Freedom to criticise, or racism?
It seems that – one way or another – some people on this campus are intent on launching a sometimes overt, sometimes covert campaign against the Muslim members of our community. That is what I see in common between the attempt to ban Azzam Tamimi from speaking on campus after he was invited to do so by the Stop the War Coalition and the Palestine Society, the article in The Badger from four weeks ago telling us how Hamas is a horrible terrorist organisation and last week’s article in The Badger entitled ‘Freedom for criticism’.
This last article takes issue with probably the single commendable act of the British government for years. In effect, the Dutch parliamentarian and extreme right-winger (not that dissimilar to Nick Griffin and the BNP in this country) Geert Wilders was denied access to the country. This man has said that his film ‘Fitna’ aims to expose the intrinsically violent nature of Islam and how this religion constitutes a threat to ‘Western civilisation’. He has also argued that the Qu’uran is a ‘fascist’ book and should be banned. Now curiously enough, all this doesn’t make its way into an article entitled ‘freedom for criticism’. And to say that ‘the film shows some of the more vicious passages of the Qu’uran’ implies that the book is full of other less ‘vicious passages’, but nonetheless vicious and violent.
That’s not all though. To say that ‘our government’ is bowing ‘to pressure from a potentially violent minority’ is somehow suggesting that the people who are opposed to racism against Muslims are a minority and that this minority is ‘violent’ (read terrorist between the lines), thus anti-democratic and thus hostile to our so cherished Western value of freedom of expression.
Not for a second do I want to assume that the author of this article shares Geert Wilders’s views about Muslims. That’s why I want to focus on the way he presents the reaction of the Muslim community to such disgraceful and racist attacks as the Danish cartoons (which portrayed the Prophet Muhammed having a head which resembled a bomb, the association being that Muslims are terrorists). To start with, it wasn’t a minority which violently objected to it. It was the entire Muslim world, from the Maghreb to Indonesia which took to the streets in their millions. And they didn’t target Christian symbols, as someone who believes that there is today a clash of civilizations in the world would expect. They targeted the Danish and American embassies.
Why would they do that? Because they understand the Danish cartoons for what they are: a racist portrayal of what Islam is about coming from the countries which have sent their troops in the Middle East and have humiliated that region’s peoples. In other words, they see the cartoons as another manifestation of imperialism, and they are perfectly right.
‘The question then is not what to do about our so dear value of freedom of criticism, but what to do about racism’
For this is not about ‘being offended’ or not accepting criticism. Ever since the US’s war on terror begun, there has been a mounting wave of islamophobia in the West. Everywhere in Europe Muslims are viewed as potential terrorists. Muslim communities face aggression in all its different forms: from the odd look in the street, to openly racist remarks, to attacks on women wearing the hijab, to even attacks on mosques and properties owned by Muslims. Some European states have gone as far as banning the hijab from schools, the case of France. This is not offensive, it is purely racist, in the same way that Jews were targeted in the twenties and the thirties by Europe’s fascists and Nazis.
The question then is not what to do about our so dear value of freedom of criticism, but what to do about racism, or rather against it. Should we allow all those, like the BNP and the other fascist organisations of Europe such as Wilders’s Party For Freedom (PVV), Le Pen’s Front National in France or the Lega del Nord in Italy, to ‘freely express their views’? Or should we, if we are not the victims of this racism ourselves, stand by those who are, defend them and strike back together with them? It seems clear to me that this is the choice we are faced with and that for once the British government went the right way, albeit for reasons other than the ones I’ve just put forward.
For there has been a change in mood since last December and Israel’s atrocities in Gaza. The national demonstrations in London against the war in Gaza and the wave of occupations across the country have been full of anger and renewed anti-war militancy, especially on the part of the members of the Muslim community.
It is this renewed strength of the anti-war movement that has forced the government’s hand in refusing Wilders entrance to the country. But unfortunately, the government didn’t only react in that way. This renewed strength has also prompted the government to have the police arrest nine Muslims on board a mini-convoy and on their way from Blackburn to London to join George Galloway’s Viva Palestina humanitarian aid convoy to Gaza. They were arrested under anti-terror legislation. Their van had posters reading ‘Stop killing children, free Palestine’.
As Galloway commented, the timing of the operation suggests its aim was to intimidate the Muslim community and to clamp down on its renewed sense of anger and revolt. Why would the government want to do that, one might ask? Well, because a stronger anti-war movement means less room for maneuver for the British government in its efforts to assist the US in its war on terror – especially now that Obama has announced another 17 000 troops being sent to Afghanistan and that pressure is mounting on the US’s European allies to do the same. Pushing back the anti-war movement is the government’s aim, and it wants to do that by first attacking the most vulnerable of its members.
That’s why this is not an issue of ‘freedom for criticism’, but an issue of racism and imperialist war in the Middle-East. When Stop the War Coalition (StWC), of which I am proud to be a member, was launched in 2001/2, it had three slogans: No to War, No to attacks on civil liberties and No to the racist backlash against Muslims. The war on terror and the rise in islamophobia are intrinsically linked. We have to fight both. We’ve done that brilliantly on this campus with last month’s occupation. We need to keep it up. And we have a chance of doing that once again on 2nd April, in London. That’s where the G20 summit of the world’s leaders will take place. We all have to be there, taking part in the demonstration organised by various groups including StWC and CND, to say that we want the wars in the Middle-East to stop and that we want the racism against our Muslim brothers and sisters to end.