Freedom of Expression

On Donald Macleod’s ‘Defending Jihadists’

When people are sacked, censored, boycotted or become the target of murderous attacks the focus (particularly for those concerned about free speech) tends to shift towards condemnation of the silencers.  But Alec’s recent post led to a lengthy conversation about how far Macleod’s take on Islam/Muslims was valid, how far problematic or unfair.  The focus was on his latest piece, so here are a few thoughts about a post which was published in March.

In ‘Defending Jihadists’ Macleod begins:

Britain’s Muslims have us all living on a knife-edge, desperately trying to find a compromise between saying it as we see it on the one hand, and avoiding offence to the followers of the Prophet on the other.

There’s something in this – Cameron’s oscillations are one example – though I wouldn’t say Macleod himself seems to spend much time agonising about causing offence on this issue.  But Macleod’s formula implies that Britain’s Muslims are a homogenous group, having an uncomfortable impact, on ‘us’ (and ‘we’ are clearly not Muslim).

I agree with the thrust of Macleod’s next paragraph – that responsibility for jihadist attacks lies with the jihadists, not the police or M15, and with his observation (paragraph 3) that it’s inconsistent to then turn round and complain that the police aren’t doing enough.

But his next move conflates two very different examples of Muslims taking offence.  He cites Anjem Choudary taking a stand against secular freedoms

‘Freedom of expression,’ declared Choudra [sic], ‘does not extend to insulting the prophets of Allah’; and in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan it would have cost Mr. Graham his head

and pairs it with MSP Humza Yousaf’s objections to remarks made by UKIP’s David Coburn.  He doesn’t inform us exactly what Yousaf resented:

In a newspaper interview the UKIP member said: “Humza Yousaf, or as I call him, Abu Hamza”.

In a comment to BBC Scotland he said: “I’ve apologised profusely for it. It was a stupid thing to say. It was an inappropriate joke.

So Yousaf was not calling for blasphemy taboos, but objecting to being likened to a notorious extremist.   However Macleod evasively just refers to an ‘Islamic slur’ – which readers are invited to gloss, in this context, as ‘slur on Islam’.

So Macleod’s assertion that ‘British Muslims are saying loud and clear that they will put up with no insult’ is an unfair and unearned generalisation.  His stance oddly mirrors that of the awful Abdullah Al-Andalusi.

“Are Muslims not entitled to criticise the government without facing a loss in their earnings?”

he whines dishonestly, in a recent post. Here’s Macleod’s paragraph in full:

British Muslims are saying loud and clear that they will put up with no insult, and the message is coming not only from self-declared radicals and activists, but from those like Humsa Yusef and Aamer Anwar, fully paid-up members of the establishment whose regular criticisms of British authorities inevitably play their own part in sowing the seeds of disaffection in the minds of young Muslims.

Although exaggerated, paranoid criticisms of the authorities or foreign policy which remove all responsibility from terrorists are likely to stir up Muslim extremists (and anti-Muslim sentiment), Muslim politicians and journalists should not fall under suspicion for joining in these debates – on which they will hold a range of views.

Macleod is right to point out that terrorism has led to the need for heightened surveillance.  But then says:

It is a fate that Islam has brought upon itself, but they are not its only victims.  I, too, am a victim every time I check-in at an airport.  My wrinkled face, grey hair and sad blue eyes get me no immunity.

He begins by identifying Islam as the cause of the whole problem.  I’m certainly not going to assert that Islamic extremism has nothing to do with Islam but neither is it synonymous with it, and Macleod segues from ‘Islam’ to ‘they’ in a single sentence, making a rhetorical association between all Muslims and this blameworthy, singular personification of Islam.

There is no acknowledgement in this article of any legitimate concerns that Muslims might experience.  Macleod refers ironically to a society ‘radicalised’ by Islamic terror but only invokes reasonable security steps rather than other less legitimate manifestations such as Britain First.  It’s possible to acknowledge both the need for surveillance and counter-terrorism measures and the fact that Muslims can be targets for prejudice and abuse.

Alec adds: the WHFP is rather sheepish. Also, the text of founding editor, Brian Wilson’s Je suis Donald column which got him resigned as well.

I can no longer avoid a question which I have been asked with increasing regularity over the past few weeks. Why am I occupying the space in the Free Press which has, for the past 24 years, been the territory of Professor Donald Macleod? I am far from comfortable with the answer but loyal readers are entitled to one.

In what was, I fear, his last column here, Donald wrote about the flow of migrants from North Africa leading onto the wider question of Islamic influence within Europe, including implications for democracy and freedoms. The rationale he quoted was what happened in Algeria between the fourth and seventh centuries, from Augustine to Mohammed so in raising current issues, he was – as ever – taking the long view of history.

Not everyone could have been expected to agree with either his diagnosis or prescription. Then why should they and when did they ever? The normal way of reflecting dissent within the Free Press has been by publishing letters. This duly happened and these letters duly appeared. Unfortunately it did not end there and as a result of whatever else transpired, Donald concluded that his freedom of expression was being impinged upon and that, in these circumstances, he should no longer continue his column.

