic religion itself. I have a hard time accepting generalisations about more than a billion people from all walks of life, all of whom are supposed to behave in the same way. The immense majority of Muslims, like all other populations, would like to live in peace; they are looking for personal happiness, not jihad and the victory of one religion over another. Religious determinism is never sufficient and the doctrines themselves authorise multiple interpretations. In my opinion, the source of current tensions is more political than theological; it is situated more on earth than in heaven. This does not mean that a new war between religions is inconceivable; all it would take is a fanatic influential minority, since the masses – that is, you and I – will follow passively.

What lessons can be drawn from the distressing affair? Vis-à-vis the Muslim countries, European countries should avoid lapsing into pacifism: we have enemies who will not hesitate to use force to make us renounce the values that we hold dear. To defend ourselves, we too must be ready to use force. But we must simultaneously ensure that our democratic principles do not look like a deceptive mask hiding selfish interests, related to land or energy. We must immediately close prisons where people are being tortured with impunity and even legally; and we must put an end to our military occupations as quickly as possible. Setting an example of freedom and justice – which is not the case right now – could well be more to our advantage than current military operations. If we do not do so, we will have significantly contributed to our own misfortunes.

At home, no compromising on principles: theology must not interfere with politics; the freedom and plurality of the media must be safeguarded and the right of women to free choice and dignity defended. At the same time, we must avoid pitting communities against one another, stigmatising them unduly and preferring one to the others. Tolerance towards others is easier to put into practice when it is underpinned by intransigence in the face of the intolerable.

Gliberalism Part 2

Ponder at your leisure the following and decide which is the more dangerous.

1. Covering up the BAE-Saudi affair. That a “cover up” occurred is the least of it.  

(Incidentally, when this sordid story is commented upon, the liberals “mugged by reality” only vent their anger at the judicial shenanigans that come with this: the rule of law has been compromised by halting the Serious Fraud Office investigation into bribery and kick-backs. The real crime – arming and bolstering the most repressive and monstrous regime on the planet – is conveniently ignored.)

2. A police investigation into a Channel 4 documentary which investigated “extremist Mosques”.

What say you, dear reader? As for me, must I even declare my option for the first? Oh very well, then, it is the first.

But for Nick Cohen, another liberal “mugged by reality”, the latter option is the more dangerous: “in the long run, what is being done to Channel 4 is more significant than the nobbling of the Serious Fraud Office,” he wrote in the Observer. To be fair to Cohen, his conclusion is based on ignoring the blinding fact (how does he do it?) that the arms sales are of any use to a theocratic despotism. No, his interests go no further than the Blair government’s outrageous intervention into a perfectly legitimate investigation.

Yup, that’s gliberalism for you. Concentrate your attention on minor issues that trouble legal niceties. No doubt the millions of liberals and democrats in the Arab world Cohen alludes to at every opportunity think this is all marvellous and send him letters telling him to keep up the good work. The fact that the Arab world’s liberals detest Cohen and his chums should not be dwelled upon – it ruins an otherwise noble argument. This cannot be said enough, and so I say it at every opportunity.

The only possible letters of gratitude are from the likes of Kanan Makiya, an unbelievably ludicrous figure whose immediate plan for the war-torn Baghdad is “to create, in the heart of the city, a pedestrians-only green space”. Having built Baath Party HQ and the Ceremonial Parade Grounds in Tikrit, something that is hushed up by his many admirers, and not having any regret for living it up on Saddam’s blood money (“somebody had to do it, and it might as well have been done well,” whimpered Makiya, echoing the similar refrain of the greedy, the amoral and the coward), it says a great deal about those who champion Makiya as a moral human being.

Best not ask Cohen to explain this slightly minor lapse in Blairite interventionism (intervening to arm Saudi barbarism, just like he personally intervened to arm Indonesia in its last hurrah in East Timor) for the sake of world peace. It ruins the otherwise comforting fairy tale of how lucky we were to have such a farsighted and good man at the helm when we were confronted by heavily-bearded “fascists” armed with plastic knives, box cutters, chapati flour and non-existent castor beans. But I digress.

Armed with foodstuffs, picnic cutlery and maintenance tools, such “fascists” only understand one thing: invading, as well as planning a generations-long war against, countries that had nothing to do with this “blowback” from the Western powers former chums. Lest we forget, the 7/7 terrorists were the unintended consequence of the Balkans jihadi nexus that the Western powers engineered to destabilise Yugoslavia. But I digress. Unimportant stuff this.

So gliberalism sets its sight, yet again, on some Mosques, with ranting, half-witted Imams. We must overlook the inconvenient fact that many Muslims who attended the “extremist Mosques” made complaints to the police and the security services. They were ignored because many of the Imams were MI5 “assets”, having been recruiters of British Muslims for the Balkans jihad. But I digress. Very unimportant stuff this.

Actually, you’d think a good liberal would uphold the right of free speech, or campaign for the law against incitement to hatred to be dropped, no matter how warped and depraved the words uttered. You’d also think that given they are Islamic chauvinism’s greatest asset that they would have the decency to desist from increasing the mayhem. But no. The more wrong the gliberalistas are, the more they huff and puff that they are right. Funny lot.

