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HuffPost blog: “What I Might Have Said If I Had Been on Newsnight…”

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You can read the original post here:

On Monday evening, Newsnight convened a panel of Muslims to discuss a short film on the topic ‎of “who speaks for Muslims”, made by Quilliam Foundation’s Maajid Nawaz. The panel included ‎the journalist Mehdi Hasan and the Muslim commentator Mo Ansar and was chaired, (although ‎arguably not much!) by Jeremy Paxman.‎

The film itself featured a number of voices which Nawaz argued were marginalised by the Muslim ‎community and served to illustrate his point, on the backdrop of his tweet of a Jesus and ‎Mo ‎cartoon, that Muslims need to be more inclusive and attentive to minority voices. ‎

So, what would I have added to the discussion if I had been present? Probably not much given its ‎shambolic nature, but here are a few points I was hoping to make:‎

‎1)‎ Was the cartoon Maajid tweeted offensive?

The simple answer is, yes, to many Muslims it ‎was, for the simple reason that Islamic art, at least in its Sunni variant, traditionally prohibits ‎pictorial representations of prophets. Even among Muslims who do represent prophets, ‎the images are of the sacred variant – in other words, they are reverential, respectful. If you ‎don’t want to take my word for it, then just read on:

“Islamic visual arts are decorative, ‎colourful, and, in the case of religious art, non-representational. The Koran regulated every ‎detail of the lives of the Faithful but gave few precise rules for the arts apart from banning ‎the production of cult images.”

And yes, that’s from The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art ‎Terms, that typically ‘islamist’ source. ‎
Ah, but it wasn’t Islamic art now was it, it was atheist “art”? Well you’d be right to point ‎that out. The anonymous author of the Jesus and Mo series himself says:

“I think it’s ‎important to remind people of a religious persuasion who might be upset or offended by ‎Jesus and Mo that it is not for them. They are not the intended audience, so to complain ‎that they find it hurtful or offensive is irrelevant. Why are they looking at it?” ‎

Why indeed! Hold on, they’re looking at it because Maajid – the establishment’s go to ‎person on Muslim issues – tweeted it. When he says “as a Muslim, I did not feel threatened ‎by it”, what he’s actually saying is “I, as a ‘moderate Muslim’, don’t take offence, so neither ‎should others”, thus casting the insidious shadow of ‘extremist’ doubt over those who did ‎feel offence.‎

Let’s be clear – Maajid is entitled not to adhere to the predominant view among Muslims ‎on the pictorial representation of prophets and the even more widespread view that ‎intentionally deriding images of anyone’s sacred symbols is offensive, but you can’t feign ‎naivety over people’s upset. I mean, that’s the actual point of the cartoons – to ridicule ‎believers.‎

Maajid’s defence is that he wants us all to become a little thicker skinned, to counter the ‎‎’blasphemy’ culture and all that jazz which quite incidentally I’m sure, makes for enticing ‎sound bites for potential funders. But given prior reactions to the posting of other religious ‎‎’satirical’ cartoons – think Denmark 2005 – global protests – what exactly was the strategy ‎here? Light the tinderbox and then reveal you are in possession of an ideological fire truck? ‎I’m not sure how effective a tactic that truly is.

Violent reactions (of which on this occasion ‎it should be pointed out, there were none) are unacceptable, but so surely is seeking to ‎provoke them in order to prove a point. Meaningful change is the type of gradualist work ‎undertaken by activists on the ground who seek to change mentalities with, not against ‎the community.‎

Thankfully the reaction among British Muslims was meek to say the least. Well, if you ‎consider over 22,000 signatures opposing Nawaz meek. Perhaps not meek then – maybe ‎more like, moderate? Surely Maajid should be proud, Muslims, displeased with the ‎behaviour of a prospective MP, started a petition (how civilised!) calling for an investigation ‎by the Lib Dems into his behaviour. Judging by their response you’d think Britain’s most ‎‎’obscurantist’ Muslims might not actually be in need of mass surveillance and ideological ‎re-alignment – they seem to have this democracy business pretty much figured out.‎

‎2) But why should the majority of the British public have to respect the religious eccentricities ‎of Muslims?

