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Lord Dubs: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Knight, for raising this important issue and giving us the chance to debate it. I would like to address it under two headings. First, what should be the limits of free speech, if any? Secondly, what limits are there on the protests about how others exercise their rights to free speech? Both those issues were reflected in the speech of the noble Baroness and are the subject of much newspaper speculation and discussion.
We all know that this is a difficult issue. The recent discussion about the Danish cartoons has made us all realise that it is simply not straightforward. Meanwhile, I find the recent BNP court decision to be, at the very least, almost impossible to understand. However, free speech is not just about the right of the majority. It is an even more fundamental protection for minorities. We only have to look at other countries where there is no free speech to see how minorities are victimised and unable to exercise their right of expression. I would say to all minorities in Britain, "This important right protects you more than it does the majority in this country".
Perhaps I should declare an interest as a former member of the Broadcasting Standards Commission, and for a time its chairman. We were, of course, not censoring television or radio; we dealt with complaints against their content if it breached the code. Some complaints were on the sort of issues raised by the noble Baroness in her speech. Post 9/11, the Broadcasting Standards Commission was asked to meet representatives of the Muslim community who
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were concerned about the way that their community was being portrayed on television and radio. We had two long afternoon meetings with broadcasters, regulators and those community representatives. The outcome was that we were able to assure the Muslim community that, in the main, the existing codes which determined practice by broadcasters and regulators provided it with a fair measure of protection, but that there was also the opportunity to move the codes forwardand the broadcasters agreed to do that.
More recently, there have been many protests by Christians about "Jerry SpringerThe Opera", but I can perhaps speak with rather more experience about "The Last Temptation of Christ", which provoked a similar set of complaints from Churches. I remember that we at the Broadcasting Standards Commission received petitions from Churches and protests that the film should not be shown. We had no powers over that, but in the event we did not uphold the complaints that we received. My point is that, in talking to a number of people about television programmes and the harm from television, I spoke to a young student who was a devout Christian. I said to him, "Last night, Channel 4 showed 'The Last Temptation of Christ'. Did you see it?". "Yes", he said. "Are you aware of the numerous complaints by Churches against that particular film being shown?". That devout Christian man said, in words that I shall never forget, "I have no problem with that film. Jesus can look after himself".
Despite his comments, I am sure that some Christians have been deeply offended by some of what appears on television. Yet, as a society, we also accept that many films about which there are complaints are serious works and that we have the right to see them. I would add that people in a free society cannot be protected from feeling irritated, insulted or even offended. That is part of freedom of speech; we may all be offended by certain things and must accept that freedom of speech operates in that way. Yet, as I shall say in a minute or two, violence or threats of violence are surely much worse than being offended or irritated by what one sees or reads. Everyone who believes in free speech should also exercise that right with care, for it includes respect for others and a sense of responsibility.
This is an appropriate moment to turn to the Danish cartoons. Yes, the papers there had the right to publish them. Were they wise to do so? I think not, and I am relieved that British newspapers had the sense not to publish them. After the initial publication of the cartoons, there was no particularly good case for republishing them time and time again. The British media made a wise judgment.
However, the noble Baroness referred to Salman Rushdie's book. The attempt to suppress that book was a much more serious attack on free speech than the cartoons in Denmark. More recently, there was the case of the Sikh play "Beshti" in Birmingham. An angry mob stopped that play being performed and I am as dismayed by that as I am by the fact that it has been forgotten. We have not bothered about it, and yet
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all we need is another angry mob to stop any other play being shown. That is a disgrace, because it has imposed a constraint on authors and playwrights.
If free speech is exercised lawfully and there are some constraints such as incitement to racial hatred and other criminal matters, the question is how we protest about how to exercise that free speech if we are not happy. It is unacceptable to threaten violence and murder because one does not like something that has been published. I welcome the fact that the great majority of moderate Muslims protested about the violence at the demonstrations last Saturday.
We must accept that the right to protest peacefully is an important function of our society. I agree that these issues are difficult, but surely we need courage, tempered by responsibility and respect for the views of others.
