by Ben Sixsmith
Monday, 26
July 2021
Reaction
17:34

The meaning of the Speaker’s Corner stabbing

Offensive or irresponsible speech should never be met with violence
by Ben Sixsmith
A cafe near Speaker’s Corner, Hyde Park. (Photo by Keith Mayhew/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The legend of Speakers’ Corner holds that all lawful opinions, however eccentric, may get a hearing. Atheists, evangelists, Marxists, Irish Republicans and ideologues of every other stripe have been holding forth in Hyde Park for more than a hundred years. In 1999, Lord Justice Sedley said that Speakers’ Corner “demonstrates… the tolerance which is both extended by the law to opinion of every kind and expected by the law in the conduct of those who disagree, even strongly, with what they hear.”

Well, nowadays it does not always work like that. A Christian evangelist has been stabbed while wearing a Charlie Hebdo t-shirt. Last year the woman was escorted out of Hyde Park by the police after threats were made against her life by Islamic firebrands. Asked about the incident, Mayor Sadiq Khan said:

As you know, freedom of speech is a principle that I hold dear. One of the best things about London is the fierce way in which we protect this right and people’s ability to exercise it. However, as I’m sure you will appreciate, the police have to balance this right with managing behaviour that could lead to public disorder. It is crucial that healthy debates do not lead to violence, and I support the rights of police officers to remove individuals in order to prevent a breach of the peace.
- Sadiq Khan

In principle, I agree. The police should not let confrontation escalate into violence. The problem is that Khan implicitly treated the threat to public order as if it was a fact of life — offering no criticism of the people who threatened it. One hopes that he can summon up stronger stuff now.

This case reminds one of recent events in Batley, where a schoolteacher who had shown his students a cartoon of Muhammad was forced into hiding with his family. They are still there now. Surprisingly, George Galloway, whose party Respect was the closest thing that British Islamists had to a representative in politics, was more vocal in his condemnation of the threats against the teacher’s life than any of the mainstream candidates in the recent by-election.

Last week, Kurt Westergaard, the Danish cartoonist whose drawings of Muhammad inspired worldwide protests in the mid-noughties, passed away. There were howls of derisive laughter in some quarters — such as from the self-styled counterterrorism expert (of all things) Dr Tallha Abdulrazaq who posted “lol good riddance” — though it seems a bit odd to consider it a major “own” when someone you hate dies in their sleep aged 86.

But it might not have been so. Westergaard was assaulted by an axe-wielding intruder in 2010. That was no isolated case. Salman Rushdie faced a fatwā, and dozens died because of it. Theo Van Gough was murdered for directing Submission. Twelve people were shot in the Charlie Hebdo offices. Samuel Paty was beheaded for showing cartoons of Muhammad. A young American woman named Molly Norris organised an event called “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” and, following threats, was ordered by the FBI to change her name and go into hiding.  She is still there now.

You can think that it is irresponsible or offensive to make fun of people’s religious beliefs. I am no big fan of crude satire myself (though my emphasis is on the first rather than the second of those words). But let us be real: there is no other context, in Western societies, in which speech, even irresponsible and offensive speech, raises the serious and immediate risk of being stabbed in the head. If you care about culture, never mind public order, then this matters. It matters a lot.

Join the discussion


To join the discussion, get the free daily email and read more articles like this, sign up.

It's simple, quick and free.

Sign me up
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
29 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Jon Redman
Jon Redman
11 months ago

A Christian evangelist has been stabbed while wearing a Charlie Hebdo t-shirt. Last year the woman was escorted out of Hyde Park by the police after threats were made against her life by Islamic firebrands…..The problem is that Khan implicitly treated the threat to public order as if it was a fact of life — offering no criticism of the people who threatened it. 

Well, quite. Rather than shepherding the woman away the police should have been arresting and charging the “firebrands” (or “thugs”, as they are more normally termed).

