Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Is it extreme to defend free speech? By Dr Evan Harris

reposted from NSS Newsline 3rd August 2007

Evan Harris(MP and NSS Honorary Associate)
When is a liberal like me an extremist? When, in the words of Asghar Bukhari, chairman of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee, I defend the right of Salman Rushdie to offend the likes of Mr Bukhari – and defend the Government for knighting the novelist. At least that was what Mr Bukhari screeched at me in a televised rant yesterday.

True, Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses was insulting and offensive to Muslims. But that is no basis to deny him an honour. In fact the reaction of Islamic extremists to his work – with al Qaeda's Ayman al-Zawahiri now threatening retaliation against Britain for the knighthood – underlines precisely why he should be honoured. To recognise our society's values and freedoms as well as the talent it contains.

And in one sense, Mr Bukhari was right about my own "extremist" views. For I will stop at nothing to protect the rights of people like him to be offensive and wrong.

But I will not tolerate the persistent demands, led by Muslim activists, for special protection for religious views. People should be allowed to attack religious ideas in ways which adherents may find offensive – whether by criticism, lampoon or even insult.

I organised the Parliamentary campaign that last year voted down – by a margin of one – a Government plan to outlaw the incitement of religious hatred. Recent outbursts by the likes of Mr Bukhari make that vote all the more crucial for freedom of expression.

Those who argue for such laws say that one should separate the person from the ideology: hate the sin but love the sinners. But I don't just hate Nazism, for instance. I hate Nazis. We should all hate Nazis. It is not just their ideology which is loathsome, they are loathsome people. So I believe I should be entitled to incite hatred of Nazis, short of inciting violence. My words ought not to be intimidating to any Nazi of fragile disposition. But the language I used could well – I hope – be insulting to any self-respecting Nazi.

And in the same way, I should also have the freedom to advise others to hate jihadism or homophobic bigotry. I should not be criminalised for promoting hatred of Islamic jihadists or fundamentalist Christian homophobic bigots. After all, they have the freedom to promote hatred of free-speech loving, gay-rights campaigning, non-God-fearing Liberals like me.

To give protection to religious views that we do not give to political views would be a recipe for promoting religious extremism, especially since those most easily offended are often those least moderate in their own views.

So the Government is right to reject Holocaust denial laws. The Government was right to knight Mr Rushdie. It is now time for Gordon Brown to complete the free speech story by repealing our illiberal and outdated (Christian-only) blasphemy laws.

Evan Harris is Lib Dem MP for Oxford West and Abingdon and member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

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