SPEAKERS’ Corner in Hyde Park is the oldest free speech platform in the world. It has been a free speech focus since the days of public hanging when the condemned could make a final speech from the gallows at nearby Tyburn. Used throughout the years as place of protest, an Act of Parliament in 1842 set aside this London space for public speaking. Since then speakers of every type and persuasion have been able go there and sound off, present their arguments and counter the hecklers.
George Orwell called it ‘one of the minor wonders of the world’ and said that he had listened there to ‘Indian nationalists, temperance reformers, Communists, Trotskyists, the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB), the Catholic Evidence Society, freethinkers, vegetarians, Mormons, the Salvation Army, the Church Army, and a large variety of plain lunatics’.
From the politically and socially motivated to the outright eccentric, Speakers’ Corner has accommodated them all. No longer. Late last month a Christian preacher was removed by police and held in custody overnight before finally being released without charge. Why did the police take action? She was being critical of Islam.
Hatun Tash regularly preaches at Speakers’ Corner. She is very well informed regarding Islamic apologetics and is expert in engaging in the cut-and-thrust of debate that traditionally occurs there. Although a relatively small woman, she has a strong presence and refuses to be intimidated by the crowds of mostly Muslim men who surround and heckle her.
As reported in The Conservative Woman at the time, Hatun was escorted out of Speakers’ Corner by police in September last year because she was being critical of Islam. Before the latest incident she had been warned that there were Muslims who wanted to kill her and that it was therefore dangerous for her to attend Speakers’ Corner and openly criticise Islam. But Hatun is made of sterner stuff than most and refuses to knuckle under to intimidation. Even though she has been physically assaulted she continues to preach there every week. Hatun used to be a Muslim herself and spent the first 27 years of her life in a Muslim country, so she knows it from the inside. Today she feels that she has a calling to preach to Muslims, and she is very effective in her ministry.
Hatun is deliberately provocative, as is traditional at Speakers’ Corner. This is how speakers attract a crowd and get them to listen. It is difficult to envisage speakers such as Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and Oswald Mosley being anything other than provocative. Muslims themselves are routinely outspoken and insulting in their criticism of Christianity at Speakers’ Corner, which is their right.
In September the offence which led to Hatun being escorted from Speakers’ Corner was showing a copy of the Qur’an with holes drilled through it as a visual aid to point out that there are holes in the narrative around the Qur’an. Hatun has seen at least one Muslim convert to Christianity following a conversation provoked by this visual aid. No other book with holes in it, including the Bible, would cause any problems demanding police intervention or be seen as beyond the bounds of free speech. Only if we are in effect enforcing sharia law would the display of a damaged Qur’an be considered an offence worthy of police intervention.
Last Sunday Hatun was wearing a T-shirt bearing a cartoon of Muhammad. Cartoons of any other figure, including religious figures, would be clearly within the bounds of free speech. It was, however, enough to arouse the ire of the 50-strong mob of Muslim men who surrounded Hatun, threatening her and attempting to shout her down. Their behaviour passed well beyond the bounds of traditional heckling, yet the police did nothing to restrain them. Only if the police are slipping into enforcing sharia law would a cartoon of Muhammad be in effect prohibited.
If, as has been suggested, Hatun was removed from Speakers’ Corner this time as a means of protecting her from violence there would have been no need for her to be detained overnight and those threatening her would have been detained and questioned instead.
Baroness Warsi may be of the opinion that prejudice against Muslims is the last acceptable prejudice. This may be true of trendy dinner parties in Hampstead and Notting Hill, but in the real world it is evident that Muslims are a protected class in today’s Britain, not to be questioned, criticised, or challenged in any way,
Unless the police operate without fear or favour there will be growing mistrust of them. At Speakers’ Corner, 50 men were aggressively threatening a lone woman. Instead of stepping in to protect her and her right to exercise free speech the police took her into custody. The one who had committed no offence was detained in a cell overnight and the threatening mob achieved their aim of silencing her with the assistance of the police. The police in effect acted as enforcers of sharia law. This is how respect for the police amongst the majority population breaks down.