(Fireman Sam. His co-creator, David S Jones, was detained for insulting Islam)
I concluded my previous post with the following sentence:
In many countries “insulting Islam” or “insulting the prophet” (so-called) can land you in prison or worse.
Well, it’s not only in Muslim countries. Here’s what happened in the country that is still proud of its democratic traditions.
The creator of children’s character Fireman Sam has criticised the treatment he received after he was detained at Gatwick Airport.
Former fireman Mr Jones, 67, was on his way to Faro in the Algarve, where he now lives.
He was asked to place his belongings, including his scarf, into a tray to pass through the scanner.
However, as he did so, he spotted [a veiled] woman pass through the area without showing her face.
Speaking to Radio 4’s Today programme, he recalled how he said to officials: “I wonder what would happen if I covered my face with my scarf.
“It was a quip. And I expected the guy to say: ‘Yeah, I know what you mean mate’ but when I got to the end and was putting all my stuff back on, I was bagged by a security guard.”
Mr Jones said he was told: “You’ve made a remark which someone finds offensive. Come with me.”
He denied making an offensive remark, saying it was “an observation, nothing more”, but he was told he should apologise to a Muslim security guard who was nearby when the comment was made.
Mr Jones described the situation as bizarre, but said he was not arrested even though he was held “for quite a while”.
He was freed after agreeing the remark could be regarded as offensive.
I think Jones’ behaviour was boorish. I would not have made a comment like that, not because I feared legal reprisals but because it is just plain bad manners.
Nor do I blame the Muslim guard for taking offence. We all have our feelings, our emotional buttons if you like, and I can well understand why he or she could have taken offence at Jones’ boorishness.
But does boorishness merit being detained by airport security? Does feeling offended?
Here is the definition of a “racist or religious hate incident” from the Citizens Advice website:
What are hate incidents?
The police and Crown Prosecution Service have agreed a common definition of hate incidents.
They say something is a hate incident if the victim or anyone else think it was motivated by hostility or prejudice based on one of the following things:
- transgender identity
- sexual orientation.
This means that if you believe something is a hate incident it should be recorded as such by the person you are reporting it to. All police forces record hate incidents based on these five personal characteristics.
(Emphasis in original)
Citizens Advice is not some fringe organisation. It is the major source of advice to citizens in the UK. At the time of writing it receives a subsidy of ₤77 million from the British Government. It also receives numerous charitable donations. They claim that 4 in 10 UK citizens will seek advice from them at some time in their lives.
So the Muslim guard who claimed to be offended was within his or her rights under current British law in reporting the incident and airport security were within their rights in questioning him.
But what this means is that, de facto, it is as much a crime to “insult Islam” or “insult the Prophet” (so-called) in the UK as it is in Muslim country such as Indonesia or Pakistan. The consequences may not be as severe. What happened to Mr. Jones cannot be compared to the predicament of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the Christian governor of Jakarta
A crowd of at least 200,000 Muslim protesters has descended on Jakarta to demand the Christian
governor of the Indonesian capital be arrested for insulting Islam.
People headed towards a huge park in downtown Jakarta to protest against Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known by his nickname Ahok, who has become the target of widespread anger in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country.
Purnama, Jakarta’s first non-Muslim governor in half a century, is already being prosecuted for allegedly committing blasphemy over comments he made about the Koran in an election campaign.
But he has not been detained and conservative Muslim groups are now pushing for his arrest.
Even less can inconvenience Jones experienced be compared to the plight of Aasiya Noreen, her family and friends currently on death row in Pakistan.
Aasiya Noreen …better known as Asia Bibi, is a Pakistani Christian woman who was convicted of blasphemy by a Pakistani court, receiving a sentence of death by hanging. In June 2009, Noreen was involved in an argument with a group of Muslim women with whom she had been harvesting berries after the other women grew angry with her for drinking the same water as them. She was subsequently accused of insulting the Islamic prophet Muhammad, a charge she denies, and was arrested and imprisoned. In November 2010, a Sheikhupura judge sentenced her to death. If executed, Noreen would be the first woman in Pakistan to be lawfully killed for blasphemy.
