Freedom of expression

freedom of speech


ALEXANDER ADAMS rehearses recent arguments concerning freedom of expression before arriving at his own conclusion.


“One person with a belief is equal to a force of 99 who have only interests.”





On February 14th, 2015 an Islamist gunman attacked a café in Copenhagen where a debate on free speech was being held. Speaking at the meeting was Swedish artist Lars Vilks, who had been issued with death threats because in 2007 he drew cartoons of the prophet Mohammed that were considered insulting by some Muslims (and some non-Muslims). Vilks was unhurt but a documentary filmmaker Finn Nørgaard was killed. A month earlier, Islamists murdered cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo in Paris. On one level, the Danish attack was prosaically ineffective. The attacker could not gain entry to the building so he sprayed bullets through a glass door. On another level, it marks a new standard, where anyone associating with “insulters of the prophet” can expect to be a target for extremists.

The cartoons of Vilks and Charlie Hebdo will not be discussed. That has been done elsewhere. We should, perhaps, evaluate what recent assaults on controversial art and satirical journalism – and the assaults yet to come – will mean for arts in the West. It is worth considering how Islamists – some of them born and raised in wholly (or largely) secular European countries – have rejected Western values but have also absorbed aspects of secular culture. This essay cannot be a full account. Though arguments and positions here are simplified, they are not – hopefully – misrepresented. Footnotes have been kept to a minimum, omitting many news sources and much background material.

Here, “Islamism” is used to refer to “the assertive application of Islamic principles to political and social spheres” as differentiated from Islam practiced as a private ethical code; “extremist” is a personal will to use violence and the threat of violence to achieve his aims; “post-liberal” (1) is used as an adjective to describe the uneasy consensus between mainstream socio-political strands in Western societies, one which accommodates identity politics and encourages constraints on speech, voluntary and otherwise.

Civility and Censorship

In recent weeks a common refrain of many commentators and journalists has been “The murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists was wrong but…”. Many felt that cartoonists who had freedom to ridicule Mohammed should not have exercised that right. The inference is that freedom to be irresponsible is not freedom from consequences of irresponsibility. Some of the cartoons were puerile and juvenile but there is plenty of material in that class; public lavatory walls and Internet websites are full of it. The difference is that the cartoons had authors’ names attached and there was a particular address where they could be found.

It seems that today people who deliberately set out to insult Islam can expect reprisals. Although there is a case to put that we should protect reckless individuals as a matter of principle – and this essay will not argue against that – it is more important that we consider the murders as (at least partly) an extreme manifestation of the climate of accommodation that already compromises our liberty and affects us as citizens, readers and makers of art.

As we have seen in the pages of arts journals (notably The Jackdaw and The Art Newspaper) and on the website Spiked, the practice of pre-emptive censorship has become an ever-present reality. Nowadays, institutions do not react to criticism but anticipate it. Formerly (in what we must now consider a brief post-War heyday), we relied on institutions to promote and protect difficult art. Institutions introduced new stimulating art and would defend it. Difficult art would at least be shown, allowing us to judge for ourselves. Now institutions fight shy of presenting anything which might cause “community tension”. What has happened to John Latham’s collage of Bible, Talmud and Koran   (2) owned by the Tate? Will it ever go on public display?

What goes undiscussed is the self-censorship which occurs daily in the lives of satirists, artists and writers. We have all held our tongues in everyday life when we thought speaking out would cause more harm than it would do good. In some respects that is human nature – the desire to avoid conflict and let sleeping dogs lie. When standing up for one’s ideas involves placing others in harm’s way, one naturally grows more tentative. Where you might risk your own safety, you often find you cannot risk that of your family and colleagues. This is something everyone link from school bullies to mafia godfathers understand. If intimidators intend to become martyrs, and there is no certain way to protect the lives of you and those dear to you, speech seems impossibly dangerous – which is the calculated effect. Though – in at least some cases – isn’t the protecting-my-colleagues/family defence (albeit a legitimate one) actually a way of excusing oneself from taking an unpopular stand?

