On 31 January 2006 the British House of Commons narrowly defeated – with just 283 votes against 282 – New Labour’s Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, intended to prohibit speech or artistic expressions deemed insulting by religious communities. This was a narrow yet historic victory for freedom of expression, as well as a victory for Parliament against a despotic-minded Government. Liberal-Democratic spokesman Evan Harris commented: “The Government just failed to understand that they can’t take liberties with freedom of expression.”
On the occasion of the House of Commons vote, familiar maxims on liberty were aptly invoked in various debates, e.g. against the British Government’s plea that the bill was “necessary” to make multicultural coexistence possible (an argument invoked by governments across Europe to impose similar censorship laws). William Pitt the Younger was quoted:
“Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom; it is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.”
Regarding the argument that this curtailment of freedom of speech is only a small concession to an acute societal need, Edmund Burke’s words were repeated:
“The true danger is when liberty is nibbled away for expedience and by parts.”
Against the argument that many things people say about other religions are ill-informed or prejudiced, Mahatma Gandhi was quoted:
“Freedom isn’t worth having if it does not connote the freedom to err.”
Undoubtedly the British parliamentary vote boosted the morale of the Danish government and media. The Danes need all the support they can get now that they are being terrorized by Muslim fanatics but also attacked, openly or indirectly, by an international establishment that speaks a.o. through Bill Clinton, the Council of Europe and various EU bureaucrats. The Danes’ freedom of expression is decried as “Islamophobia”, a notion which was introduced by Tariq Ramadan and is now being promoted and inserted into international policy by people such as Karel De Gucht, Belgium’s Foreign Affairs Minister and the current Chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
So far the Danish Government and Jyllands-Posten have, while making some conciliatory gestures, stood firm against pressure. Other courageous European newspapers have expressed their support by republishing the controversial cartoons in their own pages.
What seems to cause people most offence are, however, not errors, but hearing things that are undeniably right on the mark. Depicting Mohammed with a bomb in his turban, as in one of the controversial cartoons, hurts because the perpetrators of the most recent acts of Islamic terror, from 9/11 suicide hijacker Mohammed Atta to Mohammed Bouyeri (Theo van Gogh’s assassin), have explicitly affirmed that they were motivated by their zeal for Islam and by the teaching and precedent of the Prophet. Mohammed in fact organized armed raids on caravans, took hostages for ransom, permitted his men to rape the hostages, and ordered the assassination of poets who mocked or criticized him.
Does a scholarly paper documenting the link between Mohammed and terrorism, or a cartoon making the same point, hurt the feelings of all the truly peace-loving, ordinary Muslims? Certainly, but this is where George Orwell’s observation applies:
“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
Millions of Muslims have constructed for themselves a version of Islam that reconciles a veneration for the Prophet and the Quran with an acceptance of more enlightened values of pluralism and tolerance. To them it may come as a shock to see that not everyone shares their views. But that kind of shock therapy is a healthy thing. Those Danish cartoonists may be among the greatest benefactors the Muslims ever had.