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March 08th 2015 print

John O’Sullivan

Of Pieties and Perils

Good manners should deter us from insulting other people over their faiths, but the right to offend and be offended remains an important right. Even if we are reluctant to admit the fact, it frees us from the prison of unconsidered opinion and the prejudices of our own religious-cum-ideological communities

but but butExactly eight weeks separate the Sydney siege in which the gunman and two of his innocent victims died and the Copenhagen shootings, occurring as we go to press, in which the victims so far number two dead and five injured (including several policemen). A lone gunman was apparently the murderer. He fled. Police have since killed him in a gun-battle.

In between these two events there have been at least fourteen other major terrorist attacks by Islamists accounting for approximately 1000 dead and many more wounded in countries including France, Iraq, Nigeria, Cameroon and Pakistan. All these murders are horrifying, but some more so than others. The murder of 132 children of army personnel in a Peshawar school by the local Taliban was unusually vicious, but the mass killing of 150 women by ISIS for refusing to marry their captors more or less matched it in cruelty.

What makes the Copenhagen murders, like the murders at Charlie Hebdo, stand out from the general ruck of Islamist massacres is neither the number of their victims (relatively few) nor the cruelty of their methods (shootings in the main) but their explicitly ideological and anti-liberal character. They belong to a mini-series of threats and murders, starting with the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie and the stabbing of Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam, that are justified by the murderers and their religious superiors as necessary to limit free speech and, in particular, to outlaw what Islam regards as blasphemy. These murders even aim to elevate blasphemy—long a dead-letter in Western societies (which smugly provide blasphemous art with state subsidies)—into a capital crime.

That motive was clear both at the office of Charlie Hebdo which specialises in outraging all religious sensibilities and at the Copenhagen conference where the gunman fired between thirty and 200 random shots into a crowd gathered to discuss “Art, Blasphemy and Free Expression”. Inna Shevchenko, a Ukrainian activist from Femen, was midway through arguing that whenever free speech is being praised in European debates, “there’s always a ‘but’ …”  when another “but” rang out in the form of gunfire.

Western political and intellectual establishments, in effect, confirm the “but” with a sad regretful shaking of heads. They marched arm-in-arm along the Champs Elysees in defence of free speech after Charlie Hebdo, but in recent years they have imposed significant restrictions on it—and continue to do so. Being devoutly secular, they can’t actually institute overt anti-blasphemy laws. But they can and do restrict political speech on vaguer grounds such as “offensiveness” to racial or religious groups. And that is a larger step than one might first think.

Restrictions on free speech, especially in the English-speaking world, have traditionally avoided criminalising the content of speech. They have been justified instead on grounds of its effects: on national security, the reputation of individuals (libel), and public order (“fighting words”). To prohibit speech because its content might offend someone or a group of people—especially when its offensiveness is determined by those supposedly offended—is to replace free by licensed speech and to place the burden of proof on the speaker rather than the censor or heckler.

Over time—and the regulation of speech has been advancing for several decades—that shift in perspective begins to alter how the authorities treat ordinary citizens. Recent British media reports revealed that several police authorities had asked newsagents to hand over the names of customers who ordered copies of Charlie Hebdo. This might be the usual serio-comic blunder by Mr Plod, but the fact that it happened in several areas suggests something more worrying—a kind of pre-emptive cultural cringe or “Round up the usual victims” on grounds of community cohesion.

Now, this is not an uncomplicated matter. Good manners should deter us from insulting other people over their faiths on most occasions. In what used to be normal circumstances I don’t think that I would have had much time for either Charlie Hebdo or Femen (which, for the puzzled, is a kind of ideological striptease collective devoted to challenging patriarchal power). Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons struck me as crude, vulgar, wounding, and not very funny; Femen I originally admired when they challenged genuine oppression but they lost my sympathy when they interrupted a Catholic Mass naked and challenged not patriarchal power but the worship of ordinary believers.