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
11 months ago

Multiculturalism, it is not strength, but weakness.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
11 months ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

It is a fatal flaw

Dean Barwell
Dean Barwell
11 months ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

The powers that be, and of course, every over-educated, under life experienced Liberal continue to belive in their blinkered ideal of a multicultural society. Where the rest of us not only believe in, but actively enjoy a multi ethnic society, we of course will never accept certain cultural beliefs, fgm, honour killings, (which we just call murder) and of course a denial of right to free speech and ridicule of ideas and doctrines we find ridiculous, as perfectly normal. Multiculturalism is an impossible goal. Multi ethnic society is perfectly achievable and in many respects has been achieved. Kahn is typical of his sort, a self serving arse.

Last edited 11 months ago by Dean Barwell
Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
11 months ago

It isn’t the Christian firebrand who is the issue, it’s those who bring violence into the equation. Same old culprits of course.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
11 months ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

They were Muslim ‘firebrands’ or, more accurately as mentioned above, thugs. It is outrageous that we essentially tell the victims to hide rather than treating these scum with the full force of the law. I would also advocate that British citizenship rights be stripped from all such people.

gillian.johnstone
gillian.johnstone
11 months ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

It is interesting that very few news reports on this story are mentioning that the young Christian evangelist is a converted Muslim and a woman to boot. Surely the young thuggish men abusing her and threatening her with violence are more triggered by this than any other issue.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
11 months ago

Look, Mr Sixsmith: the most important right in a democracy is the right to be wrong. Forget that and you might as well junk democracy. Why? Because in the absence of that principle, elections will dwindle into window dressing: an apparent choice exercised by a bored selectorate among scarcely distinguishable apparatchiks. Many would say we’re there already. So when you say you don’t like the crude satire of religious belief, emphasis on “crude”, you’re making a tiny but crucial concession to the anti-freedom fighters, subtly distancing yourself at the wrong moment from people who – currently – deserve your support; an oppressed group whom we can call “scoffers”. It is precisely when everyone is too scared and too finicking to back the scoffers that we should back them to the hilt. What sort of satire would satisfy you, any way? Come on, you’ve opened the issue so we demand to know: Life of Brian? The Philosophic Dictionary? Hudibras? And would you allow that people have the right to turn the techniques there turned on Christianity on other religions? Or – with a squeak of well mannered apparent concern – will you scuttle behind the “We can’t attack minorities!” defence? You see, by intruding the question of taste – “crude” – into a discussion of liberty, you lift the curtain on a fundamental cowardice in yourself and in wider metropolitan culture which leads straight back to the Lord Chamberlain and sumptuary law. And in making this blunder, to quote Churchill, you are just taking the first sip of a bitter cup which will be proffered again and again until it chokes you – and us. We either back the crude, the wrong, the stupid in their right to express themselves – knowing that they are only crude, wrong and stupid according to certain lights and that to others they are bold, correct and blunt – or we buy a prayer mat. Thanks to attitudes like yours, it’s already – metaphorically – in the post.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
11 months ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

well put sir- in my humble experience ‘if you give them a short sharp shock they wont do it again’ -however if you let that slide a certain confidence in lack of consequences emboldens the ‘bad’ behaviour….

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
11 months ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

There is another right here – the right to not be forced to look at things you find profoundly offensive. Scoffers have the right to say their thing, but I have the right to avoid hearing it and to find their wares unpleasant. For Charlie-Hebdo or Hyde Park Corner that makes no difference, people can easily avoid both. But when we get to what can be shown to schoolchildren on prime-time TV or billboards – where people cannot realistically avoid seeing if they want to live a normal life – it is hard to avoid trading off the rights and sensibilities of one group against another.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
11 months ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