Well ironically enough, Maajid’s report was all about the importance of ‎tolerance and respecting the voice of different minorities within the Muslim minority (gay, ‎ex-muslim, feminist). Presumably that extends to minorities within a majority as well? Or it ‎is only Muslims who should feel compelled to respect minorities in their midst? ‎

No, that doesn’t mean censorship, it means treading lightly around people’s sacred ‎symbols. ‎

Are some people still going to be offended? ‎Probably. ‎Does that mean we shouldn’t show images of the Prophet? ‎ No, it simply means those who use offensive images to further an extremist anti-religious ‎agenda should be outed for their deliberate provocation, not heralded as martyrs of free ‎speech. ‎

The Jesus and Mo series existed long before Maajid decided to tweet about it. It became ‎an issue because:

a) Maajid describes himself as Muslim so there was some expectation among Muslims that ‎he would not deliberately trample all over Muslim sensibilities ‎

b) while Muslims could and did ignore the Jesus and Mo series while it remained in a ‘look ‎if you want, don’t if you don’t’ corner of the internet, they could no longer ignore it when ‎one of the most prominent Muslim figures in the UK tweeted it and proclaimed the rest of ‎us were loons for being upset by it. Cheers Maajid. ‎

c) finally, although Maajid likes to reiterate the fact the particular cartoon he tweeted is ‎fairly innocuous (and as far as religious satire goes, it is!), it is not a stand alone image. It is a ‎part of a series intentionally created to mock, demean and belittle the faith of Christians ‎and Muslims. Surprisingly – or not perhaps, many faithful interpret the images as they ‎were intended. Don’t take my word for it, here’s the author of Jesus and Mo: “I have to ‎admit that the potential offense of an imagined religious reader also adds an element of ‎humor – of a childish, sniggering variety.”

And while I’m here, there is something quite ‎sinister about depicting Prophet Mohamed with a hooked nose and a uni brow – playing on ‎Arab racial stereotypes? How hilarious. ‎

‎3)‎ Is this really all about cartoons? Actually no! The ever perceptive author of the Jesus and Mo ‎cartoons himself responded on this issue by saying: “It shows that the whole business is ‎not about the comic, but rather a personal attack on Maajid Nawaz”.‎

‎A personal attack on Maajid? That sounds terrible. Why would people want to personally ‎attack Maajid. Well, despite his gleaming reputation as the bulwark against the hoard of ‎barbarians (or the modern variant, the “islamists”), many within the Muslim community ‎regard the Quilliam Foundation (QF) and Maajid in particular with some suspicion. ‎

For one thing, an oft-repeated critique is that he has retained the Manichean outlook developed ‎during his time in the radical group Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Maajid has a nasty little habit of smearing his ‎critiques as ‘islamists’ and suggesting all those who object to the QF’s undertakings are closet Al ‎Qaida groupies. Needless to say this has irked quite a few people. Not least those individuals his ‎organisation flagged up as allegedly sharing the ideology of terrorists in a secret memo to the ‎Home Office. The list included the terrifying anti-war campaigner Salma Yaqoob.‎

And that’s not all people are angered about. QF has consistently advised the government in a ‎manner which has increased surveillance and suspicion of Muslims despite very little evidence to ‎suggest their ‘conveyor belt’ theory is actually in any way credible. According to the author and ‎Guardian journalist Dr Nafeez Ahmed:

“Government advisers, counter-extremism officials, and ‎‎(current and former) civil servants confirm that the UK government’s counter-terrorism strategy is ‎failing to tackle the danger of violent extremism; rather, it is exacerbating the threat of domestic ‎terrorism. These officials attribute the failure to a “fundamentally flawed” approach to counter-‎terrorism strategy inspired by a UK anti-extremism think tank, the Quilliam Foundation.”‎

On the contrary, there is evidence to suggest QF’s work is not merely flawed but negatively ‎impacting our ability to actually tackle terrorism. ‎

