"Forces of endarkenment" threaten freedom of speech - academic
Prominent academics in Britain have been debating whether a new wave of censorship is taking hold in Britain with politicians, academics and the media afraid to criticise religious beliefs or religions for fear of retaliation. VoR's Tim Ecott spoke to one of the speakers at the event at The London School of Economics, Dr. Rumy Hasan of Science and Technology Policy Research, Sussex University
How do you balance the right to religious belief and the right not to have to witness the defamation of the Prophet Muḥammad with freedom of expression?
"Because this freedom of expression has been won over centuries. We had very powerful blasphemy laws in this country. You would be killed for insulting the prophet of Christianity or Christianity centuries ago, so we had through the enlightenment this fundamental bedrock of democratic society. So you have to be careful in not imposing your personal beliefs into the laws and norms of this society. So there is, if you like, a struggle going on between the forces of the enlightenment and what I call the forces of counter-enlightenment."
But some people will take that as saying Islam is out of step with the 21st century?
"It's been out of step for 200 years. but will give you a very powerful example of what took place in Birmingham in December 2004, nearly ten years ago. There was a play called Behzti [that included scenes of rape, physical abuse and murder] written by a Sikh woman about a Gurdwara [Sikh temple]. Sikhs in Birmingham found it offensive and what did they do? They literally smashed the Birmingham Rep down and the Rep were so frightened that they pulled the play. So this was censorship through violence
“Just recently, a few weeks ago, in London South Bank University there were posters which caricatured God as the flying spaghetti monster, which you can find on the web. These posters were pulled because they were deemed to be offensive.”
Are you saying that no matter how offensive that is to people of that religion, it must be allowed to be shown or broadcast?
“I am saying that as long as freedom of speech and freedom of expression does not incite violence then it must be allowed. Now there is a very, very important resolution that was passed by the [Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe]. It says that ideas that shock, offend or disturb the state or any sector of the population are protected by freedom of expression in accordance with article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights.
Take the recent example as some of the press in Britain paying a lot of attention to the idea of Islamic speakers saying that audiences must be segregated, male and female, because that Islam would want. What should student bodies and universities say if they are asked by a speaker, segregate the audience because I will be more comfortable?
“They should absolutely reject it. Thankfully all the main political parties spoke very strongly against it. David Cameron said he was totally opposed to the idea of gender segregations in universities but this shows the depths to which we have plunged when a university body can countenance something that was unthinkable 2-3 decades ago.”
As an academic, are you fearful yourself of expressing these views? Do you fear you could be targeted or victimised in some way?
“I have had the odd threat but I think that is the price on has to pay if one cherishes these very, very fundamental rights that go back centuries. I am debating, tell me where I am wrong? Let’s have healthy disagreement. Don’t darken the enlightened and unfortunately what I call the forces of endarkenment are feeling confident because these principles are being eroded. There is – as you very nicely put it – a very great deal of sensitivity where arguments against religion easily slip over to arguments against race and ethnicity. It’s a sleight of hand that must be blocked. And it’s my job, I feel as an academic who is in the business of free debate, ideas, knowledge to speak out.”