We are making language a battleground

Another forced apology. Cathy Newman, newsreader at Channel 4, has done what increasing numbers of people are doing – grovelling and apologising because of something they have written on Twitter, the micro-blogging site everyone’s talking about. But at least she still has her job, for now, which is more than some people can boast.

What seems to have happened is this: The Muslim Council of Britain organised something called #VisitMyMosque after becoming distressed that the British people might be getting the wrong idea of their religion because increasing numbers of its adherents are murdering people in the name of that religion.

The idea was to show, by inviting non-Muslims into local mosques around the country, how they and the religion of Islam were not fomenting unrest and hostility towards long-held British principles such as freedom to speak one’s mind without being shot. Indeed, freedom to speak one’s mind full stop.

The corollary was to confront the supposed epidemic of Islamophobia sweeping the country. If the mosques could just show how peaceful and contented Muslims were with Britain, just as she is, then non-Muslims would be less inclined to assume that all Muslims are violent, rampaging psychopaths just because some Muslims are violent, rampaging psychopaths.

It’s easy to be cynical, but this is probably a good idea, even though one might argue it is based on a false premise. There is a growing sense of separateness between the Muslim population of Britain and the rest, so anything that connects the two or breaks down the walls of separation is probably a good idea.

So what could Cathy Newman, a woman who seems to lean leftwards and support the general thrust of feminism, have done to require an apology? It can’t have been her leftish sentiment, which is at one with Muslim sentiment and grievance, so it must have been her feminist outlook. After all, we know the Muslims don’t like women much, so women flaunting their independence from and their equality with men is not going to go down too well, is it?

Well, who knows about that? And who knows why Cathy Newman chose to go along to the local mosque in Streatham? Her reasons are her own, but perhaps, as a journalist, she simply wanted to see what this MCAB initiative was all about; or perhaps she thought the #VisitMyMosque campaign to reduce Islamophobia was just the sort of thing to appeal to her progressive instincts. As I say, her reasons are her own.

So she went to the mosque; and then she left the mosque almost immediately, commenting on her #VisitMyMosque experience in terms that seemed disparaging, saying that, despite covering her head and taking off her shoes and not carrying the flag of Saint George in an offensive attitude and not crying death to the non-infidel, she had been ushered back onto the street.

Soon afterwards, and perhaps unwisely when the benefits of hindsight are factored in, she took to Twitter, that conduit of measured debate. She said she had been ‘ushered’ out of the building by a ‘man’ despite being ‘respectfully dressed’.

This was construed as her saying she was treated badly by a Muslim man because she was a woman and why oh why won’t these Muslim men learn how to treat women with respect – thus conforming to the ‘Islamophobic’ narrative these #VisitMyMosque visits were designed to confront.

She was duly found guilty of the newish and pressing crime of Islamophobia, with all the judicial efficiency only Twitter can offer. After all, justice delayed is justice denied. The obligatory apology soon followed.

Twitter fulminations tend towards the irrational, but in this instance it seems Cathy Newman really did have something to apologise for. The Huffington Post has since acquired CCTV footage of her arrival and departure, and it gives the distinct impression that the things she suggested happened in her tweets did not in fact happen. She arrived, took off her shoes, spoke to someone, put her shoes back on and then left with no sign of any sort of ushering taking place.

So, of course, it is right that she apologised. But for what? The relevant tweets are now deleted, but those captured by the Guardian newspaper suggest she was simply commenting on what happened.

First she tweeted, ‘Well I just visited Streatham mosque for #VisitMyMosque day and was surprised to find myself ushered out of the door…’ Then she tweeted, ‘I was respectfully dressed, head covering and no shoes but a man ushered me back onto the street. I said I was there for #VisitMyMosque mf’ And finally she tweeted, ‘But it made no difference.’

By your words will you be convicted. I have it in mind that someone famous said something like that, but I could be mistaken; might just be my words, but they seem apt. Those are the things she said on Twitter (assuming she didn’t delete other comments). But in a letter of complaint later released by the mosque she was accused of ‘suggesting she was forcibly ejected from our mosque for being a woman’.

Now, the word ‘usher’ is certainly on the same spectrum as ‘forcibly ejected’, but it is not quite the same thing: not by a long way. In fact, to be ushered somewhere is decidedly not to be subjected to force of any kind. Yet she was denounced for saying she was ‘forcibly ejected’ from the mosque. It doesn’t appear that she said this at all (again, unless there are other incriminating tweets).

And this is the problem, isn’t it? We are making language a battleground, quite literally in some instances. Just to remind ourselves: people have recently been murdered in Denmark because they attended a debate on art, blasphemy and freedom of expression and in France because they drew satirical cartoons. And there is a connection to Islam, isn’t there, no matter that the majority of Muslims would not murder people for what they say or draw?

But if murder and extreme violence is anathema to the majority of Muslims in the West, not quite the same thing can be said about Muslim attitudes to free speech, the use of language and satirical images. Earlier this month in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders thousands of British Muslims demonstrated in Whitehall and presented a petition signed by over 100,000 people to No 10 Downing Street that says, among other things, ‘I denounce the actions of all these people who are connected with the production of the cartoons of the Holy Prophet Muhammad peace be upon Him’.

Under the guise of a ‘Global Civility’ movement, a sizeable number of Muslims are campaigning to somehow end the rights of people in free countries to draw cartoons. The Muslim Action Forum has even devised a ‘legal strategy’ to ‘prevent the continuous insulting and derogatory publications depicting and abusing the personality of our Holy Prophet Muhammad peace be upon Him.’

They intend to mount a ‘series of legal challenges in the English Court system to establish that such depictions of our Holy Prophet peace be upon Him is the worst kind of ‘Hate Crime’ that can be perpetrated on the 3 million Muslims in the UK and 1.7 billion Muslims worldwide.’

Legal challenges?

This is a clear statement of intent, which should chill the blood of the civilised – even those who have no wish to draw any kind of ‘derogatory’ cartoon. This Forum even says it has plans for a Private Members Bill to bring this into effect.

It’s all linked, isn’t it – cartoons, language and the discussion of Islam?

Cathy Newman, however, finds herself caught in the melee. On the one hand her language was, as she said, ‘poorly chosen’. But her poorly chosen words were not the words for which she was condemned. Her words were distorted and inflated by those who wish to use the incident (such that it is an incident) to further their own authoritarian interests.

As such, her apology was perhaps overdone. She said, via Twitter naturally, that she offered here ‘sincere apologies for tweets she sent in haste’, and accepted her ‘tweets were inappropriate’ and that she had ‘caused a great deal of offence’.

Do some of those words sound familiar? ‘Inappropriate’; ‘offence’; ‘tweets sent in haste’. This is the pusillanimous language of political correctness. Those cartoons, we are told, cause offence. They are inappropriate. They are hate crimes that must be punished with the full force of the law.

So it seems we are at in impasse. On the one hand we have the principle of free speech and free expression, and on the other we have a desire for something they are calling ‘Global Civility’ which isn’t really about global civility at all but rather the introduction of a set of special legal protections for one religion in particular. It is difficult to see how these two positions can be reconciled.

Of course most people want to live in a world without insult or offence, but that world is not a real world. If someone wants to, they will always find offence in what someone else says or does. It’s the way of things. Muslims, above all, should know that the world is an imperfect place. Many of the countries in which they form a majority of the population demonstrate that simple, obvious fact every day.

If we try to legislate offence out of humanity, we will soon find that we are legislating something else out of humanity as well – and that something is freedom. He is offended by cartoons; she is offended by sexist language; we are offended by everything. There is no logical end to it. If we don’t watch out, this will consume us.

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