A 2006 debate, in fact, between myself and Imran Khan (the lawyer not the cricketer) on the issue of Islam, free speech and the Danish cartoons for a special Channel 4 Dispatches programme. I had not realized that the broadcast was available on YouTube. The issues we debated remain strikingly relevant. Perhaps the most telling moment came when the moderator Jon Snow announced an audience poll to see whether the cartoons should be shown on the programme. The audience overwhelmingly voted ‘Yes’. But… you can probably guess what happened next.
I was, however, and still am, deeply infuriated by the way that Channel 4 framed the debate. I had agreed to discuss the question of whether free speech should include the right to offend. Channel 4 wanted to pose it in terms of ‘Muslims versus free speech’, which I rejected. I got an agreement from the producers that the final question to the audience would not be ‘Are Muslims a threat to free speech?’, as was originally proposed, but ‘Should free speech include the right to give offence?’ On the night of the debate, however, the producers restored the original question without informing me. Afterwards, Channel 4 claimed to have got the questions ‘muddled up’. As if.
Channel 4’s attitude was symptomatic of the way that people think about these issues today: a combination of cowardice when it comes to defending free speech and the right to give offence, combined with a desire to single out Muslims as the problem. As I put it in the conclusion of my interview last year with Flemming Rose, the culture editor of Jyllands-Posten which originally published the Danish cartoons:
Both sides… have hijacked the issue of free speech, bending and distorting the concept of liberty until it has become almost meaningless. On the one side are those who ostensibly defend free speech, but do so only in tribal terms, for whom the defence of free speech is a weapon to be wielded by the West against Islam… On the other are those who ostensibly defend liberties, and Muslims, but only by constraining free speech, incarcerating the very means by which we are able to think and debate and argue, and to create a more progressive society. Both sides are, in their different ways, enemies of free speech, of liberty, of our essential humanness.
Or, as Salman Rushdie asks in The Satanic Verses of his two anti-heroes, Saladin Chamcha and Gibreel Farishta, ‘For are they not conjoined opposites, these two, each man the other’s shadow?’
For more reading on free speech, see ‘The pleasures of pluralism, the pain of offence’, ‘Why hate speech should not be banned’, ‘On the right to satirise, provoke and be downright offensive’, ‘Shadow of the fatwa’, ‘Out of bounds’, ‘Offending the audience’, ‘Freedom of expression must include the license to offend’, ‘To name the unnameable’, ‘Free speech and cultural sensitivities: A debate’, ‘The wrong solution to the wrong problem’.