Freedom to Criticize
Last month, a scholar and critic of Islam, Robert Spencer, was barred entry to the UK, while one of the objects of Spencer's disapproval, Muhamed Al-Arifi, was admitted to Britain with no objection at all from the British government.
Spencer's comments about Islamic extremism were apparently considered too incendiary; Arifi, however, describes the killing of "infidels" as a "great honour" and advocates the murder of Jews. On IQRA TV, he states that:
Spencer has never advocated killing anybody; and, incidentally, in British law, supporting the murder of others is a crime.
It seems that increasingly, especially when it comes to Islamism, there are those in the West who work to silence the critic rather than the criminal, and often more attention is paid to the critics of extremists than to the extremists themselves. It is true that our enemy's enemy is not necessarily our friend, but we need not apply such double standards in our response.
Opponents of free speech, such as Matthew Collins -- spokesman for the "anti-fascist" group, Hope Not Hate, which lobbied for Spencer's exclusion – claims that, "[Voltaire] never had the benefit of going to the gates of Auschwitz and seeing where unfettered free speech ends up."
The West's submission to Islamist thugs has largely been inversely proportional to the West's commitment to free expression and honest discussion of its disputed limitations. Writers such as Nick Cohen and Kenan Malik regularly make this point. Cohen describes the censorship imposed -- in an effort to appease the Islamist-led rioters -- by Western governments around Salmon Rushdie's novel, The Satanic Verses, as the "Dreyfus Affair" of our age.
There evolved, soon, another sort of censorship: the suppression of one person's criticism, supposedly to defend another person's right to free speech.
The London School of Economics' Student Union, for example, is happy to approve anti-Semitic and pro-terror speakers. In response, however, to a student society publishing a satirical cartoon that mocked religious extremism, the Union in 2012 tabled a motion that proclaimed blasphemy a form of racism. Ironically, the motion concluded: "There is a special need in a Students' Union to balance freedom of speech." What "balance"? While hate preachers are allowed to address students with no complaint, critics of these hate preachers are silenced?
At other times, the silence takes the form of self-censorship by community leaders and interfaith groups – possibly to avoid subjects deemed too controversial. The writer Douglas Murray recalls:
While self-censorship may come across as a harmless, albeit squalid, act of self-preservation, its casualties are liberty and tolerance. The Swedish tabloid newspaper Aftonbladet, for instance, published an article suggesting that the Israeli Defense Forces were harvesting the organs of Palestinians killed in combat, but provided no evidence for this extraordinary, libellous claim.
Although the newspaper's decision to publish such an accusation was regarded by many groups as a modern-day 'blood libel,' and one of the oldest guises of raw anti-Semitism, when the Israeli government asked the Swedish Government to condemn the article -- not an apology, just a condemnation -- the Swedish Foreign Minister, Carl Bildt, refused. Instead, he posted on his blog an article -- further circulated by the Swedish Foreign Ministry -- which claimed, "freedom of speech is a basic value in Sweden" and "part of the constitution."
No doubt. But a statement of condemnation is not censorship; it is, rather, an extension of free expression. Bildt's mistake, obviously, is to confuse condemning unsubstantiated fraudulent accusations with censorship.
Similarly, when the hate-preacher Yusuf Chambers spoke at the University of York in the UK in 2012 -- referring to the Sharia-prescribed execution of homosexuals and adulterous women -- he stated, "May Allah allow us to bring back that punishment to protect all humanity, InshaAllah." Responding to student uproar, the faculty -- citing the importance of free expression -- insisted that the event must go ahead, but that a faculty member would be present. At the event itself, however, the university attempted to bar any questions that challenged Chambers's views, and the Student Union warned the student body not to criticize Chambers, on the grounds that "in openly protesting, we endanger those students who may feel vulnerable as a minority student."
In another instance, Malcolm Grant, the provost of University College London (UCL) -- home to the 'underwear bomber' Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab -- warned, in 2009, that in spite of the well-documented problems with terror radicalization at his university, he would never allow free expression "to be compromised." Grant then attacked critics of UCL's status as a platform for Islamist hate preachers as being guilty of a "disturbing Islamophobia."
Under Grant's "dedication" to free expression, Islamists are allowed to exercise their right to free speech, but the critics of Islamism are not. Selective censorship, which permits the expression of one idea while proscribing responses to it, serves to legitimize by default only the side presented.
A few years later, an invitation to this author to speak at a UCL event was revoked by the University's Debating Society after a "discussion with the college and the Union" regarding the "suitability of certain speakers following concerns picked up on by outside parties."
Islamist groups have been quick to cite "freedom of speech" to defend extremist speakers who advocate the very opposite. The Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS), for example, an umbrella group for British student Islamic societies, has organized a number of events with Hamza Tzortzis, an Islamist preacher from the Islamic Education and Research and Academy. Tzortzis claims that:
In 2010, Faisal Hanjra, then President of FOSIS, writing on FOSIS's website and in The Guardian, invoked John Stuart Mill in his defense of preachers such as Abdur Raheem Green, an Islamist who speaks of a "Jewish stench" and claims it is permissible to beat women to "bring them to goodness." Yet, in a further example of censorship in the alleged defence of free speech, condemned the Union of Jewish Students and its "Zionist politics," and claimed that the group's criticism of FOSIS's invitations to hate preachers was an attack on free expression.
FOSIS has also strongly opposed the British government's decisions to ban a number of extremists from entering the UK, including Zakir Naik, an Indian Islamist preacher and supporter of suicide bombings, who claims that Jews "as a whole" are the enemies of Muslims; as well as Yusuf Al Qaradawi, the "spiritual leader" of the Muslim Brotherhood, who has called for the killing of Jews and recently refused to take part in an interfaith conference because there were Jews on the panel.
FOSIS's new-found dedication to free expression, however, also apparently does not apply to critics of its ideology: FOSIS has lobbied for events featuring Israeli historian Benny Morris and the writer Douglas Murray to be cancelled.
If we are to defend free expression -- in spite of its use as a platform for extremist views -- it should not be promoted on a selective basis, but rather for everyone, on all sides of a dispute. While providing opportunities for defense, offence and rebuttal for all may seem like an elementary idea, it has been both abused and neglected.
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