The only way to repeal blasphemy codes is to breach them

HebdoBy LSS Secretary Charlie Klendjian *

Over the last five days I have listened patiently to the most extraordinarily confused and painful discussions on the rights and wrongs of murdering people who draw cartoons. What an odd response our public discourse has generated towards what is, to my mind at least, a moral issue of the most blinding clarity.

I have heard people discuss virtually every single free speech scenario possible: incitement to murder; publishing military and intelligence secrets on the internet; defamation; contempt of court; Holocaust denial; footballers’ super-injunctions; and rape victims’ right to anonymity. You name it and I have heard it. I even heard of a discussion between lawyers – actual grown-up lawyers – about the rights and wrongs of wearing an openly anti-Semitic t-shirt to work. Come to think of it, it’s very suspicious just how many diversionary discussions I have heard about Jews generally these last few days.

The one free speech scenario which is the most relevant here (and it’s blasphemy, just in case you’ve already forgotten), seems to be the one everyone is now discussing the least.

I’m starting to get the impression people don’t want to talk about the problem facing us. And that, to me, is a big part of the problem.

I have heard the most exquisitely manicured theories about “marginalisation” and “stigmatisation” and I have heard dissertations about conditions in French suburbs, and also about foreign policy – even though the attackers themselves left us in no doubt about the motives for their savagery by announcing proudly that they had avenged their prophet, just before speeding away in a car for their date with death a couple of days later at the hands of French commandos.

I have had my fill of whatabouttery concerning the unpleasant passages in the Bible, as if the way intelligent human beings solve the problems generated by Islam is to analyse Christianity’s holy texts.

Perhaps most facepalmingly, I have heard that the cause of these murders was France’s proud and long-established secularism.

If all else fails, blame the secularists.

The purpose, or at least the effect, of focusing on every other free speech scenario under the sun and all the other tangents above, is this: it avoids the need for a very awkward conversation. It avoids the need for absolute honesty and moral courage – things which are in pitifully short supply. It avoids the need to face up to a deeply sobering factual matrix: that the cause of these murders was murderers; that these murderers were enforcing a blasphemy code; and that this blasphemy code is etched within Islam’s DNA. You can see why people will do anything to change the subject.

I have also heard endless discussions about whether the magazine Charlie Hebdo and its noble cartoonists were “racist”. This is nothing new or unsurprising. A discussion about any aspect of Islam is simply not possible without a discussion about racism. The default assumption when criticising Islam is that you are a racist, and it is up to you to prove a negative: that you are not racist. It is not up to the person making the accusation to produce any evidence of racism. For those of us who are still alive, being subject to this reverse-burden-of-proof is highly annoying, intimidating, time-consuming, exhausting and potentially career-ending – and that is its purpose. But then at least we’re still alive to defend ourselves from the smears.

Focusing on the dead victims’ alleged “racism” is despicable, as is focusing on a rape victim’s breast size or lipstick thickness. It transfers culpability ever-so-smoothly from perpetrator to victim. “They were just being provocative”; “They were asking for it”; “What did they expect?”; “Sure, they’ve got the right to draw those cartoons, but…” Et cetera.

Even if we assume for a moment that the cartoonists were racist – and I have seen no evidence whatsoever that they were – this changes things not one jot. In a secular liberal democracy, holding and expressing unpleasant views is not punishable by the contents of an AK-47 anyway. If that were the case then there would be some very nervous imams, “scholars” and “community leaders” in the UK that I can think of.

The endless discussions about the cartoonists’ alleged “racism” have generated an elaborate sideshow and also smeared the memory of some tremendously brave and inspirational individuals. These individuals were valiantly holding the line for free speech, and therefore for freedom itself, on behalf of everyone. Their bodies are barely cold. These people have been sold out in the most spectacular fashion. What a way to honour their bravery.

No well-informed commentator is making the case for completely limitless free speech. Even in mature, secular democracies like our own free speech does of course have its limits. But the point here is that one of those limits is not and must never be “offence”, so any discussion of whether the cartoons were offensive is completely pointless anyway. Nor is one of those limits whether someone might shoot you or hurl a bomb through your office window because they don’t like what you say.

Free speech without the right to offend is the proverbial chocolate fireguard. The whole purpose of freedom of speech is to enable the airing of views that people will disagree on, however strongly. If you think, somehow, that depicting Mohammed constitutes an infringement of a Muslim’s lawful rights then you can read a previous blog post of mine here.

The day after the massacre not one single British newspaper chose to depict Mohammed. This was inexcusable. Only one British television programme, BBC’s Newsnight, had the guts to depict Mohammed (they used the image at the top of this post).

The message I take from all this seventh-century madness is loud and clear: that we are now subject to a blasphemy law. But the situation is worse than that. The inability and unwillingness of our politicians and commentators to even acknowledge this unsettling fact makes it a blasphemy law on stilts, for we are not even allowed to say there are things we are not allowed to say. What a mess.

This is what a world without secularism looks like. It is bleak and it is ruthless. And all indications suggest it’s something we’ll have to get used to unless more people are prepared to take a stand. If not, the world we leave to the next generation will be significantly less free than the one we came into.

It is no exaggeration to say that our entire way of life is rapidly boiling down to a few drops inside a saucepan which is revealing one embarrassingly straightforward question at its bottom: are we allowed to depict Mohammed? The question I have put here is so mind-blowingly simple, and the gravity of its implications so enormous, that I am only prepared to grant you a one-word answer. My answer, in the unlikely event it’s not already abundantly clear to you, is “yes”. What’s yours?

Condemning murder is the easy part. Any fool can do that. The hard part, for far too many people, is affirming the right to free speech – specifically the right to cause offence and in this case to depict Mohammed. Hashtags and strongly-worded condemnations and marches and selfies and calls for “solidarity” are all well and good, but they are the bare minimum we should expect. If people are not also willing to unequivocally defend – and actually physically exercise – the right to depict Mohammed then it’s all a bit #hollow.

It’s important to grasp that the purpose of the blasphemy code isn’t just to suppress the depiction of Mohammed. Our concerns are not limited to dead or out-of-work cartoonists. Ultimately the purpose of Islam’s blasphemy code is to suppress free enquiry and criticism of Islam in its entirety, and this most certainly includes sharia law. The razor-wire ring-fencing of Islam as a subject we are allowed to scrutinise, mock and ridicule is to the detriment of every man, woman and child on the face of this planet, Muslim or non-Muslim alike, and we cannot allow this to happen. If freedom is going to die we must at least go down all guns blazing.

A blasphemy code represents the very end of human progress, and in fact the selection of a reverse gear. Without free speech an improvement of the human condition is impossible and a degradation inevitable.

We are going to have to get far, far braver. Many of us have never had to fight for our freedoms and it’s really starting to show. The only way to repeal blasphemy codes is to breach them. The more regularly, the more defiantly, the more proudly, and the more unapologetically we breach them, the quicker and more complete will be their demise.

We are also going to have to become more honest. We will never, ever solve a problem that we cannot or will not identify. The problem in this case is not “racism”. It is not “marginalisation”. It is not “stigmatisation”. It is not conditions in French suburbs. It is not foreign policy. It is not the Bible. It is not the Jews. And it is not secularism.

The problem is a vicious and deadly blasphemy code and that blasphemy code comes from Islam.

* Charlie Klendjian was LSS Secretary and an LSS member from Oct 2012 to Aug 2015

Views expressed are not necessarily those of the LSS

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