One problem with the on-their-heads-be-it reasoning is that it implicitly accepts that violent retaliation to an actual (or perceived) slight is regrettable but inevitable. Does that line of reasoning also apply if militant Jews were to firebomb publishers of the Koran or radical socialists were to murder BNP members? Doesn’t such reasoning, however indirectly, excuse intimidation and vengeance by any self-identifying group of victims against their putative insulters? Are Muslims not to be held to the same standards as the society they are a part of? (3) Are we to consider Muslims incapable of exercising self-restraint or obeying state laws? On-their-heads-be-it reasoning implies Muslims are less in control of their emotions than non-Muslims and have a tendency to react with violence in response to provocation. This sounds similar to patronising colonialist stereotypes about “savage natives” and “inferior races”. Yet this special pleading – that outsiders can never understand the members or culture of a subset, something which renders that culture unknowable and beyond universal principles – is very much a part of identity politics which robs individuals of autonomy, turning them into puppets of social conditions and hereditary circumstance.

Another problem with pre-emptive censorship for protection is that it is effectively impossible. The Charlie Hebdo cartoonists knew they were creating provocative images and could expect a backlash. Consider the case of Salman Rushdie; his The Satanic Verses is a work of literary fiction. The novel included references to Mohammed dreamed by a fictional character in a delirium. The novel led to a fatwa being issued against its author and subsequent attacks against publishers and the murder of a Japanese translator. Rushdie and his colleagues had no reason to expect that instances of blasphemous delirium in a work of fiction might provoke violent hostility. Due-caution caveats cannot be applied in practice as there is no way of predicting how any work of fiction or art touching on Islam may be represented or misrepresented by extremists. The only way to be safe from extremists is to never say anything that touches upon religious culture, never associate with anyone who has and never be in the vicinity of an exploding bomb.

But even that position will not hold.

Even if you avoid opposing extremists, restrictions they force on others will affect you. Furthermore, accommodation will not work because Islamist demands will never end. Even if another image of Mohammed is never exhibited or published in the UK again, extremist pressure will continue, applied in other areas of the arts. Images seen as denigrating Muslims (especially Muslim women) will be targeted; “disrespectful” art by artists of Muslim heritage will be threatened; artists who take an avowedly atheist stance will be subject to violent protest. There is no way of following “rules of safe speech” because extremists make rules arbitrarily, opportunistically and unilaterally (4). What may be halal today may tomorrow be retrospectively considered haram (5) with no possibility of reasoned appeal.

To understand demands and expectations of Islamism as a political movement we must examine the psychology of the extremist.

The Psychology of Extremism

For the pious man, religious teaching gives a feeling of superiority through wisdom; ritual gives his life structure; repetition brings comfort and order; moral injunctions give him an ethical framework. He observes dietary restrictions, prays at the prescribed times using exactly the wording necessary. He is fastidious about cleaning, fasting and the way he dresses. Infraction causes him to experience guilt and shame. An extremist is a pious man driven by anger, often prompted by injustice. He is angry at society for failing to be sufficiently pious; he is angry at himself for failing to meet impossible standards of thought and deed; most of all, he is angry at constraints which prevent him from remaking the entire world in the mirror image of the ideal world in his head. Even should he perfect himself – which is never possible – it is the imperfection of those around him which antagonises him most. He cannot bear to exist surrounded by lack of belief and observance. For the Muslim, his religion urges him to jihad – a struggle to change the world around him. In an extremist’s case, he chooses not to perform acts of charity but to combat impiety through any means available to him.

Whereas a moderately (or even very) religious person can live in relative contentment in a secular society, an extremist never can. The extremist cannot avert his gaze. Religious extremists cannot be accommodated within a secular society by way of reasonable concessions because religious extremism is essentially unreasonable in that it rests on belief not reason. A religious extremist can never be satisfied because he lives a perpetual state of discontent and anger. He encounters obstacles in the form of co-religionists who do not follow his outlook and in secular laws and values which fail to recognise divine truth. He takes pride in being more dissatisfied than his co-religionists, whom he considers complacent. A religious extremist’s struggle is unending because there will always be ways in which the world falls short of the ideal. Hence the religious extremist will never be checked by practical concessions because his aspirations are nothing less than