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Copenhagen - Time for Solidarity and Supporting Free Speech

17/02/2015 13:01 | Updated 17 April 2015

Imagine university students concerned about a platform being given by their debating society to a "radical feminist" that took a chainsaw to a crucifix while bare breasted. As far as they are concerned, it goes against religious sensibilities, is playing to the patriarchy that sexually objectifies women. Other students see her as anti-sex workers, given the early beginnings of the feminist movement she is a part of. What unites them is their tactic of no platforming by protest and if needs be direct action so the event gets canceled.

The person described is Inna Shevchenko, and she was speaking at a Copenhagen cafe this Valentines Day, when a gunman opened fire from outside, having been denied entry. His contribution to the "Art, blasphemy and the freedom of expression" debate being hosted was firing over thirty bullets. A Danish film maker was killed and five police officers injured. Later he went to a synagogue celebrating a bat mitzvah, where a security guard barred entry to him. The gunman killed him before fleeing.

Silence falls in many ways. One by the sound of the gun having the last word with the victim. Threats of violence, as the fatwa on Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses. The debate in the cafe was marking the anniversary of that fatwa. Then the fear of meeting with people at such venues, or debating such topics openly - the very reason the event continued in the aftermath.

Lars Vilks, who organized the debate in Copenhagen, drew a cartoon of Mohammed as part dog with a caption that Islam stands for human and animal rights.

Some conservative Muslims see dogs as unclean. Also, as you are no doubt aware, drawing Mohammed can be extremely hazardous to your health. I have already written about Charlie Hebdo and the need to be more outraged at drawing blood than drawing cartoons. Here the point is as Islam is for human rights and animal rights, than assaulting or cruelty to other living beings would be as an assault on the prophet. Nothing artistic should provoke you into such an action because of your faith.

That was his point in 2007. In 2015 despite activists and cartoonists being shot at and killed, we still have to contend with such messages as: do not provoke.

Even after Paris, even after Denmark, we must guard against the understandable temptation to be provocative in the publication of these cartoons if the sole objective is to establish that we can do so. With rights to free speech come responsibilities.

That seems to me the moral approach, but there is a practical issue here too. There is no negotiating with men with guns. If progress is to come, it will be via dialogue with the millions of faithful Muslims who would never think to murder but also abhor publication of these cartoons. We cannot have that conversation in a time and spirit of provocation. And to have it would not be an act of weakness. The strong approach is not necessarily to do what is possible, but to do what is right.

So ends Hugh Mir in The Guardian. Well, there is a point to the cartoon above. Which can only really be described by showing. Lars Vilks and the people at the cafe, need support and solidarity rather than - you are part of the problem. As Inna states "We are in the middle of ideological war in Europe.They fight us with guns,we have to fight them with cartoons, street protests, speeches etc."

If Charlie Hebdo, Lars Vilks, Raif Badawi, Aliaa Elmahdy, FEMEN & others would NOT be alone in this fight, we would NOT become a [target].

This is how solidarity works. I do not think religion, Gods or prophets are anymore than fictions, which at best promote a common heritage, helping to shape a shared cultural identity and legacy. At worst, they become dogmatic, resilient to freethought and ideas which challenge their perceived wisdom in society. At their deadliest, extremism calls for blood for blasphemy in an ideal religious state. Fundamentalists are not prepared to wait for such a state, and will carry out the sentence anywhere in the world, against muslim and non muslim alike.

I recognise not all Muslims are extremists let alone fundamentalists in Europe and bigotry suggesting that they all are needs calling out for what it is. It would be ridiculous to excuse attacks on muslims because of the foreign policy of Saudi Arabia which has funded and exported extreme salafism around the world. Yet when it comes to attacks on Jews this has been readily excused as being provoked by the actions of Israel against the Palestinians (from conversation here). Anti-semitism might get mentioned as a factor, or dismissed entirely as Karen Armstrong did:

 "We're piling all the violence of the 21st Century on the back of religion, sending it away, saying we have nothing to do with religion. While we still have to deal with the political situation. The supermarket attack in Paris was about Palestine, about Isis. It had nothing to do with antisemitism; many of them are Semites themselves.

It feels that some are in denial that anti-semitism exists, just as anti-muslim hatred exists. Make it all political, all about foreign policy, forget religious extremism and hatred and that part of the problem is supposed to go away. To not provoke is to accept blasphemy as a social taboo even for an innocuous cartoon - as Maajid Nawaz tweeted of Mohammed saying "How ya doin'?"

That tweet, and the fallout that followed, was a year ago. Since we have seen blood spilt over the issue in Paris and Copenhagen. We have seen what religious hatred can do in a kosher supermarket and outside synagogue. A rise in attacks on muslims too. Now is the time for us all to speak up for each other's rights.

Instead, far from showing that support even if you disagree, I am left wondering if Inna would be allowed to speak at all English Universities. As a letter to The Observer from academics and others made clear:

"No platforming" used to be a tactic used against self-proclaimed fascists and Holocaust-deniers. But today it is being used to prevent the expression of feminist arguments critical of the sex industry and of some demands made by trans activists.

This came to a head with the recent cancellation of comedian Kate Smurthwaite's show. As Nick Cohen explains:

Last week, students at Goldsmiths College in London banned a performance by the fantastic feminist comedian Kate Smurthwaite in an act of neurotic prudery that bordered on the insane. Her show was on freedom of speech - yes, yes, I know. She told me that Goldsmiths did not close it because of what she had planned to say, but because she had once said that the police should arrest men who go with prostitutes and that she was against patriarchal clerics forcing women to wear the burqa. In the demonology of campus politics, these were not legitimate opinions that could be contested in robust debate. They marked her as a "whoreophobe" and "Islamophobe", who must be silenced.

Nick talks about other things happening - lecturers told not to discuss religion or feminism, secular groups banned from displaying Charlie Hebdo survival front cover. "Rather than being free institutions where the young could expand their minds, British universities were becoming "theological colleges" where secular priests enforced prohibitions."

By student groups actively no platforming, young people are themselves prohibiting the very controversy, offense and contrarian opinion which civil society needs to inform, stimulate and educate. Right now, people are failing to show solidarity when gunmen strike. Instead the message is do not provoke, do not dare to express anything that will inflame sensibilities. Do not even learn how to make a counter argument to those that you disagree with. Win by not letting them show up.

We cannot stop being alive, we cannot stop noticing the harm religious extremism and hatred causes. We will point out what fundamentalists are trying to do. We will show the limits they try to impose. We will show how people give tacit let alone explicit support to those that wish atheists, apostates and blasphemers dead.

The least you can do is not sympathise with the gunman as you blame the victim. If you are not prepared to take a flying bullet for them, you may at least be prepared to give a platform to the people that face them from fundamentalists.

Fight the fear together not alone.

Article originally written by John Sargeant on Homo economicus' Weblog