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The pen is only powerful when we defend it unconditionally

11 February 2015

8:42 PM

11 February 2015

8:42 PM

It looks like this year’s Simon Hughes prize (awarded each year to the non-Muslim who does the weirdest impression of holding Islamic principle) must go to Lord Woolf.

In a speech yesterday at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies the former Lord Chief Justice chose to explain why Muslim sensitivities should be especially respected.  He also used this pulpit to warn people in Britain not to exercise their rights as free citizens.  Here is an excerpt:

‘By now it must surely be appreciated that depicting the prophet in a derogatory way will cause grave offence among many Muslims and can lead to an explosive reaction with dreadful consequences.

‘The power of the pen can be mighty and even cartoonists who rely sometimes on gross exaggeration to make their point do need to exercise self-restraint, particularly in sensitive areas where religion is involved.’

In fact the power of the pen isn’t very mighty at all.  Because on the one hand people with Kalashnikovs can kill and silence the pen-wielders.  And on the other hand the sort of people who would once have defended the rights of people with pens – people like Lord Woolf – will use the aftermath to explain why people with Kalashnikovs should now make our laws.  He went on:

‘Despite the importance of the right to free speech, you are not intended to exercise it regardless of the rights of others.

‘If you know as you should do [that] Islam is very sensitive to depictions in the media of the prophet you should take care not to depict the prophet in a grotesque way unless there is no alternative to either being gagged or doing so.’


I wasn’t aware of this law – that we had to ‘take care’.  Of course there are many maniacs who wave placards warning us that we should ‘take care’.  But it’s quite a surprise to get the same message from a former Lord Chief Justice.  Anyhow – he also kindly went on to explain that people shouldn’t think Muslims overly sensitive because:

‘We must not forget that even in this country it was not until 2008….that we abolished the offence of blasphemy.’

In the midst of all this self-denigration and theological presumption the good Lord was kind enough to describe the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris as ‘horrendous’.  For which we must be grateful.  But according to the Times he also said:

‘The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and to manifest such beliefs was part of the Human Rights Act 1998 but such rights must be exercised ‘in a way which respects the sensitivities and needs of other individuals, groups or society as a whole.

‘In other words, they should be exercised reasonably and in a manner that does not impinge disproportionately on the rights of others.’

The Islamic Centre and Woolf Institute, of which he is patron, were both bodies that could help by making it clear that ‘such attacks are a betrayal of Islam and foreign to its true belief’.

I suppose it may come as a surprise to Lord Woolf to learn that they are no such thing.  One might wish they were.  An ignorant person might think they were.  But Lord Woolf cannot possibly be such an ignorant man.  And in any case why is he telling people what Islam is or isn’t?  Isn’t it enough that we already have a Prime Minister and US President who think it part of their role to interpret Islam for the rest of us poor semi-literate mortals?  If you thought it couldn’t get worse, it did, as Lord Woolf said that:

‘For over 1000 years, Jews and Christians lived safely in Arab countries contributing to the wellbeing of all.

‘Insha’Allah that with the support of all those of goodwill we see the same situation once again in the West as well as in the Middle East.’

Why not mention all those times when Jews and Christians didn’t live ‘safely in Arab countries’?  Why not talk about the fact that Jews have had to flee most Arab countries and that Christians are in the process of doing so even as the good Lord witters on, completing a process of ethnic and religious cleansing which began in the days of Mohammed?  And ‘Insha’Allah’.  Really?  Does Lord Woolf – a Jewish British judge – really need ‘Allah’ to will anything?

I had thought that the supine man after whom the Simon Hughes award is named (a gay or possibly bisexual Liberal Democrat Catholic) could never be beaten to his own prize.  But Lord Woolf’s effort suggests that next year’s awards might have to be renamed. The Woolf in sheep’s clothing award?

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