New Internationalist

So much for free speech…

November 2014

On 1 September Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi lost his final appeal. Convicted of insulting Islam, he will serve 10 years in prison and receive 1,000 lashes.

I’m guessing I do 10 things a day that insult Islam. Bacon sandwiches, vodka shots, shouting ‘Islam isn’t true’. Then I have breakfast.

Jon Cartwright
Jon Cartwright

Badawi’s ‘crimes’ were committed on his blog. The existence of the internet is an insult to all theistic religions. You can’t claim to be an all-powerful deity and then issue your important messages through hallucinating prophets and etched stone tablets. Everyone knows you reach a wider audience on a Twitter.

We need to do better at protecting the right to free speech. Which isn’t easy when the term gets thrown about more carelessly than literally anything else. It might be easier to defend if we understood what it is or, more importantly, what it is not.

For starters, it’s not a free pass to win any argument. Male politician suggests rape victims are asking for it (I’m just picking a random example that would never happen in real life), women respond angrily, only to be told to shut up because ‘he has a right to free speech’! Silencing people in the name of free speech is like a much less fun version of fucking for virginity.

Nor does free speech mean you can say things without consequences. If you say the wrong thing you can lose your job, your relationship, your invitation to speak at a Greenpeace rally, or, if you phrase it really badly, all three. Those sorts of consequences are fair enough; consequences like prison sentences and horrific violent punishment are not.

And, as though this needed saying, free speech is also not the right to a massive great helping of privilege. As far as I’m concerned, anyone whining ‘free speech’ after finding out their TV show isn’t getting a second series, isn’t fit to wipe Raif Badawi’s arse.

The media has a measure of free speech but also a duty to the public to avoid exposing them to lies, distortions and hate speech. They’re not very good at it. If aliens landed and picked up the most popular papers they’d probably conclude that women were a tiny criminal minority notorious for smuggling hard-core pornography around by hiding it under their clothes.

The same goes for those people who think free speech means their right to have creationism taught in school science classes. You have utterly missed the point. You can stand in the street all day and talk about creationism. It still won’t be true and it still won’t constitute science. We might as well teach Narnia in geography and unicorns in biology.

And then there is the issue of the line between free speech and threats, hate speech, abuse and intimidation. I get a lot of rape and death threats myself, which no-one should have to go through. In fairness, I am asking for it, as our rape apologist politicians would say, acting as though I can just go ahead and express my opinions without running them past religious authorities first.

Free speech can be a complicated issue. You don’t have to agree with me on the details, you just have to respect my right to express my view on them. Raif Badawi’s case, on the other hand, is completely straightforward. It’s a gross miscarriage of justice. Protests are taking place outside Saudi Embassies on Fridays (to coincide with the floggings he’s receiving). Please join us and get involved: #raifbadawi and #freeraif

Kate Smurthwaite is a comedian and activist. katesmurthwaite.co.uk. @Cruella1

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 477 This column was published in the November 2014 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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  1. #1 Joey McJoe Joe 24 Nov 14

    How are we supposed to help address and stop religious extremism/fanaticism if we are legitimising, supporting and even arming nations that are ruled by religious extremism/fanaticism?


    'Saudis and Egypt among biggest markets for UK arms despite human rights breaches'
    http://www.theguardian.com/world/defence-and-security-blog/2014/jun/23/egypt-saudi-arabia-arms-sales-human-rights

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This article was originally published in issue 477

New Internationalist Magazine issue 477
Issue 477

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