“March for Free Expression” Planned for London

Nick Cohen writes in The London Observer:

Next Saturday at 2pm in Trafalgar Square, there will be a rally for freedom of expression. I think it’s fair to say that previous generations would be astonished that their descendants would have to take to the streets to demand such a basic right, but after the death threats against cartoonists, it seems we do.

Fortunately, the British National Party is nowhere to be seen and the rally will be filled with democratic leftists, Liberal Democrats, secularists and Iranian and Saudi Arabian dissidents.

With the white far right out of the picture, the brown far right has barged in and Islamic fundamentalists are proposing to hold demonstrations against free speech away from central London. So, if you want to protest on Saturday, you have a choice: for free speech or against? Come on, it’s not that hard a choice. All will be welcome in Trafalgar Square. Dress? Danish.

Cohen is referring to two competing events, both of which are currently being furiously blogged by their supporters: The March for Free Expression and the Muslim Action Committee‘s Campaign for Global Civility. The latter is asking for the Press Complaints Commission Code of Practice to be amended to include guidelines against “reckless and malicious” attacks on religion, and for the press to “avoid prejudicial, insulting or pejorative” attacks on people based on their religion. They also want the Jyllands-Posten to give a full apology and

To publish one saying of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) every day for 1 year, promoting civility, as selected by the Muslim Action Committee.

However, Cohen’s portrait of the group as “the brown far right” is excessive. The MAC add:

If people want to be critical about Islam or what to debate it with us that’s fine, but a civilised debate does not involve the need to abuse your opponant. Those who resort to abuse and insult to win their arguments are those who are devoid of true intellectual arguments and evidence. We want to civilise our debates and discussions to facilitate understanding, instead of this name calling that everyone is engaging in now.

That’s a long way from the “death to the infidel” crowd, and it reflects poorly on Cohen that he chooses to elide the difference.

Meanwhile, the March for Free Expression asserts that:

This campaign is not specifically directed at Islam…There has been a pattern of attempts to restrict freedom of speech and expression from a number of religions and from secular sources as well…For the organisers of this campaign, the Danish cartoons affair was merely the straw that broke the camel’s back.

It’s a shame that there couldn’t have been a rather more noble “straw” than a handful of inflammatory cartoons published by a hypocritical newspaper which had previously refused to print cartoons satirising Christianity. Where was the support two years ago when Alaskan composer Philip Munger was bullied into cancelling the premiere of his cantata about Rachel Corrie? And what about now, when a play on the same theme has apparently been forced to cancel in New York?

But that’s all as may be – the fact is that, thanks to the bloody reaction of Islamists to the cartoons, a campaign is now underway, and is gathering support from a number of impressive organisations and individuals. These include: the Christian think-tank Ekklesia, the anti-LGF site lgfwatch, the New Humanist Magazine, Peter Tatchell, and the Nigerian Humanist Movement (whose leader, Leo Igwe, has been featured on this blog before). The priorities and focus of whatever movement emerges out of this (if any) will be determined, as ever, by the people who show up – and the organisers have asked “white nationalists” to go elsewhere. Therefore:


(although I won’t be there myself, what with being in Japan just now…)

UPDATE: One of the organisers has now issued the following statement (emphasis in original, link added):

At the outset, we said that displays of the Danish cartoons would be welcome on Saturday. No, let me rephrase that: At the outset, I, Peter Risdon, said the cartoons would be welcome. I am going to take full responsibility for this. I now think that was a mistake.

In practice, Muslims who wholeheartedly endorse our statement of principle, as quoted below by Peter Tatchell in his superb essay, who abhor the threats made against Danish cartoonists and believe people should have the right to publish things they themselves find offensive or abhorrent would be UNABLE to come to our rally on Saturday, because to be surrounded by these cartoons, now, in the present context when the BNP are using them as a rallying point, would be intolerable.

So I now appeal to people not to bring the cartoons on T-shirts or placards.

Naturally, some have condemned the “appeal” as an act of censorship, when what they mean is that Risdon shouldn’t have been allowed to express his judgement. Risdon defended his request in a second post:

To answer a couple of emails collectively, I don’t care what [the Muslim Action Committee] or anyone else says about this; I haven’t even bothered to look. It became plain to me from talking with a couple of British Muslim journalists over the past few days that even the most secular, cosmopolitan British Muslim seems incapable, at the moment, of accepting that a display of the cartoons might not be a racist attack on them. That being the case, it had become clear that Muslims who agree with this campaign would have felt unable to attend the rally. That’s why I have asked people not to display the cartoons and it is the only reason why.

Interestingly, while I have been the focus of a lot of anger from some Muslims over my stance on these cartoons, my first death threat came as a response to the post below, obviously from a non-Muslim.

To those who are annoyed, I ask what part of this did you not understand:

This will be a march in favour of free expression, not a march against Muslims