Except the Muslims: The UK’s selective defence of freedom of speech amidst Quran burning in Sweden
Laws and policies designed to protect freedom of speech and prevent the incitement of hatred have always rested on an incredibly delicate balance – one the UK government simply isn’t equipped to support.
Earlier this month, 47 member states took part in a vote on the UN Human Rights Council resolution for countering religious hatred. Brought forward in response to the Qur’an burning protests that took place in Sweden, the new resolution called upon states to scrutinise their national laws and policies with a view to rectifying any discrepancies that may inhibit the prevention and prosecution of acts of religious hatred that incite discrimination, hostility or violence.
Despite the resolution passing and the UN Human Rights Council’s strong condemnation of the Quran burning as a religious hate act, the UK was amongst 12 states to oppose the resolution. They cited the protection of freedom of speech and expression as their pillar of motivation. According to them, whilst some anti-religious acts are distasteful, publicly burning and stamping on what is inextricably linked to and highly revered in the faith of 1.8 billion people worldwide doesn’t warrant an incitement of hatred and is a mere expression of one’s free speech.
''Whilst waving the banner of freedom of speech with the UN Human Rights Council, they simultaneously deploy several policies to suppress this very right within their own country. We needn’t look much further than the recent Public Order Bill or the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill that attempt to strip UK citizens of their civil rights to protest and the public sector of their freedom to enact economic boycott to see such handy work at play.''
Many may view the government’s choice to staunchly defend humanity’s right to freedom of speech and expression as a principled road to journey, but this whole situation is rife with contradiction. So much so that it’s hard to fathom how they can actually proclaim any commitment to free speech or protection against hateful incitement at all.
Simon Manley CMG began his statement at the UN Human Rights Council by denouncing “hatred on the basis of religion or belief”, recognising the “deep hurt felt by Muslims around the world caused by the burning of the Quran” and proclaiming that “attempts to sow discord and division are contemptible”. All very promising words for UK Muslims who saw a 375% increase in Islamophobic attacks after Boris Johnson’s “letterbox” comments about Muslim women who choose to don the face covering. Not to mention the UK’s refugee and asylum seeker community who saw a surge in violent far-right attacks bolstered by Suella Braveman’s reference to them as “criminals” who are ‘invading’ our country.
However, Manley quickly took a U-turn declaring that “we do not accept that, by definition, attacks on religion, including on religious texts or symbols, constitute advocacy for hatred.” Arguably, the UK’s track record strongly suggests otherwise. It’s plain as day that seemingly casual words publicly broadcast to an entire nation have the power to incite hatred. So, what of the violent message inextricably woven into the act of publicly desecrating what Muslims hold as central to their faith?
Indeed, this goes way beyond any argument about sacredness and anti-blasphemy laws, and squares centrally within violent provocation and advocacy of hatred. Disagreement and criticism about religion isn’t what’s up for discussion here, but the threatening symbolism inherent within public acts of burning the Quran, especially within the Islamophobic climate that we find ourselves in.
Aside from this huge error of judgement, the UK government’s hypocrisy deepens further still. Whilst waving the banner of freedom of speech with the UN Human Rights Council, they simultaneously deploy several policies to suppress this very right within their own country. We needn’t look much further than the recent Public Order Bill or the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill that attempt to strip UK citizens of their civil rights to protest and the public sector of their freedom to enact economic boycott to see such handy work at play.
Of course, this is all in addition to the government’s failing anti-radicalisation Prevent strategy, which is widely criticised for its curtailment of freedom of speech and expression. Penetrating homes, schools, universities and even the healthcare system, Prevent’s mass surveillance is predicated purely on matters of the mind and disproportionally affects Muslims over any other demographic. All one need do is say something (anything) that someone (anyone) might judge (mistakenly) to be an indication of an ‘extremist’ tendency and harsh preventative measures are immediately rolled out with relatively no questions asked.
And if that wasn’t enough, in a desperate attempt to revive his leadership campaign last year, Rishi Sunak promised to ramp up security on Prevent, expanding it’s already unjust, highly flawed and incredibly draconian definition of ‘extremism’ to include anyone who “vilify our country” – an expansion not even the former counter-terrorism police chief could justify supporting.
A more blatant contradiction could not be fathomed. The conservative government is making a mockery out of free speech, manipulating its application to serve their own ends.
Religious and racial hatred weigh light on the scale of incitement, overpowered by the need to uphold bigotry and state control. We have reached a juncture at which our PM will unashamedly jump to the defence of ex-Ukip leader Nigel Firage and his bank account closures in the name of free speech, whilst remaining silent on decades of unsubstantiated closures faced by Muslim charitable and religious organisations.
The need to discuss such flagrant hypocrisy is demoralising to the best of us, especially when it’s done so brazenly. The right to freedom of speech and expression is fundamental in our democratic society, but it seems that only when you’re burning the Quran or when your spouting prejudice vile will the government have your back.
Anna B is currently undertaking a PhD with the School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh. Her research focuses on the cultivation of faith across the Christian and Islamic traditions. She is also a non-fiction editor and writer working with publishers, think-tanks and academic institutes.
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.