To realise just how flawed, take the example of STREET, a south London organisation engaging ‎alienated young Muslims which was listed as ‘extremist’ by the QF in 2010. One counter ‎radicalization expert has said that if STREET had been operational today “the Woolwich incident ‎could have been averted.”‎

A recent Demos report shows that although many Muslims share similar concerns over the plight ‎of occupied or war-stricken peoples, they do not condone the tactics used by terrorists. Placing ‎such individuals on the same risk list as those who believe in the use of violence is frankly a gross ‎mischaracterisation of people’s outlook and a huge waste of government time and energy on ‎individuals who do not actually pose a threat. But don’t take my word for it. One former senior ‎OSCT director responsible for Prevent has gone on record saying. “I and other counter-terrorism ‎experts were telling the coalition cabinet that non-violent extremism is not a factor in the real ‎threat.”‎

People’s antagonism towards Maajid isn’t actually about him being the alleged beacon of liberal ‎tolerance, in an ocean of hate-filled bigotry, as he and his minions like to claim. Muslims don’t ‎dislike Maajid because he supports gay rights or free speech. They might disagree with him on ‎issues, but the visceral reaction he engenders has little to do with his personal outlook and ‎everything to do with his think tank’s extremely poor engagement with the community it ought to ‎be supporting in eradicating violent elements which, Gallup polls indicate, worry Muslims even ‎more than they worry the broader public.‎

And the list of grievances wouldn’t be complete if I failed to mention Maajid’s new BFF, Tommy ‎‎(not really ex-EDL) Robinson – having tried his hand at reforming Islamic extremists, Maajid ‎extended his skills to the far-right, establishing a working relationship with the most extreme face ‎of islamophobic rhetoric in the UK. Having smugly announced that Tommy was reformed (wow, ‎that was quick!), Tommy almost immediately slipped back into his old habits, joining the murky ‎network of islamophobes the “SION Presidents Council” (that’s the catchy “Stop Islamization of ‎Nations” to you and me) alongside the anti-Muslim propagandists Robert Spencer and Pamela ‎Geller who just this summer, the home secretary had banned from entering the UK.‎

If this wasn’t enough to ruffle a few feathers, in Monday’s film, his linking of Muslim feminists to ‎ex-Muslims as different examples of “progressive” voices within the community has done a huge ‎disservice to Muslim feminists who struggle as it is to be recognised as speaking from within. Now ‎we’re being put in the same boat as those who campaign against the faith! How helpful is that to ‎our efforts at working for gender equality within our community.‎

In the film, Namazie from the Council of ex-Muslims, claimed that emphasising Islam as one’s main ‎or only identity was “part and parcel of the effort to hand them over to the islamists” which sounds ‎like a conspiracy if I ever heard one. And why would it be problematic for people to define ‎themselves first and foremost as “Muslim”? A poll of Muslim Londoners by Gallup found that while ‎most (69%) strongly identified with their faith, a majority (57%) also strongly identified with their ‎country and that Muslim Londoners are just as likely as the British public overall to condemn ‎terrorist attacks on civilians. Why are islamophobes like Namazie being given a platform to espouse ‎erroneous and stigmatising nonsense under the guise of, according to Maajid’s introduction, giving ‎a voice to an “increasing number of Muslims using their faith identity to advance a progressive ‎agenda.” What is progressive exactly about stigmatising those who identify first and foremost with ‎their religious identity as somehow ‘extreme’? By that token surely the Pope, Dalai Lama and Chief ‎Rabbi are all ‘extremists’!‎

Are there issues of intolerance within the Muslim community? Certainly there are. Do I think the ‎Council of ex-Muslims are part of the solution. I should hope it is fairly obvious that they can’t be. ‎Unless your proposed solution, which presumably is theirs, is a mass exodus from the faith.‎
Far more insulting than any tweet is the inclusion of the ex-council of Muslims as part of a package ‎on progressive Muslims.

