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The rights that imply responsi­bilities

08 May 2015

Fundamentalists come in many different guises, says Paul Vallely

A TELLING question was shouted from the floor just after a heavily armed SWAT team burst into the "Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest" in Texas. The officer in charge announced that the 150 people present were to be evacuated, because a police officer had been shot by two gunmen, who themselves had just been shot dead outside the hall. The question shouted immediately from one of the participants was "Are they Muslims?"

It was revealing that this was the first thought of one of those taking part. The contest had been billed as an event in defence of free speech, but it felt more like an anti-Muslim hate event. It was organised by a body calling itself the American Freedom Defense Initiative; its organiser, Pamela Geller, also runs a group called Stop Islamization of America. Her previous stunts have included ads on buses showing pictures of Hitler with the tagline "Jew Hatred: It's in the Koran". Among her other colourful interventions in public life is the claim on her website that President Obama is the love child of Malcolm X, that his birth certificate is a forgery, and that he is a secret Muslim.

JUST before the gunmen struck, the far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders had made a speech in the hall. Making reference to the 2005 controversy over cartoons of Muhammad in a Danish newspaper, and the recent murder of 12 people in the Paris offices of the magazine Charlie Hebdo - known for its scabrous drawings of the Prophet - he had announced: "The day we give away humour and freedom of speech is the day that we cease to exist as a free and independent people."

Free speech is one of the foundations of modern democratic civilisation. There can be no free politics without free speech, a fact acknowledged in the United States by its enshrinement in the Constitution's First Amendment. But free speech comes with a price. The price is that, in a civilised society, it should be exercised responsibly. The virtue of free speech is lessened when that freedom is abused to wilfully provoke others.

TO SAY this is not to deny the right of citizens to abuse one another, though it is easily misinterpreted as seeming to say that - as Pope Francis found out when, after condemning the Charlie Hebdo killings, he added the startling rider that became parodied as "You-insulta-my-momma-I-puncha-your-face." He was making a distinction between a right and a responsibility; between a law and a relationship; between a "can't" and a "shouldn't".

Usama Shami, president of the Islamic Community Centre in Phoenix, once attended by the gunmen, seemed to understand that. Asked whether he and his fellow Muslims disapproved of the cartoon contest, he shrugged: "No, I don't see that as provocative. Most members of this congregation didn't even know about it."

FREE speech, like the other accretions of civilised behaviour, is a right that should be held in balance with our responsibilities and the rights of others. Free-speech fundamentalists are to be as much abhorred as any other kind.

Paul Vallely is Visiting Professor in Public Ethics at the University of Chester.

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