The LSS is right to share a platform with Geert Wilders and Paul Weston

By LSS Secretary Charlie Klendjian *

[Important update, 2 August 2015: Charlie Klendjian has unfortunately had to cancel his planned speaking engagement at this event, for personal reasons. The LSS is still happy to fully support the event and to be publicly associated with it though. In fact, the LSS is currently making every effort to send a replacement speaker.]

Isn’t it incredible how a few cartoons can generate so many words? In case you’ve not read enough words already about cartoons, here are over three thousand more.

The LSS has come under fire recently for its decision to support the Sharia Watch UK / Vive Charlie Mohammed cartoon exhibition in September, and in particular for our decision to share a platform with the Dutch MP Geert Wilders and Paul Weston, Chairman of the political party Liberty GB.

Being a decent bunch of lawyers who respect the rule of law, the LSS’s decision was put to a democratic vote of the whole membership. The membership voted in favour of the LSS speaking at the event.

So, has the LSS completely lost the plot, or are there sound reasons for this decision which might resonate with secularists and the wider public? Well, all I can do is set out some arguments for why the LSS should share a platform with Wilders and Weston, and hope that I carry my readers with me. Here goes…

Free speech in the context of Islam is today perhaps the most pressing issue for secularism and indeed for democracy generally, the world over. When people are getting killed purely for drawing Mohammed cartoons and other infringements of Islam’s insane blasphemy codes, it’s important that secularists support an event like this as robustly as possible. The number of people willing to stage such an event is shrinking by the second – sadly, for good reason. If Mohammed can’t be depicted then Islam can’t be challenged, at which point democracy dies a horrible death.

Supporting from the sidelines by remarking banally, backside-coveringly and while subtly slipping in a dagger that “Everyone has the right to free speech, even bigots” is simply not good enough. It’s weak. Deep down, I suspect those who trot out this stock phrase know they’re being weak.

The best way to support an event like this; the best way to show the LSS is truly committed to free speech; and the best way to show solidarity with those who have been killed and who continue to risk their lives, is to publicly associate ourselves with the event and to speak there in a spirit of solidarity with the other speakers.

Individual views towards Wilders and Weston will differ but in the context of this event those views are irrelevant, for this reason: we mustn’t create a “hierarchy of victims” of blasphemy codes where Charlie Hebdo are at the top but others, for whatever reason, are at the bottom.

As events only this year in Paris, Copenhagen and Texas have shown, people at this exhibition will be risking their lives. Unless someone can convince me otherwise, as far as I am concerned the life of Wilders or Weston is worth precisely the same as that of a Charlie Hebdo journalist. Creating a victim hierarchy is a variation on the “free speech is important, but” theme. Those at the bottom are degraded; their right to free speech is deemed less important; and threats and violence against them are deemed less appalling.

Here comes the elephant in the room. Please consider this a “trigger warning” and proceed immediately to a “safe space”.

Wilders and Weston are considered controversial perhaps primarily because they have strong views on immigration. Immigration discussions are not possible without “racism” accusations – think making an omelette without breaking eggs.

The LSS has no position on immigration. The views of LSS members and other secularists on immigration will differ widely; there will even be disagreement as to whether the issues of immigration and secularism are connected. But people need to keep their focus: this event is not a round-table discussion of immigration policy. It’s an exhibition of Mohammed cartoons. Duh.

In any case, some secularists are now discussing these traditionally taboo subjects. For example, the National Secular Society has blogged about demographics, birth rates and the “free movement of people” (a slicker, legal-sounding term for immigration) in the context of Islam. The LSS has never done a blog post like that and I shudder to think what names we would be called if we had. But again, we must keep our focus: Wilders’ and Weston’s views about immigration, and those of LSS members, shouldn’t determine the LSS’s approach to a crucial event about free speech.

The LSS used to regularly share a platform with an open communist, Maryam Namazie, until she refused to work with us anymore because we shared a platform with a member of Ukip (for those who are unfamiliar with the sometimes eccentric secularism movement, sharing a platform with Ukip is considered worse than committing genocide with the aid of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons).

Strangely, given all the times we shared a platform with Namazie the LSS never once had to deflect accusations that we were communists or that we supported communism’s aims and atrocities. (How many tens of millions are dead because of communism? Is anyone even keeping track of the body count anymore?) We were never charged with “guilt by association” with Namazie’s communist views. The same reasoning should apply now. Or do these childish rules only apply to some people?

The LSS is not even formally associating with Wilders and Weston. We’re just sharing a platform with them, for a crucial free speech event, on one day. If you want to get yourself all shook up about the formal associations of secularist organisations, look no further than the National Secular Society, who proudly boast at having as one of their current “Honorary Associates” a certain Dr. David Starkey.

As those with long memories will recall, in the aftermath of the 2011 London riots Starkey remarked that “the whites have become black.”

Hmmm. Nice, er, “honorary associate” you got yourselves there, NSS!

