If I deliberately wound up an angry, resentful acquaintance to the point where he went on a rampage and murdered someone, I like to think I would have some regrets, that the important detail would not be the fact that it was my right to make the points I did, in the manner I did, but that I had caused someone to kill and someone to die.
Similarly, I like to believe that if a teacher called to say my child was insisting on her right to criticise the physical, intellectual and social shortcomings of some of her classmates, and that it was causing those classmates distress, then I would have a word with my child about her behaviour.
I would also like to think that were I the editor of a French satirical magazine, having just watched as swaths of people across a number of countries erupted into sometimes fatal anger over a film they believed had insulted them, I would not think: “Cool. Let’s see if we can stoke that nightmare right up again.”
However, an astonishing number of people seem to feel differently. The right to free speech is not in the least abused, it seems, when troublemaking hotheads decide their provocative opinions have more legitimacy than any other consideration within the complex matrix of human responsibility.
The right to offend is precious. The right to taunt large numbers of already resentful people is the acme of freedom, civilisation and sophistication. Apparently.
Many of the people who defend so ardently the right to offend would call the police immediately if a mob of angry people decided to stand on their doorstep and tell them they were selfish, little narcissists who ought to be ashamed of themselves. Why? Because – no offence – they were all of those things and hypocrites as well.
But who really thinks the right to offend is inalienable? Who believes that some hideous error was made when it became untenable to put a sign on the door of your pub saying: “No Irish, no blacks, no dogs”? Is there anyone who thinks the world would be a better place if high levels of homophobia were lauded as a wonderful sign that the right to free speech was being enthusiastically upheld? And who would think it fair and sensible if the primacy of free speech dictated that there could be no such thing as slander or libel?
Free speech does not confer the right to be wrong, mistaken, biased or merely a doggedly axe-grinding pain-in-the-ass about your pet hates. It is by no means a settled fact that there is no God, that Muhammad was not his final prophet and that the world would not be a better place if everyone submitted to his teachings. I am absolutely certain that it is bunkum, but I can’t prove it. So until someone tries to make me live my life as if Islam were an indisputable fact, I am happy to let Muslims arrange their own lives under whatever legal set of narrative values they prefer. That, to me, is the most vital western value – not the absolute and untrammelled freedom to shoot my mouth off, whatever the ghastly consequences.
Happily, the teachings of Islam don’t contradict those truly fundamental values. Yes, a lot of hideous acts are perpetrated in the name of Islam, acts that most Muslims abhor. But a lot of hideous acts are perpetrated in the name of liberal democracy, too, without invalidating all aspects of liberalism or democracy. Neither belief system is perfect, and therefore, surely, neither can claim the perfect right to condemn and ridicule the other.
Furthermore, many of the Islamic values the west finds so reprehensible were our own settled values too, until embarrassingly recently. Islamic homophobia? Not acceptable.
Yet gay people in Britain only achieved the same rights to legal sex as heterosexuals in 2001. Islamic inequality in its treatment of men and women? Don’t start me. Yet I remember a time when two women walking into a pub together was like two pheasants wandering on to a shooting range.
Barbarous Islamic punishment? We hanged our last murderers in 1964. Some Islamist groups’ yearnings for world domination? Britain parcelled out the land of another people like it was the family allotment, as recently as 1948.
Of course, most extremist Islamists (not all Muslims) are hypocrites too. They reserve the right to condemn the secular values of the west, even as they threaten to kill those who condemn the religious values they cleave to themselves (or any more handy proxy who happens to be within reach). They demand unconditional respect for Islam, while reserving their own right to despise and revile the west.
The worst irony? Despite the many differences between the Islamic world and the west, we have one vast arrogance in common: we won’t content ourselves with living and letting live. We each want our values to be universally adopted. We each want to be proved right. We each want to win.
The west won’t win by antagonising those Muslims who can be relied on to rise to the western dog whistle. It scores a few petty propaganda points, that’s all. And Islamists won’t win by antagonising those westerners who rise to the Islamic dog whistle. Telling the west it can’t criticise Islam, any more than Muslims can, is like a red rag to a bull.
Mass Arab street protest thrills the west when we agree with it – as with the Arab spring – and appals if we don’t – as when we see a heated anti-American uprising. Yet indiscriminate anti- Americanism is no more or less valid than indiscriminate Islamophobia. Maybe it is time for both western and Islamist hotheads to have a think about this, for example: “Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.” (Quran 13:11). Smart advice. Works for everyone.
Islamists need to stop attacking the west, and issuing fatwas against those outside the Islamic belief system. Likewise, the west needs to solve its own problems, rather than insisting on interfering in the affairs of Muslims, while failing to admit that previous interference might have provoked much of the “Muslim rage” that westerners find so “medieval”. In fact, the finger-wagging criticism from Islamaphobic zealots is just more of the “We know what’s best; you do what you’re told” attitude that has already caused such mayhem. It is time for both parties to get a grip.