The Muslim community is far from perfect, but our misrepresentation as ‎squabbling men who need reforming through those who have themselves rejected the faith is ‎palpably absurd. Who speaks for Muslims? How about the myriad Muslims doing the hard graft on ‎the ground.‎

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Guardian (cif): Muslim women face an uphill battle against prejudice to find work

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This article was first published on the Guardian CIF, you can read it here
Baroness Warsi wearing shalwar khameez at Downing Street in May 2010

Baroness Warsi wearing shalwar khameez at Downing Street in May 2010. Photograph: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

Baroness Warsi may have opted for shalwar khameez for her first meeting of the cabinet in May 2010, but for many Muslim women, the struggle is to downplay ethnic or religious difference in order to find acceptance – and employment. A recent parliamentary report found that Muslim women often feel pressured to change their appearance or anglicise their name in order to access employment.

Often, it is the “triple paralysis” of being a woman, migrant, or perceived as such, and Muslim. While in some cases, the barriers are cultural, linguistic or educational, research suggests that 25% of the ethnic minority unemployment rate for both men and women could be explained by prejudice and racial discrimination.

South Asian Muslim women have the highest rate of unemployment in terms of both religion and ethnicity in the UK. Many are highly educated, ambitious women like Shazba, a speech therapist and single mother, who struggles to understand the consistent rejections. She has been unemployed for five years despite a masters qualification and extensive voluntary experience: “I’ve been through numerous interviews for my first job. Needless to say, I feel I’m not getting the job as employers see I wear hijab and look for reasons to turn me down.” When I push her on how exactly she can be sure her headscarf is the problem, given high rates of unemployment more broadly, she responds: “It’s body language, tonality – I once walked into an interview and the interviewer’s face just crashed.”

Others encounter difficulties within the workplace itself, where requests for minor adaptations are met with resistance. Reema, a 34-year-old obstetrician, has to remove her hijab in order to perform surgery. She explains that her London hospital trust has been unwilling to consider small alterations to the scrubs uniform worn in surgery, despite the possibility of ensuring sterility standards. In her experience, “when young doctors in foundation stages see the problem with hijab in theatres, they think of choosing specialities without surgery, even though they are interested in surgical specialities.” This self-selecting out of certain professions is one of the barriers to employment noted by the report.

Others include assumptions about Muslim women and how their religious identity is likely to impact on their work. A recurring theme was of women feeling “essentialised” – Muslim journalists consistently asked to cover “Muslim” stories, Muslim solicitors hired as a means of accessing certain communities, or a hospice worker whose conversations were routinely directed at her faith. From questions about pregnancy plans through to being asked, “We have a lot of gay staff here – is that going to be a problem for you?”, many women felt their identity was reduced to their scarf and the assumptions people made about it.

For women who had to undergo a traineeship, the pressure of what one’s supervisor might think made them vulnerable to prejudice. Some were advised to change the style or colour of their scarf in order to appear more “client friendly”, others were asked if they intended to keep wearing it, a question they interpreted as meaning it could work against their application. A trainee solicitor at a leading international law firm was told she was “sheltered” and “deferent”, something her employers put down her “background”. She eventually opted to remove her scarf. Fiyaz Mughal, director of the Tell Mama (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks) campaign says: “These are not just isolated problems. There are strong perceptions in Muslim communities that employment discrimination is rife.”

According to the report, the impact on women’s self-confidence is significant, something Mughal corroborates: “This causes a lack of confidence … as they think about where their future lies.” Such concerns are not unfounded. Consistent workplace inactivity in younger women can lead to difficulties in finding a job later in life. This is all the more worrying given that Pakistani and Bangladeshi families experience extremely high poverty rates and in light of the fact BME concentration in the public sector means they are more likely to be affected by cuts.

The portrayal of Muslim women in the media as passive victims, or as problems, undoubtedly renders them less desirable to prospective employers. Barrister Sultana Tafadar explained that some chambers were concerned that women in headscarves might be perceived as less competent and more judgmental of clients. Women who work in the service sector were made to feel they’d struggle to fit into the team. But it would be a mistake to assume this sort of subtle discrimination is limited to women. Ed Husain, author of the Islamist, revealed that he changed his name because he didn’t feel comfortable with Mohammed and in 2009, researchers uncovered widespread racial discrimination against workers with African and Asian names, among whom unemployment rates remain consistently higher than average.

