Lucky Johann Hari has found himself the cause of rioting on the streets of Calcutta. His recent article complaining about Muslim countries' attempts to re-write international Human Rights law contained some rather fruity remarks about various religions and why he didn't think he should have to "respect" them:
All people deserve respect, but not all ideas do. I don't respect the idea that a man was born of a virgin, walked on water and rose from the dead. I don't respect the idea that we should follow a "Prophet" who at the age of 53 had sex with a nine-year old girl, and ordered the murder of whole villages of Jews because they wouldn't follow him.
I don't respect the idea that the West Bank was handed to Jews by God and the Palestinians should be bombed or bullied into surrendering it. I don't respect the idea that we may have lived before as goats, and could live again as woodlice. This is not because of "prejudice" or "ignorance", but because there is no evidence for these claims. They belong to the childhood of our species, and will in time look as preposterous as believing in Zeus or Thor or Baal.
Johann seems quite catholic in his disrespect. But guess which of the many different sorts of religious believers he insulted took to the streets when his article was republished by an Indian newspaper. Was it, perchance, the Jains? No, thought not:
That night, four thousand Islamic fundamentalists began to riot outside their offices, calling for me, the editor, and the publisher to be arrested – or worse. They brought Central Calcutta to a standstill. A typical supporter of the riots, Abdus Subhan, said he was "prepared to lay down his life, if necessary, to protect the honour of the Prophet" and I should be sent "to hell if he chooses not to respect any religion or religious symbol? He has no liberty to vilify or blaspheme any religion or its icons on grounds of freedom of speech."
What was it, in particular, that the rioters found so disturbing? The inverted commas around the word "prophet"? Hari's refusal to accord him "respect"? His allusion to the generally (if not universally) accepted details of Mohammed's marriage to Ayesha? Or none of the above: after all, it is unlikely that many of the rioters troubled themselves to read the offensive article. It was enough to have been told that its author had "insulted Islam". Just as it is apparently sufficient for David Miliband to be told that Fitna contained "extreme anti-Muslim hate" for him to agree with Geert Wilders being (illegally) banned from these shores, without taking fifteen minutes to watch it, merely on the say-so of the ghastly Lord Ahmed.
The rioting is perhaps less troubling, in the final analysis, than the news that the editor and publisher of the Indian newspaper have been arrested for "deliberately acting with malicious intent to outrage religious feelings". This in supposedly secular, democratic India. India banned The Satanic Verses many years ago, so perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised. We should, however, be deeply concerned: not just for India, but for the whole world.
"I am told I too will be arrested if I go to Calcutta," writes Johann Hari. Alternatively, of course, they might not let him in. Would he, in either circumstance, be able to rely on the full support of the British government? He congratulates himself on his luck in living in a free democracy where (unlike in most countries in what is termed the "Muslim world") "when I went to the police, they offered total protection". But given this government's repeated cowardice (or perhaps they would say pragmatism) in the face of threats of violence, and its reluctance to defend principles, it's hard to say. And if India bans Hari on account of the reaction his views have provoked, it would be difficult for the British government to protest after Wilders. It would look a tad hypocritical.
In his defence of the Wilders ban, Miliband used the old line about there being no right to shout "fire" in a crowded theatre. But there is, of course, if there happens to be a fire. I'm not saying that in this case there is a fire: but there are many people, in Holland, in Britain, in the US and elsewhere who do see flames and smell smoke. They believe, as a result, that by shouting "fire" they are alerting their fellow citizens who see nothing but an attractive, and exotic, barbecue and are anticipating a nice shared meal. Geert Wilders is, it seems safe to say, a publicity seeker: but that fact does not preclude that he is sincere in his belief that Islam poses a danger to the European way of life. Instead of merely insisting that he shut up or that his views are dangerous, why not counter his arguments with more compelling ones?
Personally, I'm pretty much a free speech fundamentalist. I support free speech for Geert Wilders and I support free speech for Lord Ahmed. I support free speech for David Irving and Bishop Richard Williamson. I support free speech for Yusuf al Qaradawi and for Stephen Green. I defend the right of people to say that gay people belong in hell or that Jews secretly control the world. Unlike Geert Wilders, I would not ban the Koran. Or the Bible, for that matter, although some of its verses make the more bloodthirsty passages of the Koran seem as innocuous as Winnie the Pooh.
If people want to say that the Virgin Mary was raped by a Roman soldier, that Mohammed was a paedophile and a fraud, or that Buddha spent too long under that Bo tree and his enlightenment was nothing more than a severe case of sun-stroke, then let them. And let their opponents abuse them in turn. It's just words. A free society should not be frightened of debate, and mainstream opinion should not take fright at the opinions of those who are mad, hate-filled or stupid and who are in any case condemned to remain on the margins. They enjoy the sensation of martyrdom: persecution fills them with a sense of vindication, and brings them free publicity. There is a line to be drawn, of course, and it should be drawn at the direct incitement of violence. Nothing less.
Once one person is banned because of their opinions, it becomes easier to ban someone else. The slope is slippery - as slippery as the politicians who grease it with their cuddly-sounding talk of preserving social harmony.
