Wilders is criticised for comments he has made about banning the Qur’an. The accusation is that he is no free speech champion and that he is just “anti-Islam”.
But there’s more to this discussion. Wilders was highlighting the inconsistent application of Dutch hate speech laws (and bear in mind his own frequent arrests and court cases against him for hate speech), given that distribution of texts inciting violence is unlawful according to the Dutch Penal Code. In calling the Qur’an hate speech with reference to the Dutch Penal Code Wilders was simply asking for its consistent application.
In principle, I have to say as a lawyer that advocating the consistent application of Dutch law is a pretty reasonable thing for an elected Dutch politician to do. And as a secularist I would have to say that highlighting the inconsistent treatment of the Qur’an in the context of Dutch law is also a pretty reasonable thing to observe.
People may well disagree with some of Wilders’ views and analyses on free speech and hate speech, but it doesn’t follow that the LSS mustn’t share a platform with him on the specific free speech issue that is within the bullseye of the LSS’s remit (blasphemy), and on which we do agree with him (the right to depict Mohammed).
People will have differing views on exactly where and in what context a democratic, secular legal system such as Holland’s or our own should draw the line of criminal hate speech; that’s a separate legal discussion on which there is no obvious “secularist position”. But it’s very separate to the LSS’s remit of challenging blasphemy codes punishable by death (or punishable by anything). This event is in no way a call to “ban the Qur’an”. If it were, the LSS would have no interest in participating.
Another accusation against Wilders and Weston is that “they’re not secularists” or that they don’t share the other goals of secularists. I don’t even know whether they describe themselves as secularists and you know what? I don’t care.
We can’t restrict the people we share platforms with to those who describe themselves as secularists or who sign up to the entire “shopping list” of secularism causes (faith schools; Bishops in the House of Lords; council prayers, etc). Expecting to achieve goals in this way is politically stupid. It restricts secularists to sharing platforms with people they already agree with on everything and it consigns us to an eternal echo-chamber of mutual back-slapping where we mark our own homework. This strategic naivety is sadly the “Pause Button” on which I believe many secularists seem happy to remain in perpetuity. My view is that secularists should take a “Venn Diagram” approach,
co-operating with people where any of our interests intersect – even if it’s only one (and especially the most important one, free speech) – while exercising our judgment on a case by case basis.
The LSS’s priority should be to defend free speech and to support this event as fully as possible, and not to guard itself against baseless accusations of “racism”.
In any case, as we have seen over the years, such accusations will be thrown no matter what.
Look what happened to Charlie Hebdo. The Charlie Hebdo corpses are still regularly smeared as “racist”.
Look what happens to anyone who criticises any aspect of Islam, no matter how calmly or how factually they put forward their case.
Fear of being called “racist” has led to a truly epic scale of harm. It led to Trojan Horse. It led to the dreadful abuse in Rotherham and an identical model of abuse in many other places. It led to Lutfur Rahman’s ghastly personal fiefdom in Tower Hamlets. It led to FGM. It led to rampant extremism on campus. And it has led to a general reluctance to criticise Islam in its entirety.
We must not let this same fear determine our approach to this event – not when this is the key free speech battle of our era and when people are killed for the content that will be the subject of this event. It is no exaggeration to say that fear of being called racist could quite easily dismantle the superstructure of western civilisation as we know it.
A lot of people are very quiet about this event. For some reason I’m not feeling the whole “Je Suis Charlie” vibe. How very odd. My gut feeling is that many secularists and free speech advocates who oppose an LSS decision to speak at this event will feel too ashamed to criticise us publicly, or at least venomously, because their “Je Suis Charlie” cries will seem a bit hollow. It will show they’re more concerned about who the LSS happens to share a room with on one day than challenging murderous blasphemy codes. Talk about getting your priorities screwed up.
Yes, some people will call me and the LSS names. Is that what should determine the approach of lawyers to defending free speech when people are getting killed? Worrying about names you might be called when people are dying for drawing cartoons smacks somewhat of selfishness and narcissism.
A key theme after the Charlie Hebdo shootings was the need to “spread the risk”. Words are easy but actions are hard: we must implement that idea. There was a clear statement from the National Secular