Muslim women stand at the intersection of race, gender and religious difference, which significantly increases their likelihood of suffering prejudice. But the focus on Muslim women shouldn’t serve to further essentialise their identity – they merely represent the sharp end of a stick which indicates the persistence of sexism, racism and religious discrimination in broader society and their impact on people’s life choices.

Op-Ed at Your Middle East: “MORSI MUST BECOME A LEADER FOR ALL EGYPTIANS”

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This piece first appeared as an Op-Ed at Your Middle East, you can read it here

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Carnegie Endowment senior associate Marina Ottoway recently argued that the only question facing Egypt’s faltering democratic transition “is whether it will be the tyranny of the Islamist majority or that of the secular minority.”

Since the fall of Mubarak, Ottoway argues that an ‘Islamist majority’, with popular support, has been pitted against a ‘secular minority’ with considerable influence over state institutions. Yet, this oft-repeated dichotomy of ‘Islamists vs seculars’, masks real diversity in the motivations of opponents to both the presidential decree and the hastily drafted constitution. The labelling also avoids adequate scrutiny of the actual proposals being made by all sides. With protests rocking the country once more, Egypt’s democratic future relies on all sides moving on from revolutionary exceptionalism, to working together for the national interest.

Opposition figure Abul Futuh recently voiced a widespread critique of President Morsi: “The president cannot rule in unilateral fashion, just because we are in a period of transition, after the revolution. It is not reasonable or wise for he who governs to say ‘I received a majority of votes. My party received a majority of votes. Therefore, it is our right to govern unilaterally by virtue or representing a democratic majority.’” A former MB leader, Futuh’s view reflects the concerns of a wide array of political voices, beyond simple descriptions of ‘secular’ or ‘Islamist’.

Many Egyptians who voted for Morsi in the presidential election were not espousing an affinity for the political branch of the MB, but opposing the alternative, in the form of Mubarak era relic, Ahmed Shafiq. Post-revolutionary figures often struggle to reflect the multiplicity of views which rallied behind them. Instead of recognising and reflecting this diversity, Morsi is using his position and the predominance of Islamists in key institutions, to forge a framework for Egypt’s future which ignores many of the voices which got him elected – including alternative Islamist voices, Leftists and others.

Morsi was handed the people’s trust to reform the Egyptian state, a reimagining of the Egyptian ‘self’ in a democratic setting where all parties hoped to see their aspirations reflected, not least in the nation’s core document, the constitution.

As protests erupted over his wide-reaching ‘temporary’ decree, Morsi decided to rush the constitutional drafting in 24 hours, avowedly to quell dissension. Of the 100-strong constitutional assembly, 22 withdrew. The result has been called“hasty and ill-defined”, while Human Rights Watch notes: “The constitution (…) provides for basic protections against arbitrary detention and torture and for some economic rights but fails to end military trials of civilians or to protect freedom of expression and religion.”

In the midst of widespread instability and in a cavalier move, Morsi initiated political decisions of serious consequence, without fostering a broad based consensus.

His actions have been met by an opposition struggling to unite beyond its reactionary stance. Few of the recently established political parties have the deep societal roots of a social movement like the MB. Speaking to locals in the Cairene district of Imbaba, researcher Rahma Bavelaar relays previously widespread popular support for the MB. One local confided that this is “because they are the only ones who ever did anything for us over the past decades. People accuse them of giving out bread and oil to win votes, but this is what we want: bread and oil. We don’t care about freedom of expression and the freedom to walk around naked. Didn’t the Revolution come to fight social ills such as corruption and ‘zina’ (unlawful sexual intercourse)? It was the poor who filled Tahrir and made the Revolution succeed. We want to just live and eat.”

