Azhar Ahmed has not been sent to prison for expressing his offensive opinions on Facebook, but he has been sentenced to 240 hours community service and fined £300.
Azhar Ahmed’s “crime” was saying on Facebook that he hoped that soldiers fighting for Britain in Afghanistan would “burn in hell”.
This was clearly not an incitement to violence. Azhar Ahmed was merely expressing the wish that Allah should inflict violence. Azhar Ahmed is not himself planning to burn anybody in hell, nor is he inciting any other particular individuals to burn anybody in hell.
I think this is a perfect opportunity for all those of us who believe in the right of individuals to say offensive things to protest vehemently on Azhar Ahmed’s behalf, and to tell him and anyone else listening that he should not have been legally punished in any way for what he merely said. There is an important principle at stake here, and this is a truly excellent moment for many, many people who agree about this principle to say so.
It is also a perfect opportunity for us all to say other offensive things that we each happen to believe in, thereby doing the old “I’m Spartacus” trick. In that spirit, let me now say some other offensive things that I happen to believe in, and which I also believe to be pertinent to this argument.
I hate Islam. Not just “Islamic extremism”. Islam. I agreed with Osama Bin Laden about very little, but I did and I do agree with him about what Islam says and what it demands of its followers. That’s all part of why I hate it. I think that if you are a Muslim, then simply by saying that you are a Muslim, even if you never do anything else evil at all, you encourage evil-doing by others. You should stop being a Muslim. Your only morally reasonable excuse for remaining a Muslim is that you are scared of all the grief you will suffer from Muslims of your acquaintance, and from Muslims generally, if you do stop being a Muslim. None of my best friends are Muslims.
So, those being my opinions about Islam, and now that I have said them, again, on a blog, should I also be sentenced to 240 hours of community service?
If not, this hardly seems fair to Azhar Ahmed.
What I have just said will surely offend most Muslims (though probably not all) who read it. Tough. Muslims have (by which I mean should have) no right not to be be offended. And nor do all those British citizens who are offended by what Azhar Ahmed said on Facebook. Tough. Live with it. We don’t all agree about things. Many non-Muslim British people consider Islam harmless, even entirely good. I am offended by what I consider to be the stupidity of such head-in-the-sand opinions. And I continue with my life. I also have no right not to be offended.
The correct way for people with my opinions about the whys and hows of reducing the influence of Islam in the world, and of persuading people to abandon it, is for us to say – to argue – that Islam should be reduced in influence in the world and that people should abandon it. The correct tactic is not for us to agitate to make the expression of Muslim opinions illegal. Violence should only be used against Muslims when those particular Muslims have done something that is – and should be – legally wrong. (Done something like: physically attacking someone who has stopped being a Muslim.)
Azhar Ahmed should not be legally punished for what he has merely said. Muslims in Britain should be legally punished only for what they do, for what they do that is and ought to be illegal, not for what they think or what they say, no matter how offensive.
Perhaps Azhar Ahmed has, in the opinion of some British people in authority, done actual wicked things, illegal things, things that are illegal and which ought to be illegal. Perhaps this is why they are going after him. If so, let them present the evidence that Azhar Ahmed has actually done these bad things. Meanwhile, let Azhar Ahmed say whatever he wants.
LATER: Here is a somewhat more detailed description of the trial. Azhar Ahmed is reported in this as saying that soldiers should “die and go to hell”. That’s slightly closer to incitement, but only closer. Not close.
All part of how depressing this trial was is that Azhar Ahmed was reduced to claiming that what he said was not that offensive, when it clearly was very offensive indeed to many people. He ought to have been able to just say: “Offensive? So what? There’s no law against it.” Sadly, it would appear that there is.