These thoughts are provoked by the recent trial of Anjem Choudary and the controversy it has sparked. In the recent discussions of the issue in the media on various radio and television programmes, two opposing views emerged. On one view, Choudary, and many like him, hold views which are not only morally repugnant but socially and nationally dangerous (Choudary is held responsible for inciting many young British Muslims to join ISIS in Syria). An opposing view argues that “freedom of speech” or “freedom of expression” (terms are used interchangeably) is an inalienable right of every British citizen and an essential characteristic of a civilized democratic society and can only be abrogated in very exceptional circumstances, e. g. during the time of a major war or during major internal unrest which threatens the very fabric of the country.
In the constitutions of most liberal democratic countries, the freedom speech is recognized, in one form or another, as an inalienable civil and political right. The tragedy is that during the last 25 or so years most democratic countries have been increasingly forced to curtail, even suppress, freedom of speech like that of Anjem Choudary sparking an intense political debate. A vast majority of the citizens in western countries unhesitatingly support such actions on the part of the governments. But there is a substantial minority which feels very alarmed, especially in the light of many cases where such powers seem to have been misused by the state authorities. The dilemma is compounded given that there does not seem to be any rational way to arbitrate between the two opposing views because, as contemporary moral philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre, points out each side starts with incommensurable premises which cannot be rationally arbitrated.
But, from the Christian perspective, such debates suffer from another serious defect; the people engaged in such debates do not have any other absolute value than the one they are debating. Freedom of speech has been regarded by both sides as one of the absolute values ever since the 18th century and as a result there is no other value which can trump it apart from second-order values such as national security, an individual’s right to privacy or John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle” or “offence principle”. As there are no universally recognized and accepted criteria for deciding questions of “national security” or what is “harm” or “offence” and to whom, the views of a vociferous minority and of those who have the ultimate power to decide normally prevail. Within the Biblical framework freedom of speech and freedom of action are God given gifts but they are not absolutes. They are subordinate to man’s relationship with God which entails worship and obedience to God. The message of Genesis 1-3 is that God created Adam and Eve in his image and placed them in an environment where they could live happily thereafter provided they were obedient to God and did not disobey the commandment not to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree. The tragedy of humanity begins with Adam and Eve disobeying that commandment.
Secular liberal societies have made the freedom of speech an absolute. But in practice freedom of speech cannot be enjoyed by everyone without restrictions and prohibitions imposed as the need arises. But in the absence of some other absolutes, when, in what circumstances, and by whom such restrictions and prohibitions can be imposed becomes a highly contentious issue. This came to light in the current debates about Anjem Choudary in Britain and about issues of banning of the niqab and the ‘burkini’ in the public arena in France. This dilemma would become increasingly acute in the Western secular liberal societies which are becoming increasingly multi-ethnic and multi-cultural. If this trend continues then, in the absence of consensus on some other values which trump the freedom of speech, freedom of speech may prove to be the Achilles heel of secular liberal culture and civilization.
Puran Agrawal, originally from Nepal and currently resident in Northern Ireland for nearly 35 years, is a retired university lecturer and is now working at exploring how Christianity can be made relevant in the modern world, especially the role of Christian faith in the public arena.