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Free speech and double standards

Friday 13 March 2015, by siawi3


Kenan Malik

I have written an essay for the upcoming 40th anniversary issue of Index on Censorship that explores the changing character of the free speech debate in recent decades. It includes an interview with Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of Jyllands-Posten, whose challenge to cartoonists to depict the Prophet Muhammad helped launch the Danish cartoon controversy. I will publish the essay in full when the new issue of Index comes out in March. But here is a short extract that probes the question of double standards in Jyllands-Posten’s publication of the cartoons and in the broader campaign for free speech.

For the critics of Jyllands-Posten the cartoon controversy had little to do with free speech. It was simply about targeting Muslims. It is true that Jyllands-Posten is, as the critics suggest, a conservative paper, often hostile to immigration and obsessed by the threat of Islam. But that is an argument against its political stance, not against its right to publish cartoons that some may see as offensive or blasphemous. After all, it is not just those with nice liberal views who have the right to free speech; though increasingly many have come to believe that it should be.

More pertinent, perhaps, is the charge that, far from being a defender of free speech, Jyllands-Posten betrays double standards. A few years before the Mohammed controversy, the newspaper had refused to publish cartoons about Jesus by the caricaturist Christoffer Zieler. ‘I don’t think Jyllands-Posten’s readers will enjoy the drawings,’ the editor Carsten Juste wrote to Zieler. ‘As a matter of fact, I think they will provoke an outcry.’
Rose dismisses the charge of double standards. The drawings, he suggested, had actually been rejected because they had been ‘of poor quality’, but the editor ‘had made the mistake of not telling the artist directly’, instead ‘rejecting his work with reference to the possible offence it might cause to the paper’s readership’. Jyllands-Posten has, he says, often published cartoons offensive to Christians and Jews, including ones by Kurt Westergaard [the cartoonist whose depiction of Muhammad with a bomb for a turban caused the greatest controversy]. One Westergaard cartoon depicts Jesus on the cross with dollar signs in his eyes; another shows an undernourished Palestinian is caught up in a barbed-wire fence in the shape of the Star of David . ‘We were not specifically trying to offend Muslims rather than anyone else’, Rose insists.

Whatever what one thinks of this defence – and I, for one, remain unconvinced – there is no denying the long history of liberal hypocrisy about free speech. John Milton, whose Areopagitica, his famous 1644 ‘speech for the liberty of unlicenc’d printing’, is still rightly regarded as one of the great defences of free speech, opposed the extension of freedoms to Catholics. John Locke, upon whose work rests the philosophical foundations of liberalism, and whose Letter Concerning Toleration is a key text in the development of modern liberal ideas about freedom of expression and worship, similarly drew the line at extending freedom and liberties to Catholics and to atheists. ‘No opinions contrary to human society, or to those moral rules which are necessary to the preservation of civil society,’ he insisted, ‘are to be tolerated.’

Many contemporary defenders of free speech would similarly draw the line at Muslims, often for many of the same reasons. From Geert Wilders’ campaign to outlaw the Qur’an, to Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s support for the Swiss ban on the building of minarets, to Martin Amis’ ‘thought experiment’ on how ‘the Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order’ – hypocrisy and double standards are rife in contemporary debates about freedom and liberties. Such double standards can, of course, work both ways. While some are reluctant to extend basic freedoms to Muslims, or hold Muslims to standards not demanded of non-Muslims, others on the contrary are happy to criticise or ridicule Christianity or conservatism or communism in a way that they would not dream of doing to Islam.

At the heart of much of the discussion of double standards is the suggestion that because there is much hypocrisy about free speech, so censorship is acceptable. Since campaigners for free speech are often happy to restrict the liberties of others, particularly Muslims, so Muslims, the critics suggest, should be allowed to censor what they find offensive. It is an argument that makes no sense. Double standards need to be confronted, not by extending restrictions, but by extending speech, by ensuring not that everyone is equally deprived of liberties, but that all are equally sheltered by them. To see how we should deal with double standards today, we only have to ask ourselves how we should have responded in the age of Milton and Locke. Should we have suggested that the best way to deal with their anti-Catholic bigotry was to extend to everyone the restrictions that Milton and Locke wished imposed on Catholics? Or should we have argued that restrictions on Catholics were wrong and that all deserved liberty? With four centuries’ worth of hindsight the answer to most people is crystal clear. It should be equally so today, in response to free speech and the hypocrisy of anti-Muslim prejudices.