‘Power is the enemy of free speech’: Sir: Both Johann Hari and Adrian Hamilton’s columns (9 February) were important contributions to the current debate about free speech vs religious sensitivity in our beleaguered times. When English PEN celebrated the House of Commons vote (31 January) in favour of the Lord’s amendments to the Racial and Religious hatred Bill, we recognised that this was not only a victory for us but for the intricate processes of parliamentary democracy so dependent on that very freedom.
However, we knew, in Philip Pullman’s words, that there would be “a continued need for vigilance”: power, whether religious or secular, is always jealous, hates ridicule and any representation of itself that it doesn’t control.
The problem in the west today is that we (and that “we” includes people of all faiths and none) are unwilling to think of religion as a cloak for power. We collude in seeing its symbols either as signs of holiness or, in migrant groups, as a comfort for the very humiliations of poverty and lack of belonging that the host society inflicts. If the Danish cartoons were offensive, it was because they targeted an immigrant group in a stereotypical way. The sense of humiliation they felt is better dealt with by addressing social problems. Religious leaders would do better to provide help for the community at home than to seek solace in jihadist movements abroad.
The reason free speech is crucial is that its opponent is most often power – whether the soft British state, Hitler’s totalitarian one, the Catholic Church or Islamic orthodoxies, which in their own states are quick to lock up dissidents of all kinds. Powerful institutions use different arguments against free speech – “national security”, “multicultural harmony”, “sacrilege” or “blasphemy” – but all these attempts to limit free speech are in the service of power, not of the higher values behind which they parade. It is in the interest of our plural democracies that as long as expression does not directly incite violence, it be kept free. Better to suffer the occasional offence than the full force of religious or state oppression.
Deputy President, English PEN
Giles Fraser is an engaging theologian whose entry into literary criticism is, at best, bemusing (Rushdie should swap his crusading for novel writing, September 21). Having come off worst in an engagement with Salman Rushdie, Fraser grumpily suggests that the world’s most notoriously censored author should return from commentary to the “sacred” world of the novel. “The vocation of the novelist is to pluralism,” he preaches. This very Anglican fatwa would condemn Rushdie to writing the very novels which have attracted such violent reactions from regimes that do not share Fraser’s Bakhtinian approach. Citing Milan Kundera’s notion that the novel was born out of the laughter of God, Fraser solemnly asks: “What’s God laughing at?” We can only wonder …
Editorial Director, Fabian Society
Steve Richards is short-sighted in his view of the Government’s Religious Hatred Bill. We hardly needed the tragedy of terrorist bombs in London to alert us to the fact that religions are probably the best propagators of hatred of other religions, and that each, like any ideology, has its extremists. We have seen writers, including Salman Rushdie, Hanif Kureishi, Gurpreet Bhatti, and comedians and artists, not to mention some of the best legal minds in the country, protesting against the government’s proposals. Their action was hardly in the name of self-interest. They protested because we could foresee that a loosely worded law on incitement would target the very Muslim communities who felt they wanted it. The law would also unleash litigious religious purists to use the courts and media for their purposes.
Indeed, none of the effects of religious hatred legislation will be conducive to the social cohesion we so badly need. There is enough legislation on the statute books to deal with faith crimes: all it needs is will, and perhaps an amendment to existing legislation which would curtail hate speech where religion is acting as a proxy for race – that is, where the hate speech is pretending the Muslim religion is a target, where in fact the colour of skin one is born with is the real object of incitement. For the rest, the best statement the government can make in the name of social cohesion would be to repeal the antiquated blasphemy law, thereby at a simple stroke rendering all faiths in this country equal and leaving intact our freedoms to profess or criticise them.
Deputy President, English PEN
In response to an article by Steve Richards – ‘It is not illiberal for the state to curtail free speech in protection of its citizens’ (The Independent, 2nd August 2005
The Guardian (20th June 2005)
Frank Dobson’s defence of the government’s law against religious hatred is a fine instance of the way in which good intentions can pave the proverbial road to hell (Atheists should welcome a law against religious hatred, June 18). No one who has protested against this badly drafted bill wants hatred: neither the many writers, directors, actors, satirists, publishers and broadcasters who rightly worry about the law’s curtailment of free expression, nor the Muslim parliament, the Southall Black Sisters of Liberty, which have also campaigned against the law. Nor indeed the House of Lords, which sent it back to the Commons in the last parliament. Even if the government doesn’t intend the bill as an extension of the blashemy law, many understand it as such. Anthony Lester has put forward an excellent amendment ijn the Lords that will protect Muslims under existing legislation. Dobson would be wise to support that and then extend his energies towards proposing a motion that would repeal the blasphemy law, thereby making all faiths in Briatin equal.
Deputy President, English PEN
The Guardian (12th January 2005)
Home Office minister Fiona McTaggart’s intentions may be of the best in “offering protection to people targeted because of their faith” (Letters, January 8) through the incitement to religious hatred legislation. But the government’s position lacks a sense of history. Religious groups are quick to find offence or hatred where others see satire, criticism or a simple description of existing conditions. It may be coincidental that we have just seen the riots that stopped the play Behzti in Birmingham and the Christian evangelical protests against the BBC and Jerry Springer – The Opera. But it may also be a symptom of a change in climate among religious groups, which now see their intolerance legitimised by government policy. Surely a government interested in a multicultural society where disparate groups can live peaceably together should be eager to protect free expression. The proposed legislation is not only contrary to basic principles of free speech; it may also have the effect of inciting the hatreds it purports to outlaw. More than 150 of Britain’s writers have already signed a letter opposed to the new legislation. Too many – Salman Rushdie key among them (Letters, January 6) – have suffered because of the intolerance of religious groups.
Deputy president, English PEN
The Guardian (6th January 2005)
How disappointing it is to read that Ian Jack (Beyond belief, Saturday Review, January 1) was happy to see the freedom of speech of Murdoch employees (including himself) defended by the massed ranks of the Metropolitan police “and their horses” at Wapping in 1986 and 1987, but, in the face of protests by a few religious thugs, is a lot less certain – “would that have been wise?” – about the wisdom of defending the rights of the playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti and the menaced theatre where her play Behzti was staged.
Mr Jack comes perilously close to the currently fashionable Blairite politics of religious appeasement at all costs. He goes on: “The state has no law forbidding a pictorial representation of the Prophet … but I never expect to see such a picture. On the one hand, there is the individual’s right to exhibit or publish one; on the other hand, the immeasurable insult and damage to life and property that the exercise of such a right would cause. In this case, we understand that the price is too high.” What condescending nonsense – and it’s ignorant, too. I have before me many examples of the long Islamic tradition of pictorial representations of the Prophet – from Timurid Herat, for example, and from Iran. Should we now censor ourselves because the current potentates of the Islamic faith are more repressive than their predecessors? Do we have no principles of our own?
The continuing collapse of liberal, democratic, secular and humanist principles in the face of the increasingly strident demands of organised religions is perhaps the most worrying aspect of life in contemporary Britain. That even Mr Jack’s principles are wobbling is a sign of how serious the problem is.
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/aboutenglishpen/campaigns/offence/media/letterstothepress/