Hari has it exactly right: "The right to free speech I am defending protects Muslims as much as everyone else. I passionately support their right to say anything they want – as long as I too have the right to respond. "
Wilders and Hari occupy different places on the political compass. Hari criticises all religion: "a religious idea" he writes, "is just an idea somebody had a long time ago, and claimed to have received from God." Wilders has a particular problem with Islam. This makes Hari socially acceptable to the community of liberal intellectuals. The Indie wouldn't give Geert Wilders a regular column. Yet Hari, like Wilders, has said things that have provoked violence. Why defend one but not the other? Whether a person holding controversial views is welcome at an Islington dinner party is a strange criterion by which to judge if they should be allowed to speak their minds.
In any case, are Wilders and Hari really so far apart? Hari writes:
Offending fundamentalists isn't my goal – but if it is an inevitable side-effect of defending human rights, so be it. If fanatics who believe Muslim women should be imprisoned in their homes and gay people should be killed are insulted by my arguments, I don't resile from it. Nothing worth saying is inoffensive to everyone.
Wilders himself has made many such statements.
A peculiar feature of this controversy is the almost total acquiescence of mainstream politicians in what is, objectively, an outrageous and potentially illegal restriction placed on an elected Dutch politician. Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrats' home affairs spokesman, has made a particular fool of himself with his support for the ban. Attempting to defend himself in Comment is Free today, he argues that "freedom of speech is our most precious freedom of all, because all the other freedoms depend on it", and at the same time that Wilders should not be allowed into Britain because "in my opinion" Fitna "crosses a line". Some liberal he turned out to be; a poor European, too. Hearteningly, the vast majority of the comments exposed the illogicality of his position. Slightly more unexpectedly, around 85% of those taking part in the Guardian's online poll thought the decision a bad one. The Guardian itself criticised the decision in its leader column:
The consequences of the entry ban are greater than those of allowing his nasty film to remain unknown. Responding to the fear of violence does not always reduce disorder; it can make it more likely. Any faction might now see the potential of making alarming noises. Meanwhile Mr Wilders's deliberately distorted view of Islam has been widely circulated.
...Mr Wilders should have been allowed to come. His film is offensive. The ban is a defeat for the freedom of expression.
It's especially intriguing to find several prominent media Muslims taking the same position. One early Muslim critic of the decision was Ed Husain, the erratic head of the Quilliam Foundation. Husain wrote that Wilders was Geert Wilders "undoubtedly an ill-informed, hate-driven bigot with many unpleasant views" - though he didn't specify what they were, "but he is not directly inciting violence." Not too surprising, perhaps - very little that Husain says surprises me any more. But - what's this - here's Husain's sworn enemy Inayat Bunglawala taking precisely the same line:
Wilders is without doubt an anti-Muslim bigot, but the Home Office was still wrong to issue an order denying him entry to the UK.
As I argued in the case of Yusuf al-Qaradawi, if Wilders broke any of our laws while on his visit he could always have been prosecuted. By denying Wilders entry, our government has allowed Wilders to portray himself as a (wholly undeserving) martyr for free speech. The government has got itself into a terrible pickle by arbitrarily deciding who can and cannot come into the country.
People in Bunglawala's position have reason to be concerned. Although few cases are as high profile as that of Wilders, the government has been using its powers to ban foreign undesirables with increasing enthusiasm - currently around 270 are banned - and most of those are Muslims. Perhaps this is what motivated the Wilders decision - a desire not to seem inconsistent or discriminatory when it comes to banning Muslims. The government trumpets its desire to protect social cohesion while in reality they act to extend their own control.
The Voltairean principle of "I do not agree with what you say but I defend your right to say it" is often invoked, but rarely acted on in practice. And certainly not by politicians. I think I know why. Politicians are afraid that voters - or newspaper editors, ever on the lookout for "gaffes" will hear the second part of the formula but not the first. Once a presumption has been raised that a view (or a personality) is morally questionable, it becomes easier, politically, to merely condemn.
Few politicians want to be seen as being "on the side" of Geert Wilders, or Carol Thatcher, or a purveyor of extreme porn. It's easy to misconstrue, or misrepresent, such a nuanced position: "minister supports racist"; "MP supports filth". It's the same with drugs. When Professor David Nutt perfectly reasonably pointed out that more people are killed by horse-riding accidents than by ecstasy-taking accidents (neither Es nor equines are ever fatal per se) he was berated by our unlovely home secretary for being "irresponsible". And, from a purely political point of view, Smith's logically inconsistent and personally despicable attack makes sense. We have a political system that rewards cowardice, where the safest response is also the most unprincipled and wrong.
UPDATE: Geert Wilders has released the text of a speech he wanted to make at the House of Lords. He invokes Churchill and Reagan, says of Islam "It is not a religion, it is a political ideology", and calls Britain "a country ruled by fear". He appears to get most of his information from the Daily Mail. It's the kind of alarmist talk Wilders-watchers will be familiar with. But there's nothing in it that threatens public order, nothing that goes further than a column by Melanie Phillips, Peter Hitchens or Richard Littlejohn - certainly nothing that would justify a ban. For anyone interested, I've posted the entire text in the Dungeon.