Free speech?

One of the great hobbyhorses of Western discourse about the Crescent-dotted parts of the globe is the absence of free expression. I was intrigued then by the fact that England finally took up the cause of John Stuart Mill in striking down a law making offensive speech illegal. It will no longer be a crime to “insult”. But it retains the clause penalising “abusive” and “threatening” speech. And it seems one may only exercise the freedom to offend so long as there is no “victim”. So– not quite out of the woods yet.

This torpedoes the common notion heard from anti-Muslim types who justify their singular hatred of Islam as a brave defence of the Western right to give offence, when in truth, no such legal right exists. It would be comforting to say they were dishonest. But a safer bet is that it can be simply put down to their peerless ignorance of the numerous ways dissent is muzzled in the Continent. Stats show that 36 European states out of 45 had laws prohibiting defamation of religion in 2011, according to Pew

Selective outrage over the suppression of free speech is the least of their follies. They seem politically innocent of any other liberty worth cherishing but the movement of their vocal cords. It is seldom accounted for by such monomaniacs why constraints on speech are more despotic than restrictions on the right to privacy, freedom of assembly and jury trial, on which there are severe limitations. The creeping surveillance state in the kingdom monitors our email, telephone and internet communications, limits protests at Parliament Square when not covertly surveilling, kettling or intimidating peaceful demonstrators, and applies indefinite detention and repressive control orders for people charged with no crime.  

And it has not gone unnoticed that the kind of man who belabours the absence of human rights in the Middle East never has in mind the ban on the hijab in Tunisia and Turkey, or the repression of trade unionists and democrats by US-backed secular autocrats. They object only when it is clerics persecuting someone on a point of theology, whereas the people typically chased down by the secret police for religion are often those with Islamist sympathies. All the world knows what happened to Sayyid Qutb, godfather of al-Qaeda, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, in the torture dungeons of Egypt. 

A partial list follows of recent British thought criminals who might have been spared the calaboose if intellectuals had taken up their cause with the brio they embrace the cause of notable ex-Muslim enthusiasts for the war on terror (such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali) who make careers out of talking up their unparalleled victimhood:

(1) Teenager Matthew Woods was jailed for posting derogatory comments on Facebook about a missing young British girl, April Jones.

(2) Student Liam Stacey was imprisoned for tweeting racially insensitive remarks on Twitter concerning a black footballer.

(3) A young man was arrested for posting a picture of a burning poppy to a social media website on Remembrance Day. 

(4) Barry Thew was arrested for wearing a t-shirt that mocked dead policemen.

(5) Azhar Ahmed was prosecuted for writing a Facebook comment saying British soldiers fighting in Afghanistan should die and go to hell. 

(6) Jacqueline Woodhouse was incarcerated after being filmed on a train carriage telling Asian commuters that she wants them out of her country.

(7) Craig Slee was handed a five year prison sentence for posting readily available online videos of Taliban beheadings on Facebook despite police admission that he was just a “total fantasist” who did so to make himself interesting, harboured no violent ambitions, was affiliated with no extremist group, and was not even a radical Muslim convert. 

(8) Comedian Doug Stanhope was threatened on his UK tour with police action by a Telegraph journalist whom he described on Twitter as a “cunt”.

Until the censorship on all political speech is repealed, and free-born men and women can speak their minds without fear of blaspheming secular authorities, the fact remains that most of the Western hemisphere does not enjoy freedom of thought, merely thought of which the state approves. Muslim countries ought to revoke their own procrustean laws too. Their normal suspicion of Western influence would serve them mighty well in this regard. But they don’t need sermons from countries disgraced by thought control. 

About Theodore Sayeed

Theodore Sayeed is a guest contributor to Mondoweiss. He works and studies in the UK. He may be reached at: [email protected]
Posted in Israel/Palestine

{ 7 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. Citizen says:

    “But they don’t need sermons from countries disgraced by thought control. ”

    Schumer’s on TV today telling us he knows what the American people think. The news leaves it at that. But Schumer says Hagel should be shit-canned because he is too weak on war on Iran and increasing $ and diplomacy for Israel, a foreign state said to have the same values as America. He will do his best to murder Hagel’s vetting by voicing in many ways that “mainstream” America’s view is his, not Hagel’s. Who would you rather have in the trench with you, Hagel, or Schumer? LOL.

    • Citizen says:

      BTW, since Chuckie Schumer will be in the spotlight, that is, using Hagel vetting to get in the spot light, here’s some info on how he “schums” his opponents. Think he will schum Hagel, or is he already doing it, laying out the path? link to washingtonpost.com

  2. American says:

    A government can’t LEGISTATE respectful manners or prejudice.
    Doesn’t work.
    Only solution I see to the dangers of hate speech is a society refined, informed and educated enough to reject it.
    And related to that —-I saw a excellent program on Islam –The Wonders of Islam”–on public tv last week done by UNC. It featured Muslims and a US gentile family that converted to Islam and a tour of many Muslim sites and magnificant mosques in the ME with history and explainations of Islamic religion. Very well done.

    • Mooser says:

      “A government can’t LEGISTATE respectful manners or prejudice.
      Doesn’t work.”

      Yes, America was a much better place before the Civil Rights legislation. Was it worth it to make all those changes just so some people wouldn’t get called names?

      Edit: Gosh-a-roonie! Just think what you could do to Zionists if there were no Civil Rights laws!

  3. Of course, many of those who criticize specific kinds of human rights violations in certain countries are selective in their outrage because they are pursuing a hidden agenda that has nothing to do with human rights. By all means expose the hypocrisy of such people. But you stereotype all those who express concern with human rights violations committed in the name of Islam as being of this type, and that is grossly unjust to the many other human rights activists who are sincere, have no hidden agenda, and try their hardest not to be selective but to criticize all violations, irrespective of where they occur, who commits them, or what ideology is used to excuse them.

  4. sardelapasti says:

    Congratulations to Mondoweiss for publishing a paper of general interest –of huge general interest.

  5. Let me just add an example of the even-handed treatment of human rights abuses. Take a look at the World Report for 2012 recently issued by Human Rights Watch. You will see that the sections on Iran, where a supposedly Islamic regime is in power, and on Uzbekistan, where a secular regime victimizes a predominantly Islamic opposition, are equally condemnatory. I think other comparisons (e.g. Syria with Saudi Arabia) would produce the same result. In other words, we should distinguish between people who have a persistent and serious concern with human rights as such and try to operate a single standard (even if they do not always succeed), and opportunistic propagandists who exploit the issue of human rights as and when it suits their ulterior purposes.