Multiculturalism has confused the left on matters of censorship
In 2006 the New Labour government in London promoted a bill in Parliament to outlaw the publication of material that religious people might find offensive. The main backers of the bill were fundamentalist Muslims.
Some on the "left" felt that this bill would play a positive role in reducing anti-Muslim feeling in Britain and help integrate society. I did not agree; hence the letter below.
6 February 2006
I never thought, when we left university in 1983, that twenty-six years later we would be debating the possibility of fining and even jailing people who mocked religion, nor putting the Enlightenment on par with Islam. Times change.
Islam, like all religion which purports to command behaviour beyond that of the individual choice, makes a totalitarian claim on society. Liberalism, by contrast, aims to maximise the individual’s freedom of action, consistent with everybody else having the same freedom. The trade-off between the two is not one of reconciling two positions which are different but of the same kind (e.g. should the outside of the building be painted yellow or green), but of compromising one position which purports to give maximum choice to all with another that seeks to impose a ‘patterned’ life on everybody.
Let me take three consequences of attempting to appease fundamentalist Islam, which has become so enraged in Britain and elsewhere this week as a consequence of cartoons published in a Danish newspaper. (It is perhaps worth pointing out that no Muslim in Britain need see these pictures, and whatever is decided in Britain is hardly likely to cause Denmark to rescind its long tradition of freedom of speech).
First, if Islam were to be protected against ridicule, then of course other religions would enjoy the same protection. ‘The Life of Brian’ and anything like it would be seen no more in the New Britain.
Second, if a cartoon published in a newspaper causes outrage, then so much greater is the outrage, for example, of women walking uncovered through Muslim areas. Once you have abandoned the individual rights as a basis of law making, where does one stop in ensuring social peace through appeasement?
Third, most people who want to attack Islam (as opposed to Muslims) are from the Muslim community itself. The veil of censorship would fall on the likes of Salmon Rushdie, and we would have the absurd position of the British State attempting to stop the secularisation of Islamic communities, and prosecuting dissidents within its ranks.
The whole debate in Britain is absurd. Last week we had the Blair government seeking to impose censorship on publications which ‘insulted’ Islam (and for form’s sake other religions too). What effrontery from these New Labour scumbags! What kind of insult is a cartoon compared with the massacre of hundreds of thousands in Iraq? Why does the government concern itself with insults against Muslims caused by scribblers, but see none in 90-day detentions without charge? The truth is that the Blair government seeks censorship for the same reason that seeks 90-day detentions and war – it wishes to expand power of the state.
I know you decided in the end to oppose the Religious Hatred Bill, so what I’m trying to do is to pull you back even more firmly into a defence of liberal positions, positions which form the bedrock, in my view, of any worthwhile socialism.