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Free speech isn't always pleasant

Free speech isn't always pleasant

Issue 76 January 2011

So long as no laws are broken, even the ugliest of views have a right to be expressed.


I do not like the English Defence League (EDL). It is motivated by hatred of Islam that rests on ignorance of Islam’s true character and teachings. I formed this judgement after studying its website and witnessing firsthand the intimidating impact of two EDL protests: in Bradford on 28th August and in Leicester on 9th October 2010. My assessment of the EDL is entirely negative. I find nothing redeeming in its strategies and behaviour.

 I oppose all racism and religious intolerance and felt upset to see the EDL’s obvious venom and its placards and flyers that wrongly accused Muslims of violent tendencies. Yet I do not advocate banning the EDL. I deeply value the words attributed to Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” I also see beauty in another quote from that great thinker, “What is tolerance? … We are all formed of frailty and error. Let us pardon reciprocally each other’s folly. That is the first law of nature.”

 My position is reasonable. People who choose to enjoy the fabulous benefits of democratic states that uphold the rule of law, the value of freedom, the richness of diversity and the benefit of multiculturalism must themselves remain tolerant when other people use their freedom to express their diverse opinions on issues of culture. Freedom of expression means nothing if we only tolerate views like our own.

 I am not condoning racial incitement, intimidation or violence. Among the core values I mentioned above is the rule of law. Citizens must be able to go about their business without fear, discrimination, violence and abuse. The law must protect citizens.

 Can these seemingly competing imperatives be reconciled? Can democratic states provide sufficient freedom for citizens to express even highly unpopular or offensive views without fear of punishment while protecting everyone from hate and harmful excesses? I believe that well-governed states can do so, and I believe that ours does so.

When the EDL wanted to march through predominantly Asian areas of Bradford in August 2010, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, concluded that any such march would cause fear and intimidation outweighing the right to march through those areas. She therefore consented to a Bradford Council order banning any such marches.

 The Home Secretary did not ban the EDL from holding a static protest elsewhere in Bradford, at a cordoned-off location where it could state its views to anyone who chose to come and listen. I witnessed that protest, and can confirm that the EDL attracted very few listeners and made no converts. Members preached their hate to themselves, and a crowd of anti-fascists responded equally forcefully to show the EDL that its views would not pass unchallenged.

The one thing that greatly comforted me in both Bradford and Leicester was the calm and dignified attitude of the Muslim communities which refused to be provoked and which — with commendable self-control and forbearance — did not allow their behaviour to degenerate to the level of either the EDL or some of the anti-fascist hotheads. Muslims stayed away and, more importantly, stayed calm.

 At EDL protests, our Police serve admirably. They allow EDL members to express their views, they prevent them from expressing them in locations where Muslims have to be (to live or work), they contain them, they monitor them and, when they see anyone breaking the law, they arrest them. If an EDL member or supporter incites racial hatred, or threatens or conducts an act of violence, he stands a strong likelihood of being punished for it.

 EDL criticisms of Islam are unpalatable, mistaken and often very foolish. I doubt many EDL members have sincerely tried to understand the religion and the Qur’an, which serves as the source of all key teachings. Yet the EDL is not alone in publicly advocating ignorant, mistaken or foolish views. It is not even alone in advocating objectionable views. I recently felt very disappointed to see an intemperate group of Muslims burning poppies on Remembrance Day and angrily displaying placards proclaiming “British soldiers burn in hell!”

 How then should Muslims respond to EDL protests? In my judgement, they should not respond. First, those who aren’t Muslim and are anti-fascist will inevitably provide opposition at every EDL event. Second, the Noble Qur’an encourages tolerance even of provocative foolishness. It explicitly states that the hatred of others must not make anyone “swerve to do wrong and depart from justice.... Always be just.” (5:8) The Qur’an likewise praises those who “restrain their anger and are forgiving towards their fellow men.”(3:134) It is clear then that God wants us to control our emotions so that even when provoked by hatred, we do not respond with hatred.

Dr Joel Hayward holds various senior academic posts, including Dean of the Royal Air Force College, and is an author and poet. These are his personal views only.

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