The freedom of speech scene in this country isn’t the prettiest at the moment, even though all is not yet lost.
Ben and Sharon Vogelenzang, as you’ll no doubt have heard, were cleared this week of ‘religiously aggravated threatening behaviour’ (which seems to be the shortest summary available of the charges which were brought against them under Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 and Section 31(1)(c) and (5) of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998).
Ericka Tazi, a convert to Islam, had been staying in their hotel, and had got involved in a discussion with them which seems to have centred on three controversial points – whether Jesus was the Son of God or just a minor prophet, whether Muhammed was a warlord, and whether the hijab is oppressive to women.
The strongest possible criticism of the Vogelenzangs which it seems reasonable to make is that their contributions were indicative of ‘a rather Fawlty-ish attitude to their guests‘. But being committed Christians, they could hardly be expected (i) not to be capable of giving an apologia for their belief that Jesus is the Son of God and (ii) keen to give it and (iii) underwhelmed by claims about what a peaceful and liberating-to-women religion Islam is.
The most serious question about their case, though, is not specifically whether Christianity is a better religion than Islam, but the extent to which people in this country remain free to say things which other people might find offensive. The Vogelenzangs were, thankfully, cleared – but in what unhealthy climate was it ever thought appropriate to arrest and charge them in the first place? and can the judge’s decision in this case really be taken as a guarantee that similar cases won’t arise in the future?
The judge has been widely quoted as saying that religion and politics was a tinderbox in this case – but it would be completely missing the point to see the case as nothing more than a foolish spat between committed adherents to two religions, neither of which is comprehensible to a secular mindset. It just happened to be Christians who were prosecuted in this case – but the views they are reported to have put to Mrs Tazi about Muhammed and the hijab are held widely. It could equally well have been an atheist, an agnostic, a Jew, a Hindu, or anyone else, who had found themselves in court, accused of religiously aggravated threatening behaviour.
The core problem is the growing readiness to treat someone’s subjective feeling of being offended as enough to constitute a conversation a matter for the police. The implications for free speech are not restricted to what Christians can say to Muslims, but what anyone can say to anyone else. What they can say, you’ll note, in conversation, as opposed to committing acts of violence against their persons or property.
It is offensive to Christians to say that Jesus was only a prophet, to say that we believe in three gods, to say that we worship the Virgn Mary, and whatever else Christians typically have to deal with in dialogues with Muslims. But how absurd it would be, for a Christian to take a Muslim to court for the offence caused by having to hear such things thrown in their teeth. Offensive they may be, but the actual issue is not how offended the Christian might be, but how defensible, or otherwise, their views are.*
So Christians find offensive what Muslims say, and Muslims get offended when anyone says Muhammed was a warlord. And it is offensive to atheists to call them fools, and offensive to everyone else when atheists call them ignorant and sick in the head. Then again, it is offensive to sociolinguists when Chomsky says caring about data is only as important as butterfly collecting, and who can truly estimate how offensive it is to a generativist to go all declarative on them.
But as the judge in the Vogelenzang case said, “Freedom to speak inoffensively is freedom not worth having.”
* Strictly speaking, if Christians were more spiritually sensitive to the outrages perpetrated against the honour of the Lord every time such profanities were uttered, we would be a lot more offended and hurt than we currently tend to be. But a heightened spiritual sensitivity would only increase our sense of the absurdity of going to court about the offence caused to us, rather than taking practical, apologetic, action to enlighten and persuade. See also the first few paragraphs in this post from the olden days, when the blog was young and Muslims were offended for another reason.