Freedom of expression: only applies to our sort of people

Like so much that’s been written over the last day or two, this post is inspired by the attack on Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine.

Shooting cartoonists is not acceptable, no matter how offensive their drawings.

However, if we move beyond the terrorist act itself, there are some interesting things to think about.

Firstly, there is an underswell of “Well, if Christians don’t get hot and bothered about satirical cartoons of Jesus, why should Muslims get all up-in-arms about cartoons of Mohammed? It’s the same thing, isn’t it? It just shows how intolerant Muslims are.”

Actually, no, it’s not the same thing.

An important point in Islam is that Mohammed is never pictured; to do so is blasphemous, even if the depiction is a favourable one. In fact, when a film (The Message) was made about Mohammed and the beginning of Islam, it was made without Mohammed – he was always there, just never on screen. The nearest you got was seeing the head of the camel he was riding.

If Muslims are going to be criticised for objecting to cartoons of Mohammed, then at least people should understand that there is a difference between cartoons of Mohammed and cartoons of Jesus, or Buddha, or the Hindu gods or the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Criticise, fine. Just get the facts right first.

Secondly,  there’s the “Well, Muslims are allowed to practise their freedom of expression etc by being Muslims in France. Charlie Hebdo was only exercising its freedom of expression by drawing satirical cartoons.”

Actually, that’s another mistake. Muslims in France do not have the freedom to express themselves as Muslims however they wish. Muslim women are not permitted to wear a face veil; many girls are not even allowed to wear a hijab in school. Even though wearing a niqab or a burqa doesn’t hurt anyone else, doesn’t damage anyone’s property, and doesn’t demean or insult anyone else’s life choices, French Muslim women are criminalised and fined for expressing their religion in a manner of their choosing.

The reason for this is the principle of “living together”, which was newly added to the armamentarium of the European Court of Human Rights, seemingly specifically to justify allowing France to ban a religious practice that French non-Muslims did not like, in SAS v France. This is directly in opposition to the principle of human rights – that a human has a right to do, or be, certain things, either regardless of how much other people don’t like it, or to the extent that it does not impact on other people’s rights.

There is no right of “living together” in the European Convention on Human Rights. Neither is there a right not to be offended, or a right to not see things that you, personally, find objectionable.

This “living-together” principle is nothing less than carte blanche to decide on state-mandated standards of behaviour and enforce them – generally at the expense of minorities. France was therefore allowed to use this “living-together” principle to justify banning a minority religious/cultural practice simply because the majority did not like it.

So, going back to satirical cartoons… why is it OK for Charlie Hebdo to print cartoons that are deeply offensive to devout Muslims, and are certainly deliberately disrespectful to Islam, but it’s not OK for Muslim women to practice their religion in a manner of their choosing, which does not harm or disrespect anyone else?

Or, perhaps, is freedom of expression only free when the majority approves of what you wish to say or do?

Thirdly, and perhaps most perniciously, there is an unpleasant, sanctimonious tone to much of the comment, which implies “here in the West we are tolerant; those nasty Muslims are against all the good things like freedom of speech, women’s rights, and bacon sandwiches.”

I think, before we get too proud of our moral high ground, we ought to take a look at how high it actually is. Women’s rights is a large and complicated subject, but we need to remember that until 1937, a woman in the UK could only divorce her husband on grounds of cruelty, sodomy or incest (for a man, mere adultery was enough – but a wife was expected to put up with her husband sleeping around). The marital rape exemption (which assumed that a woman could not refuse her husband consent to sex, therefore it was impossible for a husband to rape his wife as rape requires lack of consent) wasn’t finally killed off in the UK until 1991 (by the House of Lords as was, in R v R.)

When it comes to freedom of speech, in 1996, Nigel Wingrove‘s film Visions of Ecstasy was banned by the British Board of Film Classification on grounds of blasphemy. The last of the blasphemy laws in the UK didn’t disappear until 2008 – and while in force, only applied to the Church of England anyway.

We here in the West are not nearly as tolerant as we think we are, and we should remember that real tolerance consists not of tolerating things that don’t bother us (like cartoonists ridiculing Muslims for profit), or that we even secretly approve of, but of allowing those actions that we don’t agree with.

Tolerance does not consist of outlawing anything (like niqabs, or walking around naked) that we don’t like, and then getting the police to deal with anyone who contravenes the new rules. It consists of asking “Is this weirdo actually harming anyone or anything else?” And if the answer is no, letting him get on with it.


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