We Must Tackle Extremism Without Compromising Freedom of Speech

Deeyah Khan, June 2015

The Queen announced last week that her government will be taking measures "to promote social cohesion and protect people by tackling extremism". These measures, as outlined by home secretary Theresa May, may include the ability to vet television programmes before they are broadcast. Like Theresa May, I regularly find myself infuriated by the rantings of Anjem Choudary and other hate preachers. Every time Choudary and his ilk are allowed to present his repellant views as representative of anything more than a small group of fanatics, it intensifies the already dangerous levels of hostility towards Muslims in the UK. To me, his high profile is indicative of the irresponsible and negative ways in which the UK media represented Muslims for many years, and the failure of the UK to address its radicalisation problems back in the 1980s and 1990s.

However, more like her colleague Sajid Javid, I strongly disagree that censorship is the answer. In researching my documentary Jihad, I have spent the last two years with current and former extremists, recording many opinions. None of these, it should be noted, were radicalised through television, but through direct contact with friends or family members who were already sympathetic to extremism. Despite many years of study, and the contributions of many well-paid experts, we are no closer to tangible and effective solutions and we still don't know enough about why individuals become susceptible to the message of extremists in the first place. One thing we do know, is that there is a clear correlation between civil liberties and terrorism: it appears that the closing of the public sphere to extreme voices makes them more likely to adopt undemocratic and violent means of expression. A silencing of mainstream debate around issues that resonate with disaffected young people may only entrench them more deeply in the heady atmosphere of online chatrooms. This of course is not to say that we should tolerate hate speech and harassment; as that certainly closes down the public space. But hate speech and harassment are already criminal acts.

These moves towards greater censorship represents a sinister extension of the category of unlawful behaviour: "For too long," says David Cameron, citizens have been told "as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone". This statement implies that the actions of law-abiding citizens should be subject to government intervention, as long as it fits their definition of extremism. And this definition is vague: 'the vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs'. Ironically, there could be nothing more detrimental to these supposedly 'British' values (which could, indeed, be considered universal values) than the denial of free speech. This definition is elastic enough to potentially include non-violent religious extremists along with secular feminists criticizing sharia law, to categorise anarchists along with monarchists as enemies of the state. This vagueness is chilling and unproductive; even if we are meant to guess that these restrictions will only be applied to Muslims (May's speech barely mentions any other kind of extremist), it has little clear or tested value in reducing the impetus towards extremism.

Most of the young men and women I interviewed in the process of filming my documentary were acutely sensitive to the many hypocrisies which they associated with the West. Banning vaguely defined and otherwise legal expressions of political opinion (however much we may dislike or disagree with that opinion) while defending Charlie Hebdo has a definite ring of hypocrisy.  May tells us that extremists believe that we are witnessing a 'clash of civilisations', within a black-and-white worldview: of people who "dismiss everyone who doesn't agree with them as kafirs". But she shows her own black-and-white worldview which excludes everyone who doesn't agree with the government as 'un-British'.

Freedom of speech is a human right, and the foundation upon which democracy is built. Any restriction of freedom of speech is a restriction upon democracy. We must defend democracy using its own mechanisms, through explaining and exemplifying its merits rather than through the heavy-handed and arbitrary silencing of its critics. This is how we will build a sustainable alternative to the contorted worldview of extremists. As a woman who has myself faced the devastating effects of Islamic extremism and attempted censorship in my own life, and having worked for several years to highlight and support the voices of secular activists against religious extremism, who often work under threats of extremist violence, I know how precious our shared human values and freedoms are. This is precisely why we must resist the impulse to react in a paranoid, authoritarian way that will play into the hands of extremists. Censorship in all its forms must be challenged. We need more dialogue, not less. Freedom of expression cannot be sacrificed this cheaply; not when so much blood has been spilled for it.

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