t isn’t actually about free speech. It’s about free faith. Or, if we choose, no faith.
Ever since the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a debate has been raging. A passionate and compelling debate, to be sure. But the wrong debate. Do we have the right to free speech? Or do we not?
This morning, in a powerful piece in the Times, David Aaronovitch says we do. He attacks “the weasels” who he claims have started insinuating that Charlie Hebdo’s editorial staff brought the attack upon themselves. “We British do quite a line in victim-blaming: she must have said something, he must have provoked her and so on. My thought is that such a form of apologism makes the apologists feel safer, because they would never be so provocative, so underdressed, so drunk. Therefore no one would kill or rape them.”
One of these “weasels” is the HuffPo commentator Mehdi Hasan. Yesterday, Mehdi wrote a piece headlined “I’m Fed Up With the Hypocrisy of the Free Speech Fundamentalists”. “None of us believes in an untrammelled right to free speech”, he said. “We all agree there are always going to be lines that, for the purposes of law and order, cannot be crossed; or for the purposes of taste and decency, should not be crossed. We differ only on where those lines should be drawn”.
David was duly scathing in his response. “An absence of freedom of speech distorts and terrorises. It creates ignorant, cowed people and vile, unaccountable government”.
And of course he’s right. The problem is, so is Mehdi Hasan.
It is wrong to claim we have the right to say whatever we like, when we like. We have libel laws. We have defamation laws. We have anti-racism laws. In France, where the killings were committed, they have laws against denying the existence of crimes against humanity. It’s inconvenient for those of us who support Charlie Hebdo’s decision to publish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, but Mehdi Hassan is perfectly correct. We do not have a right to untrammeled free speech.
In his own article, David Aaronovitch weaves skillfully around this by inserting his own “test”. “The test for limiting speech or expression would have to be a stringent one. Only if you could show that people would suffer significant damage as a direct and intentional result of this expression do I think bans can be justified”.
Fine. So let’s take the “Aaronovitch Test” and apply it to the decision to put the Prophet on the cover of this week’s memorial edition of Charlie Hebdo. Will it cause significant damage? Yes. There has already been a reaction within the Muslim community. As we’ve seen, violence is a very real possibility. Even without it, it will have created serious tensions between Muslims and the rest of French society. And the publishers knew this would be the result. Their decision to place Muhammad on this week’s cover was a deliberate one. As with their previous cartoons, they consciously sought to create a reaction.
So tested on the basis of free speech, the Charlie Hebdo cartoons fail. Which is why we need a new test. And in my view, it should be this.
Does what you are arguing for impinge upon my right to live in a secular society? Is the basis for your offence rational thought, or religious doctrine? If it’s the former, we have to find some form of compromise. But if it’s the latter, then I’m sorry, but that’s tough.
If you don’t like images of the Prophet Muhammad, fine. Don’t draw them. But don’t tell me I can’t draw them. If you don’t want to marry someone of the same sex, don’t. But don’t try and tell me who I can and can’t marry. If you don’t think shops should open on a Sunday, don’t go to the shops. But don’t tell me I have to sit at home and make peace with your god.
This is the line that needs to be drawn. Not around free speech, but around our right to have our own set of beliefs, rather than have them imposed as part of a de-facto theocracy.
This is the deal. Jews, Christians, Hindus, Muslims. Welcome. You are free to practice your faith amongst us. But never forget this. It is your faith, not mine. And if you can’t accept that, then in the immortal words of the mayor of Rotterdam, you can “f––– off”.
There are, of course, implications to building a cultural settlement like this. It would mean formally breaking the anachronistic link between church and state. We may have to re-examine our sentimental attachment to school nativity plays. But that’s a relatively small price to pay for preventing religious bloodshed on our streets.
Some may no doubt argue, “What you’re looking for is a French style settlement. And that doesn’t seem to have done France much good”. But surely the attack on Charlie Hebdo proves what a powerful weapon secularism is? The terrorists themselves certainly recognised that, which is why they chose that particular target.
The debate about free speech will only end up in cul-de-sac. Unless you are prepared to literally say, “no boundaries, for any reason” it will never be possible to reach agreement on where the boundaries should be drawn. But one thing we can do is ensure is that wherever they are drawn, they are drawn by men, not gods.
Dan Hodges, The Telegraph