Thursday, 14 February 2008

Protecting Debate: a Right not a Privilege

Think what you will about Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the outspoken critic of fundamentalist Islam. Agree or disagree with what she has to say. Refuse to acknowledge her opinions, if you like. Fly into a 'murderous' rage, if you must. But do not dispute her right to live out her life in freedom and security and leave her opinions as a matter for debate, not violence.

Those were my conclusions after listening to the notorious Ms Hirsi Ali speak before the European Parliament today, pleading with MEPs to extend her the EU's protection now that her own country, the Netherlands, is refusing to pay for the round-the-clock security necessary to shield her from would-be assassins.

Europe should not defend her because it agrees with her opinions. It should not defend her to make a statement against Islamic violence. It should not even agree to defend her because of her high profile. It should agree to defend any and all European citizens who, because of their views - however distasteful - are menaced with death.

As Benoit Hamon, the French Socialist MEP in charge of the initiative to extend EU funding to protect her, said, this is not a debate about Islam but a debate about Europe's values, and how it puts them into practice.

By forcing the former MP to choose between a living death in the Netherlands and a fuller, yet less secure, existence in the US the Dutch government has abdicated its responsibility for implementing the European Charter of Fundamental Rights which expressly states that 'everyone has the right to liberty and security of person'.

While demands for an EU protection fund might seem unrealistic at present, it clearly makes sense for EU citizenship to be linked much more closely to citizenship rights, as laid down in the Charter and Lisbon Treaty, amongst others.

With the increase in extremism on both the left and the right of the political spectrum (not to mention amongst those who have no allegiance to Europe's democratic values) it is important to assure citizens that the values Europe likes to voice in theory, are actually available in practice.

In truth, an EU right to protection (whether imposed on Member States or presented as an EU competence) is clearly in the best interests of all citizens. For, as Tom Paine famously pointed out, 'He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself".

Even Ms Hirsi Ali's most virulent detractors might like to reflect on what could happen to them were she to be murdered by a Muslim fanatic. The likelihood is that a shock wave far stronger than that which rocked Holland after the killing of Theo Van Gogh, would reverberate across Europe, making Muslim communities (innocent men, women and children) a thousand times more vulnerable to racial abuse and violence.

Failure to establish the principle of protection in law could lead to two possible outcomes. One, that Europe's prized attachment to freedom of expression would cease to be meaningful, since people would auto-censure through fear of reprisal. And two, that future governments, God forbid, future right wing xenophobic governments of the type promised by the Vlaams Belang or the Front Nationale, could put ethnic minorities at risk of reprisal - without needing to provide protection to those that stand up for minority interests.

Instead of focussing on whether Hirsi Ali is right or wrong in her depiction of Islam - as most people on either side of the secularist/islamist agenda have tended to do - Europeans must be prepared to extend freedom of speech to everyone, however tasteless their views may be.

The debate Ayaan Hirsi Ali triggered will rage on. But it should stay at the level of debate, and not descend into violence. Although her views may not always be 'sensitively' expressed, Muslims would do better to respond to her suggestions through better arguments and clearer questioning, instead of accusations and cries of offence.
For this is simply the first taste of what is to come. Religion - whether Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, or any other ism - is taking an ever more prominent place in political debate across Europe, so it is vital we create conditions where its implications be discussed openly, honestly, and frankly, under the banner of freedom of speech. And if religions can't accept occasional offence, they may have to accept the far greater prohibition of fundamentalist secularism, which would curtail all religious advances into the public realm.

Through their actions shall we know them.


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Elliott Broidy said...

Very true!