It is not within my gift to challenge that. It was one of the founding wishes of the Free Press that ownership means control. Everyone else is a guest in the house. The nature of that ownership of itself guarantees nothing – greater or lesser freedom; more of less capricious interventions. That is the law of newspapers as of most other businesses.

However it would be criminal if Donald Macleod departed from these pages without tribute being paid to the massive contributions he has made to them since ‘Footnotes’ first appeared in 1991. Throughout the intervening years, it has been the most intellectually challenging, erudite and beautifully written column in British journalism. And – glory of glories – it appeared week in, week out, in a newspaper with a circulation in four figures.

The strength of ‘Footnotes’ lay in the learnedness which it effortlessly conveyed. More than the conclusions to which Donald’s logic and beliefs propelled him to, that was what made it such a weekly joy to embark upon. Whether the subject was contemporary politics, the Lewis Revival or the state f the world, nobody who took the trouble to read that column could fail to emerge without more knowledge than when they began. There is precious little in newspapers, and almost nothing in Scottish newspapers, of which that can be said.

A few years ago, I was asked by the Rev. Iain D Campbell to contribute to ‘the People’s Theologian – Writings in Honour of Donald Macleod’ and I recalled the terms of his engagement with the Free Press. “There was no remit. We did not ask him to write about religion or not to write about religion, though it would have been pretty odd to expect the latter. Neither did we suggest to him that there was some political line to follow, either in general or on some particular subject. For almost 20 years, he has followed that lack of direction to the letter…

“What was in it for Donald Macleod to maintain this prodigious output in the column of the West Highland Free Press? I am sure that some of his co-religionists would have disapproved of the setting, even if they had never read the newspaper. But Donald was never troubled by that for he had read the paper and understood the point about delivery of opinion – which embraced unfailed respect for the belief of others. I think it was precisely because of the papers role as a literate forum for public debate, ringed with a radical agenda of its own, that he felt at home in it.”

In that spirit, he has never steered clear of difficult subjects and there are few more difficult than the one which he wrote his last column about. Disagreement is every individual’s right. But even those who do not share his prognosis should be able to recognize the relevance of history and be prepared to consider the evidence it provides, even if only in order to reject it. That is what ‘Footnotes’ was invariably about – educating, stimulating, challenging, rather than merely pontificating.

Not so long ago, every faux liberal in Europe was proclaiming themselves to be “Charlie”. But being Charlie is more about disapproving of religious fanatics murdering cartoonists who have offended them. It is precisely about asserting the right and duty of society and media to consider the difficult subject which most steer clear of, just like any other, rather than being sidetracked into silence by fear of retribution or political correctness. Until, out of a blue sky, a massacre occurs and it cannot be avoided.

There is no single, or even complex, answer to why these things happen and no columnist on earth whose theories and opinions are not open to challenge. But evading uncomfortable truths and choices does not make them go away. And, as Donald pointed out, there are aspects of the immigration debate which give rise to a clash between liberal instincts and the basic right of society to protect itself against avoidable risk.

There is nothing new about the dilemma or the need to debate it. A couple of times in my Ministerial days, I had meetings with Hosni Mubarak, then President of Egypt. He was obsessed with the subject. You British, he would say, are mad, some of the people you have been allowing into your country “They are very, very bad people”. Whatever his deficiencies, Mubarak was well qualified to identify the most extreme of quasi-religious zealotry within his own country, and had no wish for it to be beyond his reach. He was right.

In the embassy in Algeria, a locally-recruited member of staff probably risked her job to tell me much the same story. In the past, visas had been given to individuals who “the dogs in the streets knew were terrorists”. These encounters occurred a long time ago, before 9/11 or London bombings, and I am sure a lot has changed since then. But discussing the possibility that humane immigration policies need to be tempered with recognition of long-term security implications is no more than well-established reality. The question is how to strike that balance.

In putting forward his own analysis, Donald Macleod allowed for the possibility that it represented the “apocalyptic delusions of an aged brain”. Such lack of self-certainty in columnists is unusual. Or perhaps he was just recognizing that in order it make people think, it helps to be just a little bit provocative and apocalyptical. Is that a bad thing? Was he wrong?

There is no other local paper in Britain which would have dreamed of tackling such subjects and I’m proud that the Free Press has for so long. There is no other local paper in Britain which could have retained the utterly reliabilite services of an eminent theological for 24 years and I am proud that we did. So thanks for thousand great columns, Professor Foot, and many of us will say in your honour, “S’e mise Domhnall”.

Alec further adds: as much as a berk David Coburn is, what is not mentioned above is that Humza Yousaf used Scottish Government resources to instruct Nigel Farage to dismiss him even after his apology for a non-illegal comment. And, if he objects to be compared with one notorious extremist, he should think twice about offering public money to others.

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