Baroness Falkner of Margravine: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Knight of Collingtree, for initiating this debate on such a current issue. The past few weeks have not been happy for secular-minded people. They have resulted in loss of life far beyond our shores and have weakened international relations between the West and the Muslim world. They have also shown that a common European foreign policy has some way to go. I, for one, regret the lack of solidarity with Denmark and Norway by the EU, when all tenets of international law were breached in the ransacking of those countries' missions in Syria and Lebanon. The EU could and should have been more vigorous in its condemnation of those acts.
My more immediate concern is with community relations between western Muslims, in particular, our situation here in Britain, and broader questions of freedom of speech. As the only Muslim speaking in this debate, I will not dwell on theological arguments about how offensive these cartoons are. That they are, is indisputable, and we find ourselves in a situation where large numbers of our fellow citizens feel deeply offended by the publication and republication of those cartoons. Newspapers are going out of their way to republish the cartoons and that is turning legitimate debate into gratuitous offence. It does not help anything other than to provide succour to "fundamentalists" on each side. Is that the agenda of those defending free speech? I would hope not.
Turning to "fundamentalists" on the Muslim sidenamely those protesting in London last weekendmany of us can understand that those demonstrating had high feelings. What we cannot understand or condone are the implicit and explicit incitements to terrorism and murder. I, and countless others like me, have just one thing to say to them"Not in my name". What is also troubling about recent events is the role of certain clerics who appear to have said one thing for their western audiences, and said other far more radical things to Muslim audiences. I would urge religious leaders to be moderate and consistent. Violence and loss of life are not in the interests of any group on any side.
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It is also difficult to understand how the Metropolitan Police arrived at its decision to do nothing about the offensive placards. There are also allegations by some of the protestors, repeated on BBC's "Newsnight" on Monday, that the Met had "cleared" the placards as being acceptable. If that is so, it is very grave. I appreciate that the police are independent of ministerial control, but hope that in due course the Metropolitan Police Authority will seek the truth of those allegations. I also hope that, unlike the Abu Hamza case, the police do not hold back from arresting those advocating violence in such protests. It does no community good if the police interpret the same laws differently across different communities, as the noble Baroness, Lady Knight, has detailed.
Moving to broader questions of freedom of expression, let me say from the outset that I am clearly in the camp that seeks to uphold that right, recognising that at times offence is indeed caused and deeply felt. Does this mean that we should be more careful in the exercising that right? My answer would be "yes," but I prefer self-censorship to state censorship, hence my opposition over the past years to the many provisions restricting free speech that this Government have tried to legislate for in recent Bills. I prefer a situation where we recognise that there is a thin dividing line between free speech on the one hand and tolerance on the other. I would, therefore, urge the Government to oppose calls from the newly formed Muslim Action Committee yesterday, which seeks to outlaw the publication of cartoons in the UK by strengthening the Press Complaints Commission's code. I would say to them that the Muslim cause is well served under current legislation. Enlarging the scope of the law may well result in casting the net so wide that the very first people caught by it are Muslims themselves.
There are also wider questions for us western Muslims. If we choose to live in the West, should we not make an attempt to understand western history and the meaning of the Enlightenment? I found the tone of the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Knight, interesting, particularly in her portrayal of Christian tolerance and harmony. Might I go so far as to remind the noble Baroness, most respectfully, that the Enlightenment followed the Inquisition when, of course, many people were burned at the stake as heretics?
Turning to ourselves, as Muslims, I would say that we should go beyond understanding, to empathise with the richness of western culture. While we can take just pride in our own, should we also not embrace western freedoms, such as those of dissent and protest in democracies? I would say to my co-religionists that we have some way to go in moderating our excessively emotional behaviour, and in understanding how to protest and voice dissent in a responsible manner. I do not refer only to western Muslims here, but to the loss of life across the Muslim world. Getting angry in the abstract should not lead to the violence we have witnessed recently. Islam stands above all this. We need to learn that respect for our belief cannot be
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forcibly extracted. By our behaviour it is earned, and by our behaviour diminishes us all. Such are the laws of unintended consequences.
In concluding, it would be tempting to reflect on these last days and hope that it will all blow over. While I would deeply hope that that may be the case, I suspect that much bridge building needs to follow. One aspect of that bridge building is the Government's Commission on Integration, announced by the Prime Minister last August. This is needed now more than ever and I urge the Government to get it under way by setting it up and seeking support from across the political spectrumand beyondin that endeavour. We all need to work together to move beyond these troubled times.
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