Free Speech R.I.P.

by - 3rd December 2008

There are angry stirrings; mutterings and grumblings can be heard in the wine-bars and pubs in Canary Wharf. What is the source of this unhappy atmosphere? Amongst the financial and multi-national oil and investment companies it is the economy that clouds over the sunshine of their lives. However, for the journalists of Canary Wharf, another sinister cloud is spoiling their post-work pint: the phenomenon of so-called ‘Soft Jihad’ or ‘Libel Tourism’.

For those, like me, who have only recently become aware of the terms, let alone begun to understand them, they refer to the increasing use of the British (and American – though without so much success) law courts, by individuals like Saudi businessman Khalid Bin Mafouz who use libel law to stifle publication of books or articles that investigate the links between gulf oil money and terrorism.

The clearest recent British example of this was the law suit against Cambridge University Press which resulted in the removal from the bookshelves of Alms for Jihad: Charity and Terrorism in the Islamic World by J. Mullard Burr and Robert Collins.  CUP issued a full apology to avoid a suit.  The attempted suing of Rachael Ehrenfeld for her Funding Evil: How Terrorism is Financed – and How to Stop it was reported by the US press with only the sketchiest mention in Britain, principally Private Eye.

None of this is new of course.  In a recent speech in Prague on ‘Liberal Secularism and Press Freedom in Europe’, Dr Jenny Taylor cited the case of Fatima’s Scarf, by David Caute, left-wing former literary editor of The New Statesman, who was forced to self-publish his novel about an anti-fundamentalist Muslim writer in 1998, when, despite being praised highly in private, it was turned down by 25 leading publishers. 

There has been a lot of crying wolf over freedom of speech by journalists.  Now the threat to freedom is real and nasty and is being backed up by serious Islamic money.  David Selbourne, in an article for the 24 July 2006 edition of The Spectator published well before the law suits described above were enacted, has studied the lack of resolve with which the war of cultural attrition is being met.

Selbourne’s article was written during the last Israeli incursion against Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon  and sought to draw that conflict within the wider context of the global struggle between the jihadis and the West. Selbourne observes that the United States, Britain, other Western powers, Christian groups and a resurgent Islamic ‘ummah are all fighting to be the leading voice for morality in the world against a background of growing spiritual awakening in the West.

His central point is that the violence is merely one facet of a broader and more important propaganda campaign between Western pluralist democratic values and Hanbali Muslim ideology. In this campaign for the hearts and minds of the West, Selbourne suggests that presently the jihadis are winning.  According to Selbourne this is because the West is paralysed by its inability to decide what it is fighting: terrorism, Islamism – or just Islam; this indecision produces a lack of sustainable opposition to growing and predatory Islamic political confidence.

The validity of Selbourne’s central point has remained over the two years since that article was written.  What has changed is the reason for its validity. For, in the UK particularly, the overwhelming consensus in the present government is that it is so-called ‘violent extremists’ rather than radical Islam that poses the threat to western values. This was seen in the Preventing Violent Extremism paper launched by the Home Secretary in June 2008 for it consistently specified ‘violent extremism’ rather than ‘the broader ideology of radical Islam’. The silencing by rich Saudis and others of voices critical of Islam is not even an object of concern.  

In coming to this country Islam has naturally opened itself to the kind of critical review which Christianity has become used to over the course of the last century or more. It is something that, until the very recent past, Islam had not been subjected to in earnest even from within its own community. So what has been the response? Some Muslims have positively re-engaged with their own scriptures in order to try and understand how to live as believers in a new context. For others, any kind of criticism has proved unacceptable and it is from these ranks that the jihadis are drawn. Consequently, the effect of the intimidation through the courts has been both to stifle the kind of investigative work that is an important part of accountability in Western democracy but also, to cow writers, broadcasters, journalists and scholars into ending the forms of critical examination that are a natural part of the process of evaluation in the West.

Thus, not only are important links to terror not followed up as they ought, but the jihadis are given free rein to propagate their message of Islamic supremacy without effective response. This is a propaganda war about shaping the way that the world thinks about religion and the framework for society for decades to come and, at the moment, only one message is being freely articulated. That is not only undemocratic, it is dangerous.

In the US the attempted silencing of Ehrenfeld was unsuccessful because she chose to stand up for the principle of valid critical investigation and debate. What about the UK? Our ancestors fought long and hard for the freedom to criticise and hold people and ideas to account. Why are we apparently content not to pass that inheritance on to our children? Journalists grumbling quietly into their beer need to grab the nearest megaphone and the rest of us need to be listening and questioning politicians, lawyers and judges with something that might vaguely resemble courage and common sense.