Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Faith Versus Freedom? Some Clareifications

Originally an article I wrote for 'The Berry' - however poor editing on their part left it looking like it had been chewed up and spat out by a five year old. Here's the original piece on the revived Cartoon Controversy in Cambridge and why I believe that whilst freedom of speech should be defended to the hilt, it is not at all inconsistent to denounce thinly veiled Islamophobic attacks by right-wing papers in the same breath.

Faith versus Freedom? Some Clareifications

It has been a year and a half since the now infamous cartoons depicting Muhammad first appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. On September 30th 2005, the stone was cast, its ripples rising to a tsunami that would engulf much of the globe in protest, both peaceful and violent; a banshee wail of an outcry that would ultimately leave more than a hundred dead. On February 2nd 2007, that now much abated ripple finally reached Cambridge when the reprinting of one of the cartoons in Clareification led to more modest condemnation. And somewhere in between the raging debate that might be seen to have set faith against freedom of speech, a more modest question must be asked. Can the experience of Jyllands-Posten and the right-wing dailies that followed in its footsteps be compared to that of Clareification, or would such a comparison be to conflate two quite separate issues?

For the wider world the issue has often been painted as a fundamental conflict between the demands of a religion based on ancient texts and the principles of modern liberal democracies based on inalienable rights to freedom of speech, thought and expression. Some have gone as far as arguing that the two are diametrically opposed, recalling Huntington’s controversial Clash of Civilisations. For Huntington, it is folly to assume the universal applicability of Western values, particularly when exporting them across the ‘bloody borders’ of the Islamic world. Or, as George W. Bush so succinctly simplified for the lay reader: “They don’t like our freedoms”. But to paint such a gloss over the cartoon controversy, trumpeting the progressive Western values of freedom of speech versus the reactionary demands of Muslim communities, (perhaps the embattled armies of Christendom in a valiant last attempt to defend Jerusalem against Salah al-Din’s approaching hordes) is to ignore one crucial factor to this equation: Islamophobia.

Let me be clear, freedom of speech must be a fundamental, immutable right. There can be no compromise on this. Temporal matters should always take precedence over spiritual and no religion should hold the power of veto over what is permissible to publish in a free press. Faith, no matter how strongly held, cannot dictate to freedom. I would, therefore, recognise the right of papers to publish the cartoons. At the same time, however, I am strongly opposed to the publication of the cartoons in papers such as Jyllands-Posten. The reason for this is their intent. Religion does not, and should not, have the right not to be offended or, more importantly, to be criticised. But the publication of the cartoons in Jyllands-Posten and many of the right-wing papers that followed it was not simply a harmless and humorous attempt to ridicule and satirise religion. They did not do to Islam what ‘Life of Brian’ did to Christianity. Instead we must see the publication of the cartoons as an explicit attempt to target what constitutes a victimised minority in many European countries.

As we have seen, Jyllands-Posten, a paper which can be noted for its established record of hostility to immigrants, on a separate occasion significantly rejected cartoons depicting Jesus. Whilst it contends that this was due to the poor quality of these cartoons, one might also identify through both its editorial policy and its political stance an express intent to target the Danish Muslim minority. As the controversy erupted, right-wing papers across Europe flocked to reprint the cartoons of Muhammad. They jumped on the bandwagon under an illusory banner proclaiming the defence of free speech, but their effect and indeed their cause was to throw fuel to flames which would predictably stir up anti-Muslim sentiment. And whilst commendably no British daily newspaper reprinted the cartoons in the wake of this controversy, it is important to note that amongst the first British media outlets to display them was the website of the explicitly racist and Islamophobic British National Party. Across Europe, the right-wing press have been responsible for creating a moral panic over the issue of asylum and immigration out of all proportion to the actual effects of these processes. They have fostered what can only be seen as a form of legitimised racism. The cartoon controversy is not a matter of faith versus freedom. The real issue is that it has been used as a weapon to target Muslims who, of all immigrant communities, have been amongst the most demonised by the media and by far-right parties such as the BNP. For this reason, it is not at all inconsistent to both support the right for these cartoons to be published, whilst utterly opposing their publication where it constitutes an Islamophobic attack thinly disguised by a veil called freedom of speech.

The same cannot be said for Clareification where there cartoon was not intended as an attack Muslims, but was part of an issue, re-named Crucification, intended as a broad satire on religion. Local Muslims may have been offended, but to offend is not to commit a crime. Satire is a healthy aspect of debate, a vital tool of criticism and a fundamental function of a modern liberal society that permits freedoms of speech, thought and expression. To compare the situation of Clareification to that of Jyllands-Posten and the gutter press that followed it in an Islamophobic crusade against vulnerable communities is not merely to misrepresent the issue, it is to grant the right-wing press a victory that should not be granted. This is not a victory of freedom versus faith, it is a victory of prejudice versus tolerance.

Salman Shaheen


AN said...

What is Clareification?

Salman Shaheen said...

It was a satirical publication produced by students at Clare College. Following its cartoon controversy, its future would seem to be in some doubt...

