Northern Ireland – Middle East – Rioting Against Free Expression Is Not The Answer – 29 September 2012

It’s somewhat ironic that this Washington Post story, about the continuing strife associated with “marching season” in Northern Ireland, would appear at the same time that we continue to consider the strife in the Arab-Muslim world related to the “anti-Islam” film. The issues in both cases are pretty close to the same.

In both cases, we have two sides to a conflict arguing about constitutional freedoms, on the one hand, and cultural sensitivity on the other.

In both cases, one side has expressed itself in a hostile and unreasoning fashion, promoting itself and denigrating the other.

In both cases, the response from the other side has been violent rather than merely critical.

In both cases, a clear distinction between rejecting hostile viewpoints and rejecting important freedoms has not been made, to the potential detriment of people who are not even parties to this conflict.

In the Northern Irish case, Unionist and/or Protestant marchers evoke, as they have since 1690, the Battle of the Boyne which placed their forebears in control of the northern part of the island of Ireland – something they know is a symbolic finger in the eye of the Nationalist and/or Catholic community with whom they live in close proximity. It is very insensitive, and it is a lot more than merely coming out to show civic pride as Unionists / Protestants. They should know better than to do this.

But Nationalists / Catholics, if they respond by rioting, raise some other issues by their behaviour. For starters, if it’s okay for them to violently attack people for talking about a battle that took place more than 300 years ago, isn’t that a concession that _they_, the _Nationalists_, don’t think that battle is really over? It’s not reasonable to class this as hate speech when you’re more than willing to manifest your willing continuation of the hatred by letting loose of all restraint and attacking them.

More than that, if the Nationalist / Catholic community can attack people merely for _talking_ about the Battle of the Boyne, what else can they decide it is inappropriate for Unionists / Protestants to talk about? Will it not be okay for Unionist politicians to criticise Nationalist ones in the Northern Ireland Assembly? Will any expression of Unionism be considered hate speech? And if people are going to go that route, wouldn’t it be reasonable for the next stop on that train to be banning any expression of Nationalism?

As inappropriate, in this day and age, as “marching season” marches are, policing freedom of speech and expression is not the answer. It opens the door to so much worse.

The people in the US who made that film about Mohammed knew, as the marchers in Northern Ireland know, that it’s a finger in the eye to another community. They’re acting in a way they know exacerbates past divisions, and they also should know better than to do this.

But people in the Arab/Muslim world, if they respond by rioting, raise those same issues, and in many of the same ways. It’s unreasonable to blame someone for thinking like a Crusader when your own actions make it clear you want to keep the wars of the 12th century going.

Furthermore, calls such as we recently heard from the Algerian ambassador to the UN for restriction of speech in Western countries lead the same direction. It may seem to some to be about restricting hate speech in the whole of the world, and that’s how its promoters are selling this. But will any criticism by a Westerner of a politician in the Arab/Muslim world be next? Will _any_ expression of the Western point of view in the Arab/Muslim world be after that? And won’t the next stop for that train be the restriction of any expression of the Arab/Muslim point of view in Western countries?

The ultimate destination of these trains is a more completely intolerant world, divided into irreconcilable communities.

The crazy thing is, in neither Northern Ireland nor the Arab/Muslim world is that division a foregone conclusion. Northern Ireland on balance is more peaceful than it’s ever been, despite marching season. The Arab/Muslim world actually seems as if it’s headed in that direction as well, if people will let it go there.

It’s time for people to unlearn how to be constantly offended and learn how to talk to one another.

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