Friday, February 03, 2006

Disappointed By The Words of Straw

Jack Straw has condemned the newspapers that have printed the cartoons of Mohammed. Fair enough - it is his right and prerogative to make those comments. What disappoints me, though, is that he has resolutely failed to condemn unequivocally the actions of extremists in storming government buildings, in threatening kidnappings, in burning flags in the street. Nor has he condemned Middle Eastern governments for withdrawing their ambassadors from countries that have printed the paper. It is resolutely, fundamentally wrong for governments to meddle in newspaper activities and Anders Fogh Rasmussen deserves huge credit for refusing to bow in to political pressure.

Straw said:

There is freedom of speech, we all respect that. But there is not any obligation to insult or to be gratuitously inflammatory.

No, there isn't. But there is a right to insult or to be gratuitously inflammatory. If we don't like the message, we can refuse to buy the newspapers, or we can write on our own blogs that the editor of Jyllands-Posten was crass and wrong in his actions. To demand government intervention, however, is a completely different matter.

Apart from the fact that the boycott of Danish goods is misdirected - Arla Foods had nothing to do with the publishing of the cartoons - that is also a perfectly justifiable response to the episode. The market is a wonderful thing, because it does not just respond to economic pressures. If there is sufficient weight of feeling, all kinds of other factors can have an effect. Just look at the way sponsors of rival football clubs have their sales decline in the "wrong" city (hence why Celtic and Rangers are sponsored by the same company). That, of course, is why I also believe we are right to try and Buy Danish wherever we can, because it will go some way to offsetting the damage caused by the Middle Eastern boycott. To try and force governmental influence on newspapers is wrong.

The problem, of course, is that all too often, people go out of their way to be gratuitously offensive to Muslims when the point they are trying to make does not need that. Theo van Gogh's film, Submission, was unsophisticated, but raised many valid points about the treatment of women in Islamic culture. The fact that Qur'anic verses were written across the woman's body, however, simply made the film gratuitously offensive. It wasn't making a point, it was designed purely and simply to wind people up. Likewise most of the cartoons printed were gratuitously offensive. What would have been wrong with simply claiming the right to draw a picture of Mohammed? After all, that is what I thought the issue was first about.

So Straw is providing a service to us in one way; it is right to remember that if we are trying to make an argument, moderation is the best way forward. There's been a distinct lack of moderation on one side here, and a lack of moderation on the other. Nevertheless, it's vital we remember what the Middle Eastern countries stand for here. They stand for a shackling of freedom of speech and governmental interference to protect their own religion not from violence, but from criticism. That is totally wrong. And it is disappointing in the extreme to have a Foreign Secretary who does not provide a stirring defence of the right to freedom of speech.