How do you balance between free speech and criticism of religion?

When Charlie Hebdo published cartoons of The Prophet Mohammed early in 2015 there was a violent and deadly backlash. The magazine’s office were invaded and several employees were murdered in cold blood. A few years ago a Danish magazine published other cartoons and there was a vociferous Muslim outcry. These and other events have prompted many commentators, comedians and controllers of various media to speak in defence of the ‘freedom of speech’. Why should they restrain themselves when discussing Islam? A new phrase ‘self-censorship’ has been coined and applies explicitly to matters with a Muslim and Islamic links. The implication is that commentators are being asked by the state or the establishment voluntarily to impose restrictions on what they say.

Let me say from the outset that I am not a Muslim but I have a personal interest in the history of religious practices and from that an interest in interfaith issues. Until late in life I had no idea what about Islam. Like many older people, my religious education did not introduce Islam as a religion, but from history I learned that Moors were ‘alien invaders’ spreading across North Africa until they were halted in Spain by Christians. My knowledge of the Crusades paints a picture of an ‘alien culture’. And Muslims are antithetical to Christianity in a now largely secular Western world.

As I learn more about Islam, I learn that its underpinning principles are sound, but that some Muslims just do not get it. These views can and should be challenged. This challenge will only prove successful if the challenger is informed.

Most Western commentators and opinion formers are ill-informed. I do not consider myself to be anywhere near the best informed but I know when I need to ask questions and undertake research.

For many of us, Muslims are people who have strange codes, have peculiar eating fads and a strange addiction to hygiene. Most of all they have a cruel method of slaughtering animals to eat. We have no idea that the ‘strange’ dress codes have evolved from a Middle Eastern culture that informs many Western dress codes – even if only in vestigial form. We fail to emphasise with the fact that in the Middle East, in particular, eating pig meat would have been a public health disaster and that hygiene is associated with the preparation of meat. Western professionals, who should know better, deny that correct halal slaughter is a humane process.

Most of us just do not understand Islam and fear it. We mistrust Muslims (hardly surprising when a violent rogue minority blow up planes over Egypt).

In the first week of November (2015) the BBC commissioned or permitted Roger Scruton to challenge the concept of “self-censorship” and the implied threat to the freedom of speech. Not only did he have two “Points of View” he was given a further run in an ensuing “Feedback”.

One comment leapt out immediately. It seems victims have a duty not to take offence. A second hit me after a goodnight’s rest and related to the antisemitism before World War II.

I am sorry but no one of us has the right to tell someone else that they are wrong to be offended. How do we know? We don’t. My nephew’s partner is christened “Katherine” and hates the short form “Kate”. Many shortened names are used endearingly. A colleague at work announced that she wants to be addressed as “Steph” because “Stephanie” is what mother calls her when she’s been naughty. We endearingly use other nicknames but do we know that the named party is happy with theirs. If they are not and say so repeated use constitutes bullying.

We must never presume that the targets of our “freedom of expression” will not and should not take offence. We need to negotiate. I call one young lady at work “Eric” (after Eric Morecombe). This was arrived at after negotiation. The details are work specific and personal. I am not sure that they would want others to copy me.

I doubt for one moment that Roger Scruton hates Muslims in general. No doubt he associates with some and may have worked closely with others with no ill-will.

Before the outbreak of World War II, antisemitism proved endemic. It was ‘normalised’. Those of use born during and after the WWII can only look back to the pre-war years through the prism of a modern attitude to Jews and Judaism. These are those post-Holocaust years and when we look back we cannot conceive Nazi Germany’s genocide. The post-Holocaust images simply haunt us – but this is after the event.

Just look at the Catholic Church’s complicated relationship with antisemitism and the death of Christ. Not until 1965 did the church acknowledge that Jews could not historically nor in the modern sense be collectively blamed for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Former Pope Benedict took this a step further in 2011.

Before WWII, antisemitism did not receive the scrutiny it would today. It was normalised and even parts of the Royal Family were not immune from it. This is important. Roger Scruton suggests that antisemitism occurred because “freedom of expression” was suppressed. He argues that non-Jews whose spoke in their defence were silenced but hold that thought: Jews were in a minority and a nominally Christian Western world was mostly antisemitic. Non-Jews speaking for Jews proved a minority.

Fast forward to 2015 and our understanding of Islam remains poor. Few non-Muslim community leaders know how to challenge the foundations underpinning anti-Muslim sentiment. Those people who do, people like me perhaps, are in a minority. Like Muslims themselves they have poor access to the media, which are no better informed than many community leaders.

Before the war I wonder if many reasonable people, especially those in leadership, ever thought to question why a minority group, Jews, should be ridiculed because they did not eat pig meat. Did they know why pig meat was offensive? Probably not. In 2015 and defiling a mosque with a pig’s head will be logged as specific hate crime. This was not some years ago. I recall the BBC broadcasting a comedy programme in which the victim of an analogous hate crime was mocked because he reacted to it. Yes, the victim overreacted and the reaction may not have been Islamic but “freedom of speech” currently permits such ridicule and Roger Scruton’s defence of this stance must surely be questioned by the “institutions” that seek to preserve the right to offend.

Bruce Brown (@theoldbrewer) writes in a personal capacity. You can find more of his musings here.