Valentine’s Day marked twenty years since Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie, following the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses. Mass book burnings and riots in Britain followed, however the book continued to be sold and arguably, this set the precedent for current divisions felt between Westerners and the Muslim community today.
On that day the debate about free speech in Britain was blown wide open, and it is even more relevant today than it was then. Most recently a bizarre martyr has been made of the Dutch MP, Geert Wilders. Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, drew mass media attention to him as he was refused entry to Britain where he intended to show his film about the Koran, Fitna. The timely occurence of this ban has sparked mass debate about free speech wars in Britain and I recently attended a debate at Bishopsgate University; From Fatwa and book burning to Jihad and hate law: twenty years of free speech.
Although the general consensus of the speakers (including journalist and author Kenan Malik and the Independent’s Amol Rajan) was unsurprisingly in favour of free speech, it was the qualifications that each speaker chose to impose on that freedom which set the grounds for discussion. Until that evening I had dedicated little personal thought to the topic so was left with more than a few considerations to mull over.
Free speech can loosely be taken as a freedom to offend, a freedom which Geert Wilders was denied. To take this point, there is little point in engaging with a notion of free speech if you intend to limit it with qualifications. When you talk about the liberty to offend you are also allowing people the liberty to be offended and opening the floor up for balanced debate.
To me, it seems rather patronising to ‘protect’ minorities from anything that may be deemed as offensive. As one outspoken member of the audience said, “Do you expect us to fall at the first offensive comment?”
Let the debate commence and let those who deserve it be ridiculed for their unfounded prejudices. By censoring one argument you are in effect silencing the whole debate and preventing those ‘offended’ from speaking out themselves.
Maleiha Malik, reader in law at King’s College and speaker at the event, thinks however, that qualifications are necessary. Sure, the aim of free speech is to promote intellectual debate rather than hate rows, but is it naive to think the only thing to arise from an offensive comment is a fair-debate? Probably. But it is discerning where the responsibility for these qualifications lies that proves most difficult. In the debate of free speech, there seem to be few neutral voices.
A friend who attended the debate with me raised her concerns that “the media have reneged on their responsiblities” in providing a voice for millions of people that it should be representing. She likened the negative media attention on Muslims and Islam as akin to the ‘banker bashing’ which has proliferated the media of late. The media is failing to take a fair part in a debate of which it should be at the heart.
Is it then, the media’s responsibility to provide the forum for balanced and open debate? Members of minority groups, and indeed anyone with a voice to be heard, need to feel that that voice is represented if they can have any faith in the notion of free speech at all.