Saturday, January 31, 2009

COMMENT: Between free speech and hate speech ...

Some readers will recall the enormous fuss surrounding Michael Backman’s column in The Age column, which contained two questionable remarks:

*That, through its excesses against the Palestinians, Israel was responsible for inciting Muslims across the world to hate her;

*That the West suffered because of this through terrorist attacks by Muslim extremists; and

*That Israeli trekkers were all badly behaved in Nepal.

The first two claims, while dubious, were more political judgments than racist remarks. There was a fair bit of emotion-charged debate at the Crikey website, with media writer Margaret Simons insisting The Age had some explaining to do while other Crikey contributors denied Backman was anti-Semitic at all given Israeli newspapers print complaints about Israeli tourists.

The Australian ran hard on the story, its editorial asking whether editors at The Age shared Backman’s ...
... [u]ndergraduate, ill-informed nonsense.
It continued:
There is no evidence that Backman hates Jews, but people who do will endorse his arguments and continue to cloak their anti-Semitism in a faux concern for the Palestinians.
In the same vein, I cannot claim that Janet Albrechtsen’s recent claims on her blog that ...
... a significant distinguishing feature between Muslim countries and the West has been our belief in freedom of expression ...
... show that she hates Muslims per se, even if she refuses to distinguish between different Muslim-majority states.

(I myself have gone on record about the lack of freedoms citizens in most Arab states enjoy. However, I distinguished between Arab League states (who make up around 15% of the world’s Muslim population) and other states. I also don’t cast aspersions on all 1.2 billion, knowing that around one third live as minorities.)

But will Albrechtsen’s arguments, ostensibly defending a far-Right Dutch politician’s freedom to compare Muslim scriptures with Hitler’s autobiography, be endorsed by people who do hate Muslims and allow them to cloak their hatred in a faux concern for freedom of speech? Read the 7 pages of moderated comments and judge for yourself.

Or to use language Albrechtsen will no doubt appreciate, being the free speech crusader she is, should the rights of a far-Right Dutch MP to offend racial and religious minorities be deemed more important than that of a British columnist? Indeed, the big question in my mind is this: why didn’t Janet Albrechtsen raise her voice in defense of Michael Backman? I won’t bother holding my breath for an honest answer.

Writing in the New York Times on January 29, Dutch journalist Ian Buruma addresses the prosecution of far-Right MP Geert Wilders. He begins with this observation:
IF it were not for his hatred of Islam, Geert Wilders would have remained a provincial Dutch parliamentarian of little note.
(I can't help but wonder the same about Janet Albrechtsen, whose rise to fame was on the back of her rather creative use of the work of European academics.)

Buruma provides the context of the Wilders prosecution, something Albrechtsen finds impossible to do with an equal degree of clarity.
[Wilders] is now world-famous, mainly for wanting the Koran to be banned in his country, “like Mein Kampf is banned,” and for making a crude short film that depicted Islam as a terrorist faith — or, as he puts it, “that sick ideology of Allah and Muhammad.”

Last year the Dutch government decided that such views, though coarse, were an acceptable contribution to political debate. Yet last week an Amsterdam court decided that Mr. Wilders should be prosecuted for “insulting” and “spreading hatred” against Muslims. Dutch criminal law can be invoked against anyone who “deliberately insults people on the grounds of their race, religion, beliefs or sexual orientation.”
Buruma acknowledges that Wilders' supporters are not all far-Right fruitloops.
Whether Mr. Wilders has deliberately insulted Muslim people is for the judges to decide ... When the British Parliament refused to screen Mr. Wilders’s film at Westminster this week, he cited this as “yet more proof that Europe is losing its freedom.” His defenders, by no means all right-wingers, also claim to be standing up for freedom. A Dutch law professor said he found it “strange” that a man should be prosecuted for “criticizing a book.”

Buruma then identifies the method used by Wilders, and in doing so provides an effective and nuanced antidote to Albrechtsen's simplistic linear free-speech rant.
In a bewildering world of global economics, multinational institutions and mass migration, many people are anxious about losing their sense of place; they feel abandoned by their own elites. Right-wing populists like Geert Wilders are tapping into these fears.

Since raw nativism is out of fashion in the Netherlands, Mr. Wilders does not speak of race, but of freedom. His method is to expose the intolerance of Muslims by provoking them. If they react to his insults, he can claim that they are a threat to our native liberties. And if anyone should point out that deliberately giving offense to Muslims is neither the best way to lower social tensions nor to protect our freedoms, Mr. Wilders will denounce him as a typical cultural elitist collaborating with “Islamo-fascism.”

It is tempting to conclude (as Albrechtsen suggests) that Wilders is merely seekng to criticise a religious belief. Followers of that belief need not be afraid of that criticism. But is Wilders really just criticising a religious belief?

Comparing a book that billions hold sacred to Hitler’s murderous tract is more than an exercise in literary criticism; it suggests that those who believe in the Koran are like Nazis, and an all-out war against them would be justified. This kind of thinking, presumably, is what the Dutch law court is seeking to check.

One of the misconceptions that muddle the West’s debate over Islam and free speech is the idea that people should be totally free to insult. Free speech is never that absolute. Even — or perhaps especially — in America, where citizens are protected by the First Amendment, there are certain words and opinions that no civilized person would utter, and others that open the speaker to civil charges.

This does not mean that religious beliefs should be above criticism. And sometimes criticism will be taken as an insult where none is intended. In that case the critic should get the benefit of the doubt. Likening the Koran to “Mein Kampf” would not seem to fall into that category.

If Mr. Wilders were to confine his remarks to those Muslims who do harm freedom of speech by using violence against critics and apostates, he would have a valid point. This is indeed a serious problem, not just in the West, but especially in countries where Muslims are in the majority. Mr. Wilders, however, refuses to make such fine distinctions. He believes that there is no such thing as a moderate Muslim. His aim is to stop “the Islamic invasion of Holland.”

There are others who share this fear and speak of “Islamicization,” as though not just Holland but all Europe were in danger of being engulfed by fascism once again. Since Muslims still constitute a relatively small minority, and most are not extremists, this seems an exaggerated fear, even though the danger of Islamist violence must be taken seriously.

However, a closer look at the rhetoric of Mr. Wilders and his defenders shows that Muslims are not the only enemies in their sights. Equally dangerous are the people whom Mr. Wilders and others refer to obsessively as “the cultural elite.”
Yep, those blasted leftwing university-educated elites who can only be exposed by their exact opposite - rightwing edlites with doctorates in law who get appointed to the boards of national broadcasters.

So what do I think of the movie? Well, I'm still wondering what all the fuss is about. It's rather ordinary, dare I say "undergraduate" and somewhat "ill-informed". The responses of another bunch of Muslim "elites" can be viewed here, and you can also

My Dutch co-religionists didn't exactly feel threatened by the movie.
The lawsuit against Mr. Wilders has been hailed in the Netherlands as a good thing for democracy. I am not so sure. It makes him look more important than he should be. In fact, the response of Dutch Muslims to his film last year was exemplary: most said nothing at all. And when a small Dutch Muslim TV station offered to broadcast the film, after all other stations had refused, the grand champion of free speech resolutely turned the offer down.
I guess that's what happens when you aren't one of the elites.

Speaking of which, feel free to watch the movie here and judge for yourself. I doubt Janet Albrechtsen would have the guts to broadcast this freely-available YouTube clip on her elite blog.

Words © 2009 Irfan Yusuf

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