The freedom to say hateful things

If you don't defend the liberty of people you despise, then you don't really believe in liberty at all
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Yusuf al-Qaradawi thinks I should be either thrown from a high cliff or stoned to death for being gay. He thinks my Jewish relatives should be slaughtered as "vile crusaders and infidels".

Yusuf al-Qaradawi thinks I should be either thrown from a high cliff or stoned to death for being gay. He thinks my Jewish relatives should be slaughtered as "vile crusaders and infidels". I strongly believe he should be free to come to Britain and make his case. Freedom of speech must include the freedom to say obscene, hateful things, or it is a fiction, a freedom behind prison walls. If you don't defend the liberty of people you despise, then you don't really believe in liberty at all.

There are two reasons why the media mob calling for the suspension of free speech should be resisted. Western societies are technologically and intellectually sophisticated because they are built upon 18th-century Enlightenment principles. The most basic of all these principles is that ideas should be openly discussed. Good ideas - ones that make things work or describe reality more accurately - will catch on, and bad ideas will be defeated in argument. No, it doesn't work in every instance; but the broad truth of these ideas has been the basis of all the progress we have enjoyed for centuries - and it's why totalitarian societies that suppress free speech so often remain trapped in poverty.

So today, we might censor a reactionary minority and ban a stupid thought; but once we begin to silence people we do not like, we clog up the engine of our progress. We create a dynamic towards censorship that is hard to contain. Okay, so this time it's an ultra-reactionary Muslim cleric we silence; go back half a century and the same case for silencing an inherently offensive argument could have been applied to the early gay rights' campaigners. Go forward a decade and we will be silencing people we cannot imagine today; some of them might turn out to be propagating important ideas. Freedom is indivisible.

The fact that this argument has to be made anew every time a controversial visitor - from Louis Farrakhan to Jean-Marie le Pen - wants to visit shows how poorly the concept of free speech has been integrated into the mindset of British people across the political spectrum. In the United States, the leftish American Civil Liberties Union routinely defends the constitutional right of neo-Nazis and other fascist groups to speak and demonstrate; they understand that civil liberties cannot be sliced up and still survive. The case for a written British constitution with a clause guaranteeing free speech has never seemed stronger (you can support it at www.Charter88.org.uk).

That's the principled argument against censoring al-Qaradawi. There's also a pragmatic case. Nothing makes an idea more attractive than banning it. Al-Qaradawi will become a cult figure if we censor him, just as I'm sure far more black Britons have been attracted to the Nation of Islam because of the ban on Louis Farrakhan. The best way to discredit foolish ideas is to let people hear them. Does anybody seriously think that al-Qaradawi's ideas - which include a hatred of Pokemon on the grounds that it promotes the "unholy notion of evolution" - will survive rational discussion? Do you imagine that most British Muslims who have grown up in advanced technological societies will do anything other than snigger?

You also have to be fairly ignorant of the history of radical Islam to believe it can be smothered at birth through censorship and suppression. Islamic fundamentalism has not been the product of excessively free societies that have allowed fundamentalists to run wild; it is the very opposite. If you look at its history over the past 70 years, it becomes clear that it has developed in closed societies where leading Islamic radicals were silenced.

Under the Shah, the Iranian state viciously suppressed open signs of Islam, and police ripped hajibs from Muslim women. Fundamentalism grew and grew until eventually Islamic fundamentalists took charge of the country in a revolution. In Turkey, where Muslims of all stripes have been given considerable freedom outside state structures, radical Islam has been far less popular. Islamic fundamentalism is a virus that grows in a culture where Muslims feel persecuted. Let Muslims hear al-Qaradawi and very few will rally to him; ban him, and most will instinctively feel sympathy for the man. The best remedy for Islamic fundamentalism is the Enlightenment: free societies with open dissent end up with fewer fundamentalists in the long run.

We should remember the role free speech has played in the soothing of the troubles in Northern Ireland. While Margaret Thatcher was cracking down on Sinn Fein and we were all prevented from hearing the voice of Gerry Adams, IRA recruitment soared. A significant part of the peace process was the normalisation of nationalists on TV and radio in 1994. Once they began to see representatives of people like them on television - venting anger, openly complaining about their conditions - radicalism began to soothe. Far from providing the "oxygen of publicity" for supporters of violence, free speech provides enough oxygen for angry people to breathe and hear their grievances reflected in the public arena.

There is only one instance in which it is permissible to block this freedom of speech, and that is when somebody issues direct, blatant calls for imminent violent acts. Al-Qaradawi must be free to say that gay people should be killed; but he should not be free to stand outside my house and call for an angry mob to kill me whenever I emerge. Abhorrent though his comments are - including advocating the targeting of Israeli civilians for murder - nothing al-Qaradawi has said publicly moves beyond the general to the specific, so there is no case for censoring him.

But what is the reaction of our Home Secretary to these tricky questions about free speech? Rather than defend the Enlightenment tradition that protects us all - including minority religious groups - he is busy advocating an attack on it by proposing laws that would forbid "incitement to religious hatred."

This would not draw Islam into the realm of legitimate discussion and dispute, where it belongs with all other faiths. No, it would ring-fence religion from attack. Already, an attention-seeking Muslim group has condemned a patron of the National Secular Society - which campaigns for all religion to be taken out of public life - as the "Islamophobe of the Year" after she made basic atheist criticisms of all faiths, including Islam. It is not hard to imagine the same group campaigning for a prosecution under the new law.

Of course, the law is intended for less intellectually sophisticated hatreds, but these are tricky (and illegitimate) lines to draw in legislation. Mary Whitehouse used the blasphemy laws to prosecute distinguished works of art, and her successors - who will leap on this new offence - are no less philistine.

So let al-Qaradawi say why he hates people like me; and let me say why I hate him (and other peddlers of religious homophobia) right back. Yes, it's noisy and messy, and it can be unpleasant, but it's called freedom. Perhaps somebody could mention the concept to David Blunkett.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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