Magazine article New Internationalist

Silencing Dissent

Magazine article New Internationalist

Silencing Dissent

Article excerpt

'The strength and survival of free society and the advance of human knowledge depend on the free exchange of ideas. All ideas are capable of giving offence and some of the most powerful ideas in human history, such as those of Galileo and Darwin, have given profound religious offence in their time. The free exchange of ideas depends on freedom of expression, and this includes the right to criticize and mock. We assert and uphold the right of freedom of expression, and call on our elected representatives to do the same. We abhor the fact that people throughout the world live under mortal threat simply for expressing ideas, and we call on our elected representatives to protect them from attack and not to give comfort to the forces of intolerance that besiege them.'

This declaration of liberal humanitarian values was issued in London in March 2006 by supporters of the Rally for Freedom of Expression. The rally was called to protest against threats by Islamic extremists to kill the illustrators and publishers of the Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, and in defence of authors, journalists, publishers, artists and human rights advocates the world over who are being threatened, arrested, jailed, tortured and murdered because of their ideas and opinions.

The protest condemned all religious and political fundamentalisms that seek to deny freedom of conscience, speech and expression. It was not an attack on Muslim people or the Islamic faith. While not saying the cartoons should have been published, it defended the principle of free speech - including the right to satirize religion (and other beliefs), and the right of satirists not to be killed.

This defence of freedom of expression was widely denounced by many Muslims and left wingers as 'racist' and 'Islamophobic'. They smeared rally supporters as agents, dupes or fellow-travellers of the far-right British National Party. In this inflammatory, accusatory atmosphere, reasoned debate became almost impossible. Not surprisingly, some people who privately endorsed the declaration were reluctant to do so publicly, and many others were reluctant to attend the rally. Fearful of being tarred with accusations of racism and lslamophobia, they were intimidated into silence.

Making allegations of anti-Muslim prejudice is an increasingly common way of shutting down legitimate criticisms of Islamic fundamentalism, as I discovered earlier this year.

The Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, accused me of running an 'Islamophobic campaign', after I criticized the Chief Mufti of Russia for urging Muscovites to 'bash' gay people if they tried to hold a Pride March. This was not the first such slur by the Mayor. He previously denounced me as an 'Islamophobe' in 2004. 1 had criticized his decision to host at City Hall the right-wing Muslim cleric, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi. I do not oppose Qaradawi because of his race or religion, but because he wants to deny human rights to Muslims, Jews, women and gays.

While Qaradawi is a 'moderate' compared to the Taliban and al-Qaida, he is the spiritual head of the Islamist political movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. He endorses the suicide bombing of Jewish civilians, killing Muslims who abandon their faith, the compulsory wearing of the hijab (headscarf) by women, female genital mutilation, the execution of homosexuals in Islamic states, domestic violence against disobedient wives, and the blaming of rape victims if they have not dressed with sufficient modesty.

This anti-humanitarian interpretation of Islam first and foremost oppresses Muslim people. …

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