The Guardian has been strongly criticised by its own readers for an article which suggested that freedom of speech must only be used “responsibly”, and that speech without self restraint was tantamount to “provocation”. The commentary, by columnist Hugh Muir, was written in response to a lethal shooting in Copenhagen over the weekend which left two people dead.
The attack is believed to have been carried out by Omar Abdel Hamid el-Hussein, a 22 year old Danish-born Muslim who was known to the police, as a copycat version of last month’s Paris shootings which left 17 dead. el-Hussein was killed by police on Sunday following the stakeout of an address in Copenhagen, and was named on Danish television.
Hours earlier, on Saturday afternoon, he first targeted a freedom of speech conference entitled Art, blasphemy and freedom of speech, at which the cartoonist Lars Vilks was taking part in a panel discussion. It is thought that Vilks, who has survived two previous attempts on his life following the publication of his cartoons depicting Mohammed as a dog, was the intended target. Vilks was unharmed, but a 55 year old film-maker named Finn Noergaard was sadly killed.
Remarkably, the conference then continued. Agnieszka Kolek of Passion for Freedom, who was speaking at the event, later told the Spectator: “After the shooting subdued everyone started to come together. We decided to continue with the presentation. I presented Passion for Freedom’s work and we took a few questions from the audience. Everyone thanked us that we continued. We will not surrender; they cannot kill all of us.”
Then in the early hours of Sunday morning, Dan Uzen, a 37 year old security guard who was keeping watch outside a celebration at a synagogue was tragically shot dead by the same assailant. Five other people were also injured in the two attacks.
Writing for the Guardian in a piece entitled Our response to the Copenhagen attacks will define us, Muir opined: “Free speech as legal and moral pre-requisites in a free society must be defended. But there are also other obligations to be laid upon those who wish to live in peaceful, reasonably harmonious societies. Even after Paris, even after Denmark, we must guard against the understandable temptation to be provocative in the publication of these cartoons if the sole objective is to establish that we can do so. With rights to free speech come responsibilities.
“That seems to me the moral approach, but there is a practical issue here too. There is no negotiating with men with guns. If progress is to come, it will be via dialogue with the millions of faithful Muslims who would never think to murder but also abhor publication of these cartoons. We cannot have that conversation in a time and spirit of provocation. And to have it would not be an act of weakness. The strong approach is not necessarily to do what is possible, but to do what is right.”
But the timidity of his argument was laid bare by angry readers, who took to the comments section to chastise Muir for his Vichyite stance.
‘Wasserfall’ lamented “Yet another Guardian comment piece with the obligatory “but” – so where do we draw the line about being provocative to certain people Hugh? Cartoons, women’s dress, gay rights, the food we eat, what we are ‘allowed’ to read? At what point is ‘not being provocative’ turned into ‘appeasement’ and eventually ‘surrender’?
“I note The Guardian is selling “Je Suis Charlie” solidarity badges, have you got one on Hugh? Or are you afraid that wearing one would be considered provocation as well?”
‘Trivet1’ agreed, noting “The author is unable to express a single principled position without then qualifying it with some mealy-mouthed equivocation. Is it any wonder that these enemies of the West regards us as weak, unprincipled and vacillating?”
‘Harif_’ succinctly asked “What’s provocative about Jews in Synagogues Hugh?”
And in response to Muir’s suggestion that there are “obligations to be laid upon those who wish to live in peaceful, reasonably harmonious societies,” Tony Holden pointed out “And the first one is that you don’t slaughter people, there are no “buts”. No one was drawing cartoons in Copenhagen when the attack on the cafe took place. The security guard at the synagogue wasn’t reading Charlie Hebdo.
“Your answer Mr Muir, is the de-facto imposition of a restriction on freedom of speech when it comes to Islam. Something that can not be tolerated in a free society.”
In total, 1,895 comments were logged before the Guardian closed the thread; the vast majority of which were critical.
Others unable to comment on the article’s page instead took to Twitter to convey their disagreement. ‘Randall P Fitzgerald’ dismissed Muir’s argument as “gutless and pathetic”, whilst ‘The Nicopotamus’ hightlighted the inconsistency in Muir’s stance, tweeting Women wanting an education is fine but only if it’s not near someone who is offended by it.”
“With rights to free speech come responsibilities.” Hugh Muir writing for the Guardian about the Copenhagen shootings. Gutless and pathetic.
— Randall P Fitzgerald (@digiwombat) February 16, 2015