Sunday, March 26, 2006

Free Expression Rally

Here’s March for Free Expression organiser Peter Risdon, interviewed by Richard Evans on Radio Five Live’s Weekend News last night:
I changed my mind about whether or not people were welcome to display the cartoons and I changed it because of discussions with Muslim people including a number of interviews which I did with your colleagues in the BBC and the BBC Asian network...
I didn’t realise it was the job of BBC journalists to exert such influence, but it makes me even more convinced I was right to ignore Mr Risdon’s request and turn up with the cartoons. Quite apart from anything else, it was remarkable just how many people had never seen them. Only a handful of us displayed the pictures in various forms, although given the total turnout it could be argued that was a reasonable percentage, all things considered. I don’t know how many people were there in total, but I think Perry at Samizdata overestimates a tad when he reckons a thousand (I think the police were probably closer to the mark with a couple of hundred but as I say I don't really know- I didn't get an overview). I do agree with Perry on this:
However in my opinion Sean Gabb was without doubt the best speaker as he was direct, clear and uncompromising, and most importantly confined his remarks entirely to the subject of freedom of expression. He also spoke for about half as long as most as the others, eschewing off-topic rambling and partisan digressions, which also endeared him to many in the crowd. If an unreconstructed free market capitalist like Gabb can resist advocating capitalism at a pro-freedom of expression rally, I will thank communists, socialists, greens and anyone else to kindly show the same focus on why we came to listen to what they have to say.
I think the decision to discourage the cartoons affected turnout, as did the possibility of trouble. On that topic, it’s a shame that nobody seems to have pictures of the gang of Muslims that turned up. I heard their chants but didn’t see them - the police wouldn't let them near because they refused to remove the scarves wrapped around their faces (I wonder why) , so they left.

I'm glad I went, and I can't knock Peter Risdon and his colleagues for their effort, but I wasn't particulalry pleased when I heard his radio interview as I drove home from the station last night. Here’s the full transcript, excluding the initial niceties:
Richard Evans: I say it went off without trouble but there were some people carrying placards bearing those cartoons which have caused such offence. How do you feel about that?

Peter Risdon: Well, there was one placard...
I think we’ll stop right there. There was more than one. Check out the photos at Nordish for starters.
...there was an incident when there was a complaint because of it and somebody was taken to one side by the police and there may be action taken over it, I don’t know. The person was part of a group from Iran and erm, they decided to - I’d asked people not to bring placards with the cartoons on but they come from the Islamic world, they were all Iranians, and they felt so strongly about it that they decided they wanted to disregard it and they had one of the cartoons, very small...
Clearly visible, (see Nordish)... the middle of a placard which had other material on it as well. Um, they come from the Islamic world, in some ways I feel like I’m not entitled to tell them they shouldn’t feel so strongly about it.
But people not from the Islamic world - it's ok to tell them not to feel so strongly about it?
RE: How difficult has it been for you to organise this demonstration? I mean you are marching for what you say is the freedom of expression - how difficult was it do that without causing any further offence.

PR: Um… the question ‘causing offence’ wasn’t uppermost in my mind. If you advocate the right of freedom of expression then you are advocating the right of people to offend other people - you are. The questions that I was most concerned about was how to exclude the extremists and how to reclaim this question for the moderate middle ground and I think we were able to do that.

RE: Ismaeel Hijazi, were you caused any offence today?

IH: I wasn’t caused any offence today. Erm, we’ve been talking, me and Peter, we’ve been talking the past few days about this issue and I think er, initially when the issue of organising counter-demonstrations came up there was lots of crossed wires. Um, and what’s happened is Peter made the right decision...
And will all future demonstrations now need the official endorsement of the Muslim Action Committee to prevent potential violence? Do as we say or else...
... - he told people not to bring the cartoons and as he said this got rid of the extremist elements that were either … were being very vocal on his blog. And , you know, (unheard) I’ve also spoken to one of the speakers who spoke there today and she said it was very , y’know, very calm, very peaceful and it went very well and so y’know I’m very happy about it.
I’m so happy you’re happy Ismaeel because that’s all that really matters in the end, isn't it? One point - why wouldn’t it have been very calm and very peaceful? Those of us who displayed the cartoons weren’t the ones itching for a fight. Will the MAC condemn the gang who turned up with scarves around their faces?
RE: It’s interesting isn’t it because your demonstration was set up in direct response to the one in Trafalgar Square and here you are the two organisers - you sound like best mates to me tonight.
I was thinking that.
IH: Well not quite best mates, but um, I mean I think through this process of dialogue we’ve, y’know, we’ve managed to get to a point where at least we can speak to each other and we can understand each other’s perspective. And I think this is what our campaign has been about, which is not so much been a counter-demonstration to Peter’s, it’s also been a demonstration in support of the campaign for global civility which is essentially talking about not abusing one another.

