Image by The-Vagabond

Silenced at Speakers’ Corner

Hate crimes operate as a contemporary, de facto blasphemy law

Artillery Row

Hyde Park has long been associated with political rebellion. The Grade-I listed park in central London has been the gathering point for some of the biggest demonstrations in British history. In 1866 when the Reform League campaigned to extend the franchise to working-class men, two hundred thousand people showed up. Up to half a million turned up in support of “Women’s Sunday” in 1908 when the suffragettes fought for women’s rights. Skip forward one hundred years, and three quarters of a million descended on the park to voice their opposition to the Iraq war.

There exists a small area in this 350 acre park reserved for a more personal battle. Known as the home of free speech, Speakers’ Corner is one of the country’s most famous bastions of liberty. For over 150 years, people from every conceivable ideological and philosophical persuasion have descended on this space to debate and discuss everything from atheism to Zionism. Winston Churchill, Karl Marx and George Bernard Shaw are among the noted luminaries known to have mounted soapboxes to speak their minds. In fact, anyone can show up unannounced and make their voice heard. George Orwell once described this area on the north-east corner of Hyde Park as “one of the minor wonders of the world”.

It is one of the few places in the country where you can express almost any belief you wish. Lord Justice Sedley thought that the corner demonstrates “the tolerance which is both extended by the law to opinion of every kind and expected by the law in the conduct of those who disagree, even strongly, with what they hear”.

This level of tolerance was not extended to Hatun Tash. The 39 year-old was attacked at Speakers’ Corner last week. A small group of people were listening to her speak when a man lunged towards her with a knife —  cutting her face and slashing her arm. A video widely circulated online shows her face covered with blood. 

Police believe the attacker’s motive was unknown, but it is at least plausible to offer one potential reason: her opinions. As a former Muslim, Tash is a vociferous critic of Islam and frequently engages in heated debates with Islamic preachers  This is not the first time she has been attacked in the home of free speech. She was punched last year for the crime of holding up a cartoon of Muhammad. 

Under the cover of Islamophobia, any genuine criticism of Islam is forbidden

One would expect an extremist attack like this to be headline news. Besides a few outlets, the media have been relatively quiet about it. Where were the left speaking up in condemnation? Violently attacking someone for her beliefs is the very definition of fascism something liberals used to stand against. Yet the anti-fascists are strangely absent. This ideological omertà is commonplace whenever Islam is mentioned.

There was a moratorium on criticism following the fallout from the Batley Grammar school affair. The teacher was harassed and forced into hiding after he showed his pupils an image of the prophet in a religious studies lesson. Few politicians came to his defence, while the teaching unions the one group you would think would leap to his aid simply looked the other way and wished the whole thing away. The only people who supported him were normal working-class people: the bin men of Batley. The Bury branch of Unite which represents bin men put forward a motion supporting the Batley schoolteacher. 

Rather than defend the right to free expression, some prefer to cast unwarranted aspersions. Under the cover of Islamophobia, any genuine criticism of Islam is forbidden. Branding critics as Islamophobes gives credence to the notion that it is always wrong to question Islam and its beliefs. How do you teach blasphemy if you cannot show the so-called offensive cartoons? If you’ve never seen the offending image, how do you know it is insulting? How would we be able to teach about 1930s Germany without reference to anti-Semitism?

As a Christian evangelist, Tash believes Muslims should convert to Christianity to save themselves — an idea no doubt “offensive” to some. But we live in a liberal society where we are free to criticise any subject we like, including religion. According to the ideals of our society, we can throw off the shackles of dogmatic thinking and freely engage in self-expression. In other words, we can think for ourselves. If that means criticising religion, so be it.

Yet with alarming regularity, offence is met with violence. When she was attacked, Tash was wearing a Charlie Hebdo t-shirt. This references the twelve people who lost their lives when two Islamic gunmen burst into the Charlie Hebdo office and killed them because they had published cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. 

There is no doubt that some sections of Islam are incompatible with an enlightened 21st century Britain. As I have written here before, when it comes to living in a country as tolerant and liberal as ours, cultural relativism is always going to be a problem.  

Islam should not be protected from mockery and derision

We must of course be careful not to generalise. Not all followers of the Islamic faith think the same. In a 2015 poll, some 20 per cent of British Muslims don’t find cartoons offensive nor object to their being printed. We are a multicultural society, and a vast majority of Muslims successfully integrate. Those who seek to destroy our sacred civil liberties through a poisonous and divisive fundamentalist ideology need to take heed of the words spoken by Gerald Darmanin. The French Interior Minister wants to deport anyone who prohibits a teacher from showing caricatures of Muhammad.

Blasphemy may have officially been abolished, but religion is a protected characteristic enshrined in the Equality Act of 2010. Hate crimes operate as a contemporary de facto blasphemy law punishing those whose criticism of the religion is “perceived” to be offensive. 

We need to speak up against Islamic extremism. When Samuel Paty was beheaded for showing pictures of Muhammad in a classroom in France, Montpellier and Toulouse  showed solidarity by projecting images of the cartoons onto their respective town hall buildings. Can we honestly say we would expect our politicians to do the same?

Islam should not be protected from mockery and derision.

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