Offensive or irresponsible speech should never be met with violence
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:
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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.