Johann Hari: Free speech for all, Abu Hamza included

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The Independent Online

It's 13 September 2001, and I am kneeling in the Finsbury Park mosque listening to Abu Hamza howl. His speech has been dragging on for two hours - a mixture of chatty bouncer-wisdom and shouty, shrieky claw-waving jihad - and it's totally contradictory:

"These towers were taken down by the CIA!" he says with an elaborate description of the fall, drawing on his civil engineering degree. But then he shouts that "if" it was the "work of Allah", it was "glorious".

I didn't know it then, but in the clenched Allahu-Akbaring congregation there was a clutch of suicide-murderers, shoe-bombers and al-Qa'ida activists. In the basement, there was a stash of guns and biological warfare suits. In the bookshop, there was a special cheap rate on Jihad - Tactics for the Armed and Unarmed.

Even before Hamza was sent down for seven years, I had already been thinking of the sermons he delivered while the island of Manhattan was shrouded in smoke. My fellow liberals were busy tying themselves in knots about the Danish cartoons mocking Mohamed, and I was fuming in defence of free speech.

It seemed to me to be a staggeringly easy moral situation: in a free and democratic society, a newspaper had printed some silly cartoons breaching a religious taboo - and in return, the artists were being threatened with death by Hamza-style religious fundamentalists. Surely the only position for a liberal and a democrat to take is to rally to the side of the cartoonists? Sure, the cartoons were mostly lame and occasionally obnoxious. The image of Mohamed's turban containing a bomb implies that all Muslims are violent maniacs - an untrue and dangerous nonsense. But free speech is not the freedom to be nice. It is the freedom to be offensive, foolish or even racist, or it is nothing.

Yet many of my friends and political allies were, to my astonishment, turning on the terrified cartoonists, saying they should never have drawn Mohamed at all. A poisonous cliché sprang up: that this was a fight between "liberal fundamentalists" and Islamic fundamentalists, two equally extreme sides that reasonable people should reject. Do these people really believe there is moral equivalence between a system of free speech that protects everyone, Muslims included, and a superstitious taboo that proposes to erect a wall around one man and silence all criticism of him?

And that's when I thought of Abu Hamza's sermons. He (accurately) read out passages from the Muslim holy texts that far exceed these cartoons in offensiveness and provocation. He yelled the part of the Sura that says Allah despised the Jews so much he turned them into apes and pigs, "despised and rejected". He shrieked the part of the Hadith in which Mohamed says of homosexuality: "Kill the one that is doing it and also kill the one that it is being done to". He relished the passages in the Koran that say "lewd" women should be "confine[d] to their houses until death". All of these passages are used today, from Casablanca to Tehran, to justify hellish human rights abuses.

So are the people inveighing today against these cartoons also arguing for the censorship or voluntary abandonment of great chunks of the Muslim religious texts, along with the Christian and Jewish "holy" texts that have equally deranged pre-medieval moralities? Once you begin silencing people you find offensive, you cannot control where it will stop. It is right to jail Abu Hamza if he has committed violent acts, but not for speaking his mind. Instead of littering our society with taboos and thought-crimes, we need to promote debate. You don't like how I use my free speech? Fine - then use yours to argue against me.

I detest what Abu Hamza said, but it would never have occurred to me to call for him to be silenced. The solution to the offence caused by free speech is - always and irrevocably - more free speech.

TV's top rated torturers

Jack Bauer is blasting his way back on to Sky One this week for another preposterous but narcotic 24 hours of tracking down terrorists. But even as I love the show, I can't escape the fact it is another example of the lurch in post-9/11 American culture towards the sympathetic, no, glorified, depiction of torture. Jack, played by Kiefer Sutherland, rips out nails, rigs genitals up to electrocution equipment and threatens to shoot children, and we, the panting viewers, cheer him on.

He's not an anti-hero. He's a torturing hero. And he's not the only one; look at the Denzel Washington movie Man on Fire, or the psychotic cops in The Shield. This helps create a climate where George Bush can be outed by Amnesty International as using torture in Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo and probably in secret prisons in Eastern Europe, and the American people swallow it. Even when Bush was forced to sign up to John McCain's new law banning torture, he insisted it wouldn't change anything. Jack Bauer is still frying and stabbing his way across the world.

* The oil giant BP has been risibly rebranding itself as "Beyond Petroleum", while more than 95 per cent of its business is in... fossil fuels. They are actually increasing oil production and scavenging around the world's most ecologically sensitive sites. One group of shareholders warned at the start of the corporation's current glitzy relaunch campaign that the firm has spent more on its new "eco-friendly" logo than on all renewable energy sources, and only this week BP announced it has raked in £11.4bn in pure profit in the past year, an increase of 26 per cent - caused entirely by rising petrol prices. Not a penny of this has been earned: it is simply the result of Hurricane Katrina and instability in the Middle East. Isn't it time the Government listened to the cries of green groups and trade unions and imposed a windfall tax on this cascade of polluting unearned lucre?

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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