Firstly, Islam itself recognises that Mohamed was a man, not God. The Islamic declaration of faith is “There is no God but Allah and Mohamed is his messenger”, which clearly defines the two positions. If a mortal man has been dead for 14 centuries you cannot insult him because he is not alive to see or hear the insult. If he is in Paradise then he is above and beyond such things as insults. The insult can therefore only be against the living, so using the Prophet’s name to justify killing is gross hypocrisy.
Secondly Allah, if you believe he exists, is a deity and therefore all powerful. If he wishes to avenge insults against his religion he doesn’t need gun toting thugs to do it for him. I believe that lightning bolts are the traditional weapons of deities, or plagues, or famine. Although I had to do extensive research on Islam for my book, The Girl I Left Behind Me, I’m not an expert on the Koran. But I’m sure that somewhere within its pages it will say that there is a day of reckoning with Allah, so there is no need for mere mortals to exact retribution. To do so must be to make one appear special in some way, to glorify oneself and I don’t think that Allah would approve of that either.
Charlie Hebdo was also accused by the attackers of blasphemy, which shows just how little the terrorists know. You cannot commit blasphemy against a mortal person, only against a deity. This also implies that you can only commit it if you are a believer in the first place. If you are a practicing Muslim and you are rude about Allah then that would be blasphemy. If, however, you aren’t a believer then by definition you don’t believe Allah exists, so how can you blaspheme against Him? As a non-believer all you can possibly be doing is insulting people who have a faith, but they are mortal beings as well, not deities.
It is something of an irony to see politicians who support blasphemy laws also marching in support of free speech. I refer to Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny. Ireland has a blasphemy law written into its constitution, which means that in Ireland you can be convicted of committing blasphemy whether you are a believer or not. So much for freedom of speech, Enda. Ireland is not the only European country to still have these sorts of laws and the leaders of many of them paraded in Paris last week. Did they spot the irony? You can bet your life they didn’t. Also parading were leaders of several countries with poor records on freedom of speech and also for not treating journalists too well. Irony piled on irony.
An Act of Parliament came into force on 5th March 2008 which formally abolished the laws on blasphemy in the UK.
Following this atrocity there has been much talk about freedom of speech and the attack against Charlie Hebdo as being an attack on free speech. This has sparked some debate because at what point does freedom of speech become freedom to offend?
It is automatically assumed that we have free speech and that the French also have it. I have no idea about French law but I can tell you that there are laws in this country that already curtail our rights to free speech. These are:
- Slander – making a false spoken declaration which damages a person’s reputation;
- Libel – To publish a false declaration about a person’s character which damages their reputation. Libel laws also cover other media such as TV, radio and the internet.
- Defamation – which can be either or both of the above but which also damages reputation.
- Incitement – provoking unlawful behaviour, usually through speech or published work.
So straight away it is clear that our right to free speech doesn’t include the right to tell lies or to incite others to break laws. The first three are civil offences which result in the award of punitive damages, while the last one is a criminal offence and can result in a prison sentence.
We also have laws about racism, homophobia, sexism etc. Do these laws also curtail our right to free speech?
Under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 it is a crime to display “hostility” towards a racial or religious group. The term “hostility” isn’t really defined by the legislation, but CPS guidance requires that it is necessary to prove that “words” or “actions” were used to demonstrate hostility. Note the “or” in there. Surely using “words” is all about freedom of speech?
Perhaps I’m being deliberately provocative here, but the loose wording of this legislation suggests that if someone wanted to curtail our freedom of speech then they have the tools with which to do so.
The same legislation also covers homophobic offences and the wording is equally vague. The CPS defines homophobic crime as "Any incident (my emphasis) which is perceived to be homophobic or transphobic by the victim or by any other person." But the guidance fails to define what sort of incidents we’re talking about. Could it be as little as name calling? In which case we’re back once again to freedom of speech and the right to cause offense.
We could find ourselves in the ludicrous situation of this legislation coming into conflict with itself. Perhaps a gay person could launch a legal case against a Muslim for discriminating against them because they are gay, while at the same time the Muslim could take legal action against the gay person for being “hostile” towards them by taking legal action. Now that would be irony. Whose “rights” would take precedence?
Just for the record I abhor racism, homophobia, sexism and all similar behaviour. My arguments are about the curtailment of freedom of speech and how it might be abused by those that may wish to do so. I use the above examples purely to illustrate my point that our freedom of speech may already be curtailed by existing legislation.
So what about the right to cause offence? Do we have that right? This is normally left to good manners, taste and decency to decide rather than the law. We have the right to go up to someone in the street and tell them they are fat, thereby causing offence. But we don’t do it. Firstly it invites a smack in the mouth, but secondly good manners dictate that we don’t.
I watched Question Time on Thursday night on which, as might be expected, the subject of free speech formed the core of one of the questions. Huffington Post Political Editor Mehdi Hasan made a very good point using an unusual analogy. We have the right, he said, to fart in a lift, but we don’t do it because it would cause offence to the other users of the lift. But if someone does fart in the lift the other lift users don’t then all fart in support of his or her right to fart in the lift.
In other words there are rights, then there is good manners, taste and decency. This doesn’t excuse the acts of the terrorists that attacked the Charlie Hebdo offices, but it does temper the argument for un-fettered free speech.
Charlie Hebdo has been compared to the British publication Private Eye, demonstrating that they were just doing the same, using their right of free speech. This is a false analogy.
