Free Speech

I see that Richard Dawkins has been denied access to the airwaves in the USA for fear that he will offend Muslims. He was due to discuss his latest book – a collection of occasional pieces about science and rationalism – on KPFA Radio in California. The station has cancelled the broadcast because of Dawkins’ ‘abusive speech against Islam’ which it says has ‘offended and hurt so many people’. In its defence, the station draws a distinction between ‘serious free speech’ and ‘abusive speech’, but one could be cynical and conclude that the real reason for the cancellation is fear of reprisal by Muslim extremists in the USA. And if that is indeed the case, one has to have a little sympathy with KPFA who presumably are not keen to become the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ of California. The story is symptomatic of how we are all running scared of Islam. I feel the same pressures. Those close to me worry enough about my book on Christianity and the remarks I make here about religion generally, and they would not welcome me saying anything derogatory about Islam publically. In this way, the fundamental freedom of belief and expression that we treasure in western democracy is under serious attack. But in this case, the fear is wildly exaggerated surely; it reflects the atmosphere of paranoia created by President Trump rather than any real threat. 

To be fair to KPFA, their reasons do seem to have been more honourable, if wildly misguided. They say they are reacting to ‘hateful language against a community under attack’. This too we can lay at the door of Trump. By failing in his words and executive actions to distinguish between ordinary citizens of America and other friendly countries who happen to be Muslims, and the violent extremists he wishes to denounce and exclude from America, he has indeed created a sense of being ‘under attack’ among the Muslim community. But KPFA’s mistake is in getting confused about ‘hateful language’. Dawkins hates all religions, but his anger seems mostly to be directed against the Judaeo/Christian/Muslim god who makes his first appearance in the Old Testament, but persists in different avatars in the Christian and Muslim faiths that stem from it. Personally, I hate the god of the New Testament just as much. At least Jehovah was openly cruel; the god of St Paul cloaks his intolerance under a mask of fatherly love. But Dawkins and I don’t hate people. Our ‘hateful language’ is directed against hateful ideas. Now it is entirely possible that in denouncing hateful ideas, we may ‘offend and hurt people’. Well, tough. I am not suggesting that anyone should set out deliberately to offend. But equally, I see no reason to mince words either. Hateful ideas need to be denounced, and the pandering of politicians and churchmen to hateful ideas because they are religious ideas and therefore in some way above criticism, needs also to be denounced. After centuries of persecution by religious believers of all varieties, freethinkers at last live in an age when we are legally free to think and say whatever the hell we like about ideas. This is what America’s deep-rooted belief in free speech is all about: as Voltaire didn’t once say, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it". That is how civilisation makes progress and how morality evolves. As an atheist, I can take it, and so should Muslims.