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Right to offend?

Controversy around the film "Innocence of Muslims" has prompted a return to a hard line from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation on the question of blasphemy legislation. Paul Sims reviews the debate in Britain, arguing for criticism of the motives of offenders and avoidance of the trap of censorship.

On Sunday 14 October, 3000 protesters gathered outside the London headquarters of Google to demand that the company remove a 14-minute video from YouTube. "Terrorism is not just people who kill human bodies, but who kill human feelings as well," said Sheikh Faiz Al-Aqtab Siddiqui, one of the speakers at the rally organised by the Muslim Action Forum. "The makers of this film have terrorised 1.6 billion people. Organisations like Google are key players and have to take responsibility for civility. You can't just say it's freedom of speech. It's anarchy."

The video was "Innocence of Muslims", the crude, anti-Islamic film apparently produced by the California-based Egyptian Christian Nakoula Basseley Nakoula (under the pseudonym Sam Bacile), which triggered demonstrations around the world when it surfaced in September. The demonstration in London was entirely peaceful, but elsewhere in the world outrage over the film has led to hundreds of injuries and more than 50 deaths.

This violence must be seen in perspective. Those who responded violently represent a tiny fraction of Muslims in the countries where there was rioting, and where violence has broken out it has done so within the context of ongoing conflicts between mainstream political forces and Islamist groups keen to assert their status as the guardians of Muslim honour. Nevertheless, the controversy over Innocence of Muslims has once again raised a key question of our time: what happens when religious sensitivities, in particular Islamic sensitivities over the representation of the Prophet Muhammad, come into conflict with the cherished liberal principle of free speech?

For many in the United States and Europe, the answer is non-negotiable – the right to make a film like "Innocence of Muslims", however crude or offensive, is protected by free expression laws. But there are powerful voices arguing that this should change. Between 1999 and 2010 the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, representing 57 Islamic states, tried, through the United Nations Human Rights Council and the General Assembly, to pass a resolution prohibiting "defamation" or "vilification of religion". Widely viewed as an attempt to introduce an international blasphemy law, the resolution was consistently opposed by western governments, including Britain and the US.

In 2011 the OIC changed tack, dropped the "defamation of religion" resolution and joined western states in supporting a new resolution, 16/18, for "Combating intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatisation of, and discrimination, incitement to violence and violence against, persons based on religion or belief". With its focus on incitement to violence or hatred against individuals, rather than the protection of religions as a whole, this new resolution was greeted as an improvement by human rights groups. But in light of the recent controversy calls for a more stringent international prohibition on blasphemy have started again.

In response to the Innocence of Muslims incidents, and the subsequent publication of cartoons of Muhammad by the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, the OIC expressed "deep concern [over] the continuing instances of intolerance, discrimination, profiling, negative stereotyping, stigmatisation, religious hatred and violence against Muslims as well as denigration of their religion, Prophet, Holy book and symbols occurring in many parts of the world", and cited Resolution 16/18 to "urge all Governments to take all appropriate measures including necessary legislation against these acts".

Meanwhile, the British government has agreed to work more closely with the OIC. At an event in New York at the end of September, the Foreign Office Minister Baroness Warsi (who doubles as "Minister for Faith") signed an agreement of cooperation with the OIC which included a commitment to work together to "combat intolerance on the grounds of religion or belief" and "protect freedom of expression". Warsi welcomed it as an "opportunity to discuss the many shared interests we have – including respect for religious freedom and combating intolerance on the ground of religion or belief".

Fine words, but for many of the OIC states the means for "combating intolerance on the ground of religion or belief" often conflict directly with any notion of "respect for religious freedom". As Beena Sarwar illustrates, the blasphemy laws that are common in Islamic-majority states are used to maintain religious hegemony and brutally repress minorities and dissenting voices. While Muslims living in the West may be offended by what they see as hostile or distasteful representations of their religion, the member states of the OIC hardly offer a shining example of how best to respond.

"I am not in favour of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan," says the liberal Muslim critic and historian Ziauddin Sardar, who has just published a book on the life of the Prophet. "The law is obnoxious, it has been used to justify all kinds of oppressions and to persecute minorities. I would much rather we argued for respectful, reasoned dialogue and inquiry, rather than blasphemy laws. Blasphemy can be used as an excuse to suppress genuine criticism. I want genuine criticism."

For those with an active interest in defending free speech, this is a key concern. With religious freedom, which the OIC are apparently so keen to defend, must go the freedom to criticise religion. But amid the current outcry, that freedom can appear under threat. When a documentary entitled "Islam: The Untold Story", presented by the historian Tom Holland, was broadcast on Channel 4 television in August, raising doubts about the traditional historical account of the origins of Islam, the broadcaster received hundreds of complaints, Holland was deluged with abuse on Twitter, and numerous Muslim organisations denounced the historian and Channel 4. The Ramadhan Foundation declared that "the British Muslim community will not allow Channel 4 to distort our faith and our history", and called on the station to "apologise, withdraw it from online viewing and also order an immediate inquiry". Admirably, Channel 4 has refused to apologise or withdraw the documentary, although it did cancel a screening event at its headquarters because of security concerns.

Observing the outrage over Holland's film, you might conclude that even the serious historical investigation of the religion's origins is considered off limits by Muslims. Ziauddin Sardar insists this is not the case, arguing that "criticism has a very long and established history in Islam", not least through investigation of the sources concerning the origins of Islam and the validity of the hadith – the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. Sardar himself has been highly critical of Holland – he gave his book on Islam, In the Shadow of the Sword, a scathing review in the New Statesman – but his objections are to Holland's thesis and his use of sources. He does not question his right to investigate the subject.

