Monday, March 27, 2006

March for Free Expression

This Saturday's March for Free Expression has been hailed as a success by those who organised it, and rightly so. While attendance was comparatively small by Trafalgar Square standards (organiser Peter Risdon estimates 600 people), it was all the more impressive due to the fact that the only publicity it had received beforehand was through word-of-blog. That the internet can be a force for good was definitely in evidence.

Speakers at the event included Peter Tatchell from OutRage!, Lib Dem Evan Harris MP, and Keith Porteous Wood from the National Secular Society, but none summed up the feeling of the demonstration quite so well as broadcaster and human rights campaigner Maryam Namazie, who was the first to speak. You can read her speech in its entirety here. I quite liked this bit:

"Whilst we may all be sometimes offended by some things, it is religion and the religious that are offended all of the time. They alone seem to
have a monopoly on being offended, saying their beliefs are a no go area, and silencing all those who offend."

"It is interesting how the political Islamic movement kills, it maims, it
humiliates - with Islam as its banner - and we are not even allowed to ridicule and criticise it."

The rally was about much more than just cartoons, and its importance was made all the more obvious by the knowledge that in 30 other cities across the UK, the Muslim Action Committee was organising 'Global Civility' demonstrations that essentially served as proof of Namazie's second statement above.

Much has been made of the fact that the rally's organisers told attendees at the last minute to refrain from bringing the cartoons with them on placards in order to avoid appearing intimidating or purposefully spiteful against Muslims, with many people saying the decision undermined the whole concept of free speech and made a mockery of the demonstration. While this is a valid point, surely the decision must be seen in greater context?

The first line of defence is that the cartoons have already been broadcast, repeatedly, over a wide range of media. Their message has already been transmitted, the point already made. The counterpoint to this is that true freedom of expression implies the right to show the cartoons again and again, as and when people choose. This is also true. However, given the negative publicity that had threatened to overshadow the march (the demo was accused of being anti-Muslim, there was talk of the BNP showing up, etc), broadcasting images of angry white people brandishing huge pictures that are infamous for having alienated and offended a group of people would have been grossly counterproductive.

The issue here isn't about not being allowed to show the cartoons - I saw many people at the rally who had printouts of the drawings taped to Danish flags - it's about not rubbing salt on the wound. Of course people had the right to turn up with a picture of Mohammad with a bomb on his head; it's their right, many excercised it, and good on them. But showing up en masse with huge posters of the cartoons and waving them in everybody's face, to me, seems more to do with triumphant "I'm 18 and I'll do what I want"-style tribalism than rational debate and enlightened behaviour. Which is what the protest was meant to be about... right?

* * * * *

On a lighter note, here are EC1 Cruise Control's picks for...

Best posters: "Stop Toonophobia (Please don't behead me!)"

and "He's not the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy!"

Best moment: Maryam Namazie urging people in the crowd to pass a particular banner from person to person after its original owner was taken aside by police for reportedly causing someone offence. "They cannot arrest all of us!" she bellowed, passionately putting theory into practice.


'Comedy terrorist' Aaron Barschak, dressed as a bizarre cross between a bullfighter and an Orthodox priest, interrupting the speaker from the Freedom Association by waving a red flag and shouting "Stop the bull of terrorism!"


At March 27, 2006 8:13 pm, Blogger sleazenation said...

So that was what the protest was for... I blundered through this on saturday, but didn't stay long enough to find out what was going on... plenty of police about, if i'd known cartoons were involved I'd have stuck arround longer...

At March 28, 2006 10:01 am, Blogger Lady M said...

Shame I didn't spot you - a lot of interesting stuff was said, think you would've enjoyed it. As chance would have it, I also bumped into another of our former flatmates there. We could've had a mini reunion if you'd found us as well!


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