However, recent events have seen a dampening in the MB’s popularity. The same local admitted no longer supporting the MB because she feels their behaviour in power has demonstrated that they “only care about the interests of the MB and have failed to bring any positive change.”

Bavelaar’s research suggests the opposition still have significant ground to cover in convincing lay people that their policies will positively affect their lives, in a country where parties have long been perceived as vacant vessels and where meaningful social action has tended to occur outside of the formal political setting. However, the mystiquesurrounding the MB has been severely tarnished.

The current stand-off will see some form of denouement on December 15, when a referendum will be held. Although judges responsible for overlooking the referendum threatened to walk out, it now seems likely many will cooperate. But serious questions remain over the constitution’s content. Not least, the outline of an extremely strong executive, in lieu of strong checks and balances and a pre-amble which presents the military as saviours, despite evidence of Human Rights abuses, from virginity tests on protestors to torture and military trials.

Just as critical is the drafting of the constitution by predominantly Islamist figures, failing to capture the aspirations of all Egyptians. In forging the country’s post-revolutionary identity, Morsi should have shaped a constitution which could unify Egyptians and would establish a base line consensus on the route for reform ahead. Instead, the draft contains a number of articles which seemingly confirm the apprehensions of MB critiques. In a nod to Islamist identity politics, Article 10gives the state the power to preserve the “genuine nature” of the Egyptian family and its “moral values,” which combined with the fact it no longer lists “sex” as one of the grounds for prohibiting discrimination, leaves women open to gender based discrimination and state interference. The Islamist ideal of seeing a greater influence of religion in the state’s operation is reflected in the designation of Al Azhar as having a consultative position in defining the principles of Sharia, while other sections raise questions over freedom of speech and minority rights.

For years, academics have pleaded for Islamist parties to be assessed on their policies, not a speculative fear of ‘Sharia based politics’. Until recently, distance from power shielded them from scrutiny. But the MB can no longer hide behind accusations of a secularist plot in the face of all criticism, despite the undoubted residual influence of old regime figures. Some of Morsi’s current critiques are no less attached to ‘Islamic values’ than he is.

Reliant for too many years on sycophantic supporters, Islamist parties must now produce concrete policies of tangible benefit to the majority. The hierarchical habits of the ‘Murshid al-‘am’ (the MB’s General Guide) have no place in a democratic setting and have shown their limitations. Morsi’s success as a democratic leader will lie largely in his ability to recognise the significance of his leadership of all Egyptians and his willingness to distance himself from the ideological rigidity, which remains the privilege of those outside the political game. In the midst of current civil strife, Morsi must reach out to the opposition, an opposition which needs to move from sit-ins to substantive alternatives. Egypt’s stability depends on it.

Written by Myriam Francois

December 6, 2012 at 17:46

Huff Post: Rowan Atkinson Is Right – We Need More Free Speech – But We Also Need More Responsible Speech

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This post was originally published on my Huff Post blog, here

Comic Rowan Atkinson has reignited debate over free speech this week through his campaign to ‎reform Section 5 of the 1986 Public Order Act which outlaws “threatening, abusive or insulting ‎words or behaviour that is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress”. Specifically, Atkinson ‎believes, and I share his concern, that the term ‘insulting’, in addition to the phrasing “likely to ‎cause”, are far too subjective and as such, threaten free speech. That the law has already been ‎used in Kafkaesque fashion, is well illustrated by the case of the Oxford University student ‎arrested for asking a policeman: ‘Excuse me, do you realise your horse is gay?’ and pertinently, by a ‎‎16-year-old boy held for holding a placard reading ‘Scientology is a dangerous cult’. (For the record, ‎yes I would still be defending his right had the placard read “Islam is a dangerous cult”). Civil ‎liberties campaigners, Liberty have stated Section 5 “can have serious implications on peaceful ‎protestors and others exercising their freedom of expression, as someone who uses insulting ‎language that might distress another were they to hear it could be guilty of an offence.” ‎