But are we really to believe that the hundreds who complained or threatened Holland on Twitter were expressing similar intellectual objection? Sardar acknowledges that "some Muslims just complain every time something is said about Islam which they perceive to be negative", but says that "there is nothing we can do about that, because they have every right to express their opinion". And he is right – such complaints may be tiresome, but as long as they do not lead to censorship they simply remain part of the ebb and flow of public argument and debate. The fear is that commissioning editors and publishers will become wary of green-lighting anything about Islam that has the potential to stir up similar controversy. Self-censorship can be the most toxic kind of all.

Clearly there should be no censorship of academic debate, but where does something like Innocence of Muslims fit in? Does such crude propaganda deserve to be protected in the same way as an academic work or a piece of serious cinema or literature? Even Salman Rushdie, the most high-profile victim of Islamic outrage at the representation of Muhammad, thinks we need to make distinctions. "I think he's done something malicious," Rushdie told CNN, referring to the filmmaker Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, "and that's very different from writing a serious novel. He's clearly set out to provoke, and he's obviously unleashed a much bigger reaction than he hoped for. He set out to create a response, and he got it in spades."

There is little doubt that Nakoula and his backers were pursuing an anti-Muslim agenda, and setting out to provoke a reaction among Muslims, but does it follow that the film should be banned? From a secular perspective, the instinct is to rally behind the right to free expression. It seems utterly bizarre that Muslim protesters across the globe should be so outraged by a cheap film produced by an obscure individual in California, or by cartoons published in an anarchic French satirical magazine. As Times columnist David Aaronovitch pointed out at a recent debate at the London School of Economics, in a world where there is "an absolute cacophony of speech such as we have never seen before", we have "all got to learn to be a lot less touchy, because we are not going to get through it if we don't."

But as Aaronovitch's opponent in the debate, the Huffington Post UK political director Mehdi Hasan, countered, this can seem somewhat patronising, since it fails to understand precisely why Muslims are so offended. "As a Muslim," Hasan said, "I would rather [someone] mocked my skin colour than that which is most important, most dear to me in my life, which is my faith and my Prophet. I know this may be hard for some to understand, but the Prophet is more important to me than my own parents, or my wife or my children." For a non-believer, or indeed anyone who is not Muslim, this is almost an impossible notion to accept. But at the same time you cannot deny someone else that view – we can have a debate about offence, but we cannot tell someone what they should and shouldn't be offended by.

The question is how such a view can be accommodated within a framework that protects free speech. For the states of the OIC, the answer is to place blasphemy outside the boundaries of free speech and outlaw it. But for anyone who upholds the right to religious freedom, including the right to criticise religion, this is something that should surely be opposed at all costs. "The idea that there should be some law against insulting the Prophet Muhammad to me seems an appalling idea," says Ed West, who writes for the Catholic Herald and the Daily Telegraph. "We shouldn't have to respect anyone's religious beliefs if to us they seem absurd or misguided. As a Catholic I don't demand that anyone respects my religious views. All I demand is that as a fellow citizen you respect the law, and ask that as a religious minority we have toleration."

West is concerned by the OIC's efforts to condemn the defamation of religion through the UN. "It is important, in this globalised world, to set an example to other countries which do have much worse blasphemy laws," he says. "You shouldn't go to jail, you cannot be punished for making fun of religion, it cannot be protected in that way." West can understand why Muslims might feel offended by certain representations of their faith. "When people march with placards saying the Pope is a Nazi, that stuff is offensive," he argues. "But what can you do? It's a free country and you have to accept that. You can only argue with them, and that's all you can do."

In his debate with David Aaronovitch, Mehdi Hasan did not call for restrictions on the right to offend, but in defending free speech he argued that there is a need to examine the political context in which the debate is taking place. "Islamophobia is rampant in parts of our society and parts of the media," he said. "It's all very well saying that the right to offend is a key pillar of liberal society. But it becomes slightly problematic if all that offence is largely in a one-way direction and targeted at a small, weak, marginalised, powerless minority community. There's nothing brave about that, there's nothing courageous or free about that."

In Hasan's view, if we are going to defend the right to free speech, it is essential that we do so with consistency. Yet a number of recent cases in Britain have revealed the law to be anything but consistent on this issue. In just one week in mid-October, 19-year-old Matthew Jones was sentenced to 12 weeks in jail for making bad-taste jokes about the schoolgirl April Jones on Twitter, 20-year-old Azhar Ahmed was given a community sentence for sending a "grossly offensive communication" after writing on Facebook that all British soldiers "should go to Hell", and 39-year-old Barry Thew was jailed for a public order offence for having worn a T-shirt saying "One Less Pig Perfect Justice" in Manchester on the day that two police officers from the city were murdered in the line of duty. Can we really tell Muslims that they cannot expect protection from the law when individuals are regularly being prosecuted for offending the sensibilities for other, more powerful, groups?

Those of us who value freedom of speech must defend it consistently, and not just when the voices raised against it are Islamic. It is entirely possible to defend free speech while questioning the motives of those doing the offending. We can and should differentiate between legitimate art, such as The Satanic Verses, or serious historical enquiry, such as the work of Tom Holland, and crass provocations like "Innocence of Muslims". We should not be shy to condemn statements or acts, if we believe they have been created with malicious intent. But we should not join in calls to ban them. This is where we part company with those protesting outside Google to call for the removal of "Innocence of Muslims" from YouTube. The best response to offence is civil, reasoned debate, and that can only be conducted in a free and open society.


Published 2012-11-07

Original in English
First published in New Humanist 6/2012

Contributed by New Humanist
© Paul Sims / New Humanist
© Eurozine

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