And made harder still when you foolishly “diversify” society beyond the old historic trade-offs and agreements which held it together in the first place. Well, we’re here now, you’ll say – true, but the point needs to be made. It needs, furthermore, to be followed up: that the trade-offs and agreements which hold the old majority together are more important than anything which newcomers might believe: they came here, we didn’t go to them – and in so far as “we” did (a small number of imperial bureaucrats) we avoided offending them at the time and have now gone, leaving “not a wrack behind”. Crucially, I hope you would be as alert to the rights and sensibilities of all groups, without favour, in your ideal compromise? There’ll be no more attacks on Christianity – for example – than on any other religion? And finally, with all this sensibility to group rights, with all these “trade-offs” and cancellations – what will be left of expression and debate? Precious little.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
11 months ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

Not sure where you are going with this. Ultimately there can be only one norm for what can be said generally in public. My take would be that while individual minorities might get special concessions relative to the majority, the entire construction would be mostly aligned with the majority. What else?

My main point is that what we are protecting is not the holy values of any religion, but the sensibility of its followers. Which means that you may have a claim to not being forced to watch certain things, but you have no claim to prevent them from existing, or other people from choosing to read them. If we could agree on that (fat chance!), that should take some of the poison out of the debates.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
11 months ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Where I’m going is to the essential point: that unless we start to defend the freedoms which have arisen from the historic trade-offs and agreements of European culture, they will melt away. You talk of the right not to be offended – it is a limited right: it applies to the home and perhaps to domestic territory, one’s suburb for example – one’s street. It cannot apply to the public square without abolishing freedom in toto. In that square – which can easily be walked around or avoided in tube or taxi – freedom is necessarily the freedom to offend: as I say, what to some is crude and stupid is to others bold and blunt. And if we have freedom then it must apply in all directions. The Life of Brian is OK? Fine, we can publish Salman Rushdie. Even without the pressing issue of religion, your point of view is finicking to the point of self-contradiction. What if a socialist is “offended” by the Hayek society – as apparently some are? They have the “right” to close it down? Oh, but that’s fine; we’ll close the Clement Attlee club down, too. That way, nobody’s offended at all and we have a nice, complete silence… Is that what you’re after?

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
11 months ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

PS – You can’t divorce protecting the suppositious holiness of a religion from the protection of its devotees “sensibilities”. To defend the one is to assert – ipso facto – the other.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
11 months ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

The ‘right not to be offended’ is not an individual right – or a right at all. But neither is the right to offend. How do you feel about the freedom to insult of those groups who went to the funerals of dead soldiers shouting how they were evil killers and glorying in fact that they were now in hell? Society does have a set of rules for what can and cannot be put on a billboard, or in prime-time TV, or otherwise imposed on others. Hard-core pornography? Rape and murder fantasies? Certain insults?

I would propose making a distinction: complete freedom to say and read what you want, however insulting (including racist of homoohobic insults and religious slurs) within the bounds of a book or magazine or private circle. In return we can discuss whether depictions of the prophet – like pornography – should maybe be kept off billboards and prime-time TV.

Last edited 11 months ago by Rasmus Fogh
Simon Denis
Simon Denis
11 months ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Shouting one’s opinions at people is and always has been a breach of the peace. You know this. If you had paid attention to my argument, you would find that it allows for the restrictions your otiose example implies. So why do you go in for such a lengthy preamble? Why, to lead us up the garden path, of course, towards your real point:
“In return we can discuss whether depictions of the prophet…” who? L. Ron Hubbard, perhaps? “… should maybe [I love the “maybe”] be kept off billboards, etc.”
In other words, you are planning for a complete, formal capitulation to the exorbitant demands of Islam, alien to the religion of the west, inimical to intellectual freedom and oppressive to just about everybody, including and perhaps especially its adherents. Hence your eager obeisance to its central doctrine that its founder was a prophet, when – if you are a non-Muslim – you cannot honestly say so. The association of depictions of Islam’s prophet with other, genuinely transgressive imagery is a masterstroke of guilt-by-association. In the same way, revolutionary regimes put opponents on trial with petty crooks.
Surely you can see that your current position amounts to no more than pusillanimous sophistry in defence of forthcoming oppression?

