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The Frontline Club: “Defending Islam and free speech”

with 13 comments

Here is the podcast of a debate I participated in at the Frontline Club on Wednesday 3rd of October 2012 on “Defending Islam and free speech”. Or you can watch the video here 

The discussion looked at the on going protests in Muslim communities across the world, what has fuelled them and the underlying tensions that these events have exposed.

With:

Maajid Nawaz, co-Founder and executive director of Quilliam, founder of Khudi and author of Radical: My Journey from Islamist Extremism to a Democratic Awakening. He was formerly on the UK national leadership for the global Islamist party Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT). Twitter: @MaajidNawaz

David Aaronovitch, writer, broadcaster, commentator and regular columnist for The Times. He is author of Voodoo Histories: The role of Conspiracy Theory in Modern History and Paddling to Jerusalem: An Aquatic Tour of Our Small Country. Twitter: @DAaronovitch

Myriam Francois-Cerrah, writer and journalist. She is currently a post-graduate researcher (DPhil) at Oxford University, focusing on Islamic movements in Morocco, and teaches Middle East politics. She writes for the Guardian, the New Statesman, The London Paper, Index on Censorship, The Cherwell,The F-word and others. Twitter: @MFrancoisCerrah

Kirsty Hughes, the Chief Executive of Index on Censorship – an international freedom of expression non-governmental organisation. She is a commentator on European and international affairs and has worked at Chatham House and written for Friends of Europe and the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels. Twitter: @IndexCensorship

Tom Holland, an award winning and bestselling author of Rubicon, Persian Fire and Millennium. His most recent book In the Shadow of the Sword was accompanied by the Channel 4 documentary Islam: The Untold Story. Twitter: @holland_tom

http://www.frontlineclub.com

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Written by Myriam Francois

October 4, 2012 at 18:17

13 Responses

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  1. Myriam, as usual you are representing mainstream British Muslims with intelligence and eloquence, unlike some other panel members. Just wanted to make a related but I guess rather holistic point pursuing the idea of the incoherence of the freedom of speech laws in the West. You briefly touched on the Holocaust denial laws in the video and I think that’s potentially an avenue to exploit in this debate. We’ve just seen an idiotic young man jailed for making, intended to be funny but actually very offensive, Facebook remarks about a murdered child (link below). What exactly can and can’t one say? Is it OK to insult in a vulgar way religious figures but as soon as that someone looks sweet its suddenly not OK? Or is it a grave offence to question a recent European historical event but fine to abuse some other Eastern person who means a lot to the Eastern people? Also it ought to be clearly understood by atheists/gnostics that for some people religion is as dear to them, and often more so, than their own children, so if people are not expected to stand their own children being insulted is it so difficult to understand that they are personally offended when their religion is insulted?

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-lancashire-19869710

    AS

    October 9, 2012 at 20:18

    • Hi AS

      > You briefly touched on the Holocaust denial laws

      In the UK, there are no such laws.
      Some European countries have them and add other denial laws such as ‘communist perpetrated atrocities’ in the Czech Republic.

      These laws are about what views are allowed on specific historical events – events that are recent and where there is so much evidence and such over-whelming agreement among academic historians that the law-makers can find no reason other than malicious ones for someone to deny the historical event.

      > Is it OK to insult in a vulgar way religious figures but as soon as that someone looks sweet its suddenly not OK?

      Is it OK for Muslims to say that Jesus is not the son of God? It’s not against any law in Europe I know. And it is something Muslims are happy to say and put in printed literature.

      For me, it is OK. The freedom to say these things is precious and central to being a Muslim.

      And therefore it is OK for non-Muslims to have diferent views to Muslims about Mohammed and etc – and to say them.

      How can we exclude for them what we want for Muslims?

      The Matthew Woods case you mention is interesting. It was, as I understand it: about the fact he made comments ‘of a sexually explicit nature about the five-year-old’ and the potential effect of that on specific named people: April’s parents and family. So very specific to protect very specific people, who had the extreme trauma of their daughter missing and then known to be dead.

      Social networks in the UK have had very few legal cases concerning them – so cases like this will be important to set the scene and make clearer.

      But free speech is not 100% in the UK.
      For over a hundred years for example it has been illegal to shout ‘fire’ in a theatre – because people had died in the crush after one such incident: freedom of speech was limited in order to save lives – not to stop ghurt feelings.

