Much of the criticism of Boris Johnson’s recent comments on Islamic full-face veils is based on the fact that he caused offence. The Culture Secretary, Jeremy Wright, has said that ‘we should all be careful with how we express ourselves and not cause offence if we can avoid it’. Prime Minister Theresa May and Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davison have condemned Boris on the grounds that his opinion was offensive, as has much of the media.
Not only have there been demands that he apologise for his remarks, but there are calls for him to be sacked and thrown out of the Tory party.
According to the Cambridge English dictionary, the definition of offence is ‘upset and hurt or annoyed feelings, often because someone has been rude or shown no respect’. However, in a world of competing value systems and various philosophical, religious and ethical frameworks, it is impossible to express one’s deeply held convictions without causing offence. Ireland’s recent abortion referendum was a deeply divisive campaign, and views on both sides of the debate caused immense upset and annoyance to the other side.
However, this is the price of living in a free society where free expression is sacrosanct. Sometimes you have to listen to and tolerate views that may annoy you, and as an adult you should be able to cope with that. Islam cannot be given special exemption from scrutiny, criticism, ridicule or satire. No other religion, philosophy or ideology is, and yet our politicians and much of the mainstream media pander to such demands from some sections in the Muslim community. The silencing term ‘Islamophobia’ is also employed to conflate bigotry against peaceful individual Muslims, which is wrong, with any criticism of Islam. The witch hunt is back and Islamophobes are the new witches.
This episode involving Boris Johnson is just one of many where Islam is afforded an immunity from criticism or satire that is not granted to other religions or ideologies. In 2016, the British gymnast Louis Smith was filmed drunkenly imitating an Islamic prayer. It was pretty mild when you compare it to some of the lampooning and satire directed at Christianity by comedians and on TV and in film. Smith was attacked by most of the media for his Islamophobia and suspended from British gymnastics for two months. He was brought on to ITV’s Loose Women where he was publicly berated by the journalists Janet Street-Porter and June Sarpong and where he made a grovelling apology for causing offence. As journalists, Sarpong and Street-Porter should have been defending Smith even if they disagreed with him. The loosest thing about these two women is their grasp of understanding the role of journalism in defending freedom of expression not just for their own profession, but for anyone in society to be able to critique, mock, and satirise that which appears ludicrous to them.
It is still completely acceptable, and rightly so, to critique, laugh at and ridicule atheism, Buddhism, Christianity or any other ideology you find lacking. I have yet to see, read or hear about anyone in the media or any politician interrogating the head of Channel 4 about why Father Ted and its mockery of Christianity is regularly repeated. Where are the protests and the public shaming of those TV executives who sanction replays of Monty Python’s Life of Brian which some Christians find offensive? Why were the heads of the BBC not summoned to appear on daytime television to express contrition and be accused of Christianophobia for a recent repeat of a hilarious documentary on the deceased comedian Dave Allen that some Christians find offensive?
The truth is that much of the media and political class don’t care or think about this double standard. They are too busy in their self-appointed roles as de facto enforcers of Islamic blasphemy laws. They are aiding and abetting Islamist extremists, a strategy that might eventually cost them dear at the ballot box as more and more of us, including genuine moderate Muslims, tire of the pandering to the demands of the many Islamists in our society.