still free to criticise

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.”

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* 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.

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6 thoughts on “still free to criticise

  1. Well said, Cath. I especially like the quote you share from the judge: “Freedom to speak inoffensively is freedom not worth having.”

    I’m puzzled by this comment of yours: “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.” The foolish spat bit I agree with – as you say, freedom of speech and the police attitude to this little disagreement are far more important aspects of the affair. But in the last phrase, are you saying that neither religion is comprehensible to a secular mindset?

    There are many Christians who are secularists in terms of government (ie, who support keeping religious authority and secular authority separate). There are even Muslim secularists in this sense (for example, American politician Saqib Ali). These are secularists who very likely comprehend the religions they are part of.

    Even if you mean “secular” as in “individuals without religious beliefs”, I would still disagree with you. While I don’t have the background or inclination to learn the intricacies of Islam or Christianity, many atheists have left these religions after years of committed belief. Surely they comprehend what it was they once believed, as clearly as anyone who remains in the religion.

    Or am I missing some key part of your meaning?

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  2. That particular comment was the result of skimming through the comment sections in the various newspapers that reported on it (Times, Telegraph, Guardian…) where the overwhelming response seemed to be: Both sides have behaved equally foolishly, now can we just ban all religions please.

    People expressing that kind of opinion are failing to see the bigger issue here. It’s not Christians vs Muslims, it’s freedom of speech: for everyone.

    And calls to “ban religion” from the public sphere altogether are getting beyond a jokey expression of enlightened non-religious people’s exasperation with religious debate of any kind. In a climate where civil liberties (ie liberties for *everyone*) are increasingly under attack in this country, we need to move beyond casual wishing for every perceived nuisance to be “banned” by the government.

    [Equally, I should add, Christians who see it as symptomatic of state-sponsored hostility specifically against Christianity are also failing to see the bigger picture. It’s not about Christians, it’s about democratic freedoms for everyone.
    You could possibly make a case that Christians are slightly more vulnerable to finding themselves disproportionately less free to speak, either because “committed Christians” might (arguably) be more likely to proclaim their unpalatable beliefs (about the supremacy and excluslivity of Christ, for example), and might (again arguably) be more shocked into silence/self-censoring by fear of appearing to be in danger of being bad citizens, in a culture where being a good Christian is often (arguably) very closely connected with being a good, law-abiding citizien. Perhaps. The main point is, we need freedom of speech for everyone, Christian, Muslim, and everyone else.]

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  3. Yes, people venting online and anonymously after the sketchy summary given by a news report rarely display a particularly thoughtful or nuanced perspective. But your comment seemed to imply that it was the secular mindset, not the particular forum of discussion, that was responsible for this misperception. By the same reasoning, one might conclude that Christians believe Muslims are out to Islamify Britain, and that the government is happy to comply.

    However, setting that aside, I have to agree with you: politicians in general seem too interested in appeasing, at the expense of important liberties. On that note, I’m curious how the “defamation of religion” resolution introduced at the UN (see, eg, here) pans out in the months and years to come – will it be taken on by politicians in an attempt to appear benevolent to those who think they are under assault, or will it be quietly forgotten as a dangerous and unnecessary infringement on human liberties?

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  4. As a general rule, I doubt it’s ever safe to assume that dangerous and unnecessary infringements on civil liberties are likely to be quietly forgotten. We see too many decisions already where civil liberties seem threatened, if not actually attacked, right here under our noses where we think we’re free. It’s individuals whose rights need safeguarding – aggressive promotion of the rights of religions, as the Canadians say in your link, is fundamentally alien to the liberties we pride ourselves on in the West.

    On incomprehension. “Skip The Comments” is by far the best principle to adopt when reading online columns! but you’re quite right – if I’d had time I’d have come back to say that, indeed, whatever sparked off the comment, there is a bigger problem, only crudely illustrated by thoughtless online commenters.

    Ie the pervasive assumption, if you’ll forgive me speaking plainly, that religious belief is always something less than reasoned, less than mature, something that people should wake up out of, forgiveable in the unenlightened past, but slightly embarrassing in today’s world, something to keep private, something not qualified for public or national acknowlegement, recognition, approval, support …

    So there’s “comprehensible” in the sense of being familiar with the general teaching – Optimality Theory is vaguely comprehensible to me in this sense – and there’s “comprehensible” in the sense of fitting with your worldview, at least to the extent that you can treat it with respect and dignity – OT is not, but exemplar theory could be, in this category for me. Pardon the trivial ling-lite examples. Saying that Christianity is not comprehensible to a secular mindset is hardly saying anything different from what a secularist would say of themselves: they don’t really understand, or seriously think it’s worth thinking through for themselves, where Christian convictions are coming from. The secular mindset is, without a doubt, behind many a squeeze that the Christian conscience is undergoing right at the moment.

    A current case in point, which would have really deserved a post of its own if I’d had time: Duke Amachree, employed for many years by Wandsworth Council as a Homelessness Prevention Officer, lost his job a few months ago because he encouraged a client ‘to put her faith in God’.
    http://www.justiceforduke.com/index.php

    Not to mention: the Equality Bill, shortly to be voted on in the Lords, where the govt takes upon itself to define what kind of role someone can have in the Church, and what qualifications are and aren’t necessary for that role. It takes a thoroughly, remorselessly, secular mindset before the thought that the State has that much power within the internal affairs of the Church can begin to make sense.

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  5. As much as I love the UK and have a good 1/2 of my genetic material from there, and as much as I eschew the cliched so called American mindset of “our country is best” (best for what? at what?) spouted by loud visitors to the UK in bright patterned clothing, I have had to come to the conclusion that “still having” as of this moment, a much more tightly guaranteed and enforced civil liberty in the States, is a good thing.

    When a dear friend of ours had to pay thousands and thousands of pounds for witnessing to Mormons in London, when cases like this hotel case, or Duke’s case, or those of nurses in the UK come to mind, I am sickened. Not just for the future of the UK but because I’m pretty sure most Christian youth in the states, have no idea what these liberties mean and that a nice, clean, wonderful, beautiful country who speaks our same language can be undergoing such assaults on freedom. (Somehow the same language thing seems to mean the same freedoms)

    In addition, I marvel that when we in the states have such abundant protections of our liberty, we barely seem to bother giving them an airing. Now perhaps since we don’t get arrested for offering to pray or sharing the gospel and therefore doesn’t make headlines, I just don’t know about it, but somehow, I’m thinking “not so much.” Liberties are best when dusted off and excercized.

    When my London friend has visited here and shared the gospel with Mormons, and he has asked police, indeed even MORMON policemen, if he is free to speak on this spot or that, and they politely and gladly show him where the lines are that he might freely speak (say not on private property) he marvels at this, and having had our open air meetings in Glasgow harassed from time to time, I marvel at it too!

    I have seen how there are special moral challenges to friends who work in public health in the UK, Dr’s face moral qualms about things relating to practicing medicine. (At least in the area’s of birth control etc) and I have a feeling that if the states gets Mr. Obama’s plans in place, we too will start to see our medical persons having great moral difficulties in their workplace, much like teachers in the states are silenced to some extent already.

    Thanks for sharing this piece Cath, I enjoy your blog, I’ve just nae been able to keep up with it lately.

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  6. Thanks Susan – always good to hear from you!

    Was the Mormon case reported in the press at the time? I wonder if it was one of these cases where people don’t have the resources to fight the legal battles, or aren’t aware of the options available.

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