RE: You remain deeply offended by the cartoons do you?

IH: Oh absolutely.

RE: The cartoons which Mr Risdon says that the Danish cartoonists have the right to publish. And to cause offence with.

IH: That’s his opinion. He’s entitled to his opinion and I disagree with him.. I disagree that they have the right to…er … and it’s not just a question of offence because if anyone - if you have any two people with different opinions sitting down talking to one another obviously there’s going to be offence. It’s how you have that discussion - do you go up an abuse, er, your opposition by y’know insulting his mother, insulting his father, or do you just put across you points in a good mannered way. And this is what … this is the difference that we’re talking about.

RE: Peter Risdon, by talking to Mr Hijazi do you understand more tonight where he was coming from why there is so much offence amongst the Muslim community about these cartoons?

PR: The word ‘understand’ can have different meanings - it can mean ‘comprehend’ or ‘sympathise with’ can’t it, and what I’ve really…er, I changed my mind about whether or not people were welcome to display the cartoons and I changed it because of discussions with Muslim people including a number of interviews which I did with your colleagues in the BBC and the BBC Asian network, with Sunrise Radio, with Asian magazines where it became obvious to me… something I hadn’t realised before… that the cartoons which to me which are part of the mainstream tradition of secular, erm, satire - in the present context when the BNP are waving them around on election literature would’ve created an environment which would’ve been impossibly hostile and intimidating for any Muslim who agreed with us to come.
But the BNP lost their council by-election last week. Note to organiser of free expression demo - let the voters decide.
Now that’s why I didn’t say … that’s why I asked people not to bring them. We’ve been staring at each other from bunkers and we’ve been unable to see that we don’t agree about everything but we agree about quite a lot. The Muslim Action Committee are not, so far as I can see, trying to censor everything that everyone might do…and they don’t seem to be trying to impose sharia law on everyone who isn’t a Muslim.
Hizb uh Tahrir is one of MAC’s affiliates. They don’t want “global civilty”, they want a global caliphate under sharia law.
They have a particular view about self-restraint which thy feel ought to be imposed, people ought to impose on themselves. Now I don’t think you can say that but we’ve reached the point where we can discuss it and that for me is one of the most constructive things that’s come out of this… that we’re not… that we realise that we‘re not at each other’s throats over this, that we realise that there’s been a lot of misunderstanding and that we can actually have a civil debate about it and that’s what we’ve doing. We have spoken with each other over the last few days about it and we don’t agree but we’re discussing it. And a debate is a two-way flow. A debate is me imposing my views on somebody else and it isn’t somebody imposing there views on me - it’s an exchange.

RE: All right, well thanks for telling us about it tonight and may that debate continue.
I don’t think Peter’s summary reflects the tone of yesterday’s speeches. It wasn't so conciliatory. People were very angry - peaceful, yes, but angry nonetheless. Do others who attended have any views?

One big disappointment - my camera got banged about on the way down to London and I spent the afternoon snapping away for no reason. Charles at Islamophobic has links to more photos.

And finally - you know when you think of something really funny and apposite to say, but only after the event? That happened to me yesterday. A small, middle-aged white guy came up and told me he thought I was being unnecessarily offensive by displaying the cartoons. I politely replied that he was free to think that. What I should’ve said was “Fuck off!”

(Update - correct name of interviewer is Richard Evans)


Anonymous Steve said...

Ah! Was it you with the glasses?

Next time, give me a shout and have a beer with us beforehand.

11:51 am  

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