Freedom to Offend

Have fears about causing offence eroded freedom of speech?

Most people who read this will be sitting at home or in a library, taking a break from their study or just having a general browse. You may have the odd worry, and you probably are stressing about deadlines. Some may have more serious family or health problems affecting you. But not many of you will be wondering when you will be stoned for getting off with someone at Klute last week. I highly doubt many of you will be worrying about having acid thrown in your face for taking off your burka. I also sincerely trust you are not fearing the loss of your hand for forgetting to pay for that “pick-’n’-mix” sweet in Tesco.

But this is not the reality for our fellow humans in various parts of the Middle East. Before I continue, I am not anti-Islam, and I do acknowledge that it is a minority group of Islam affecting the writing of this article, not the religion as a whole. Neither am I a racist, or anti-religion: I am a practising Catholic reading Theology. But more importantly, I am a social conservative with liberal values. I believe in freedom of expression, in freedom of movement, and most importantly, freedom to offend. Rarely a week goes by when The Times doesn’t print an offensive cartoon of the Pope, or some other kind of anti-Catholic propaganda. Even rarer is a day without a comment about how Catholic priests are paedophiles. Yet we all laugh these off. They may be offensive and ignorant, but we are lucky enough to not be hanged for voicing an opinion. But to find a voice speaking out against the terrors of political Islam, for example, one can really only turn to the BNP, EDL, or even the Daily Mail. What I would like to see is dialogue about the dangers of radicalism, and the reality it imposes on our culture; to be able to open a well-regarded newspaper or turn on the TV to see open and frank debates about how to deal with these present threats to freedom.

I’m sure you will have heard about the recent incident of a stoning in Afghanistan, whereby a Muslim woman and her lover were accused of adultery and stoned to death. The video has been made available for those who wish to see it: certain parts of it can be seen on the BBC website. It makes clear a very harsh reality. I have no doubt that when anyone hears about this they will react strongly against it. But the same people who get angered by this I’m sure would be quick to dismiss claims that the Koran contains passages of hate, and that some Islamic practices are immoral, yet openly acknowledge some of the vile events in the Old Testament and in the Christian past. This is where the problem lies: it is utter relativism. You accept that the stoning of women is wrong yet you are reluctant to do anything about it. Thousands protested against the War in Iraq and even Afghanistan, failing to realise that they were attempts to bring down harsh extremist dictatorships or regimes, where woman couldn’t be educated, homosexuals were hanged, and criminals decapitated. But why are we so scared to converse about it? Why are we scared to enter a debate about it?

The reason is fear. Fear of offence and, because of the extremists these topics deal with, fear of death. A voice that speaks out against the harsh realities of some aspects of Islam is a voice targeted by Imams until it is silenced. Take for example Theo van Gogh who made a film about the oppression of women in Islam. He was shot dead on the streets of Amsterdam in 2004, and left to die with a sword pierced through his heart containing a note warning anyone in the West against speaking out against Islam, for they too will be killed. Now, for a wonderfully liberal country such as Holland, for this to happen is an absolute monstrosity, I’m sure you will agree. Yet now no one can speak out against Muslims in Holland for fear of suffering the same fate. The director of the Centre for Social Cohesion, Douglas Murray, has noted that demographics show that by 2017 Holland will have a Muslim majority, and the Foreign Minister has said sharia law should be implemented when there is a majority call for it: the same law that allowed Siddiqa and Khayyam to be stoned to death a few months ago. Murray now has to have bodyguards whenever he travels abroad, for simply letting it be known that radical Islam is a problem that isn’t going away. We claim that the West is a liberal beacon, yet the imposition of Muslim thought is quickly deteriorating this reality.

For those who think that Muslim fundamentalism is applicable to a select few who make the whole religion look bad, you would be correct to some extent. It is a minority group who affect the whole religion, and yes the stoning in Afghanistan was led by the Taliban, an extremist political group. However, many of the people who cast stones at the couple were not members of the Taliban; they were part of the general community. The growing radicalisation of Islam in Britain is not something to be shied away from either. Sharia law is already a reality in this country (albeit for those who chose to be judged according to it), and a recent report by the Centre for Social Cohesion, Islam on Campus, revealed that 24% of Muslim students said men and women were not equal in the eyes of God, and 60% of Islamic Society members said killing in the name of religion could be justified. Obviously it is wrong to suggest that they would act upon this, and clearly ignorant of the blood on Christians’ hands as history tells us. But the fact is that in a liberal, 21st-century society as Britain is, many would be accepting of it. It shows that large numbers of the Muslim community are not defending the values of freedom and democracy the west West possesses, and that Britain was built upon. After 9/11, the Muslim Council of Britain failed to condemn the terrorist attacks. Whether our fellow Muslim colleagues agree with this, (I’m sure a huge majority would condemn the attacks and say that the terrorists are distorting the message of Islam) is irrelevant, for this is the Islam that speaks for Britain. This is the Islam that we all hear, for they are the only ones that speak loud enough.

I am not arguing for or against Islam I must note. I am simply giving an alternative view – one we rarely see anywhere without being accused of being racist. I respect Islam as a religion: for example its values on drinking and promiscuity our culture could learn from. But I do not respect it as a controlling force, and have no respect for the crimes it commits; just as I have no respect for the current Pope’s covering up of paedophile incidents. The difference is we speak daily about those often in a jovial manner. Except Islam. I also acknowledge my right to write, with the hope that I would not be killed for offering my opinion. I am not inciting racial hatred. I am not calling the religion evil. I am simply saying what needs to be discussed openly and honestly.

The main point here is freedom of speech and freedom to offend. This does not mean we should incite hatred and violence, but while the English Defence League may say they want Muslims to leave Britain alone, they are not saying they want them stoned to death. They do not violently act on their opinions. Unfortunately a Muslim minority do act on what they say and the hatred they cite, and because of their ability to put terror in to all humanity, we are afraid to speak against it.

I am calling upon all of you who value your freedom, have respect for fellow humans, and hate to see a woman being stoned to death for kissing a man she wasn’t married to: I am just asking for an honest open discussion of these things, without prejudice or preconceptions. I think the recent uprisings in Tunisia and especially Egypt show there is a crying-out for the values of freedom and democracy. Freedom should not be a cultural thing, especially not solely Western. It is a fundamental human right, just as water, food and shelter are rights. We do our utmost to provide aid for poor countries, why don’t we do more to endorse the other fundamental principle of freedom? Whether you agree with me on the Iraq war, on Islam, or not having sharia law in our country, I beg you to agree that we should discuss these issues openly. You may not agree with the notion that the West has a right to bring democracy to the Eastern dictatorships, but at least be willing to enter in to a debate about it without assuming people like me and others of this position are automatically wrong or racist. Whilst we should respect religions and not incite hatred, we should not be scared to offend. Universal suffrage was offensive; the abolition of slavery was offensive; yet they bred truth eventually. We should not apologise for our views, and should not have to fear being killed for arguing against the stoning of women or execution of homosexuals. The only thing we should apologise for is our neglect to speak about these in the past.

So feel free to make jokes about how the Pope is a Nazi, but let me be free to suggest that some elements of the Koran shouldn’t be implemented into society. Even let me be free to draw a cartoon of Mohammed. Next time someone sparks up a conversation about Islam and some of its questionable morals, I beg you to think of the reality and engage in discussion as I would expect you to of Christianity, Hinduism, or even Jedi. I desperately appeal to Muslims who know how abhorrent some of the extremist laws are: speak up; show how wrong they are acting. And if anything, engage in debate just to respect victims like Siddiqa who suffered at the hands of people who may have been stopped sooner had we not been so apologetic.

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