The concern lies in a scenario where meaningful criticism can be curbed under this banner, where ‎accounting leaders through peaceful protests, or any other language or behaviour that might be ‎deemed ‘insulting’, could be curtailed. While we should be able to say something which might be ‎perceived as insulting about someone’s religion, more importantly surely is the fact we should be ‎able to say something insulting, or even act ‘insultingly’ towards those who enact regressive ‎policies, who threaten the NHS, who cut support for the disabled and vulnerable, those who make ‎higher education unobtainable for the majority. As things currently stands, the poor phrasing of ‎Section 5 joins a host of other worryingly vague limits placed on free speech which, rather than ‎protecting minorities, carry the seeds of state censorship.‎

However, in the words of Spiderman (and possibly someone else!), with great power, also comes ‎great responsibility. The right to insult means we should have the right to express our views ‎without fear of prosecution, even if they happen to insult someone. What it surely doesn’t mean is ‎the obligation to intentionally trample upon people’s sensitivities. One might express a view which ‎might be deemed insulting by someone, but surely the objective of seeking to insult them, for ‎insult’s sake, is simply egregious. It shouldn’t be illegal, but it should be deplored. In real life, ‎people who walk around insulting people for the sake of it are called idiots. They’re not lauded as ‎the human embodiments of free speech.‎

Should we have the right to say things to one another which might be deemed insulting? ‎Absolutely. Should we define the European ‘creed’ as the obligation to insult one another – ‎definitely not. None of us want to see free speech used as an excuse to go back on hard fought for ‎tolerance, for bigots to have free rein to spout racist/homophobic/sexist/islamophobic/etc tirades ‎unchallenged, just as much as one might not wish to see such statements prosecuted or censored. ‎It is possible to believe in the need for clearer, less restrictive legislation whilst also calling for more ‎empathy and understanding of the experiences of those minorities who will inevitably be on the ‎receiving end of some of the less palatable free-speech. ‎

The concern is that the free speech debate actually masks an underlying concern that religion in ‎general but Islam in particular, represent an inherent threat to the secular liberal worldview. From ‎this perspective, insulting Islam and Muslims represent not merely a right to free speech, but an ‎obligation to confront values assumed to be incompatible. According to a YouGov poll, more ‎Britons (43%) than Americans (39%) believe in a fundamental clash of cultures between Islam and ‎the West, and this has bred the sadly widespread view that not only are religious people not ‎worthy of protection but that their ‘pre-enlightenment superstitions’ must be derided at all costs, ‎including the cost of our social cohesion. There surely is some irony in discussing the ‘issue’ of the ‎integration of Muslims, if they’re deemed inherently incompatible by virtue of that religiosity. As ‎with all minorities, the two-way process of civic integration requires broader society to ‎acknowledge the particular sensitivities of those we regard as our democratic equals. It doesn’t ‎mean minorities will never be insulted, it just means there won’t be a concerted campaign to insult ‎them. When comedians or satirists choose to mock the most marginalised and disenfranchised, ‎rather than the powerful and the corrupt, it poses much more significant questions than ‘can we ‎insult Islam’. It raises rightful concerns over the use of such arguments as a smokescreen to ‎obscure some of the crudest forms of racist vilification. In some cases, rather than representing ‎the best of the European tradition of satire, such material can be located within a tradition of racist ‎representation.‎

When the way we discuss minorities impacts their life, through discrimination and sometimes even ‎violence, there is a responsibility upon us all to ensure the vilification is not afforded a credence ‎which bolsters the hate-mongers. Studies of hate crimes suggest a link between negative ‎representations of minorities and their targeting by violent individuals or groups. Protecting the ‎psychological and physical wellbeing of fellow citizens is as about as axiomatic as any value gets. To ‎do so should not require further ambiguous legislation but rather a shift in our perception of ‎Muslims – as an integral part of our society, their grievances are, like the grievances of any ‎minority, our grievances. Freedom of speech may well be a central British value, but so is live and ‎let live. It’s a mistake to assume they’re mutually exclusive, but it’s also complacent to assume that ‎either is immune from erosion.‎

Written by Myriam Francois

October 19, 2012 at 13:41