Freedom of expression is for everyone in a democracy

 

Following the far-right terrorist attack at the Finsbury Mosque at 00:21 am on Monday, June 19, Tommy Robinson went on Twitter to say how he felt about the attack. Once again he put his foot in it by appearing to suggest that those outside the mosque who were run-over, while not directly responsible for their injuries, were nevertheless tangentially responsible as the mosque had a long history of creating and sheltering extremists and that a reprisal of this sort was just waiting to happen following the recent Islamist attacks in Manchester and on London Bridge.

Predictably, the Twittersphere sounded like the Twitterpocalypse had come, with scores of people slamming him for his tweets. I am not defending what Robinson said in his tweets, and think that they were poorly worded. I do however defend his right to tweet what he did. Robinson did say in later tweets that he didn’t want this to happen and that he’d been warning about it for years, but the damage had already been done. It made him look worse in many people’s eyes than he did already and confirmed other peoples’ suspicions about him.

Robinson then went in ITV’s Good Morning Britain, ostensibly to defend himself on national TV. However, the “interview” didn’t really turn out the way he might have hoped. What unfolded was extraordinary by any measure, and has caused more controversy than if Robinson had not been invited and just been left with his tweets for company.

He began by saying that there was no such thing as “Islamophobia”. A phobia is an irrational fear, and he said that it wasn’t irrational to fear these things., i.e. Islamist terror. 

To bolster his point, he brought a copy of the Qur’an and said that it incited hatred. He also quoted British Prime Minister William Gladstone on Islam, who said “So long as there is this book there will be no peace in the world”. To be clear, in this interview, he didn’t defame or make racist comments about Muslims. He spoke purely about Islam, a religion, a belief system, a set of ideas, and something that in a supposedly liberal society should be as open to criticism as any other set of ideas.

This was too much for Piers Morgan. He exploded with rage. He demanded of Robinson that he “show some damned respect for people’s religious beliefs” as Robinson held the Qur’an and told him that he was a “complete disgrace”. Morgan then went on to shout, “You’re sounding like a complete lunatic, you’re sounding like a bigoted lunatic. You are an Islamophobe who hates Islam. What you’re doing now is deliberately inflammatory. You’re stirring up hatred. You are abusing people’s religion. You are abusing their faith and you’re being a complete disgrace.”

Right. Just so we’re clear, Britain has not suddenly regressed 400 years and reinstituted a blasphemy law. We are supposedly not in a society where one religion takes precedence over another or even takes precedence over freedom of expression against it. The fact that Piers Morgan appointed himself as a form of religious police cum speech commissar, dictating what can and cannot be said and about which religion, is not a sign of his moral calibre. It is a sign that he had an agenda against Tommy Robinson and used this as a means of shouting him down.

He is also indicative of the wider attitudes of a certain part of British society who will use regressive concepts from a certain community as a way of “protecting” that community. The fact that Morgan will probably do more damage than good by adopting this attitude does not appear to have occurred to him. As an example of this regressive attitude to religion, race and free speech: the way he tried to stop what he saw as an insult to another person’s religious beliefs – which also seems to be equated with skin colour in many instances – smacks of the bigotry of low expectation, almost as if we cannot criticise someone’s religious beliefs in case they get angry or kill people because of it. Doesn’t this arguably show a lack of respect for Muslims’ ability to cope when their faith is under discussion or scrutiny?

If he knew what he was talking about in any way, he would maybe have engaged with Robinson on what he actually said about the Qur’an in a discussion that might have enlightened everyone there. That is the fundamental reason why we have free and open discussions and debates: to learn from each other, particularly when we might be in the wrong. All Piers Morgan did in shouting Robinson down was make himself look stupid and Robinson like even more of a Neanderthal than many people think he is already as he couldn’t actually get any of his points across. If we cannot dissociate beliefs from people, and debate those ideas without believing that we are engaging in bigotry against the people who hold those beliefs, then we as a society are screwed.