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
11 months ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

No, I have to admit that I cannot see that.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
11 months ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Then you are blind.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
11 months ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Like a burka for example

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
11 months ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

Not liking something and advocating it’s censorship are two different things, which you are confusing! Mr Sixsmith is not advocating censorship, as he makes clear. You are effectively saying that people who say honestly they do not like crude abuse, should censor themselves.

J Bryant
J Bryant
11 months ago

 If you care about culture, never mind public order, then this matters. It matters a lot.
Agreed. But again we have an author reporting the latest example of violence intended to curtail free speech, or ‘cancellation’ intended to curtail free speech, but he stops short of proposing solutions.
Acts against free speech, and acts intended to undermine our culture, are now depressingly common. Many are reported in Unherd and that’s fair enough. We should all be aware of the ongoing assault on our values.
But what are the solutions? How do we begin to fight back? Why aren’t mainstream politicians more vocal in their condemnation of these acts and how do we make them stand up for the values of our society?
Today Unherd has a live event in a London pub addressing the question of whether the Arts are now fighting back against attempts at censorship. I look forward to watching a recording of that event. Let’s have more of those types of events and articles here on Unherd. Tell us who is fighting back against the forces of censorship. What tactics are successful and which are not? Give us a list of resources to research such organizations ourselves.
We need to take the fight to those who would undermine our society.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
11 months ago

“There were howls of derisive laughter in some quarters — such as from the self-styled counterterrorism expert (of all things) Dr Tallha Abdulrazaq who posted “lol good riddance” — though it seems a bit odd to consider it a major “own” when someone you hate dies in their sleep aged 86.”

Several points to make here:
1. I do not think anything of derisive laughter or open joy at anyone’s death. This is vile and tasteless and says a lot about the person who indulges in it (nothing of it good).
2. This Abdulrazaq fellow, I’m guessing, is a reasonably well educated person. His use of “lol” in a social media posting just took my estimation of his intelligence down considerably. No one trying to create a serious impression of themselves in the public arena should use “lol”, or any of its kin (rofl, lmao etc.)

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
11 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

he is obviously an idiot and an expert at nothing and his doctorate must be rubbish-who ARE these people that they are even quoted by ANYONE ??????

D Ward
D Ward
11 months ago

How can this be, when we all know it’s the Religion of Peace?

Colin Deans
Colin Deans
11 months ago
Reply to  D Ward

Peace?? as long as you submit – cover yourself; are prepared to be married off to your first cousin or old uncle; ‘married’ in a Mosque but not in law, leaving you homeless and penniless when your husband is bored with you and most misogynistic of all, be cut (FGM) as in 36 Muslim countries!

Alan Hawkes
Alan Hawkes
11 months ago

Why risk going to prison for violence when you can do a bit of shouting and get the police to silence the speaker for you?

Alan Hawkes
Alan Hawkes
11 months ago

In the Sunday Times Rod Liddle wrote of Anjem Choudary and A N Other in less than polite terms. I commented, in the online edition, as follows:
” The descriptions, “… a smirking, freeloading, self-publicising, quasi-fascist moron” and, “nutjob” appear in this column. May I take it that the algorithm, brooding, Minotaur-like, in The Times cellar would have no objections to me using such language in a comment on someone to whom I had some objection? After all: what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, innit?”
My comment was ruled to have breached the rules of the community and was removed.

 

Last edited 11 months ago by Alan Hawkes
Martin Smith
Martin Smith
11 months ago
Reply to  Alan Hawkes

I was censored on ‘The Times’ for posting a comment including a reference to ‘King Cnut’. I assumed my spelling of the King’s name constituted the offence so reposted with ‘Canute’. Still censored… I no longer subscribe.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
11 months ago
Reply to  Martin Smith

I have marked your post as offensive, better to refer to that king as the father of King Harthacnut. History is a minefield today.

The past has officially been found to be ‘Wrong’ by modern academia, and someone in the present needs to pay, is the educated position.