Thursday 15 January 2015

Selective liberty

I'm no fan of Seumus Milne, not least because of his propensity to gloss over communist atrocities, and if there is a new and creative way to be wrong about something, he's usually the one to find it. That said, his article today, while barking up the wrong tree, makes some points worthy of note.
In a country where women are bundled into police vans because of the way they dress, freedom of speech can also look like a one-way street. Charlie Hebdo claims to be an “equal opportunities offender”, abusing all religions alike. The reality, as one of its former journalists put it, has been an “Islamophobic neurosis” that focused its racialised baiting on the most marginalised section of the population. This wasn’t just “depictions” of the prophet, but repeated pornographic humiliation.

For all the talk of freedom of expression being a non-negotiable right, Holocaust denial is outlawed in France, and performances by the antisemitic black comedian Dieudonné have been banned. But just as there is a blindness in sections of progressive France about how the secular ideology used to break the grip of the powerful is now used to discipline the powerless, the right to single out one religion for abuse has been raised to the status of a core liberal value.
That's at the crux of it for me. We're pretty mealy mouthed when it comes to everyday trampling on free speech by the state but the one time the whole of the West unites around free speech is when they're asserting the right to be as vile as possible about Islam. For sure, it's a nuanced debate, but the nuances are lost on Muslims in poor countries as these images are beamed around the world. The predictable reaction to that is Islamists organising faux outrage to provoke more or it. A toxic feedback loop.

I don't think intervention abroad is the root cause as Milne implies, but that provides a backdrop to the narrative of Muslim victimhood - and that is what feeds extremism. The answer to that is to drain the pond it swims in at home, which in the case of France has a great deal to do with Algerian Muslims being second class citizens. The rightwing complaint is that Muslims express solidarity with Muslim countries rather than their own. Were I a French Algerian, I think the last state I would show any love or loyalty to is France. It's less about what France does abroad than what it does to its own citizens. It's not difficult to see how an angry extremist would despise French society and the rags who spit on their beliefs.

While the blame should always ultimately be placed on the perpetrators, that does not mean France should not make room for a little introspection. I uphold the right of anyone to be gratuitously offensive but persistently doing so does not make you a free speech warrior. It makes you a dickhead. As Stephen Glover reminds us, just because one can do a thing does not mean that we should, and while Britain enjoys similar liberties to be as offensive we (as a rule) do not partake of it. Is that because we're Islamist apologists and moral cowards? No. It's because we're better than France - and we don't treat our Muslims as abysmally as they do.

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