Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Freedom of Speech Works Both Ways

The furore over Muslim protesters burning poppies during a Armistice Day silence has been reignited by the news that one has been cleared while the other has been fined a mere £50 for a public order offence. As others have pointed out, the average parking ticket is £60. It doesn't say much for where we place our war dead in the grand scheme of things, does it?

Now, Jeremy Vine had a chat with Emdadur Choudhury on Radio 2 earlier. Throughout the interview I was impressed with Vine's professionalism. Faced with someone who wouldn't answer questions and refused to acknowledge the viewpoint of another Muslim, perhaps more proficient than Choudhury in knowledge of the Koran, Vine kept very calm. In fact, the interview did little apart from hold this man up to ridicule. But some important arguments did come out of it.

Most importantly was the idea that Choudhury had the right to burn the poppy as part of his freedom of speech. This was brought up by him and some (non-Muslim) callers. Surely, people said, it's a fact that our soldiers have died for such a thing as freedom of speech? To deny it even to Choudhury is a betrayal of our war dead.

I accept that with a few qualifications. The poppy is not a religious symbol in this country. However, as we are increasingly becoming a secular nation, it retains its power as a striking symbol of freedom, peace and human morality. Even people who don't necessarily agree with wars, either now or in the past, recognise that the poppy doesn't glorify their deaths but celebrates their existences. The people struck with horror at the sight of it being set alight were justified in feeling disgusted. I freely admit that I know little about Muslim heritage. However, I do know that if a British person had insulted Muslim dead in, say, Pakistan, they would have been not only condemned, but probably been subject to something much worse.

You can bang on about freedom of speech all you want, but the fact remains that it's one rule for Muslims and another for the rest of us. Is it any wonder that people become a little exasperated with this at times? All over the country Muslims hand out homophobic literature to incite hatred against their fellow man. Only a few cases are punished. Is this freedom of speech? No, it's an act designed to provoke and incite hatred. How is that at all different to the burning of a poppy on Armistice Day?

No one wants a "them and us" culture. I strongly salute the Imam who tried arguing with Choudhury on Radio 2, saying the act was disrespectful and quoting the Koran back at the extremist. I know that the majority of Muslims in this country hold his view. The problem is the minority who are compelled to seek division within our society. We can't let them win. And, in my view, that means taking a much tougher line on people like Emdadur Choudhury. Remove his £792 benefits every month. If he wishes to push himself onto the fringes of our society then so be it.

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