Is nothing sacred? Religion and free speech

Watch and listen to atheist philosopher A C Grayling, journalist and practising Christian Charles Moore, and Usama Hasan, a scientist and imam, discuss free speech and religion.

At the invitation of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom, atheist philosopher A C Grayling, journalist and practising Christian Charles Moore, and Usama Hasan, a scientist and imam, discuss free speech and religion. Watch the debate here.

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    I am minded of the quote attributed to edmund Burke: all that it takes for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing.

    And of course you are right that the bravery is required when no existential danger initially exists to then put oneself in the way of danger for a principle. But has this not always been the basis of bravery? Ultimately I think this comes down to the truism often apparent when entering into conflict, to not do so would be far easier, but would also invite the repeat of the offending behaviour and its subsequent normalisation.

    So in the defence of freedom of speech one must ensure that all actions designed to curtail that freedom are met with a (usually immediate) response. This applies equally to your hypothetical above.

    But can I promise I would always live up to this haughty ideal..?

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    This is a great question Bruno. I would like to point out our event with Irshad Manji whose approach is to confront those who issue threats of violence against her (under the Watch and listen tab). When YouTube took down death threats against her, she asked for them to be reposted. When someone sent her a threatening poem, she responded with a (non-threatening) poem. While this requires a degree of bravery, which admittedly not everyone has, I think community solidarity is one way of making it clear that violence will not be tolerated.

    • It’s hard not to admire Irshad Manji…BUT…I would say this. There is a factor at play here that – were I an academic – I might give an incomprehensible label like “existential calculus”.

      By which I mean: when your entire life and identity is challenged by a belief group (from which you may or may not have emerged yourself) then…one one level…it may actually be EASIER to make the decision to fight back. The choice is between a lifetime of submission and self-betrayal or…a life defined (as in Manji’s case) by her noble struggle. I don’t know Irshad Manji, but my guess is that she might say that death is preferable to the former choice.

      However the hypothetical question I’m posing above (about the bookseller) posits what you might call an ‘asymmetrical’ example – in that the choice to NOT stick up for free speech involves no existential threat. The bookseller who decides NOT to stock Klausen’s book is in no way threatened existentially – they can just get on with their life (perhaps with a nagging sense of guilt that they shirked their democratic responsibility…but nothing much more than this.)

      Battles are won not by heroes and heroines like Manji. They may lead us and inspire us. But the ultimate victory must be won by us normal people – who don’t have our skin on the line.

  3. I confess I found this “discussion” somewhat disappointing – not least because there’s no discussion, just three short talks. (Was there a Q&A at the end? If so, the video ends prematurely.)

    I am huge admirer of Messrs Moore and Grayling, and from what I gather Mr Hasan is to be commended for his bravery. But all three of these men seemed to me to be answering the wrong question.

    In respect to this site’s Draft Principle 6 (the rejection of violent intimidation of the kind that Mr Hasan lives with, and to a lesser extent Professor Grayling too) it seems to me that the appropriate question is not “when do you choose not to exercise your right to offend?” but rather “under what circumstances do you stand up against intimidation?”

    The former question (“when to choose not to offend”) is a) of limited interest and b) intractable. There will always be some who (by what Messrs Hasan and Moore might call their God-given nature) take delight in provoking offence. Indeed they will go out of their way to do so. But when dealing with such people surely any attempt to appeal to “etiquette” or “good manners” is touchingly – perhaps dangerously – futile.

    I’d suggest that Mr Moore’s gentlemanly request is unlikely to sway the Daily Express headline writer who came up with “Muslims tell British: Go to Hell” (04/11/10) or “Migrants Rob Young Britons of Jobs” (18/08/11). And, it’s perhaps superfluous to add, he’s unlikely to persuade the tiny minority of British muslims who carry banners to protests saying things like “Death to those who insult Islam”.

    I do not consider myself such a person – a provocateur. But, dare I say I am glad they exist? I remember, as a teenager attending bien-pensant dinner parties with my parents during the Satanic Verses affair. Amidst a general astonishment at the vehemence of the reaction of muslim protestors, the consensus amongst the intelligentsia seemed to be “Bloody Salman Rushdie going around provoking these people – he should have known better.” And perhaps even: “He asked for it”.

    But, a bit like a bad marriage, if you manage to avoid arguing over the children’s education then you’ll fight over where the car was parked. If the poison is there, then sooner or later someone or something – however trivial it may seem – will draw it out. And, as Professor Grayling points out in his talk, this is ultimately a good – an essential – thing. Far better that the malaise can be addressed head-on – as this site is attempting to do – rather than kept out of sight for the sake of an easy life.

    And so I return to what, I humbly suggest, is the critical question to address. Not (as was addressed in this lecture) “when should you avoid risking provocation?” but rather “if you are threatened by intimidation, what should you do?”

    Take the following hypothetical. You are the owner of a small bookshop in a sleepy town somewhere in England. Your customer base is, in general, highly educated – retired professors and the like. Let’s now say that Yale University Press had gone ahead and published reproductions of the Jyllands-Posten drawings in Jytte Klausen’s book “The Cartoons that Shook the World”. Since you like to stock titles on current affairs and culture, you consider buying some copies of the book – or at least having it available to order. One day, in the mail, you get a message from an organization of which you have possibly never heard, possibly with an Arabic name, informing you that you will ‘face consequences’ if you display the book for sale.

    What do you do?

    Potentially you call the police, who strongly request that you do not stock the book, fearing that public order offences may be provoked. (They may even suggest you could face legal consequences if you go ahead.)

    Do you defy the police, in the name of free speech?

    I have never been put in such a situation and hope never to have to make such an agonizing choice. It’s not easy. Even in the case of Yale, to state that the principle (in this case Draft Principle 6) is sacrosanct is surely to ignore a terrible reality. And yet to give in…well, yes, as Charles Moore says it empowers the threat-makers and further encourages them.

    So what to do? This point came up after Professor Garton Ash’s Tony Judt memorial lecture in New York last year (I don’t think the video is on this site, but it can be seen here:

    A questioner asks for guidance on how TGA, as a liberal, decides when it’s worth making a stand for free speech. (“Being liberals” the questioner says, “we want clear principles as a guide to action.”)

    Can this site, and my fellow readers, help us to define some answers? I don’t think it’s any exaggeration to call this the defining question of our age.

    Bruno Kavanagh
    New York City

    PS Permit me a postscript: when pondering these issues I was surfing around the web for examples of what muslims themselves have to say about free speech. I was particularly struck by a video I found made by an official (an Imam? I’m not sure) from a mosque in Luton, England. This man is at pains to avoid currying favour with the (non muslim) mainstream. He seems no stooge: he’s clear on his preference for muslims, and his objection to homosexuality and lesbianism. Perhaps needless to say, I cannot respect these beliefs (especially the second). But, referring to this site’s Draft Principle 7, I would say that this man is a believer who is eminently worthy of respect:

    (Note: It’s worth getting beyond the PowerPoint slides – and there are other videos in the series too,)

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford.

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