The double standards over free speech

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

http://www.globalecho.org/view_article.php?aid=6548

This staged clash of fundamentalisms now has an audience of billions. The climax is likely to be grisly. European journalists have got the show fight they wanted, Flemming Rose, the culture editor of Denmark's Jyllands-Posten, sought out controversial cartoonists to create caricatures of the Prophet Mohamed, not because they had something bold and compelling to say, but simply to enrage, like bullfighters goading a bull.

Other newspapers have reprinted the cartoons in a supposed act of solidarity. What they have done, in fact, is belittle freedom of expression. They have taken something precious and turned it into a licence for the intelligentsia to behave like yobs. These liberal warriors, high on conceit, want to demonstrate that Muslims can never be a part of Europe, because, well, they are too backward to hoot aloud when their revered prophet is shown with a bomb for a turban. I am not amused either, so should I pack the bags? Many of these countries were infamous for their state terrorism against Jews. Since then they have systematically mistreated generations of Muslims.

Right on cue, out came the dishcloths, Bin Laden surrogates with murderous banners and belligerence. A sweetheart baby is held aloft wearing a snug cap with a red heart proclaiming love of al-Qa'ida. Is their faith so uncertain that a few ink lines can shrivel it? Threats and deaths for stupid pictures; what kind of morality is that?

Muslims live as abject prisoners of their dictatorial states. They flee to places where they can breathe easier and speak. Then, a minority turn into the vicious thought-dogs they left behind. Most of us Muslims detest them more than whites ever could.

In an Arab coffee-shop this weekend, emotional arguments raged. I agreed with those who said neither publications nor writers should be harassed, but equally, that Muslims can protest, boycott goods, refuse to be defined by extremism, and question iniquitous double standards.

Muslims are not the only enemies of free speech. Go to Singapore and speak with an unrestrained tongue. I have had death threats from from Americans and white racists who, like Nick Griffin, cherish their right to hate.

And freedom of expression stands aside for money. Google capitulates in China, and Denmark will too, once the boycott of its goods cuts in. Where are the impassioned arguments against the Serious Organised Crime Act that stops people of conscience quietly protesting outside Parliament?

Judgements are exercised daily by newspapers on what should be published. There are internalised restraints of decency and civil duties of care. A media lawyer wouldn't let me criticise Lord Winston because, I was told: "He is very powerful, and also Jewish. It could be taken the wrong way." She won the argument.

In 2002, the New Statesman printed what was viewed as an anti-Semitic cover and the editor was deluged with protest. A cartoon of Ariel Sharon in this newspaper caused similar outrage. The Daily Mail caused offence when it printed a cartoon of the 58 Chinese immigrants who suffocated in the back of a truck. We do not abuse fat people or walk into pubs and announce to the gathered: "Wogs and niggers stink."

Ordinary Muslims have convincingly argued against gratuitous provocation. Now they must reassert as powerfully how they value the freedom to be and to speak in the way Europe allows them to. That should confound and silence their liberal enemies.



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