Recently two events made me question how the UK, and Europe in general, understand the concept of ‘freedom of speech’ – the invitation to attend the annual Buckingham Palace garden party extended to white supremacist BNP’s Nick Griffin and the Home Secretary’s decision to ban the popular Muslim tele-preacher Dr Zakir Naik from entering the UK.
There is no one single definition of ‘freedom of speech’ and an attempt to formulate one can only result in empty theorizing and utopian visions. Freedom of speech is linked to local, regional and international contexts, social realities, cultural differences and an understanding of what freedom means. What for one person is ‘freedom of speech’, for another is just ‘freedom of insult’ or ‘unacceptable behavior’.
States, as well as communities, limit individual rights of expression not because of the pleasure of doing so, but for fear of seeing their status quo, and hence power, challenged or questioned. However, the limitation of individuals’ right to express their thoughts and ideas is often justified by the argument that those ideas are ‘repulsive’ or ‘objectionable’ to the system of values held by a supposed majority (i.e. power holders). Said that, many of the ideas, values and concepts that are both well accepted and well liked today have been considered ‘objectionable’ or ‘repulsive’ at one time or another.
I suppose that when the new Conservative Home Secretary, Theresa May declared that, regarding the ban on Dr Zakir Naik’s visit, ‘visiting the UK was a privilege, not a right’, she is in her power to say so, since any state has the right to decide whom to allow on its soil. However, her statement continued by arguing that she banned the preacher from speaking in the UK because the “numerous comments made by Dr Naik are evidence to me of his unacceptable behaviour’.
Leaving aside that many of her characterizations of Dr Zakir Naik are the result of a Sunday Time article that decontextualized Dr Zakir Naik’s words, I am more interested in Ms Theresa May’s idea of ‘acceptable behavior’ in the context of liberal England. Indeed, it seems that Nick Griffin’s right to freedom of speech and ‘human rights’ tend to include those of offending, discriminating, and inciting violence against ethnic minorities, blacks and migrants, particularly if Muslim.
So high was the consideration Nick Griffin’s right to ‘freedom of speech’ that the government-controlled BBC felt it had to provide him with a prominent opportunity to address the nation in order to advocate, although in a debate, his ideas and ideology.
Of course, the Home Secretary has, if she so desires, the power to ban, limit, and exclude from certain events, and/or the national broadcaster, and/or the political scene, both the BNP and Mr Griffin. Yet in the name of ‘freedom of speech’ such a party (but see also the most recent and violent anti-Muslim militia, the English Defense League) is usually allowed to continue its ‘unacceptable behaviour’ and spread what for many British people are unacceptable ideologies of hatred.
I do not think that I need to spend too much time to emphasize, in the era of digital communication and the Internet, the futility of banning somebody from addressing an audience. Indeed, in the case of Dr Zakir Naik, lectures are widely available in e-books, online videos and, in his case, mosque book stores, deflating the scope of the ban and making it just a polemic and a political stunt. Hence, I wish to concentrate here on one important aspect of this ban.
Increasingly British Muslims, together with many Europeans, believe that their countries (and here I am speaking of Britain, or other EU countries, where they were born and raised) apply to them and their religion identifiable double standards as far as freedom of speech is concerned (for instance, Geert Wilders was allowed to preach in the UK). Indeed, there is some evidence to allege that Muslims, when saying something controversial, tend to pay more in consequences, and be more under the media spotlight, than non-Muslims, even when the non-Muslims are extremists (and perhaps even violently so).
The consequence of these feelings among the Muslim communities in the UK have been very visible during my research. As many other young people of their age, some young Muslims question their social political realities. This questioning is often based on a request for ‘justice’ and ‘equality’ of treatment. Such questioning may generate a ‘cognitive opening’ in some people, in particular when real social-political problems exist, where beliefs and values are re-evaluated and an attraction to more radical views may develop. In its history, post-war Europe saw many young people attracted to political extremisms (extreme-left as well as extreme-right, or for instance, more recently, Ecoterrorism).
I wonder why young British Muslims are seen as different from other previous European generations, which had their share of troubled and violent individuals. Today, political ideologies are less popular, but we have witnessed an increase of radicalism in general within European populations– religious, ethnic, xenophobic, and so forth.
Some young Muslims, as many other non-Muslims, are experiencing frustration with the social issues they encounter in contemporary life, such as unemployment, social pressure and discrimination. Yet they are not attracted to old ideologies. At the same time, however, they increasingly perceive the existence of double standards. Muslims are subjected–and demonstrably so (see the recent case of the cctv cameras for Muslims)– to continual questioning, investigation and suspicion, while, at the same time they feel prevented from questioning their own society.
Increasingly, even the silent Muslim majority, that used to rebuke the radical minority for their idea that Muslims/Islam ‘are under attack’, are expressing their loss of confidence in the democratic liberal system to respect and protect them. There is increasingly a sense of dystopia since a growing number feel that Muslims are told one thing (i.e. trust the liberal democratic system, the freedom of speech, the justice of British values) but treated in a way that continuously contradicts those elements (including an astonishingly anti-liberal mass surveillance). Some Muslims, particularly the young, find themselves in a form of double bind (which Bateson has so well theorized) which, in some cases, may led to radical acts of identity.
Decisions such as that which the Home Secretary has taken against a preacher, whom cannot be presented as a new ‘bin-Laden’ regardless of however much one may disagree with him, while continuing to tolerate (in the name of freedom of speech) more and more challenging racist and neo-fascist organizations such as the old BNP and the new English Defense League, among others, create this sense of double bind within a community that is increasingly stressed – also by international events.
If I had the occasion to advise the Home Secretary, Theresa May, I would say that today she may have two options in order to avoid an increasing number of disaffected young Muslims. The first one, which is the most difficult but coherent with the often-preached ‘British values’, is to let people, regardless of how ‘objectionable’, speak and then criticize their argument pointing out, in clear way, why they are flawed. This approach is no different from how the BNP or the English Defense League are actually treated. Another solution, that is perhaps easier to control and to administrate, is to adopt a legislation similar to the one existing in Singapore on ‘religious harmony’ (see the recent case of Pastor Rony Tan) and racial harmony.
In this case, it means to accept that, in some contexts and realities, freedom of speech needs to be limited for the good of all society, in particular for protecting all from all ‘unacceptable behaviour’ and ideas. In one way or another, we have to admit that the present ad hoc banning, or the numerous special legislations, together with an over zealous state concern that targets what in reality is the peaceful majority of the Muslim population, will not provide Britain with the ‘harmony’ which today it so desperately needs in order to face one of the most challenging times of its history.