Ridicule is Nothing to be Scared of

I wrote most of this a week ago. As my post gathered pace, I didn’t notice that I gradually lost access YouTube, most of the BBC News website, the New Scientist, Wikipedia, twitter and hundreds of other sites. It was only when WordPress was blocked here in Pakistan that I realised what was happening. Anyway, I finished it off today

Yesterday it seemed a bit of an inconvenience. A silly, pointless inconvenience but at worst it meant I wouldn’t know who had found a lonely black sheep which had wandered into their mafia wars, or something. Today, Pakistan’s facebook ban has meant Mobilink, my mobile phone service, has switched off its BlackBerry connections – leaving my BlackBerry as nothing more than a large, overpriced, not very good telephone.

So what’s going on?

The origins of the row seem subversive, satirical and frankly quite amusing. A Seattle-based cartoonist, Molly Norris has a pop at censorship (of the now notorious South Park episode featuring The Prophet Mohammed in a bear costume) with an image of half a dozen household objects each claiming to be Mohammed. The cartoon is titled Everybody Draw Mohammed Day – a spoof contest.

In there is a reasonable question. Why are many Muslims so unwilling to question – or be questioned on – elements of their faith? For people brought up in the post-Enlightenment West, scepticism and cynicism are tools applied to faith, politics, philosophy and pretty much anything else. Many liberal, moderate Muslims are of course open to exactly these discussions. But many others are closed to debate.

But here is where things break down. As usual, the issue has been hijacked by an anti-Muslim element, intent on conflating freedom of speech with the freedom to gratuitously offend a population. You don’t need me to tell you that having the right to do something is not the same thing as going out and doing it. Just like the newspapers who reprinted the offending cartoons in 2006, it seems that to do so would be to put our right of freedom of expression above other people’s right to not be offended, or harmed or outraged, or upset.

Those are the trade-offs and balances that have to be made every time we exercise a right: in short we have to consider what other rights it might infringe. A pathetic cartoon contest to prove a point does not seem to be one of those occasions where freedom of speech comes first. We still have the right, of course, but just choose not to use it.

The saddest part of all of this, though, has been the reaction of a small number of people in Pakistan and the subsequent decision of the court (a system incapable of tracking down the thousands of “disappeared”) to shut down facebook. Once again a small number of nutters have fallen right into the trap set for them by another set of nutters. The only winners are the extremists who have found fresh ammunition to lump at the other side. Suggesting that censorship is somehow justified in preventing outrage rather misses the point. Censorship never helps anything. For as Brendan O’Neill at spikedonline points out…

Indeed, these two camps – the Muhammad-knockers and the Muslim offence-takers – are locked in a deadly embrace. Islamic extremists need Western depictions of Muhammad as evidence that there is a new crusade against Islam, while the Muhammad-knockers need the flag-burning, street-stomping antics of the extremists as evidence that their defence of the Enlightenment is a risky, important business. And as this mutually masturbatory performance of a new culture clash continues, the true threat to freedom and Enlightenment goes unanalysed and unexplained.

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