To the best of my knowledge Private Eye has never knowingly insulted a religion or a God. It uses satire to point out the idiocy of some of the pronouncements of living people. For example it has, I believe, satirised people like Abu Hamza and Abu Qatada. That is not the same as insulting Islam as a religion. It has done the same to Christian clerics and of course anyone in politics and a few other fields are seen as fair game. It satirises the pompous, the stupid and the absurd but it doesn’t usually insult their beliefs.
Private Eye hit a circulation peak in 2013 with sales figures of over 220,000, with sales holding steady into 2014. Charlie Hebdo manages about 30,000 copies per issue, disregarding this week’s special edition. Think about that for a moment. If every copy that is sold is also read by the spouse, partner and/or room-mate of the purchaser then it might be read by about 60,000 people. The population of France is 66 million people, of which Paris accounts for about 2.34 million. That’s not a lot of sales per head of population, which provides a useful indicator of how both the French and the Parisians felt about the magazine prior to last week. The Beano outsells Charlie Hebdo (circa 34,000).
Freedom of speech is a very interesting concept. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have overheard people using their right of freedom of speech to deny the same to others.
A few years ago the BNP were in the news again, gaining a few local councillors and a couple of MEPs. There was even serious discussion about them gaining their first MP at the 2010 general election (they didn’t). Left wing friends were decrying the sort of racism that the BNP represents. It shouldn’t be allowed, they said. But if we have freedom of speech then it not only should be allowed, it must be allowed. If their pronouncements break our laws then they can, and should, be prosecuted but if they fall short of that then they have as much right to express their views, however distasteful they may be, as anyone else has. That’s what free speech means. It doesn’t just apply to you or to me, it applies to everybody no matter how distasteful that, at times, may be. Do I have to repeat Voltaire’s famous pronouncement on the subject?
I was reminded of this again a couple of weeks ago during another edition of Question Time. Russell Brand and Nigel Farage were on the same panel. A blue haired woman in the audience, allegedly a comrade of Russell Brand, made a very voluble attack on Nigel Farage for something he had just said, thereby denying his right to free speech while very loudly claiming her own. See what I mean? She had the right to freedom of speech to insult Nigel Farage, but he apparently didn’t have the same right to express his opinion.
The same applies, of course, to censorship. Does anyone remember the Oz trial of 1971?
Oz might be regarded as a prototype for Cherlies Hebdo in some ways. With falling sales it had been accused of being out of touch with its readers so it handed over one of its editions to 20 schoolchildren to edit; something of a gimmick in the hope of boosting sales. It was promoted as the “school kids edition” which caused confusion about whether or not it was being targeted at school children, which it wasn’t. However, some of the content of edition 28 was considered by some to be obscene. The particular item cited was a highly sexualised parody of the Rupert The Bear cartoon strip, created by 15 year old schoolboy Vivian Berger. A prosecution was taken out against the three publishers of the magazine: Richard Neville, Jim Anderson and Felix Dennis. All three had been in court before on similar charges in their native Australia where the magazine had been founded before they moved to London. The most serious charge was brought under an archaic law: “Conspiracy to corrupt public morals”.
According to Brian Leary, prosecuting counsel, "[the magazine] dealt with homosexuality, lesbianism, sadism, perverted sexual practices and drug taking".
The three were found not guilty of the conspiracy charge, but were found guilty of two lesser charges and sent to prison. However the judgements were overturned on appeal as the trial judge himself was accused of bias.
I mention this case because it brought into sharp relief the conflict between censorship and freedom of speech. It was a lengthy trial which caused much debate in the press. John Lennon and Yoko Ono led a march in protest at the prosecutions. DJ John Peel, jazz singer George Melly and comedian Marty Feldman, amongst others, appeared as defence witnesses. It is alleged that Tony Benn and Michael Foot, both former government ministers, may have interceded with Chief Justice Lord Widgery.
There can be no doubt that the Rupert The Bear parody lacked good taste and probably offended decency. But was trying to censor it the right thing to do? Did that censorship infringe on our concept of freedom of speech?
The same questions might have been asked 10 years earlier about the obscenity trial of D H Lawrence’s "Lady Chatterley’s Lover", which saw Penguin Books prosecuted for publishing the unexpurgated version of book. Penguin were found not guilty. You may imagine what the attempt to ban the book did to Penguin’s sales. Kerching!
Times change and our concept of good manners, taste and decency have changed with them. The idea of Penguin Books or the publishers of Oz being put on trial for the same offences today would be seen, by most, as absurd.
While not an issue of freedom of speech per sé, once again we are into the realms of numbers of copies sold. At its brief peak Oz sold around 80,000 copies. Most editions sold far less. How many people’s morals were corrupted? I was 20 at the time and read the offending edition when a dog eared copy circulated around my barrack room and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t corrupted. I’m not sure I even laughed. Oz’s peak sales quickly slumped and after edition 48 it closed owing £20,000.
Why did Oz close? Because despite its stand on freedom of speech, at its heart the Oz magazine was seen as being offensive and people don’t pay good money to be offended. Charlie Hebdo may live on for a while, boosted by its increased circulation but I wouldn’t be surprised, in a couple of years’ time, if I heard that it had published its last edition.
So, in conclusion, everyone has the right to freedom of speech. They also have the right to offend. However, just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should. The wise use freedom of speech will always be defended by the public. However, I for one will never support anyone who deliberately sets out to offend. No higher purpose is served by being offensive, while the opposite may apply to the wise use of freedom of speech.
Having now exercised my right of free speech I’d like to wish you joy for the week ahead.