Anonymous said...

so your saying "its not the poor victimised muslims fault they killed people over a cartoon"
I'm sorry but thats arse gravy, nothing should be beyond criticism, the papers are only trying to sell copy's If the muslims are offended by it dont buy that paper, there's no reason to burn ambassy's to the ground.

AN said...

Actually anonymous i have some sympathy with that point of view, eapecially as the controversy was delibertaly stirred up by political islamists, who misrepresented the actual content of the cartoons (I was shown a much more inflamatory anti-Moslem cartoon by a Moslem woman I knw who had been told it was one of the Danish oines by someone from the Mosque - its content would have offended anyone! But in fact it was not one of the danish ones - so seems to have been deliberate shit stirring by political Islamists)

It is however prudent and polite not to say publish things that you know will cause offence, even though you reserve the right to do so.

BTW - I am not sure I agree with the scope of Salmans' defence of the right to free speech. I think it is reaosnable for example to prevent paedophile pornography from being published.

Salman Shaheen said...

That's not what I'm saying at all anonymous, I'm not quite sure how you can infer that from the article. If you'd followed the letter of the argument, I made it quite clear that religion can and must be criticised. Of course we can lay blame at the door of the Islamists, and as Andy pointed out they did indeed play a crucial role in inflaming the controversy. The controversy itself, however, was not my focus. Rather my point was that it is not at all inconsistent for liberals/leftists to support the right for such things to be published whilst, at the same time, arguing against the social currents that were behind their publication. In the article above, the current I focussed on was Islamophobia/anti-immigrant hostility in the right-wing press. But you could with all justification extend that to militant Islamists.

Andy - my article was assuming the existance of generally accepted laws in liberal democracies around which freedoms of speech etc operate. My conception of freedom of speech is largely based on Mill's principle of permitting liberties except where such liberties might bring harm to others. It goes without saying really that pedophillia is a harmful activity.

AN said...

Thanks for the clarification Salman, but the area remains problematic.

For example there are there (mainly) Japanese pormographic comics that depit images of child molestation, but where there has been no actual victim.

If we follw John Stuart Mill here then the liberty of reading such materia must be protected as it brings no harm to others, but isn't it also right that society passes laws to establish accepted normatuive behaviour.

heaven knows, i am on the libertairian end of modern opinion, and happily support smoking, hunting and handguns, but I still think kiddie porn should be banned.

Salman Shaheen said...

You support smoking? My god, I'd never have guessed:P

As for those Japanese cartoons, I personally wouldn't choose to view them, they sound thoroughly distasteful. I expect I'm with the majority on that one. However, should they be banned? I'm not so sure. Murder/genocide is illegal. Depicting such things in films is not. Arguably murder/genocide is a much worse moral transgression than pedophillia, and yet these things are common themes in films. Personally I love a good violent action flick every now and again. In many ways it's cathartic. And I'd much rather the pedos were sitting in front of their computers looking at sick cartoons than producing sick images to exploit real children.

Anonymous said...
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Rob said...

The harm principle really doesn't work in order to set policy, as you have to engage in a philosophical debate about what constitutes harm in the first place.

As with a lot of liberalism it's a bit of an empty through which a number of different political (repressive) positions can be justified.

Salman Shaheen said...

Mill was quite explicit about what constitutes harm. Verbal offence, for example, was not harm, nor were self-harming actions to be prohibited. I agree though, liberal traditions can and have been used to justify repressive policies - the French hijab ban for example.

Phil said...

I wouldn't write off the harm principle that quickly, possibly because I've just been reading about it (von Hirsch & Simister (eds), _Incivilities_ - do we need an 'offence principle', what would an 'offence principle' look like, can the harm principle cover offence or should the law not be dealing with offence in the first place?) I think it's a good starting point - does action by person A set back person B's interests? Which goes to Salman's argument about context - the mere publication of an anti-Muslim cartoon may be harmless, where their publication in the context of racist agitation is harmful. It does get very fiddly very quickly, but that's what we have philosophers for...

AN said...

But is it permissible to restrict freedom of speach to reflect normative expectations on behaviour, where the bhaviour being sanctioned is not just anti-social but criminal?

For example snuff videos, and child pornography? both of which could be made (CGI, etc) without harning an actual victim, but still legitimising thrill killing and child molestatioon?

Phil said...

I don't think criminality is the best criterion to use here - otherwise you'd end up banning anything that seemed to glorify smoking dope, for instance. But if you're asking whether sanctioning harmful acts is grounds for restricting freedom of speech... I don't really know, but I think the answer still has to be No.

I think the underlying problem is that the law doesn't deal with social justice. Take the Fatima Mansions song "Angel's delight", which glorifies and encourages violence against police and bailiffs. If you compare that with your examples of faked-up child porn or snuff videos, there's an obvious difference in terms of the underlying power relations - in an unjust society*, there are circumstances in which violence against the police might be justifiable in terms of the greater good, but there are no imaginable circumstances in which sadistic murder** serves the greater good. But the law can't really handle that distinction - all it sees is the incitement of violence against another person. And I don't think banning any such incitement is really workable.

*Unlike this one, obviously.

**'Sadistic' is shorthand - most sadists don't actually want to harm their partners, let alone kill them.