The left must defend freedom of expression

The left must defend freedom of expression

By Ken Livingstone

Socialist Campaign Group News, November 2006

The outpouring of negativity towards all things Muslim in the media following Jack Straw’s statement that he asks constituents who seek his help to take off their veils was predictable.

Far from a disinterested ‘debate’, much media coverage more closely resembled the kind of systematic, drip, drip, drip demonisation of Jewish people in the first half of this century.

Muslims have been condemned for their religion, their dress, their schools, their ‘sense of grievance’, their difference, their separation and virtually every other aspect of their religion and culture. And those lambasting them have been variously praised for their ‘courage’, ‘bravery’ and ‘willingness to break taboos’.

The biggest beneficiaries of this outpouring of prejudice has been the extreme right. In the 1930s, the Blackshirts targeted the Jews. Today the BNP puts a so-called Islamic threat at the centre of its election campaigns.

This is directly legitimised by tabloids like the Daily Express with its front page ‘Ban the Veil’ campaign. That is also why this so-called ‘discussion’ has, in reality, been accompanied by a surge in physical and verbal attacks on Muslims, with women abused for wearing veils, mosques attacked.

Many of us on the left do not agree with religious requirements on dress, particularly stricter requirements for women than men.

As we have seen in other religions, such requirements will die out over time. But we must draw a clear distinction between our views and the right of others to dress as they wish. Our principle here should be, to paraphrase Voltaire: ‘I may disapprove of what you wear, but I will defend to the death your right to wear it.’

It took hundreds of years of struggle, including international and civil wars, to establish freedom of conscience and freedom of expression, such as the right of women to dress as they wish. These rights are not threatened by the Muslim communities but by the people attacking them. They are attacking women’s right to dress as they wish and peoples’ right to follow any religion or none.

One of the least palatable aspects of this situation is the way in which Labour politicians have led the charge against the Muslim communities.

We should learn the lesson of France. There, the left abandoned the poorest sections of society, France’s six million Muslims, under the pretext that they threatened securalism, for example, supporting the ban on Muslim headscarves in schools. At the same time, these concessions to racism, legitimised the ideology of the far right who made deep inroads into the working class supporters of the traditional left.

The result was a left in conflict with the poorest ethnic and religious minorities and simultaneously losing its traditional support to the far right to such an extent that they were eliminated from the second round of the last presidential election.

The left should lead the fight to defend freedom of conscience and freedom of religion first and foremost because it is the right thing to do and because it is the only way to defend a progressive majority in society.

To paraphrase Pastor Martin Niemöller:

First they came for the Muslims and I did not speak out because
I was not a Muslim.
Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.