The racist fascist in the Queen’s Garden, the fundamentalist preacher on the plane

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.

8 thoughts on “The racist fascist in the Queen’s Garden, the fundamentalist preacher on the plane

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  1. Islam doesn’t prevent freedom, but rather channels it such that one persons freedom doesn’t infringe on another persons freedom!

  2. I’m busy at the moment Gabriele, thanks for responding. I’m a strong supporter of freedom of speech and as my own blog says I favour the US model (meaning their constitution). I utterly reject the idea that a racialist grouping such as the BNP are in some way equal to or for that matter as violent as Islamic extremists. I will clarify my views on freedom of speech later when I have the time and make no apologies for offending religious groupings. There should be no right not to be offended by any religious group of whatever persuasion they may be IMHO. I’ll get back to you as to where I feel the law should be. Basically with the exception of the archaic blasphemy laws I feel the UK had it right until recently. More to follow.

    1. Dear Paul,
      thank you for your kind reply. At least we have something in common – both of us like the US model of freedom of speech. I still think that you underestimate the problem that the new neo-nazi movement will become in Europe. I suppose that, indeed, you have never, unlike many Italians, suffered the mass murder of neo-nazi terrorism in your country. That kind of terrorism can appear again with the excuse of ‘getting rid’ of Islam from the West. I have no problem with criticism of religion. In general, I dislike offenses to groups, ideas and people. To be offensive means often not to have an argument. Yet you have the right to be offensive to religion and I suppose religious people may have the right to be offensive to your freedom of speech. Yet most ‘liberals’ seem ready to support any kind of offense towards religion, but when their ‘holy’ ideas of democracy and freedom of speech are attacked, they invoke punishments and secular forms of ‘blasphemy law’. I am sorry, but this kind of double standard does not convince me. Either a person is for freedom of speech, in favor of its regulation, or against it. Any hybrid of the above is an offense to the intellect. About the UK, I think that the Labour government has done its best to limit freedom of speech and assembly, but only for a certain section of the population. We will see what the future brings.
      look forward to reading you again

  3. Don’t you regard freedom of speech as important Dr Marranci? Where would the west be without it and part of that is the right to express criticism of and expose scrutiny to religions. I bet elements of the Catholic Church would love not to be exposed to the criticism they have been over paedophile priests for instance. To suggest that criticism of Islam be avoided so as to simply prevent acts of violence and intolerance by Muslims is a no brainer. Also suggesting that there is a parallel between white racialist groups such as the unpleasant BNP and Islamic supremacism is misleading. The latter are a minority and unpleasant nuisance in England. However Islamic supremacists such as the Muslim brotherhood are transnational in size and international in aspiration. Personally as a democrat I would be quite concerned to find an individual who advocates Shariah law on his blog agreeing with me on proposals to end freedom of speech on my blog but that is a separate issue.

    1. Dear Paul,
      thank you for your comment and for reading my blog.
      I think that more than once I have expressed here my views as far as freedom of speech is concerned. Yet I am not prone to utopianism and to say that the ‘West’ has ‘freedom of speech’, and particularly in this case the UK, is an over estimate. Surely if you are white, middle class and maybe educated you have a wide degree of freedom of speech, including the possibility to criticize a religion or discriminate against an entire community – as the BNP has done more than once. I suppose also that, if a person is white, the BNP or other trans-national right wing, often violent, neo-nazi movements are only a nuisance. You may agree that impressions depend upon the socioeconomic position one finds himself or herself in.

      Said that, my post was only an analysis of the consequences of the various levels of freedom of speech granted today to different communities. There is a difference that is easily statistically demonstrable. Full freedom of speech means to have the stomach for listening to what may be, for an entire society, extremely repugnant. I have yet to find a society which allows this. All the species of national freedom of speech I have encountered, even the most sophisticated (such as that which the American constitution grants), imposes restrictions.

      My argument is that differentiation these restrictions, and clear contradictions, have consequences and affect how communities and individuals see their own nations.

      Addressing your other point, I really do not see where in my post, or indeed entire blog, you can find that I suggest “that criticism of Islam be avoided so as to simply prevent acts of violence and intolerance by Muslims”. Of course you have the freedom to misread my writing, but I would appreciate an indication of where I have induced you to misread myself.

      Finally, I wish to point to you a very strong contradiction in your comment: you notice that one of the comments left in this discussion has been offered by a person whom presumably advocates Shariah Law. You say that I should be concerned by it. Yet you also state that people should have freedom of speech. I answer here with one of the most famous anti-Muslim, and antisemitic, philosophers Europe has known:

      I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.


      I hope to read you again.

  4. Wow! Two blog posts inside of a week. Impressive! 😉

    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.

    Heh. You’re arguing the position I’ve been making for years now; let me tell you, it’s a very unpopular position. But until so-called “free” speech is limited, the hatemongers will have a field day.

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