      Racist abuse is illegal in the UK: see for example: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/teenager-jailed-over-offensive-april-jones-facebook-posts-8202393.html

      > Also it ought to be clearly understood by atheists/gnostics that for some people religion is as dear to them, and often more so, than their own children

      Your children are your children and surely nothing can be made ‘equivalent’ to them.
      Personally the law would collapse if this equivalance could be argued.

      Just imagine … the first to suffer would be Muslims who could no longer say what they believe about Jesus because it offends Christians: and then both religions would be silenced because those who believe in polytheism would argue that they are offended by statements of monotheism… and so on until nothing can be said about anything!

      A Western Liberal

      October 14, 2012 at 18:39

      • Hi Western Lib;

        – I referred to Western laws rather than UK laws intentionally. I dont know why the Holocaust gets special dispensation when many historical events have over-whelming agreement amongst historians.

        – Also was trying to point out that theres a difference between questioning whether Jesus is the son of God or whether Muhammad (saw) is really a prophet and on the other hand to say Muhammad (saw) was a womanising murderer without any further elaboration. I think its possible to disagree without being intentionally offensive and provocative. I think some legal guidelines here could raise the tone of the debate and make many subjects less of a minefield and foster better discussion. I do accept though that any law would have to be carefully worded.

        – Agree that Myriam should do these kinds of debates. Its very important to be part of the debate and not to be merely talked about.

        – I think Hamza Yusuf gets a bad rap. He has a tendency to be abit ‘loose’ in his talks but he’s always defending muslims in western interviews and defending the west in eastern interviews. Hes trying to build bridges which is what I think we need.

        AS

        October 15, 2012 at 00:55

      • Hi AS

        > I dont know why the Holocaust gets special dispensation when many historical events have over-whelming agreement amongst historians.

        You need to read more. Anti-semitism is not a new thing. Do some googling to see the kind of anti-semitism and holocaust denial that occurs within say Iran – or on Hamas TV. It’s extreme.

        > Also was trying to point out that theres a difference between questioning whether Jesus is the son of God or whether Muhammad (saw) is really a prophet and on the other hand to say Muhammad (saw) was a womanising murderer without any further elaboration.

        There is – but it’s a theological difference and in the west the state wants to stay out of theology.
        The state allows each individual to believe what he wishes.
        So Dan Brown can write novels about Jesus’ having children and starting a dynasty. And a playwright can write somethinf like ‘Jerry Springer the Opera’ -which really upset many christians, and the BBC recieved more compliants in advance about that than anything siliar, but still chose to show it and the law left them alone.

        Church/state deperation is a good thing.

        And it is healthy in the West that Christians do not turn their being offended into violence.

        I know those who want Sharia Law on the other hand are the opposite, they want the state to be the same as the main religion. This has a hude downside for anyone who has questions of the main religion: the state opposes them!

        > I think its possible to disagree without being intentionally offensive and provocative.

        I don’t think so. Some people seem to want to be offended.
        Why should Muslims be offended that 1000s of miles away some non-Muslims have no respect for Mohammed – when in their own country there is little respect shown for those of non-Muslim faith?

        Allah is big and strong enough not to blown away by the acts of non-Muslims, isn’t he?!

        > I do accept though that any law would have to be carefully worded.

        It is impossible – how can the law decide if one picture of Mohammed is ‘offensive’ and another not? If just one person saying they are offended – then it is indeed offensive to that person.

        Western law is not based on an honour shame culture, so being offended is not something you can take to court.

        > I think Hamza Yusuf gets a bad rap. He has a tendency to be abit ‘loose’ in his talks

        For an educated intelligent man that is not an excuse. He surely knows exactly the impact of what he says and is aware that the words he uses will be problematic for some.

        > he’s always defending muslims in western interviews and defending the west in eastern interviews.

        Right there,that’s wrong – a more mature appproach is to be willing to criticise both sides when appropriate, not ‘always defend Muslims’.

        > Hes trying to build bridges which is what I think we need.

        Bridge builders are extremely caeful of their words, they realise the sensitivities of both sides. His ‘loose’ talk proves he is not setting out to be a bridge builder at all!

        A Western Liberal

        October 17, 2012 at 00:06

  2. You have demonstrated the courage to speak the truth, no doubt about that. But I feel that you should be selective about which forums you should participate in. Usually a small group discussion is more suitable to have a good chance of conveying your message fruitfully. It makes sense to discuss and dialogue with people of reason only. For those who are Jahiloon, we should stay away from them (Qaloo Salaama). Otherwise, you may be buying yourself undue frustration.