But these are not normal times. And the one occasion when good manners should not determine our actions is when others threaten us with death or maiming if our speech offends their faith. We are then under an obligation to defend free speech, if not by blaspheming ourselves, then at least by protecting the right to blaspheme expressed in the speech of fellow citizens. Not only does the right to free speech include the right to offend, moreover; it is largely meaningless without that right. Speech that offends no one requires no protection.

Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, the right to be offended is also an important right because, even if we are reluctant to admit the fact, it frees us from the prison of unconsidered opinion and the prejudices of our own religious-cum-ideological community.

It is not hard to understand, however, why political leaders shrink from this “hard” defence of free speech. Nor why they don’t say what the murders are about in unambiguous terms. Plainly the Copenhagen and Charlie Hebdo murders flow in some sense or degree from the Islamic faith of the murderers. The murderers often say so, citing chapter and verse of the Koran in justification. Many Islamic scholars, respected by the faithful, confirm their claims. And opinion polls suggest that large numbers of the faithful share this view. Given all these facts it is plainly absurd to argue that crimes like those in Copenhagen “have nothing to do with Islam”.

But there are a billion and a half Muslims in the world. Most are peaceful, law-abiding, decent people and good neighbours. Governments want neither to frighten them, stigmatise them, nor drive them towards a sympathy with the jihadist murderers. Sensibly, governments want nothing to do with a war on Islam. So they become coy, evasive, double-tongued and almost terminally unwilling to admit that a jihadist murder is either terrorist in nature—the Fort Hood murders were classified as “workplace violence”; the Sydney siege murderer dismissed as mentally ill—or relates in any way to Islam.

An especially striking example of this was pointed out in the May 2009 issue of Quadrant by Peter Day. Australia’s official parliamentary brief on Islam, Muslim Australians, described the belief that apostates from Islam should receive the death penalty as a “misconception” about the religion. This was written by a distinguished Muslim scholar who, however, published his own book around the same time in which he described the same belief (execution for apostates) as being the dominant view among Muslim scholars (though he himself took a different view to the majority). That it was a “misconception”, however, became the official view in Australia if not in Muslim-majority countries.

This nervous conflict in the official mind almost everywhere is real; but the policy of evading the truth about the Islamic roots of jihadism is a mistake. It makes the governments that adopt it look slippery and/or unrealistic; it alarms the non-Muslim public who suspect that they may not be well protected against terrorism by such governments; and above all it harms ordinary Muslims and their faith worldwide.

In effect, peaceful Muslims are being protected from the truth that the faith they cherish is implicated in the murders they abhor. When Western leaders say these crimes have nothing to do with Islam, they reinforce that protectiveness and, not coincidentally, postpone the day when Muslims (who are the only people who can do this) begin to purge their faith of its deadly excrescences that justify murder.

Where Western governments have been timid, however, the Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has been both perceptive and brave. He attended a Christmas Mass at the Coptic cathedral, the first Egyptian president to do so, where he called on Christians and Muslims to love one another in a united Egypt. A few days before that he had held a meeting with senior Islamic theologians at Al-Azhar University, where he called on them to sift the chaff of murderous “thinking” from the wheat of genuine Islam. He attacked in particular the genocidal absurdity of waging a jihadist war on the non-Muslim world, describing it as “impossible”.

No Western leader has spoken in such clear and hopeful terms, neither before nor since this speech. It is hard to know why. They would be taking only moderate political risks—with great things to gain. Al-Sisi is offering a draft peace treaty in the clash of civilisations. For doing so, however, he has placed himself on the top of the jihadists’ list of apostates for execution.

 

SOME very nice things are said about me in this issue by two of my distinguished predecessors as editor, Keith Windschuttle and Peter Coleman, and as Lyndon Johnson once said of similar encomiums, my father would have enjoyed them and my mother would have believed them.

I first saw Quadrant at a party in Robert Conquest’s London flat in 1974; I borrowed it; and I very soon became a regular reader. I graduated to a grateful contributor in the 1980s. I have often envied it from other editorial chairs. No intellectual journal has a better record of resisting fashionable follies in the interest of freedom, truth and common sense.

