Tag Archives: Charlie Hebdo

Not Telling Anjem Choudary to Shut Up.

18 Jan

It was recently reported that Anjem Choudary had claimed that Muslims don’t believe in freedom of expression.

My immediate response was to suggest that if Mr Choudary doesn’t believe in freedom of expression, then he should shut up.

I’d like to expand on that a little.

Essentially the argument would run as follows.

Mr Choudary is reported to have claimed that Muslim’s don’t believe in freedom of expression.

If this statement appears to be excessively cautious it is worth bearing in mind two things;

1/ Anjem Choudary is a controversial figure and there is a certain class of journalist who would not be above misrepresenting, or even inventing comments that are attributed to him.

2/ It is stock in trade for controversial figures to make controversial statements and then, when challenged about them, to deny ever having made them. Or claim that those comments were taken out of context and that they somehow didn’t mean what they appear to mean when taken in context.

Mr Choudary would doubtless identify himself as a Muslim.

Others may claim that Mr Choudary isn’t a real Muslim and doubtless there are many Muslin’s who disagree with him on various points. This is not relevant to my argument, however, because what is important for my purposes is that Anjem Choudary would claim to be a Muslim and, as a consequence, the claims he makes about Muslims apply to him.

Therefore, and assuming the above to be correct, Mr Choudary does not believe in freedom of expression.

It is inconsistent (if nothing worse) to exercise a right that one does not believe in.

Mr Choudary, assuming the above to be correct does not believe in freedom of expression.

Therefore it would be inconsistent (if nothing worse) for Mr Choudary to exercise the right to freedom of expression.

(Outside of logic, consistency is not always a virtue, but inconsistencies between stated principles and actual behaviour are seldom commendable).

This brings me back to my immediate response to Mr Choudary’s reported statement, that if he doesn’t believe in freedom of expression, then he should shut up.

Except, of course, that I am not really telling Anjem Choudary (or anyone else) to shut up.

In the first place, my statement was conditional. That is it all hangs on the word ‘if’. It is only if Anjem Choudary doesn’t believe in freedom of expression that he should shut up. If he believes in freedom of expression, then of course he has every right to exercise that freedom, even if he uses if to talk complete and utter crap.

In the second place, I do believe in freedom of expression, therefore, and as a matter of principle, I’m not generally in favour of telling anyone to shut up.

Nor am I greatly in favour of condoning violence as a response to the exercise of the right to freedom of expression, as Pope Francis seems to be.

I do not believe anyone should expect a punch, as the Pontiff apparently does, as a response to anything the say, or write, or draw. And here, the law seems to be in agreement. If I were to act on the Pope’s apparent position and punch someone because they said something offensive about my mother, then I would expect to be charged with assault.

I would also venture to suggest that if I were to punch a hypothetical creationist in response to some comment about the theory of evolution by natural selection that I happened to find exasperating, then I suspect that both Pope Francis and Anjem Choudary, amongst many others, would be incensed by my violent suppression of this hypothetical creationist’s expression of their religious faith.

And this, I think goes to the heart of the whole thing.

No one would try to suggest that I would be justified in punching anyone because they made a disparaging comment about my favourite TV programme. Nor would I expect much sympathy from the Pontiff, or anyone else, if I assaulted someone over a dispute about politics, philosophy or the price of cheese. And I doubt if even Anjem Choudary would object to the freedom to express an opinion about any subject other than religion.

It is only in matters of religion that these men of faith find that freedom of expression is problematic.

(Pope Francis was also reported to have suggested that anyone making an insulting comment about his mother should expect a punch. I would respectfully suggest that this is nothing other than a red herring, however. The Pope may well be deeply protective of his mother’s reputation, but I doubt if he would really punch someone for making a derogatory remark about her. It’s clearly freedom of expression when it comes to religion that he’s talking about).

Of course all this comes in the context of the attack on the office of Charlie Hebdo and what it all boils down to is men of faith claiming special privileges for faith. And incidentally indulging in a spot of victim blaming.

Their position can be boiled down to the following.

Faith is really terribly, terribly important.

Faith deserves a specially privileged position in the world.

Faith is so important, in fact, that if anyone questions, challenges or makes fun of faith then a violent response is not only justified, but even commendable.

The satirists at Charlie Hebdo regularly made fun of religion.

This was an attack on faith.

This is not acceptable.

Therefore it was perfectly all right to shoot them.

Of course, Pope Francis would reject any statement quite this stark, but he was, in effect, saying that the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack were asking for trouble and that, to some degree, they deserved what happened to them.

One wonders how he feels about Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for ‘insulting Islam’. Perhaps he would feel that this sentence is excessive, but it is implicit in his position on insulting faith that some degree of violence would be justified. Perhaps a punch, rather than 1,000 lashes, but the difference is one of degree, not of principle.

As for Anjem Choudary?

Well, I don’t know, and don’t care enough to find out, whether or not he has actually condoned the murder of satirists. I respect his right to say what he wants on this or any other subject, even if he does not respect mine, but I also claim the right not to pay any attention to it.

And maybe that’s the point.

I won’t punch anyone for insulting my mother, I’ll probably just ignore them. I won’t punch someone for mocking or disagreeing with my beliefs. I might argue with them, but I won’t resort to violence. I believe in freedom of expression and the price I have to pay for that belief is that I have to put up with people saying things that I disagree with or that I find offensive.

I don’t think that price is too high to pay, but it would seem that some, notably men of faith who would doubtless claim moral and spiritual superiority over an atheist like myself, either can’t, or won’t, pay that price.