Mischief on both sides over those cartoons

Sticks and stones and Scud missiles may break my bones…but cartoons? You could do without fortnights like this in my job. It has been difficult even to begin to comprehend the depth and breadth of the Danish cartoon row and why the offending drawings should have provoked such a scale of response, both peaceful and belligerent, around the world.

Some might observe that my incredulity comes with the mindset of the bleeding-heart liberal secularist. Note the slight naivety of my initial plea to British Muslims when the row first turned nasty: “Let’s shut down Guantanamo and end torture flights before worrying about distasteful cartoons.” In the ideology of fundamental rights and freedoms, torture and arbitrary detention are far graver sins than insult, however provocative.

It takes a lot of hard work to stoke up a real row and I sense some mischief on both extremes of this argument. The cartoons were first published some months ago. Why such an international outpouring of outrage so much later? Equally it is difficult not to detect a whiff of something unpleasant from some of the more fair-weather friends of free speech; and difficult not to feel sympathy with a poorly-led minority living in fear.

So let me try to reconcile my passion both for free expression and equal treatment and respect. First, let’s draw a real distinction between our rights under the law and vital personal choices about our actions at particular moments in time.

Though never absolute, free expression is the lifeblood of democracy. All open societies place some legal limits on speech. One example is the centuries-old criminal offence of incitement to murder (possibly breached by some of the more extremist demonstrators). However, criminal law is a blunt and harsh instrument ill-suited for protecting people from hurt feelings or insult. Courtesy, sensitivity and sense are better for this purpose. Where they are thought to have failed, those offended have the right of peaceful protest in reply.

Repressive speech laws are anathema to democracy but particularly dangerous for vulnerable minorities whose rights and freedoms are most easily traded away. The proposed new offence of encouraging or glorifying terrorism (a great piece of post-7/7 political machismo) is a particular case in point. It is so broad that it would place large numbers of decent and normally law-abiding people into a criminal class simply for calling for the overthrow of tyrants. Those who demonstrated in London against Islamophobia in general or the cartoon in particular would have been far wiser to rally for an even-handed protection of free speech and against this divisive new law.

The cartoons should not be unlawful, but that leaves questions about whether individuals should publish them and in what context. It is hardly for me to determine good taste or sense. Yet, whatever the wisdom of original publication, I question whether the cause of free speech is served by gratuitous gestures of re-publication at such a delicate moment in world affairs.

I wish some continental Europeans (the French in particular) who have been so quick to assert free expression would reflect on the even-handed application of this principle to racial and religious minorities in their own countries. Where is the moral high ground of free expression for those who ban religious dress and symbols? There is no country in the world in which I would rather be in a racial or religious minority or part of the defence of liberal values than the UK. But it is consistency and not hypocrisy that makes this possible.

These are not easy times. We’re all afraid of terrorists but minority communities fear injustice, reprisal and the ensnarement of their sons as well. In the current context, you shouldn’t have to be a Muslim to believe in fundamental rights and freedoms, but it should help.

Shami Chakrabarti is head of Liberty


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