A few years back, when the American response to the horrors of September 11 reached its muscular zenith, dissenters from the cause liked to issue a pithy cri de coeur. “You can fight a nation or a person,” they would say with palpable indignation, “but you can’t declare war on an abstract noun.” The “War on Terror,” they would conclude, is little more than a marketing exercise for a preexisting disposition.
At the root of this objection was the fear that governments that cannot easily define what they are fighting will eventually come to be at war with everyone and everything. What, after all, constitutes “terror” — an inherently subjective term? How, pray, can we know when it has been truly vanquished? And which borders — physical, philosophical, and political — must we respect in the course of combat? These, I’d venture, were fair questions. “The essence of tyranny is not iron law,” Christopher Hitchens observed. “It is capricious law.” Now, as in the time of King John, free people should demand some ground rules.
This debate came rushing back to mind this week after it was revealed that a would-be prime minister of Great Britain, the Labour party’s Edward Miliband, had promised London’s Muslim Times that he would seek to outlaw and to punish “Islamophobia” if he were elected to high office. “Although Islamophobia already falls under the Racial and Religious Hatred Act of 2006#….#” The Independent recorded on Saturday, “Mr Miliband’s proposal would allow authorities to hand down tougher sentences for similar crimes.” Evidently, those sentences would be harsh. At present, Britons who violate the Racial and Religious Hatred Act are at risk of “up to seven years imprisonment” — not, you will note, because they have actually hurt anybody, but rather because they have uttered strings of opinion-laden words that the incumbent government happens to disfavor. This, alas, is apparently not good enough for the Labour party. Under a Miliband administration, The Independent confirmed, Britons who caustically knocked Islam would be guilty of an “aggravated crime.” “We are going to make sure it is marked on people’s records with the police,” Miliband submitted, “to make sure they root out Islamophobia as a hate crime.”
The presumption that the state has a role to play in the policing of the human soul is an utterly terrifying one, running contrary as it does to all the beautiful suppositions that served as scaffolding to the Enlightenment. If Ed Miliband believes that his fellow countrymen are intolerant rubes, he of course has every right to lobby them to change direction. That he has promised to marshal the police in disapprobation is something altogether different.
The presumption that the state has a role to play in the policing of the human soul is an utterly terrifying one.
Why? Well, because underpinning the notion of free and untrammeled debate is the humble acknowledgement that the state cannot — and should not — decide what is true and what is false. Naturally, governments may have strong opinions on a corporate level. Individually their members may, too. But, whatever they might come to believe, those governments may not contrive to ossify or establish as legally impregnable a sole definition of reality. This, I’m afraid, is what Miliband is effectively proposing. Seemingly, he has contrived a two-step process for censorship: First, submit that criticism of Islam is beyond the pale (that’s the “phobia” stuff, for phobias are irrational, remember); second, because that criticism therefore has no value, move to prohibit it.
In attempting to discern a limiting principle, critics will likely pretend that this approach constitutes a radical departure from British norms and should therefore be resisted on principle. Much as I might like to pretend that this were the case, it represents no such thing. Despite its proud history as a cradle of individual liberty, Britain today boasts some of the most capricious, the most vague, and the most far-reaching censorship laws in the developed world. As of 2015, the execrable Public Order Act of 1986 had been used to harass two-bit singers, radical members of the media, drunken students, preaching pastors, proselytizing Muslims, leafleting atheists, ignorant soccer fans, and pretty much anybody else who stepped out line. During this year’s election, moreover, aspiring members of parliament used it to shut down criticism from their potential constituents. Can we really be so surprised that the appalling Ed Miliband has jumped on the appalling British Milibandwagon?
Pushing back against Milband’s proposal, a few critics have noted acidly that the elite class’s obsessive focus on “Islamophobia” is peculiar given that the most frequent victims of racially motivated crimes in the United Kingdom are in fact Jewish. Well intentioned as that critique is, however, I’d venture that it represents entirely the wrong way of looking at the question. No matter what the numbers say, nobody who lives in a free country should be immune from harsh and even hateful oppobrium — not Christians, not Muslims, not atheists, not blacks, not whites, not anybody. Frankly, it is not the role of the British authorities to police the verbal output of the people they serve, until and unless that output is explicitly and deliberately brigaded to an illegal action. If they are to be at liberty, men may freely exhibit irrationality, fear, animadversion, disdain, acrimony, bitterness, revulsion, and pique — and they may do so without their emotions or their expressions being compared by the law to battery. If Ed Miliband hopes to make physical assaults even more illegal, he has my blessing. Until then, he must stay the hell away, lest he spur a recrudescence of precisely the sort of illiberalism he purportedly intends to banish.
Writing yesterday in The Spectator, Douglas Murray struck a great blow for common sense when he noted that if Miliband were to get his unlovely way, almost everybody could find himself in the crosshairs:
If Ed Miliband were to become Prime Minister and were to decide to make what people call “Islamophobia” illegal then I’m very happy to test the law straight away. Indeed I will immediately put on a gathering of academics, writers, Quranic-scholars and philosophers — Muslim and non-Muslim — to discuss Islam. It is possible that some of those gathered may disagree with the foundational claims of Islam. I, for instance, may repeat my belief — not being a Muslim — that it is highly unlikely that the Quran was “dictated” by God. This is not only my belief. It is also the belief of Sikhs, Hindus, Jews, Christians (some Anglican priests excepted), atheists and ex-Muslims, to name only a few minority groups.
Murray’s point strikes at the beating heart of the matter. In Britain, in Australia, in France, and beyond, limitations on free expression are typically justified with mawkish appeals to “multiculturalism,” to “diversity,” and to the maintenance of the allegedly exquisite feelings of the supposedly out-of-touch. And yet, as Murray subtly implies, this is rather to put arse over elbow, for rather than creating an intractable problem, freedom of speech actually is at its most useful when the culture it serves is lacking in homogeneity. Were all Britons to adopt an ovine pose and to agree that the Church of England is the correct religion and that its central claims are unquestionably true, there would be little need at all for the protections of free expression. While reasonable in and of itself, “Oh, I like the Queen, too!” is clearly not the sort of opinion that requires the passage of strictures guarding against the intrusion of the state. When a country hosts a broad array of opinions, however — and when it is home to people whose deep-seated beliefs directly contradict the deep-seated beliefs of others — a legal framework that can accommodate sharp and pronounced dissension is absolutely vital.
In Britain at present, almost all speech that is critical of Islam is reflexively deemed to be “Islamophobic” — this, regardless of intent, regardless of context, regardless of caveat or commonition. In consequence, if the British government were indeed to crack down more robustly in this area, it would not really be defending the “rights” of a minority group against the pitchfork-wielding mob, but effectively privileging one clique over another. How, one wonders, would it decide what was beyond the pale and what was legitimate? How would it conclude whether the Islamic religion or Mr. Douglas Murray were the victim? How would it distinguish between the imprecations of the imam and the critiques of the atheist? Might it not be possible, perhaps, that this is little more than a recipe for the sort of whimsy of which there is too much in British life; and, further, that this is the sort of thinking that has led to situation in which, a few days before a close general election, one of the men who would instruct the bayonets has ended up tendering special legal protections to a crucial, and increasingly cunning, electoral bloc . . . ?
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.