Yorkshire teenager Azhar Ahmed was having a rant last week on Facebook as many people often do. He had got apoplectically angry about media coverage of the deaths of six British soldiers in Afghanistan, contrasting it with what he saw as the silence that has shrouded the deaths of thousands of Afghani civilians:
People gassing about the death of Soldiers. What about the innocent familys who have been brutally killed.. The women who have been raped.. The children who have been sliced up..!
He added, ‘All soldiers should DIE and go to HELL! THE LOWLIFE FOKKIN SCUM!’
On Friday he had a knock on the door from the local police. He was arrested and charged with ‘racially aggravated public order offence’.
Ahmed’s rant was badly written, poorly-expressed, and would undoubtedly have offended some people. But what rant wouldn’t? It was a perfectly legitimate if ill-formed opinion. It is difficult to know in what way it was undermining public order (unless upholding public order is synonymous with ‘supporting the war in Afghanistan’), still less how it was ‘racially aggravating’. Ahmed never mentioned race, ethnicity or even culture or faith in his rant. As Padraig Reidy pointed out on the Index on Censorship blog, ‘the “racially aggravated” charge doesn’t stick unless one is willing to buy into the notion that Afghanistan is part of an ethno-religious war between “Islam” and “the West”’ – and that is the very line that jihadis have been promoting for years.
Azhar Ahmed was in effect arrested for being very angry. Even West Yorkshire police appeared to acknowledge this. ‘He didn’t make his point very well and that is why he has landed himself in bother’, claimed a spokesman. Is it now the job of the police to determine what is and is not a well-formed point? And if ‘not making a point very well’ is to be a criminal offence, then we should all expect a knock on the door.
Writing in the Los Angles Times last week, Jonathan Turley, professor of public interest law at George Washington University, pointed out the growing trend for the criminalization of speech. He observed, too, that the nature of state censorship is changing. ‘Where governments once punished to achieve obedience’, he suggested, ‘they now punish to achieve tolerance.’ Perhaps a better a way of understanding the shift is not so much that the state is now more concerned with tolerance than with obedience, but rather that ‘tolerance’ has come increasingly to mean ‘obedience’ or ‘conformity’.
The idea of tolerance has a long and convoluted history and its meaning has evolved over the centuries. Debates about tolerance have often been shot through with hypocrisy and double standards. I have written more than once about the refusal of John Locke, whose Letter Concerning Toleration is a key text in the development of modern liberal ideas about freedom of expression, to extend freedom and toleration to Catholics and to atheists. ‘No opinions contrary to human society, or to those moral rules which are necessary to the preservation of civil society,’ Locke insisted, ‘are to be tolerated.’
There has, nevertheless, been a fundamental shift in recent years in the meaning of tolerance. Tolerance, even given the hypocrisy and double standards, used to mean the willingness to air dissenting views that many found offensive and distressing. Today tolerance means, for many, the censoring of unacceptable views to protect people from being offended or distressed.
Tolerance is all too often now about the constraining of speech in the name of promoting a plural society. For plural societies to function and to be fair, runs the argument, we need to show respect for other peoples, cultures, and viewpoints. And we can only do so by being intolerant of people whose views give offence or who transgress firmly entrenched moral boundaries. As the British sociologist Tariq Modood puts it, ‘If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict, they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism.’ The preservation of diversity, in this view, ironically requires us to leave less room for a diversity of views.
I recently interviewed Flemming Rose, the culture editor of Jyllands-Posten, whose challenge to cartoonists to depict the Prophet Muhammad helped launch the Danish cartoon controversy, for an article for the upcoming issue of Index on Censorship. He, too, talked perceptively about the shift in the meaning of ‘tolerance’. Tolerance, he observed, should be ‘about the ability to be exposed, and to accept things you don’t like’, the ability ‘to live with what you find distasteful. What you don’t like, what you abhor’. But the concept has, in recent years, been ‘turned on its head’. Tolerance ‘is no longer about the ability to tolerate things for which we do not care, but more about the ability to keep quiet and refrain from saying things that others may not care to hear.’ These days, Rose observed, ‘tolerance is something demanded of the one who speaks, or the one who draws the cartoon, or writes the novel, rather than something demanded of the one who listens, or looks at the cartoon or reads the novel. That’s why I say that tolerance has been turned on its head.’
One does not necessarily have to agree with either Jyllands-Posten’s views about Islam or Azhar Ahmed’s views about the Afghan war. But in either case, tolerance cannot be about forcing them not to say what they wish, but accepting that they have the right to do so.
One final point. From the six-year prison sentences handed out to Muslim protestors for ‘inciting racial hatred’ and ‘soliciting murder’ during a rally in London against the publications of the Danish cartoons, to the imprisonment of radical preachers such as Abu Hamza and Abu Izzadeen, to the conviction (later rescinded on appeal) of Samina Malik, the so-called ‘lyrical terrorist’, there has in recent years been increasing criminalization of Islamic dissent. The arrest of Azhar Ahmed, while different in character to those other cases, can be seen as part of a trend in which unacceptable Islamist or anti-British views are criminalised.
On both sides of the Atlantic, the war on terror has provided a pretext to impose a clampdown on civil liberties. Ironically, the authorities have been aided in this by the actions of many of those now crying foul. They have been able to curtail Islamic dissent by exploiting a culture of censorship that already existed, a culture created by campaigns against offensive, blasphemous and hateful speech, campaigns often pursued in the name of ‘anti-racism’ and of protecting the rights of minority groups. Western government have grabbed the idea that it is wrong to give offence and transformed into a weapon against radical Muslims as well as against critics of Islam, or racist bigots. Liberals and anti-racists have long argued that not just harmful actions but bad thoughts and evil ideas, too, should be a matter for the criminal law. The authorities are now applying that belief not just to bigotry but to all kinds of ‘unacceptable’ dissent.
The moral of the story is that one should be careful about what one wishes for. If we invite the state to define the boundaries of acceptable speech, we should not be surprised if it is not just speech to which we object that gets curtailed.