Time to Re-read ‘On Liberty’

Timothy Garton-Ash talked to Ayaan Hirsi Ali last week. He didn’t think ‘Submission’ was a very good film (I know people who agree with him, including people from the Netherlands), but he thinks it makes a necessary point.

However, I have not a shadow of a doubt that Ali’s script is trying to make an important point about the suffering of women oppressed in the name of Islam – suffering that Ali knows at first hand both from her own experience and from acting as an interpreter for other women from Muslim backgrounds in the Netherlands. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is much more than just a voice for the voiceless oppressed. In person, she is a thoughtful, calm, clear, almost pedantic spokeswoman for the fundamental liberal values of the Enlightenment: individual rights, free speech, equality before the law.

Which makes her the best kind of voice for the voiceless oppressed. The other kind just leave them voiceless.

But her central claim seems to me vital and irrefutable: if being a free country means anything at all, it must mean that people have the chance to criticise freely, and without fear of reprisal, Islam, Hinduism or Sikhism, as they now in practice have the chance to excoriate Christianity (despite Britain’s ridiculous blasphemy laws), Judaism or, for that matter, Darwinism.

That ‘Darwinism’ thing is stupid – it’s like those old ‘which object doesn’t belong’ question on intelligence tests. Ding ding! Not a religion! But anyway.

This right to free speech, which is to an open society what oxygen is to human life, is under direct threat from people whose position is very simple: if you say that, we will kill you. And not just in the case of Islam. Remember that violent protests and death threats from extremists in Britain’s Sikh community forced the playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti into hiding, and her play Behzti off the stage in Birmingham. How does our government react?…By making the right noises about tolerance, peaceful protest and free speech. But also – shamefully, stupidly, cravenly – by itself proposing to restrict that right, in an ill-considered, ill-drafted bill to bar “incitement to religious hatred”. Among the motives behind the reintroduction of this already once rejected bill in Labour’s last election manifesto were appeasement of some self-appointed spokespersons of the Muslim community in Britain and transparent political opportunism…

Exactly. Appeasement of self-appointed spokespersons of the ‘Muslim community’. Pretty craven and stupid all right.

Now here’s what Tony Blair, the home secretary, the attorney general and the rest of the cabinet need to do. First, they should go back and read the magnificent pages in which John Stuart Mill explains why what he calls the “collision of opinions” is vital to the preservation of liberty, and why it is “obvious that law and authority have no business with restraining” attacks on either religion or what he calls “infidelity”…Then they should reflect on the example of a brave Somalian woman who, inspired by authors such as Mill, is risking her life every day to maintain our right to free speech.


2 Responses to “Time to Re-read ‘On Liberty’”