But that’s not all. Starkey also believes, even as a gay man himself, that Christian B&B owners should have the right to turn away gay couples. This is a position fundamentally at odds with that of the National Secular Society, of the Lawyers’ Secular Society, of the principle of secularism and equality before the law generally and, I would guess, of the vast majority of secularists (including me).

The LSS is nowhere even near this rather awkward NSS and Starkey analogy that I have presented. We are not granting Wilders and Weston “LSS Honorary Associate” status. We need to get a grip, we need to keep some perspective, and we need to stop worrying so much about pathetic “guilt by association” accusations. In short, secularists need to start growing up.

There will be further “guilt by association” accusations against the LSS concerning the alliances that Wilders’ Party for Freedom has with other European parties. But what are the rules here? Should the LSS never share a platform with any Labour politician because one of its current leadership candidates, Jeremy Corbyn (who is tipped by many to emerge as leader), describes the murderous, terrorist and anti-Semitic Hamas and Hezbollah as his “friends”? Do these lines of association only ever get connected on the right of the political spectrum?

The identity of Wilders and Weston is very significant itself for this event. In 2009 Wilders was banned from entering the UK because of his views on Islam. In 2014 Weston was arrested for quoting Churchill’s views about Islam. These incidents should be of huge concern to legal secularists and they provide a very sound basis, even aside from all the other arguments, for sharing a free speech platform with these individuals. As legal secularists we should be more concerned about these two incidents, and infringement of the freedoms of Wilders and Weston, than what people might say about us for sharing a platform with them.

Other things which should concern us more than names we might be called are why Wilders needs constant police protection and why the venue for this event must be kept strictly confidential. These are the truly important – and relevant – issues for secularists and indeed for anyone who claims to support free speech while expecting to keep their personal integrity.

Wilders is criticised for comments he has made about banning the Qur’an. The accusation is that he is no free speech champion and that he is just “anti-Islam”.

But there’s more to this discussion. Wilders was highlighting the inconsistent application of Dutch hate speech laws (and bear in mind his own frequent arrests and court cases against him for hate speech), given that distribution of texts inciting violence is unlawful according to the Dutch Penal Code. In calling the Qur’an hate speech with reference to the Dutch Penal Code Wilders was simply asking for its consistent application.

In principle, I have to say as a lawyer that advocating the consistent application of Dutch law is a pretty reasonable thing for an elected Dutch politician to do. And as a secularist I would have to say that highlighting the inconsistent treatment of the Qur’an in the context of Dutch law is also a pretty reasonable thing to observe.

People may well disagree with some of Wilders’ views and analyses on free speech and hate speech, but it doesn’t follow that the LSS mustn’t share a platform with him on the specific free speech issue that is within the bullseye of the LSS’s remit (blasphemy), and on which we do agree with him (the right to depict Mohammed).

People will have differing views on exactly where and in what context a democratic, secular legal system such as Holland’s or our own should draw the line of criminal hate speech; that’s a separate legal discussion on which there is no obvious “secularist position”. But it’s very separate to the LSS’s remit of challenging blasphemy codes punishable by death (or punishable by anything). This event is in no way a call to “ban the Qur’an”. If it were, the LSS would have no interest in participating.

Another accusation against Wilders and Weston is that “they’re not secularists” or that they don’t share the other goals of secularists. I don’t even know whether they describe themselves as secularists and you know what? I don’t care.

We can’t restrict the people we share platforms with to those who describe themselves as secularists or who sign up to the entire “shopping list” of secularism causes (faith schools; Bishops in the House of Lords; council prayers, etc). Expecting to achieve goals in this way is politically stupid. It restricts secularists to sharing platforms with people they already agree with on everything and it consigns us to an eternal echo-chamber of mutual back-slapping where we mark our own homework. This strategic naivety is sadly the “Pause Button” on which I believe many secularists seem happy to remain in perpetuity. My view is that secularists should take a “Venn Diagram” approach, co-operating with people where any of our interests intersect – even if it’s only one (and especially the most important one, free speech) – while exercising our judgment on a case by case basis.

The LSS’s priority should be to defend free speech and to support this event as fully as possible, and not to guard itself against baseless accusations of “racism”.

In any case, as we have seen over the years, such accusations will be thrown no matter what.

Look what happened to Charlie Hebdo. The Charlie Hebdo corpses are still regularly smeared as “racist”.

Look what happens to anyone who criticises any aspect of Islam, no matter how calmly or how factually they put forward their case.

Fear of being called “racist” has led to a truly epic scale of harm. It led to Trojan Horse. It led to the dreadful abuse in Rotherham and an identical model of abuse in many other places. It led to Lutfur Rahman’s ghastly personal fiefdom in Tower Hamlets. It led to FGM. It led to rampant extremism on campus. And it has led to a general reluctance to criticise Islam in its entirety.

