Let’s kick things off with a story:
It was back in secondary school. I was in the upper annex of the library talking with a few non-Muslim classmates about the Charlie Hebo attack, which had only happened a matter of days ago and was still fairly fresh in the news cycles. Whilst emphasizing my disapproval of the attack I also contextualized the events; addressing the marginalization of Muslims in France – particularly Moroccans and Algerians – and my equal disgust with the cartoons the magazine had published, telling them about how dear the Prophet (ﷺ) was to all Muslims… My thoughts were dismissed as an insensitive justification for the attack.
Fast-forward to the morning after the Paris attacks. In the school’s canteen, I found those same classmates of mine laughing incessantly at memes mocking the victims of that mass shooting… which somehow wasn’t insensitive?
One could go on about the double standards and inconsistencies of liberal ideals of free speech till judgment day. Time and again, the discussion around free speech proves to be fruitless and the romanticized notion of the subject is ever vapid and shallow.
The recent incident at Batley Grammar, and the sensationalized coverage of the peaceful protest by Muslim parents expressing their protective love for God’s final apostle (ﷺ), sadly, seems a run-of-the-mill event by this point in the UK and Europe more broadly. Setting aside my own disdain for the act which set off the protests – which the regular readers of Traversing Tradition will undoubtedly share – there is a curious aspect of the scare-mongering by mainstream media outlets and the quixotic champions of laïcité in light of this and the wider cultural context in the digital age which is worth noting. Not only for the contradictory nature of free-speech discourse, but for a host of reasons, the least of which being how deep-seated these contradictions are in the public psyche. This is what I mean by schizophrenic.
The aforementioned story is just one personal anecdote, and with the rise of cancel culture in the years that followed, there is a galaxy of examples demonstrating similar inconsistencies. What began as a movement through which victims of sexual harassment and assault – disillusioned with the state’s ability to provide justice – turned to social media for support, has rapidly grown into an umbrella for a series of boycotts on public figures [for their speech as well other actions]. These boycotts appear at once both disjointed yet oddly selective.
To take some examples from the literary world, comments by author Liu Cixin justifying the persecution of the Uyghurs, or Nobel Laurette Peter Handke’s denial of the Bosnian genocide, inspired a lukewarm response in the digital public. Contrast these, for instance, with J.K Rowling’s remarks on transgenderism which caused a social media storm from which her reputation amongst life-long fans is yet to recover. Whilst the first two cases weren’t exactly lauded or defended for their views/comments, their expressions clearly had little to no consequences for them (Cixin’s acclaimed novels are still slated for a Netflix adaptation by the producers of Game of Thrones).
A deeper irony of free speech trumpery is the elitist exclusivity with which the subject is valorized. More often than not, the most impassioned pundits for defending their free expression tend to be those who’ve never had said freedom hampered in any significant way. It’s the comedians who sell out stadiums, the celeb journalists, and the talk show hosts who have the largest soapboxes money can buy. It’s that same class of people and the institutions they represent who take the greatest offense to reactions such as what we’ve seen at Batley Grammar. All of the news and entertainment media wants to convince you that somehow, one group freely expressing themselves in a manner supposedly safeguarded by the legal system is an infringement upon your own civil liberty.
While one may well draw analogies to further highlight these hypocrisies and double standards; “would you defend the teacher’s freedom to use the N-word in class?,” “would you defend their freedom to insult Jews?” etc., these analogies have been drawn before. The fact of the matter is that for such self-righteous pundits, those contradictions don’t matter. Recognizing them would mean recognizing the façade of their notion of free-speech. It would mean acknowledging that not all speech is equal and that moral frameworks and cultural sensibilities define what’s deemed acceptable. That even if we tokenistically acknowledge the “right” to offend, that doesn’t mean we tolerate it from everybody.
Fundamentally speaking, there are certain types of speech that, one might observe, are almost universally discouraged. Should a news network, for instance, be allowed to publish lies under the banner of “free speech”? Whether or not some do is out of the question, but in principle, we expect honesty as a default courtesy from one another. Respect is another basic expectation, one which apparently bears no relevance in this ideal of free speech. What critics of the Batley protests – as well as all other instances of expressing offence on religious grounds – mean when they invoke “free speech” is that their right to insult you is more precious than your right to be respected.
More bluntly, “our speech matters more than yours”. These critics are often the last to show any concern for the expression of Muslims being curtailed by the state and other forces. Where was the outrage from these partisans of liberty when a 4-year-old Muslim boy was referred to Prevent over a reference to the game Fortnite, or when a Muslim girl is sent home from school for wearing a long skirt? The pundit class that laments against the “tyranny” which dampens their free speech are not coming from a community that lives that reality. They speak from an ivory tower built on blind eyes turned away.
This is in fact quite run-of-the-mill for any paranoid majority; demanding conformity from a minority community in order to legitimize their presence, even if it be at the expense of said minority’s values. The UK’s pluralism is a conditional one, in that it only allows nominal differences to the status quo.
Despite several decades of significant presence in the country, the Muslim community is still faced with having to dilute its own expression in compliance with a Westphalian standard of what is and isn’t appropriate conduct. Our reverence for the Prophet (ﷺ) and our offense at him being insulted needs to be filtered so as not to spoil the banner of free speech, that is, the banner of the cultural tastes and philosophical ideas of the pundit class and co. It’s a half-baked tolerance; we are expected to tolerate disrespect hurled towards us but shouldn’t respond in a way that might challenge the values that enabled such disrespect. To borrow from Sara Sherbaji:
You’re expected to live your life acquiescing to the moral standards of the West and they can’t spend a minute entertaining the legitimacy of yours without accusations of inferiority.
The champions of free speech choose to disregard understanding and chant the mantra of liberty instead of considering the fact that not everybody sees the world in the same way as they do. That not everybody has the same sensibilities as them, that they might not share the same paradigm and have different taboos altogether. But of course, asking to take such things into consideration would be ‘tyrannical’ and ‘P.C ‘
About the Author: Ibraheem Ali is a graduate of English from the UK. His interests include literature, film, and Islamic history.