The freedom of expression, even that which we find abhorrent, is crucial for a free society, for it is what every other freedom flows from. This is what the staff at Charlie Hebdo believed, and they are now dead because they were seen as blasphemers against Islam for drawing cartoons. Piers Morgan dishonours their memory, and all those secularists, atheists and free speech advocates in Muslim majority countries like Bangladesh who are also suffering the consequences of blasphemy, by effectively arguing that no religious belief system of holy text is above scrutiny, satire or insult.

Added to his attenuated relationship with the ideas of freedom of expression and of the importance of dialogue, Morgan’s attacks on what Robinson did manage to say about the Qur’an arguably proved nothing more than that he was using the opportunity and platform he enjoys to pursue a little moral grandstanding and to act as the noble white knight, thereby portraying himself as the noble warrior for minority rights against a knuckle-dragging neo-Nazi who apparently wanted to “defame” a holy book out of pure spite at non-white people.

Maybe if Morgan had actually read the Qur’an he might realise that not everything in it is peaceful. As with Christianity and Judaism, there are also violent passages in the Qur’an, including instructions to kill the infidel. He was either not aware of this or he was being disingenuous for his own gain. Maybe he also isn’t aware of the doctrine of abrogation, which means that the more violent passages take precedence over the more peaceful passages? Again, I don’t know his mind so cannot say what he knows or does not know in this area for certain.

Not only did Piers Morgan show himself to be ignorant of what the Qur’an actually says, while doing so in a manner that made him look boorish and vaguely silly, his words essentially castigating Robinson for blasphemy against Islam show that his laudable concern for Britain’s Muslims and their feelings of safety after the Finsbury Park mosque attack serves only to neglect and isolate those who are even more vulnerable, namely the dissidents, the outcasts, the converts, the ex-Muslims and the reformers, as well as those non-Muslims in the Middle East at the mercy of various Islamist terrorist organisations who take great pleasure in persecuting and killing those they deem guilty of blaspheming against their own beliefs; Morgan might remember the genocide against the Yazidis or the fact that the Christians of the Middle East have been burnt out of Christianity’s cradle. The Muslim reformers in particular need the support of people like Morgan and those in the media, cultural and political elites if they are to have any chance at succeeding in their quest to reform the religion and somehow negate the more violent aspects of it, while those non-Muslims who have suffered persecution might also appreciate some solidarity should it be forthcoming.

By shouting “blasphemy” at Robinson for daring to speak against the Qur’an, Morgan is also effectively leaving the reformers high and dry, leaving them out in the open, at risk from the bullets and the blades of the blasphemy police from their own religion who would be quite happy to silence these brave people in a much more permanent way if they could. Morgan’s sentiments would basically kill any chance of the reformers succeeding, as the fact that they are trying to innovate and critically evaluate their holy text places them at huge risk of charges of, guess what, blasphemy.

Morgan’s attitude would mean that these people would be even more vulnerable than they already are; a significant number of their own communities already think they’re heretics. If, in the eyes of Western liberals they are also considered heretics, for daring to criticise and scrutinise their religious texts, then the movement for an Islamic reformation is lost, and perhaps our only chance of mitigating or ending the current wave of Islamist terrorist violence would die with it. The grim reality is that that word would likely be more than metaphorical. By doing what he did, Morgan green-lit to an even greater extent than already exists anyone who wishes to take offence at even the mildest criticism of Islam. This exponentially increases the power of those who wish to take the completely subjective concept of offence and use it to silence dissent within their own ranks.

Ultimately, in trying to put down Tommy Robinson with charges of defamation and blasphemy, Piers Morgan betrayed those dissidents and reformers in the Muslim community, leaving them open to further attack, vilification, verbal and physical assault by putting them at even greater risk of the charge of blasphemy and the penalty that comes with it. He also abandoned those non-Muslims who have faced persecution in the Middle East for blaspheming against Islam. In his rush to play the hero and lecture Robinson on how words have consequences, Piers Morgan seems to have forgotten that actions have consequences too, and often far greater.

Re-posted from Bombs and Dollars

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