    Riaz Syed

    October 10, 2012 at 14:35

    • Riaz

      In my view it is the opposite- Myriam is to be applauded for taking the debate to wider groups. A discussion only with people you already know agree – well that is sterile and no-one learns anything!

      Keep it up Myriam, take every chance you get to debate with people of every persuasion.

      Riaz – if the others are not ‘people of reason’ then they will soon be showed up by any one who uses a rational argument against them !. The more often such people see that their positions are not rational, the sooner they will give them up and join the ranks of the reasonable!

      A Western Liberal

      October 14, 2012 at 18:45

  3. Salaam

    Honestly, I just wanted to say that I think you’re awesome! I was watching the debate and I could help thinking that this IS Jihad! I recently heard Sh. Hamza Yusuf’s speech on Freedom of speech where he quoted a famous 60s song:-

    ‘I got clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am stuck in the middle…’

    I think that (from where I was looking) summarised your position in the debate 🙂

    It seems to me that anyone who says anything to defend their beliefs is an extremist??? Look forward to future posts. (May you’re efforts be accepted and I pray others (including myself) get inspiration to be more proactive).

    Summary of Sh. Hamza’s speech: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=ilOyulFDpFM

    Yunus Ali

    October 11, 2012 at 02:00

    • Salaam

      I see you like Sh. Hamza Yusuf, but personally I am in two minds.

      He may be giving Islam a bad name with some of the weaker arguments in makes, eg when here in the New York times :

      Mr. Yusuf told the audience in Houston to beware of “fanatics” who pluck Islamic scripture out of context and say, “We’re going to tell you what God says on every single issue.” “That’s not Islam,” Mr. Yusuf said. “That’s psychopathy.”

      http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/18/us/18imams.html

      I’m not sure what issues he thinks Allah is not interested in ?

      A Western Liberal

      October 14, 2012 at 19:01

  4. Hi a w liberal

    Yes it’s true Muslims preach Jesus isn’t the son of god as its part of the basic tenets of our religion. I can’t see how it can be offensive to Christians.
    We have to make clear distinction between literary / constructive criticism and making deliberate offensive comments.
    Remember what famous Dante said about our prophet ,peace be upon him , in his famous inferno, divine comedy . He called him imposter few hundred years ago. Did you hear or see any Muslims protesting in the streets against that ignorant” comment.
    Wat about recent Tom holland’s book ? As far as I know only zia Sardar wrote a piece on statesman criticising it. No Muslim went out protesting Tom Hollands book! Why ? Because they understand the difference between constructive/literary criticism and intentionally making offensive remarks ie calling names of someone for some mysterious reason.
    I just don’t understand how people interpret this freedom of speech according to their needs and convenience

    fktipu2012

    October 16, 2012 at 19:31

  5. fktipu2012

    > Yes it’s true Muslims preach Jesus isn’t the son of god as its part of the basic tenets of our religion. I can’t see how it can be offensive to Christians.

    You’re joking, right?

    It undermines the very core of christianity!

    > We have to make clear distinction between literary / constructive criticism and making deliberate offensive comments.

    So to you the issue is whether it is deliberate or not?

    So your remedy can only be a thought police, to see if the person was deliberately offensive or merely constructively offensive!

    The west is not an honour shame culture, so indifiduals are not personally surprised when others disagree , or when others even mock.

    We have freedom as inividuals to mock each others’ football teams in our club fanzines; to mock the politicans of the party we don’t support, to mock the music we don’t like etc.

    If my beliefs are strong then your mockery does not hurt me one bit. I know that your mockery comes because you don’t agree, because you have not read or experienced what I have, it comes from your ignorance. How can be so sensitive that the mumblings of an ignorant man raise my heart rate and prompt me to violence? I know his words and mockery are not based in reality, so he is only making himself more foolish!

    But in an honour shame culture, I do allow an ignorant man to raise my heart beat – because being seen to be mocked is more damaging than the truth or lack of it in the mockery.

    Look at the development of science – it comes by allowing people to form different opinions, to argue over those views – and for whole careers sometimes to be staked on whether you are in camp A or B. And then new measurements come in and show which camp was right,or that maybe both were wrong! – but without the freedom to disagree and continue to disagree, and vociferously disagree, then new thoughts are crushed.