We mustn’t let this same fear determine our approach to this event – not when this is the key free speech battle of our era and when people are killed for the content that will be the subject of this event. It is no exaggeration to say that fear of being called racist could quite easily dismantle the superstructure of western civilisation as we know it.

A lot of people are very quiet about this event. For some reason I’m not feeling the whole “Je Suis Charlie” vibe. How very odd. My gut feeling is that many secularists and free speech advocates who oppose an LSS decision to speak at this event will feel too ashamed to criticise us publicly, or at least venomously, because their “Je Suis Charlie” cries will seem a bit hollow. It will show they’re more concerned about who the LSS happens to share a room with on one day than challenging murderous blasphemy codes. Talk about getting your priorities screwed up.

Yes, some people will call me and the LSS names. Is that what should determine the approach of lawyers to defending free speech when people are getting killed? Worrying about names you might be called when people are dying for drawing cartoons smacks somewhat of selfishness and narcissism.

A key theme after the Charlie Hebdo shootings was the need to “spread the risk”. Words are easy but actions are hard: we must implement that idea. There was a clear statement from the National Secular Society after Manchester University’s Free Speech and Secular Society’s website was hacked recently, that “No one group or individual should be left to face the danger of defending free speech alone”. Lovely prose, but words are cheap. Again, someone has to actually implement them. I am proud, not ashamed, that the LSS has decided to implement these words. I hope other secularist groups will follow.

There are those who object to this event on the basis one of the co-organisers is the publication Vive Charlie, which occasionally publishes pieces by individuals some secularists may dislike, such as Robert Spencer. But again, exactly what are the rules here? Should the LSS refuse to speak at a Guardian event because the clown-like yet sinister figure Mo Ansar and other unpleasant individuals have written for it? Should the LSS refuse to address a Daily Mail event because of some of the crackpot writers it gives column inches to?

Vive Charlie is a perfectly suitable co-organiser. It was set up after the Charlie Hebdo attack; it was named after it; one of its founders is a talented cartoonist; and it features regular, powerful artwork on blasphemy themes. I’m struggling to think of a more appropriate organiser.

Objectivity and independence must be core principles for legal secularists. It’s important that we analyse this issue calmly and intellectually. We mustn’t panic or be intimidated by what people might say, or what the approach of other secularists or the wider public might be. It is intellectually lazy to assume a person one does not like can only ever be motivated by bad intentions.

Wilders and Weston may well have views that some secularists disagree with. Does it then follow that Wilders and Weston can’t possibly be concerned about people being murdered for drawing cartoons? Some are saying this event seeks to “provoke” (that’s what people said about Charlie Hebdo). If suicide is Wilders’ and Weston’s intention then boy are they going about it elaborately. And while we’re on the subject: if your position is that line drawings of a bearded man will provoke mass Muslim savagery then you clearly have an ultra-low opinion of Muslims. Some might call that “Islamophobic”.

There are two very relevant, excellent pieces if you are interested in further reading: David Paxton’s “Je Suis Pamela?” and Douglas Murray’s “The Cartoon Wars”.

Paxton argues that supporting free speech must “cost” you something. Well if the “cost” to me and the LSS in this instance is being called names then so be it. I’m sure the Charlie Hebdo journalists and Raif Badawi would gladly settle for being called names.

And Murray’s piece, as usual, is superb. I’ll leave you with his last five paragraphs. I hope he doesn’t mind.

“The organizers at the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, are not left-wing journalists but conservative activists; and because the Dutch politician Geert Wilders spoke at the opening of the exhibition, that added a layer of complexity for people who like labeling actions with political valences, rather than just seeing actions as apart from them. It seems clear, however, from the pattern of condemnations on one side and silence on the other, that a cartoonist may be worthy of defense if he is associated with a left-wing organization, but not if he is associated with a right-wing one.

Of course, this idea goes to one of the false presumptions of our time: ­that people on the political left are motivated by good intentions even when they do bad things, while people on the political right are motivated by bad intentions even when they do good things. So a cartoon promoted by Charlie Hebdo may be thought to be provocative in a constructive way, whereas one promoted by AFDI can only be thought of as being provocative in an unconstructive way. Whether people are willing to admit it or not, this is one of the main problems that underlies the reaction to the Texas attack.

Such a distinction is, needless to say, a colossal mistake. When people prefer to focus on the motives of the victims rather than on the motives of the attackers, they will ignore the single most important matter: that an art exhibition, or free speech, has been targeted. The rest is narcissism and slow-learning.

It does not matter if you are right wing or left wing. It does not matter if you are American, Danish, Dutch, Belgian or French, or whether you are from Texas or Copenhagen. These particularities may matter greatly and be endlessly interesting to people in the countries in question. But they matter not a jot to ISIS or their fellow-travellers. What these people are trying to do is to enforce Islamic blasphemy laws across the entire world.

That is all that matters. If we forget this or lose sight of it, not only will we lose free speech, we will lose, period.”

* 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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2 thoughts on “The LSS is right to share a platform with Geert Wilders and Paul Weston

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