The verdict, which was reached in a district court and would need to be upheld by a superior court, has received worldwide attention. Various petitions, including one that received 400,000 signatures, were organized to protest Noreen’s imprisonment, and Pope Benedict XVI publicly called for the charges against her to be dismissed. She received less sympathy from her neighbors and Islamic religious leaders in the country, some of whom adamantly called for her to be executed. Christian minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti and Muslim politician Salmaan Taseer were both assassinated for advocating on her behalf and opposing the blasphemy laws. Noreen’s family went into hiding after receiving death threats, some of which threatened to kill Asia if released from prison.
So let’s not have false equivalences. Britain is far from being Pakistan or Indonesia. More to the point, most Britons would regard Jones’ experience as bizarre, something akin to a Monty Python skit.
But this is still a serious issue because, you see, “insulting Islam” or “insulting the Prophet” (so-called) is not the real problem. The real problem is that a frank discussion about the nature of Islam is effectively shut down.
All it takes is for a single Muslim who feels offended to believe that some comment or what is written on some blog constitutes a “hate incident” and report it to the police. Being the subject of a police investigation, even if you are eventually exonerated, is a harrowing experience. It takes time. You’ll probably have to incur the expense of hiring a lawyer.
Note, it is what the complainant believes that is the issue. In theory I could use that to shut down all debate on, say, the Catholic Church’s stance on birth control. Consider this from Daily Kos:
The Catholic Church, of course, rejects birth control as sinful and immoral. Listening to the Catholic Church talk about morality is a little like listening to Chris Christie talk about the importance of exercise and eating right. It’s a tough sell. Frankly, considering their recent record on issues of morality, I would think the Catholic Church just might want to keep it’s mouth shut on this one. Something about casting the first stone comes to mind.
Now remember the definition:
Something is a racist or religious hate incident if the victim or anyone else thinks it was carried out because of hostility or prejudice based on race or religion.
I think it obvious the author of this piece is hostile to Catholicism.
This means that if you believe something is a hate incident, it should be recorded as such by the person you are reporting it to.
I would guess many Catholics would believe publishing this passage constitutes a “hate incident”. So why is this piece not being investigated by the police. Well, fortunately for the author he resides in the US and is protected by the First Amendment. However anyone disseminating this passage in the UK could technically become the subject of a police investigation were a Catholic to lodge a complaint with the police.
In other words the law in the UK as it now stands is a perfect instrument of intimidation.
If free speech means anything it is that any belief system, ideology or religion is a legitimate target for critique, ridicule, analysis, satire and scorn (CRASS). That includes every belief system or ideology including atheism, capitalism, Christianity, communism, conservatism, Fascism, Hinduism, Holocaust Denial, Judaism, liberalism, Marxism, Nazism, Pastafarianism, Rastafarianism, Scientology, socialism, Zionism and Zoroastrianism. The fact that some of these belief systems are labelled religion should be of no account in a secular democracy. Nor should it matter that some adherents of these belief systems may be deeply wounded if their cherished beliefs are the target of ridicule and scorn.
The notion of “Islamophobia” is as absurd as Sandy Hook Truther-o-phobia or, in the USA, Republican-o-phobia. (Full disclosure. I am a Republican-o-phobe. I think the rank and file of the Republican party is mostly composed of poor, deluded nebbishes and the leadership are mainly corporate shills.)
Yes, I am sure that some people use attacks on Islam as a cover for their racism just as I know that many critics of Zionism are motivated by hatred for Jews. But that does not mean that Islam or Zionism should be immune from critique, ridicule, analysis, satire and scorn. Both are legitimate targets for CRASS.
It is disturbing that free speech is being circumscribed in this manner in, of all countries, the United Kingdom.