The most problematic conversation I had with former Muslim constituents when I was MP for Wycombe wasn’t about foreign affairs (Afghanistan, Iraq, Kashmir, the Middle East) or domestic politics (security, integration, cohesion, extremism). It was about the Danish cartoons.
We talked past each other for the best part of an hour. My starting point was the modern assumption that people should be free to mock religious faith. Theirs was the pre-modern one that people should not be free to treat a particular aspect of a particular faith in this way: the faith being Islam, the aspect being its prophet.
The self-censorship of Cineworld, which has now pulled showings of The Lady of Heaven, suggests that nothing much has changed since those cartoons were published in 2005 – or for that matter since Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses was published in 1988.
Integration strategies, counter-extremism policies, “British values”: none of the mass of Government initiatives from New Labour through the Coalition to the present day have produced cultural consensus – though I add three glosses to that simple statement.
First, the Lady of Heaven controversy isn’t simply about representations of Mohammed. The Bolton Council of Mosques has described the film as “underpinned with a sectarian ideology” – in other words, it seen by the protesters as telling the story of Islam from a Shiite rather than a Sunni point of view.
Next, there will be Sunni Muslims who will share the view of the majority that religious faith should be open to plural versions, satire, art and public questioning. My expectation is that this would not be a majority, or indeed anything like it, but only very specific polling is likely to cast light on the proportion.
Finally, the causes of constraints on free speech run much wider and deeper than Muslims worldwide – or religious activism more broadly. Protesting Muslims didn’t tell Maya Forstater that her belief that sex is real is unworthy of respect in a democratic society”.
Nor are they responsible for the disgusting behaviour of corporations who parade their woke credentials while chummying up to governments that are are blatantly racist, unjust, and repressive – and don’t care a fig about freedom of speech.
Nor have they anything to do with obsessing over pronouns or seeking to decolonise mathematics – as Oliver Dowden put it in February. Mention of ministers reminds me that Sajid Javid has been quick out of the traps to denounce Cineworld’s self-censorship.
“What we have in this country is freedom of speech and expression and that is a fundamental value,” he said. The Government can’t fairly be accused of standing idly by: the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which places new free speech duties on colleges and student unions, is working its way through Parliament.
Which isn’t to say that the Bill commands consensus on the right. One critique is that the Bill goes too far, because it empowers the state to set more conditions for independent institutions. Another is that it doesn’t go far enough, because both academics and students need protections that the Equality Act prevent.
In the last resort, Cineworld is an independent company, not government-owned. And must make decisions for itself – arguing doubtless that its staff safety is at risk. The deadly paradox is that some problems cannot simply be solved by politicians; yet no wonder people say that whoever governs us makes no difference.