Another weekend, another rally

Yesterday there was another rally in London’s Trafalgar Square: this time at the end of a so-called “March for Free Expression” at which a gaggle of people assembled to hear speeches defending people’s right to insult others’ religions. This rally had a rough ride from planning to fruition, and when it finally arrived in Trafalgar Square, the showing was really quite pathetic. Attendees were easily in three figures or, at most, the lower four (this picture shows this better than any of mine). I got there about 3pm, enough time to hear Keith Porteous Wood and a few others deliver interminable speeches. Being a veteran of quite a few anti-war rallies I’m used to hearing quick, punchy speeches even if they are full of cliches (I remember hearing the “war chest spent on a war” speech used in two separate rallies by, if I remember rightly, Jeremy Corbyn) and there are inappropriate speakers. To be honest I’m not sure how many of the attendees were really protesters and how many were observers. I know I was not the only observer, because this blogger was there too; he heard speakers I didn’t because I was late. (More: here, here, here, here.)

The BBC did report it, but their attached picture does not convey how much space there was around the people. There were two Muslim speakers, one of them Sayyida Rend Shakir (whose speech is reproduced at the Muslim Action Committee blog here) and the other an Iraqi called Ali, whose argument was based mostly on things he told us happened in Iraq involving people being jailed or tortured for opposition to Saddam Hussain’s regime. Among the first things that happened when I got there was the announcement that someone had been arrested for holding a particular poster because someone had complained that they found it offensive. The whole crowd was therefore asked to pass it round, because they could not arrest everyone. The poster was the work of some Iranian communist organisation, and I saw one of the protesters see what it was and refuse it. I saw one guy with a placard saying “All religion is anti-human”, and I remarked to those who refused the banner that there was no religion more anti-human than communism.

I was able to stand on the steps, which would not have been possible at a really well-attended rally, and snap away until my battery ran out, which was sadly after taking only about 25 or so pictures, some of which I’ve uploaded to Flickr (note: some of these show people holding up banners containing the offensive cartoons). I heard Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular Society, the implacable opponents of religious state schooling, tell everyone that the blasphemy law was still on the statute book and was not the dead letter it was made out to be; he told us about the sentences people had received under it in the distant past and how someone from the Gay News died prematurely from the stress of a blasphemy case in the 1970s. (I can’t remember whose name he mentioned; the editor Denis Lemon fell ill with AIDS five years later, and died in 1994.)

My memory’s like a sieve; I can’t really remember much of what I heard yesterday afternoon even though much of it really was quite ridiculous. I should start taking a tape recorder with me when I go to these things. I heard, for example, the famous “first they came for the Jews …” speech, which was followed by a quite ridiculous assessment that it “started with political correctness” and so on. Well, the last time round, cartoons vilifying ethnic groups had an awful lot to do with it, I recall, and political correctness really didn’t. Free expression was inhibited to prevent criticism of the ruling party, not the races and religions they disliked. How stupid and tastless for people to claim persecution in this way when they demand the right to vilify minorities!

Another specious claim was that the famous proverb attributed to Voltaire (I may not agree with what you say etc.) was being put into practice by some of the groups present. What, like Maryam Namazie’s Worker-Communists? She was there to show her enmity for Islam. Nothing more or less than that. The hypocritical demand for “unconditional freedom of expression” is not something she would honour were she to become part of any communist Iranian government. They would refuse to even allow children to be taught Islam, or indeed any other religion:

One of the immediate tasks to guarantee children’s right to a happy, secure and creative life is to protect children from religion’s interference and abuse. To protect children from religion and religious institutions, the Worker-communist Party of Iran would call for the following to be implemented: 1- Prohibition of religious or religious institutions and material or moral interference with children under the age of 16. Prohibition of recruitment of children under 16 to religious sects, ceremonies and religious assemblies. Prohibition of veil for anyone under the age of 16. Prohibition of genital mutilation or circumcision of children.

Another specious claim was attributed to some guy who had been in prison in Soviet Russia, who had said about western Europeans that he had lived our future and it wasn’t very good, or something to that effect. It was commented at Harry’s Place that NO2ID should have been there, but were not in evidence; in the hour I was there, very little was said about the authoritarian laws which have been introduced by Tony Blair, much less by George W Bush; the talk was nearly all about religion, and not merely about the religious hatred laws, but about the general tendency towards avoiding giving offence regarding people’s religions: for example, the fact that no British newspaper reprinted the Danish cartoons was noted as a point of shame.

Towards the end, we were introduced to someone who had made a donation towards the event: none other than Labi Siffre, the author of one of the most irritating songs of the 1980s, Something Inside So Strong. Siffre opined that not all opinions deserve any respect, among them sexist, racist and homophobic beliefs and the belief that one knows there is a God. And he went off on a general anti-religious diatribe. There was also Sean Gabb from the Libertarian Alliance, who named Nick Griffin, Abu Hamza, David Irving and Frank Ellis, the university lecturer who has been suspended after a controversy about his racialist opinions, as people who have been victimised for exercising free speech - “among other things” in the case of Abu Hamza. Obviously he mentioned these four people because they are the sort of people whose right to free speech people in general would not go very far to defend, to which I would reply: for very good reasons, particularly in the cases of Griffin and Abu Hamza, although I happen to think Frank Ellis’s racialist views need not prejudice his teaching of Russian unless he should let it. The truth is that I worry too much for people’s life and limb, particularly those of the Muslims of West Yorkshire, to care about Nick Griffin’s freedom of speech.

As far as I could see the whole affair was very orderly; the organisers tried to make the event “inclusive”, inviting Sayyida Rend Shakir and disassociating themselves from a rally organised by a pro-deportation group in Copenhagen. However, the turnout seemed mostly to be a mixture of those generally hostile to religion and those specifically hostile to Islam, and the comparison of laws aimed at curbing inter-communal hostility with persecution of people because of their political opinions simply does not ring true. Poking fun at politicians and other powerful people is not the same as vilifying a minority group by such means as insulting their religion; the former is among the ways of bringing the powerful to account, while the latter is the beginning of persecution, or worse. It never seems to occur to people that Muslims object to this vilification not because they want to silence debate about religion, but because they fear that it may lead to violence, particularly when it is accompanied by rhetoric about Muslims grooming and pimping white girls in Yorkshire.

One commenter at Harry’s Place reported that he “got followed by a group of hostile muslims, unbeknownst to us, who ran in the pub and tried to tear up another bloggers Toonophobia placard, nearly came to blows” (he also blogged the rally, and the guy in the bottom picture between the two police photographers, and in the second to bottom picture with his face above the black speaker’s microphone, is me), but despite the five Asian men trying to cause a fight in a pub after the event, nobody attempted to disrupt the event while I was there. In fact, Muslims stayed away from this en masse, demonstrating either that they did not know about it, or that they had no desire to cause a fight. If anyone thinks that Muslims in this country are out to destroy free speech, they might ask themselves why they made no attempt to disrupt or obstruct this demonstration.

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