Gary Day

February 24, 2006

We live in a strange age. On the one hand, there's the preaching of modernisation, on the other the preaching of God. Preaching? Perhaps the two are not so different after all. Modernisation involves subjection to the market, which is every bit as whimsical as your average deity. Both have prophets, both have creeds, both have heresies and both have a system of rewards and punishment. Politicians, like priests, would love their language to be the only one in which we can think or imagine.

The Church did a pretty good job until the Enlightenment, while the contemporary triumph of the corporate idiom over independent thought is perfectly illustrated by the person - and I kid you not - who walked out of a meeting on the meaning of higher education declaring that she could not work with someone who "celebrated critique". Government policy is there to be implemented, not scrutinised. The will of God is to be obeyed, not questioned. That's why the debate about free speech and Islam is a false opposition. You can no more resist the word of business than you can the word of God. Admittedly, you are not going to be burnt at the stake for criticising the Private Finance Initiative, but there is the same expectation of conformity whether you are dealing with a person carrying a briefcase or a bible or indeed a copy of the Koran.

But all this was hidden in the row about the Danish cartoons. The media demonises Islam as a symbol of repression to deflect us from the truth that British society is becoming increasingly authoritarian - The Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill being the latest in a long line of lip-sealing legislation. By pitting freedom of expression against religious censorship, we imagine we can say what we like. And so we can - as long as it's in the form of a customer satisfaction survey. The constant soliciting of our opinion on everything from toothpaste to the next England manager gives us the illusion that our ideas matter. Well, of course they do. If big business didn't gather information on our preferences, then its profits would be in danger. In our consumer-driven culture, free speech means the right to choose between Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola but not capitalism or socialism. We have plenty of information about products but precious little about the causes of poverty or the distribution of power. And what is the value of free speech if it is not based on knowledge, or respect for rational argument? You used to get these from education until it was made to raise standards. So when one dean I know vets people's conference proposals, it's not censorship, it's quality enhancement.

If it's not being suppressed - Maya Evans being arrested for reading out the names of British soldiers killed in Iraq - the hard-won right of free speech is being equated with politeness. Don't question people's beliefs in case you offend them. The narrowing of what you can and can't say is symptomatic of what is happening to the language at large. Its capacity for dealing with the great issues of life diminishes every time Graham Norton appears on TV. At least religion, at its best, conveys a sense of the poetry of the human condition.

But what we saw was the worst. The reaction to the cartoons was out of all proportion to any insult they contained. As Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has forcefully pointed out, why weren't these outraged Muslims protesting about the hundreds of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay? This is the way free speech should be exercised. Asking questions, making us reflect on ideas and actions. All those who wring their hands for fear of offence will deliver us to darkness. Muslims must consider why the cartoonists made the connection with terrorism. They may have been wrong to do so, but if you fly planes into buildings, blow up trains and murder film-makers on the street, all in the name of Islam, then it's an understandable mistake.

Those who say we must accept difference are dodging the issues. There comes a point when you have to ask how much respect you can give a set of beliefs based on nothing but ancient writings that are used to propagate attitudes that are in direct conflict with the rights and freedoms of secular society. And I'm talking about all faiths here. If we don't confront creeds that justify oppression, then we help to perpetuate it. The spirit of religion has something to offer the impoverished view of humans in capitalism, not a true account of the way things are, but a reverence for the world and everything in it. In the meantime here's a question. Since there were no lightning bolts from the sky, can we assume that God believes in free speech? Or that s/he doesn't exist?

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.

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