Thursday, 5 June 2008
Posted by Dave
I've recently been following the case of Mark Steyn, a Canadian conservative journalist and polemicist. Steyn is a well known critic of the "Islamiphication" of the west, having published articles and books on the subject, including the gloriously rabble rousing America Alone. He also appears regularly on Rush Limbaugh's radio show, as well as other conservative outlets in the US. In short, he sounds like the kind of person I'd vehemently disagree with on a number of issue, but, to use the usual paraphrasing of Voltaire, "I may not agree with what he says, but I will defend to the death his right to say it."
Not everyone is as enlightened as Voltaire and me though. In 2007, a group of law students associated with the Canadian Islamic Congress issued a complaint to the Ontario Human Rights Commission accusing Steyn of promoting hatred of Muslims. What in particular has promoted this particular complaint? It seems that the following passage is one of the offending bits of writing:
Signora Fallaci then moves on to the livelier examples of contemporary Islam -- for example, Ayatollah Khomeini's "Blue Book" and its helpful advice on romantic matters: "If a man marries a minor who has reached the age of nine and if during the defloration he immediately breaks the hymen, he cannot enjoy her any longer." I'll say. I know it always ruins my evening.
The offending part being the accurate quote of Khomeini, rather than the tasteless gag at the end. The complaint lists a number of other pieces of writing, including a piece where Steyn quotes a Norwegian Muslim Iman as saying that "Muslims were breeding like Mosquitoes", and a review by Steyn in which he unfavourably reviews a Candadian sitcom "Little Mosque On The Prairie". I'm really not making this up, the meat of the complaint centres around Steyn's quotation of what leading muslims actually said.
Now, you may be sketical. In cases like this, there is normally the hidden detail that the sensationalist news media or blogosphere fail to mention. There must be more substance to the complaint than this, right? Well, apparently not. If you have a spare 20 minutes watch this Canadian broadcast. Initially supposed to be two seperate segments in which Steyn puts his case forward, then his accusers do the same, Steyn instead hijacks it and turns it into a full on debate. It's clear from watching this that the three over-achieving law students plainly have no case, or no case in any sensible system at least. A point highlighted beautifully when one of the complainants makes the ludicrous claim that if she wrote a book quoting Hitler, then white Christians in Canada would be equally offended. Right.
So there you go. In an otherwise progressive and civilised society like Canada, what passes for hate speech is the accurate quotation of one of the most influential figures in one of the world's largest religions. Or failing to enjoy that religion's comedy. Does this not strike anyone as a little bit absurd?
Free speech is a very important right to defend. It ensures that the publication of unusual viewpoints is not met with state-sanction, and allows for criticism of governments and institutions that might otherwise run amok. Similarly, the right for members of groups to not be the victim of organised hatred and oppression is also a value that should be defended. But there needs to be a line drawn between the two rights, and a clear differentiation made between them.
What Steyn has done clearly falls under the protection of free speech, and the correct way to oppose it is to counter it with your own free speech. Attempting to label it as a "hate crime" and to oppress it through the courts is no more acceptable than attempting to suppress the publication of the Danish cartoons by burning down embassies.