Free speech has suddenly jumped to the top of the political agenda. This is mainly because of the spreading protests provoked by the decision of a number of right wing European newspapers to reprint offensive cartoons portraying the prophet Mohammed that first appeared in the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten.
But the issue of freedom of speech was also at the heart of the trial of Nick Griffin and Mark Collett, leaders of the Nazi British National Party.
They were acquitted last week on charges of incitement after calling Islam a “vicious, wicked faith” and comparing asylum seekers to cockroaches.
This verdict makes left wing opponents of the Religious Hatred Bill look pretty stupid.
They had argued that extending to Muslims the same protection against bigotry and incitement to religious hatred that Christians, Sikhs and Jews currently enjoy was unnecessary since any serious cases would be covered by existing law.
But a key element of Griffin’s and Collett’s defence was that they had attacked Islam as a religion, and not Muslims on racial grounds, and therefore hadn’t broken existing legislation that makes incitement to racial hatred a crime.
This kind of specious distinction ignores the fact that since 11 September 2001 Islamophobia has become the most visible – and “respectable” – form of racism in the Western world.
Muslims, whose origins can be traced overwhelmingly to Africa, Asia and the Middle East, are subject to the same kind of demeaning and humiliating stereotypes from which, historically, Irish and black people have suffered in Britain and the US.
The Danish cartoon row illustrates this very clearly. Denmark can boast probably the most right wing government in Europe.
Prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen holds power thanks to the support of the viciously anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party. Denmark has troops in Iraq.
This is the climate in which Jyllands-Posten decided to “provoke a debate” by publishing cartoons doubly insulting to Muslims because they depicted Mohammed and associated him with terrorism. Fogh refused to meet Arab ambassadors who complained about the cartoons.
It is not true, as some idiot on the radio said the other day, that Islam prohibits all images.
As anyone who has read Orhan Pamuk’s novel My Name is Red will know, the great Muslim states that dominated western Asia in the 16th and 17th centuries – the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal empires – developed very rich traditions of visual art.
But when the prophet appeared in these pictures, his face was always blank. To portray him full-face wearing a turban with a bomb in it, as Jyllands-Posten did, was a direct insult to Muslims.
The papers such as Die Welt in Germany and France-Soir that reprinted the cartoons last week justified this on the grounds that free speech is an “absolute”. This is complete rubbish.
If there are no limits to free speech, would it be okay for newspapers to publish child pornography on their front pages? And is the only reason why they don’t do this that they would be prosecuted? The answer to both these questions is of course no.
Freedom of speech is an important value in a democratic society, but everyone acknowledges that there are limits to it.
The US supreme court has developed the doctrine of “fighting words”, “which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite a breach of the peace” and therefore are not covered by the right to free speech protected by the First Amendment to the constitution of the US.
Socialists argue that fascists like Griffin shouldn’t be given a platform because their racist propaganda isn’t just the expression of an opinion.
It is a means of developing a mass movement that attacks members of racial minorities and anti-fascists. It aims to seize power and repeat Hitler’s barbarities.
Many commentators have compared the Danish cartoons row with the furore provoked by Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel The Satanic Verses. In it Rushdie presented a fictional, alternative history of the origins of Islam.
The book caused great offence among Muslims, including many in Britain, and led to the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini issuing a judgment (fatwa) condemning Rushdie to death.
There is no comparison between The Satanic Verses and the Danish cartoons. The latter are crude attempts to insult Muslims, while Rushdie’s novel was a complex work of art by an author of Indian Muslim origins who was trying explore the roots of the faith into which he was born.
Socialist Worker defended Rushdie’s right to publish The Satanic Verses. But we also recognised the real anger and hurt the novel caused among Muslims in Britain and other Western societies.
The book, rightly or wrongly, came to symbolise the humiliation and discrimination Muslims suffered, and indeed continue to suffer.
The Rushdie affair marked the beginning of a campaign by many Western liberal intellectuals to portray Islam as a uniquely dark, barbaric religion incompatible with modern democratic and scientific practices. This paved the way for contemporary Islamophobia.
Many of these intellectuals claim to take pride in the way in which the Enlightenment of the 18th century liberated Europe from the domination of Christianity.
For example, Joan Smith writes in the Independent on Sunday that “the conflict isn’t between civilisations but between pre and post-Enlightenment notions about the place of religion”.
But such an argument essentially reproduces longstanding stereotypes of Islam that ignore its complexity and the cultural richness of many of the societies where it has been the dominant religion.
These images derive from the era when Europe called itself “Christendom” and saw the advanced Islamic states as dangerous rivals.
There has also been much invocation these last few days of Voltaire, the leading figure in the French Enlightenment, and his campaign against the Catholic church. But once again there is no comparison.
In the 18th century different Christian churches, Catholic and Protestant, were the official religions of the various European monarchies.
They enjoyed an ideological monopoly and viciously persecuted, with state support, members of other Christian cults. Taking the church on, as Voltaire did, took real courage.
Islam in Europe today is the religion of a poor, stigmatised minority that suffers from systematic discrimination.
In Britain, for example, Muslims come at the bottom of every social and economic indicator. Anti-Muslim campaigners like the Dutch MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali aren’t brave heroes but advocates of state bullying of the weak.
Particularly since 11 September 2001, European governments have adopted strategies towards their Muslim populations that combine repression and incorporation. Repression – and ideological intimidation – predominate in much of northern Europe.
Denmark and the Netherlands offer leading examples of this policy, as does France’s law banning Muslim school girls from wearing headscarves.
In Germany, according to last Sunday’s Observer, “the Christian Democrat run state of Baden-Württemburg introduced a ‘Muslim’ test, where Muslim applicants for German citizenship are questioned about their views on 9-11, gay relationships and whether their daughters should be allowed to join swimming lessons.” So much for liberal values!
But there is another strategy that is being pursued by the British government, which was quick to condemn the republication of the Danish cartoons.
Since last July’s bombings New Labour has been trying simultaneously to seduce and intimidate Muslim leaders. The intimidation takes the form of more attacks on civil liberties plus the demands that the Muslim community should “denounce terrorism”, where “terrorism” is extended to cover all forms of resistance in Palestine and Iraq.
But Muslim leaders are also being offered a deal by the government. If they become less strident in their criticism of the “war on terrorism”, their reward will be greater official consultation and recognition.
The controversial Muslim theologian Tariq Ramadan has been widely denounced on the continent as an ideologue of Islamist extremism. But here he is a government adviser who argues that British Muslims should “engage” with the wider society.
Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London, is also playing an important role in the government’s efforts to draw British Muslim leaders into line.
Though he rejoined the Labour Party two years ago, Livingstone enjoys great credibility in the Muslim community because of his anti-racist record, his support for the Palestinian people and his opposition to the war in Iraq.
The media hue and cry over protests by small radical Islamist groups outside the Danish embassy in London will no doubt be used to put yet more pressure on Muslim leaders to dissociate themselves from the suicide bombers, and any opposition to the government.
This puts a huge onus on the left in Britain and the rest of Europe. It is up to us to show that there is an alternative to the main options presented to Muslims by the establishment – silence, repression, or the dead end of Islamist terrorism.
This means among other things that we must reject Islamophobia and not allow ourselves to be fooled by the phoney arguments about free speech currently doing the rounds.
Any socialist worth the name will stand by the real victims of oppression and exploitation and fight side by side with them for a better world.