Friday, 13 March 2009

Freedom of speech must be absolute

There has been something of an uproar in the press in the last couple of days over the actions of Muslim anti-war protesters. The protest by British Muslims took place during a homecoming parade by the Royal Anglian Regiment in Watford, and the reaction has been nothing short of outrage. The Daily Mail reported that the families of soldiers killed in Iraq "reacted with fury" after preacher Anjam Choudary "taunted them over the deaths of their loved ones." The Daily Express told us that Choudary "likened the soldiers to Nazis and branded Tuesday’s homecoming a “vile parade of brutal murderers”" in a "sickening rant." Whilst The Sun referred to the protesters, who unleashed "a tirade of abuse," as "hate-filled." The public uproar over the event has matched that voiced by the media, as was perhaps the intention.

Certainly, the protesters were misguided in their target. The soldiers, "heroes" and "our boys" in the emotive language of the tabloids, are not the ones at fault for the quagmire in Afghanistan. Not all are blameless, of course, as the Nuremberg Trials established just how far the defence of "just following orders" can be taken, and there are certainly western war crimes in the region for which those who committed them need to be held accountable. It must also be noted that applying the epithet of "hero" to everyone who dons military uniform, not to mention the accompanying hero-worship of the media, is at best unhelpful where issues of morality and wrongdoing during war are concerned. That said, it is certainly ludicrous to paint all serving soldiers as "butchers" as these protesters did.

Having said that, and objecting as I do to both the protest itself and to the views of both Choudary and his mentor Omar Bakri Mohammed, I stand resolutely behind their right to hold such protests and to air such views. What follows is Choudary's full statement on the parade and the protest on the Islam4UK website he runs;

Pathetic and cowardly British soldiers pompously marched through Luton to demonstrate their skill at murdering and torturing thousands of innocent Muslim men, women and children over a 24-month period.
Astonishingly, hundreds from the Luton community too felt it necessary to maintain this vile parade by upholding banners of support and shocking slogans of praise for these brutal murderers.
In light of this, a sincere demonstration was organised by Muslims from the local community to highlight the British state-sponsored terrorism that is currently ensuing in the lands of Afghanistan and Iraq, and how the return of active soldiers on such battlefronts should be marked with severe condemnation as opposed to welcoming rapture.
Non-Muslims in Britain must appreciate that the actions of the British soldiers must be condemned unreservedly; they are not heroes but closer to cowards who cannot fight, as their uncanny knack for death by "friendly fire" illustrates.
They are terrorists, and cannot be excused for simply "carrying out their duty", which incidentally (and vividly) was also used by Nazi soldiers in Germany to justify their notorious and bloody campaigns in the early 20th century.
These views, not unreasonably, have offended many of those they reached, particularly those with relatives either serving in the army or killed in the line of fire. But censorship will not make them go away. His words are a clarion call to the thousands of British Muslims who, also not unreasonably, fell disenfranchised with British society and the actions of the British government. Censored and outlawed, they gain far more potency and have far more resonance amongst a community that feels sidelined by the ruling class. As I have previously argued, censorship is utterly counter-productive if our aim is to destroy extremist views of any stripe.

What we need, instead, is an open and honest debate about the serious and very real grievances that make people more open to such views. Muslims, and indeed a much wider cross-section of British society, is angry with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with the situation the west is allowing to forment in Palestine, and with the increasing curbs on freedoms at home - particularly, at present, aimed at Muslims - in the name of the "War on Terror." And they have every right to be. The correct response is not to censor the Islamists who use these very real issues to "radicalise" people and recruit them to their cause, but to make sure that those affected have someone to speak out for them without having to turn towards extremism. We must put freedom of speech into practice.

The increasing disaffection of Muslims and their turn towards extremism is not the only problem that needs to be addressed here, however. The narrowness of debate and the extreme readiness to advocate suppression of speech when discussing this issue has highlighted a serious deficit in our democracy. Commentators, such as Ross Kemp and Andy McNab in The Sun, rail against the very right of these people to protest whilst simultaneously asserting that "
wouldn’t have the right to demonstrate if it wasn’t for the sacrifice of solders" without the slightest hint of irony. This outstanding demonstration of DoubleThink is apparent across all mainstream comment: our "freedom of speech," apparently only extant due to the "heroic" actions of "our boys," is something we must "cherish," but if you "disgrace the nation" by not demonstrating absolute support for the armed wing of the state then you are a "traitor" who must not be allowed to voice your "repugnant" views.

The problem, of course, is that - as with all extremist opinions - there are reasonable points within the "vile" rhetoric that deserve addressing. One such point is that the rights and freedoms we do enjoy in the UK are not because of "the sacrifices of soldiers" serving the state, but because of ordinary citizens standing up against the state and snatching these basic rights. The right to organise, women's suffrage, the vote, civil rights, freedom of speech, and the other freedoms we enjoy do not exist because the state generously deigned to give us them, nor because of the armed forces, but because of grassroots struggles by ordinary, non-military people at home. But in saying this, by the media and ruling class's definition of freedom of speech, I am "creating division" and "supporting terrorists." Ishtiaq Alamgir, leader of the Luton branch of Al-Muhajiroun, declared after the protests that you are "either with Islam and Al Qaeda, or with the enemy." In the opposite direction, this totalitarian standard is one that our government and the media can clearly agree with

The existence of such a standard, permitting freedom only for those with views acceptable to the mainstream, sets a dangerous precedent. If this is a democracy, then the absolute right to protest anything and to say anything - even if it is offensive, ignorant, or wrong - should be a basic, universal benchmark. If it is not, then we cannot claim to be living in a democracy or to have freedom of speech.