Faith Versus Freedom? Some Clareifications

Originally an article I wrote for ‘The Berry’ – however poor editing on their part left it looking like it had been chewed up and spat out by a five year old. Here’s the original piece on the revived Cartoon Controversy in Cambridge and why I believe that whilst freedom of speech should be defended to the hilt, it is not at all inconsistent to denounce thinly veiled Islamophobic attacks by right-wing papers in the same breath.

Faith versus Freedom? Some Clareifications

It has been a year and a half since the now infamous cartoons depicting Muhammad first appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. On September 30th 2005, the stone was cast, its ripples rising to a tsunami that would engulf much of the globe in protest, both peaceful and violent; a banshee wail of an outcry that would ultimately leave more than a hundred dead. On February 2nd 2007, that now much abated ripple finally reached Cambridge when the reprinting of one of the cartoons in Clareification led to more modest condemnation. And somewhere in between the raging debate that might be seen to have set faith against freedom of speech, a more modest question must be asked. Can the experience of Jyllands-Posten and the right-wing dailies that followed in its footsteps be compared to that of Clareification, or would such a comparison be to conflate two quite separate issues?

For the wider world the issue has often been painted as a fundamental conflict between the demands of a religion based on ancient texts and the principles of modern liberal democracies based on inalienable rights to freedom of speech, thought and expression. Some have gone as far as arguing that the two are diametrically opposed, recalling Huntington’s controversial Clash of Civilisations. For Huntington, it is folly to assume the universal applicability of Western values, particularly when exporting them across the ‘bloody borders’ of the Islamic world. Or, as George W. Bush so succinctly simplified for the lay reader: “They don’t like our freedoms”. But to paint such a gloss over the cartoon controversy, trumpeting the progressive Western values of freedom of speech versus the reactionary demands of Muslim communities, (perhaps the embattled armies of Christendom in a valiant last attempt to defend Jerusalem against Salah al-Din’s approaching hordes) is to ignore one crucial factor to this equation: Islamophobia.

Let me be clear, freedom of speech must be a fundamental, immutable right. There can be no compromise on this. Temporal matters should always take precedence over spiritual and no religion should hold the power of veto over what is permissible to publish in a free press. Faith, no matter how strongly held, cannot dictate to freedom. I would, therefore, recognise the right of papers to publish the cartoons. At the same time, however, I am strongly opposed to the publication of the cartoons in papers such as Jyllands-Posten. The reason for this is their intent. Religion does not, and should not, have the right not to be offended or, more importantly, to be criticised. But the publication of the cartoons in Jyllands-Posten and many of the right-wing papers that followed it was not simply a harmless and humorous attempt to ridicule and satirise religion. They did not do to Islam what ‘Life of Brian’ did to Christianity. Instead we must see the publication of the cartoons as an explicit attempt to target what constitutes a victimised minority in many European countries.

As we have seen, Jyllands-Posten, a paper which can be noted for its established record of hostility to immigrants, on a separate occasion significantly rejected cartoons depicting Jesus. Whilst it contends that this was due to the poor quality of these cartoons, one might also identify through both its editorial policy and its political stance an express intent to target the Danish Muslim minority. As the controversy erupted, right-wing papers across Europe flocked to reprint the cartoons of Muhammad. They jumped on the bandwagon under an illusory banner proclaiming the defence of free speech, but their effect and indeed their cause was to throw fuel to flames which would predictably stir up anti-Muslim sentiment. And whilst commendably no British daily newspaper reprinted the cartoons in the wake of this controversy, it is important to note that amongst the first British media outlets to display them was the website of the explicitly racist and Islamophobic British National Party. Across Europe, the right-wing press have been responsible for creating a moral panic over the issue of asylum and immigration out of all proportion to the actual effects of these processes. They have fostered what can only be seen as a form of legitimised racism. The cartoon controversy is not a matter of faith versus freedom. The real issue is that it has been used as a weapon to target Muslims who, of all immigrant communities, have been amongst the most demonised by the media and by far-right parties such as the BNP. For this reason, it is not at all inconsistent to both support the right for these cartoons to be published, whilst utterly opposing their publication where it constitutes an Islamophobic attack thinly disguised by a veil called freedom of speech.

The same cannot be said for Clareification where there cartoon was not intended as an attack Muslims, but was part of an issue, re-named Crucification, intended as a broad satire on religion. Local Muslims may have been offended, but to offend is not to commit a crime. Satire is a healthy aspect of debate, a vital tool of criticism and a fundamental function of a modern liberal society that permits freedoms of speech, thought and expression. To compare the situation of Clareification to that of Jyllands-Posten and the gutter press that followed it in an Islamophobic crusade against vulnerable communities is not merely to misrepresent the issue, it is to grant the right-wing press a victory that should not be granted. This is not a victory of freedom versus faith, it is a victory of prejudice versus tolerance.

Salman Shaheen