I will try to deserve Peter’s and Keith’s kind introductions in future issues.

Exactly eight weeks separate the Sydney siege in which the gunman and two of his innocent victims died and the Copenhagen shootings, occurring as we go to press, in which the victims so far number two dead and five injured (including several policemen). A lone gunman was apparently the murderer. He fled. Police have since killed him in a gun-battle.

In between these two events there have been at least fourteen other major terrorist attacks by Islamists accounting for approximately 1000 dead and many more wounded in countries including France, Iraq, Nigeria, Cameroon and Pakistan. All these murders are horrifying, but some more so than others. The murder of 132 children of army personnel in a Peshawar school by the local Taliban was unusually vicious, but the mass killing of 150 women by ISIS for refusing to marry their captors more or less matched it in cruelty.

What makes the Copenhagen murders, like the murders at Charlie Hebdo, stand out from the general ruck of Islamist massacres is neither the number of their victims (relatively few) nor the cruelty of their methods (shootings in the main) but their explicitly ideological and anti-liberal character. They belong to a mini-series of threats and murders, starting with the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie and the stabbing of Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam, that are justified by the murderers and their religious superiors as necessary to limit free speech and, in particular, to outlaw what Islam regards as blasphemy. These murders even aim to elevate blasphemy—long a dead-letter in Western societies (which smugly provide blasphemous art with state subsidies)—into a capital crime.

That motive was clear both at the office of Charlie Hebdo which specialises in outraging all religious sensibilities and at the Copenhagen conference where the gunman fired between thirty and 200 random shots into a crowd gathered to discuss “Art, Blasphemy and Free Expression”. Inna Shevchenko, a Ukrainian activist from Femen, was midway through arguing that whenever free speech is being praised in European debates, “there’s always a ‘but’ …”  when another “but” rang out in the form of gunfire.

Western political and intellectual establishments, in effect, confirm the “but” with a sad regretful shaking of heads. They marched arm-in-arm along the Champs Elysees in defence of free speech after Charlie Hebdo, but in recent years they have imposed significant restrictions on it—and continue to do so. Being devoutly secular, they can’t actually institute overt anti-blasphemy laws. But they can and do restrict political speech on vaguer grounds such as “offensiveness” to racial or religious groups. And that is a larger step than one might first think.

Restrictions on free speech, especially in the English-speaking world, have traditionally avoided criminalising the content of speech. They have been justified instead on grounds of its effects: on national security, the reputation of individuals (libel), and public order (“fighting words”). To prohibit speech because its content might offend someone or a group of people—especially when its offensiveness is determined by those supposedly offended—is to replace free by licensed speech and to place the burden of proof on the speaker rather than the censor or heckler.

Over time—and the regulation of speech has been advancing for several decades—that shift in perspective begins to alter how the authorities treat ordinary citizens. Recent British media reports revealed that several police authorities had asked newsagents to hand over the names of customers who ordered copies of Charlie Hebdo. This might be the usual serio-comic blunder by Mr Plod, but the fact that it happened in several areas suggests something more worrying—a kind of pre-emptive cultural cringe or “Round up the usual victims” on grounds of community cohesion.

Now, this is not an uncomplicated matter. Good manners should deter us from insulting other people over their faiths on most occasions. In what used to be normal circumstances I don’t think that I would have had much time for either Charlie Hebdo or Femen (which, for the puzzled, is a kind of ideological striptease collective devoted to challenging patriarchal power). Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons struck me as crude, vulgar, wounding, and not very funny; Femen I originally admired when they challenged genuine oppression but they lost my sympathy when they interrupted a Catholic Mass naked and challenged not patriarchal power but the worship of ordinary believers.

But these are not normal times. And the one occasion when good manners should not determine our actions is when others threaten us with death or maiming if our speech offends their faith. We are then under an obligation to defend free speech, if not by blaspheming ourselves, then at least by protecting the right to blaspheme expressed in the speech of fellow citizens. Not only does the right to free speech include the right to offend, moreover; it is largely meaningless without that right. Speech that offends no one requires no protection.

Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, the right to be offended is also an important right because, even if we are reluctant to admit the fact, it frees us from the prison of unconsidered opinion and the prejudices of our own religious-cum-ideological community.

It is not hard to understand, however, why political leaders shrink from this “hard” defence of free speech. Nor why they don’t say what the murders are about in unambiguous terms. Plainly the Copenhagen and Charlie Hebdo murders flow in some sense or degree from the Islamic faith of the murderers. The murderers often say so, citing chapter and verse of the Koran in justification. Many Islamic scholars, respected by the faithful, confirm their claims. And opinion polls suggest that large numbers of the faithful share this view. Given all these facts it is plainly absurd to argue that crimes like those in Copenhagen “have nothing to do with Islam”.

But there are a billion and a half Muslims in the world. Most are peaceful, law-abiding, decent people and good neighbours. Governments want neither to frighten them, stigmatise them, nor drive them towards a sympathy with the jihadist murderers. Sensibly, governments want nothing to do with a war on Islam. So they become coy, evasive, double-tongued and almost terminally unwilling to admit that a jihadist murder is either terrorist in nature—the Fort Hood murders were classified as “workplace violence”; the Sydney siege murderer dismissed as mentally ill—or relates in any way to Islam.

An especially striking example of this was pointed out in the May 2009 issue of Quadrant by Peter Day. Australia’s official parliamentary brief on Islam, Muslim Australians, described the belief that apostates from Islam should receive the death penalty as a “misconception” about the religion. This was written by a distinguished Muslim scholar who, however, published his own book around the same time in which he described the same belief (execution for apostates) as being the dominant view among Muslim scholars (though he himself took a different view to the majority). That it was a “misconception”, however, became the official view in Australia if not in Muslim-majority countries.

This nervous conflict in the official mind almost everywhere is real; but the policy of evading the truth about the Islamic roots of jihadism is a mistake. It makes the governments that adopt it look slippery and/or unrealistic; it alarms the non-Muslim public who suspect that they may not be well protected against terrorism by such governments; and above all it harms ordinary Muslims and their faith worldwide.

In effect, peaceful Muslims are being protected from the truth that the faith they cherish is implicated in the murders they abhor. When Western leaders say these crimes have nothing to do with Islam, they reinforce that protectiveness and, not coincidentally, postpone the day when Muslims (who are the only people who can do this) begin to purge their faith of its deadly excrescences that justify murder. 

Where Western governments have been timid, however, the Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has been both perceptive and brave. He attended a Christmas Mass at the Coptic cathedral, the first Egyptian president to do so, where he called on Christians and Muslims to love one another in a united Egypt. A few days before that he had held a meeting with senior Islamic theologians at Al-Azhar University, where he called on them to sift the chaff of murderous “thinking” from the wheat of genuine Islam. He attacked in particular the genocidal absurdity of waging a jihadist war on the non-Muslim world, describing it as “impossible”. 

No Western leader has spoken in such clear and hopeful terms, neither before nor since this speech. It is hard to know why. They would be taking only moderate political risks—with great things to gain. Al-Sisi is offering a draft peace treaty in the clash of civilisations. For doing so, however, he has placed himself on the top of the jihadists’ list of apostates for execution. 

 

Some very nice things are said about me in this issue by two of my distinguished predecessors as editor, Keith Windschuttle and Peter Coleman, and as Lyndon Johnson once said of similar encomiums, my father would have enjoyed them and my mother would have believed them.

I first saw Quadrant at a party in Robert Conquest’s London flat in 1974; I borrowed it; and I very soon became a regular reader. I graduated to a grateful contributor in the 1980s. I have often envied it from other editorial chairs. No intellectual journal has a better record of resisting fashionable follies in the interest of freedom, truth and common sense.

I will try to deserve Peter’s and Keith’s kind introductions in future issues.