    When we look to the west we should be jealous of their ability to think new thoughts and build new things. And create new powerful words, such as the International Convention on Human Rights

    A Western Liberal

    October 17, 2012 at 00:31

    • 1. I did not say ‘constructive offence’ as u deliberately misquoted me . I said ‘ Constructive Criticism’. I knw this is how some people misinterpret to mislead the public.

      2. If I reject or disagree with your belief of Trinity or Son of God idea how come you consider it offensive ? Does it amount to ‘ Name Callings’ we receive from some quarters ? Do u think it’s as offensive as that ‘deliberate name calling’ ?

      3. Can you go and ‘define and explain ‘ your idea of free speech ‘ who’s been thrown into prison for 8 months just to make some offensive comments to police or sth ? Now I know you are ‘smart ! enough to cite 101 reasons to justify that court decision.

      So why don’t you the West just issue a guideline ,as you do in most cases , in regard to ‘offence-thing’ making clear

      WHo
      When
      How
      can offend other people
      Who has right to be offend ? and who’ has not ?
      Who can be offended and who cant be ?

      When you debate abt this in Muslim issues you tend to say that SO CALLED RIGHT TO OFFENCE IS LIMITED , This is a western gift to the modern world

      then weeks later you turn around say not
      You Cannot offend police and the like

      i

      fktipu2012

      October 18, 2012 at 21:33

      • AW Liberal
        Correction : SO CALLED RIGHT TO OFFEND IS UNLIMITED

        fktipu2012

        October 18, 2012 at 21:37

      • > I said ‘ Constructive Criticism’. I

        So – try this situtaion.
        Some Muslims say it is blasphemy to draw Mohammed. Some Islamic primary schools in this country even forbid the children from drawing animals (google for it, you can find school’s website saying that).
        But some Muslims have made paintings of key events in the life of Mohammed.
        But Muslims today round the world generally don’t draw, but some do.

        How can the western state, which does not want in general to rule on religious matters, get in the middle of this disagreement?
        How would your ‘constructive criticism’ help decide here?
        Only Islamic scholars can decide on Islamic interpretations. Let them carry on having that right, and lets not try to bring in secular law to what is surely a theological issue.

        So lets leave out religious offence from the secular law system.

        > If I reject or disagree with your belief of Trinity or Son of God idea how come you consider it offensive ?
        > Does it amount to ‘ Name Callings’ we receive from some quarters ? Do u think it’s as offensive as that ‘deliberate name calling’ ?

        You show the problem here exactly – you want to compare how offended you feel after some name calling with how offended christians feel when you deny the central truth of their faith: and because you seem to think that it would be possible to draw an arbitratily line as to what is more offensive.
        That line is impossible to draw.

        You might be offended by someone shouting alu akhbar to you in the street, if you think is was sarcastic: but the words themselves are OK.

        So the grey line now has to take into account ‘tone of voice’ ?
        Again – this line of ‘this offensiveness is OK but that is too far’ – it’s impossible to get agreement on!

        As adults – we realise that name calling made by those who are ignorant of us and what we believe, should be shrugged off. Ignore them! Live is much easier if you ignore the ignorant if they appear they are not going to listen!

        I am not offended when football fans shout bad things about my team, in the street before a game!
        I am not offended when on Internet forums people of a different political view say that ‘all you people think the same and are stupid’. Even when it is obvious such people do intend to offend me! I shrug it off.
        Life is too short to let my feelings be controlled by what other people say or think.

        Sure – if they physically attack me or use words to ‘incite violence’ – the law in the UK is against that already.

        But I was brought up in the UK and in my family we were free of the honour shame culture, that sadly makes so many, so obsessed by whether they are offended or not, whether their honour is offended or not.

        We have a nursery rhyme ‘ sticks and stones may break my bones but names won’t harm me’ – to teach kids to ignore insults.

        > So why don’t you the West just issue a guideline ,as you do in most cases , in regard to ‘offence-thing’ making clear . …
        > Who has right to be offend ? and who’ has not ?
        > Who can be offended and who cant be ?

        I think asking that means you may not have read what I said above – did you also read what I said in asnwer to AS on the same theme of offense?

        And if you think a new law would be better – can you point to a real law in a real country somewhere that you think the words would fit in the UK too? (Or are you not in the UK? – so a law that would fit the country where you are).

        A Western Liberal

        October 19, 2012 at 00:32


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