Can we have our Voltaire back please?

Voltaire’s belief in freedom of speech has been so spectacularly abandoned by mainstream society that it can now be co-opted by radical Islamists.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Free Speech

The most striking thing about the trial in Luton, England, of seven radical Muslim men accused of ‘being abusive’ during a military homecoming parade is that one of the men’s lawyers quoted Voltaire.

In defence of her client, a bearded Islamist who is suspicious of Western civilisation, the lawyer cited the eighteenth-century French thinker and author of Candide whose passion for reason and liberty inspired the French Revolution; one of the greatest thinkers of the Enlightenment who was suspicious of organised religion. The lawyer told the court: ‘Voltaire said, “I disagree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it”… If you believe in freedom of speech, you have to accept that some things will be said that you will like, and some things will be said that you will not like.’ Her words fell on deaf ears – on Monday five of the seven men were found guilty of ‘causing harassment and distress’ by shouting ‘murderers, rapists and baby-killers’ at British soldiers parading through Luton in March 2009 and were given two-year conditional discharges and ordered to pay £500 in costs.

Now, leaving aside the fact that Voltaire never actually said those words – they were written by one of his biographers as a summary of Voltaire’s thinking on free speech – it is revealing that an Islamist who by definition feels agitated by the modern traditions and liberties of Western society should feel able and willing to call Voltaire to his defence. This demonstrates how confused and fluid the legacy of the Enlightenment has become. Abandoned by mainstream society, and only cited opportunistically and unconvincingly by the contemporary liberal left, the values of the Enlightenment can now be co-opted by some of the most backward religious elements in modern society. Indeed, the Islamists in Luton can be seen as taunting the rulers and thinkers of Western society, holding up Voltaire as a way of upbraiding us over our failure to adhere to the principles and attitude of the Enlightenment.

The seven men took part in a tiny, childish demonstration on 10 March 2009. As soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan paraded through Luton, the Islamists chanted ‘Go to hell!’ and held up placards saying ‘Butchers of Basra’ and ‘Baby killers’. According to the judge at Luton Magistrates’ Court, they ‘overstepped the mark’. ‘The defendants’ conduct went beyond reasonable legitimate protest’, she said. ‘Their behaviour was an open expression of opinion on a matter of public interest, which was advanced in words that amounted to being disproportionate and unreasonable.’ So you only have the right to protest if your protest is reasonable, respectable and hushed; you only have the right to free speech if your speech is ‘proportionate’ in the eyes of some aloof judge in a magistrates’ court. In short, there is no real right to protest or free speech. This week, Islam4UK’s planned march through Wootton Bassett was also banned, and the group was proscribed.

For Islamists who frequently argue that Western society is shallow and corrupt, offering only the illusion of freedom while suppressing people’s spiritual instincts and deeper needs, the Luton case became an opportunity to expose the emptiness of the apparently Enlightened West. By citing Voltaire in her closing comments, just before the judge was due to pass verdict, the Islamists’ lawyer was effectively trying to embarrass this institution of British society by throwing in its face the kind of values and thought it is supposed to respect, but does not; she was daring this legal instrument to ignore Voltaire, of all people, and she ensured that when the judge delivered her verdict she would not only be disrespecting the men’s individual rights but would also be writing off 300 years of civilised thought. In pronouncing the men guilty, the judge was in essence expelling Voltaire from mainstream British society as well as proscribing certain forms of protest.

For radical Islamists, the verdict was proof that freedom is an illusion and Western society should look to something other than the con of the Enlightenment for guidance. Supporters of the men gathered outside the court, one holding up a placard saying: ‘Islam will dominate the world. Freedom can go to hell.’ ‘The trial showed the failure of freedom of speech and democracy’, supporters said: ‘We already knew the verdict before the trial started.’

The case revealed how degraded are the values of the Enlightenment: freedom, democracy, reason, rationalism. It also revealed that these values have not been destroyed from without by a handful of bearded men who like to shout at British soldiers – as some Islamo-obsessives would have us believe – but rather have corroded from within, being thrown off one-by-one by the fearful, increasingly illiberal institutions and ideologies of contemporary Western society. Indeed, the role of Islamists, the Luton case suggests, has not been to destroy Enlightenment values, but simply to expose and laugh at their destruction by mainstream society itself, which still sometimes pays lip service to such values but is utterly incapable of truly upholding them. Islamists have not buried Enlightenment values; rather they are dancing on their grave.

That a lawyer representing men who have no respect for democracy and liberty can quote Voltaire shows how abandoned that great thinker is. No longer properly valued by mainstream governments or liberal thinkers, left out in the metaphorical cold as an historical thinker we are a little bit embarrassed by because he was ‘too much’ into liberty and reason, Voltaire can be grabbed and turned into a ventriloquist’s dummy by Islamists who want to mock the grandiose-but-shallow claims to freedom and Enlightenment of Western society. The values of freedom and reason have not only been abandoned by the institutions of society, which now consider speech too dangerous to be free and doubt whether reason is a satisfactory tool for understanding our apparently unpredictable, out-of-control, climatically wild world – they have also been warped by the self-styled liberal ‘men of the Enlightenment’ who have emerged in Western commentary circles in recent years.

Hysterically obsessed with radical Islam, which they consider to be the gravest threat to modernity, and over-agitated by relatively unimportant backward pursuits such as chiropractic treatment, TV Christian evangelists or the ‘brain gym’ foisted on some pupils in British schools, these individuals pursue what is best described as a ‘Reactionary Enlightenment’ – that is, an ‘Enlightenment’ that can only assert itself in reaction to some of the wackier practices in contemporary society. Such is their narrow, unreasoned focus on the stranger symptoms of today’s anti-Enlightenment, rather than on its causes, that they frequently end up calling for ‘bad ideas’ to be suppressed rather than challenged through free and rigorous debate. They call for radical Islamists to be expelled from Britain, for example, or for medical quacks to be denied public platforms. They have ossified the Enlightenment, turning it from an open-minded attitude and approach to the world into a list of ‘correct ideas’ that must be protected from the barbarians by laws and other forcefields. This denigration of the Enlightenment by its so-called defenders also gives Islamists the idea that the Enlightenment is not all it’s cracked up to be – it defends freedom for some, but not for others; it turns rationalism into a rule rather than a way of thinking.

The Enlightenment is not a collection of nuggets of wisdom to be preserved and protected by the decent sections of society. Nor should its values be so thoughtlessly abandoned by the rulers of democratic societies. The Enlightenment is about attitude, intellectual cojones, openness, doubt, scepticism, rigour, experimentation, and most importantly of all freedom – freedom of thought, freedom of belief and freedom of speech. It is not a list of prescribed thoughts but rather a way of thinking, a way of approaching the world. Voltaire has been shunted by mainstream Western society and now he has been made a fool of by Islamists. spiked claims him back, not as any kind of deity who needs us or anyone else to protect him from blasphemous attack, but as a man whose unstintingly questioning spirit we could learn a lot from today.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

by Tim Black

Born on 21 November 1694 in Paris, Francois Marie Arouet was to become the embodiment of free thinking and reason. ‘Liberty of thought is the life of the soul’, he wrote in 1727.

Never shy of speaking truth to power, whether monarch or priest, Arouet found himself in trouble with the authorities in 1717 following a scathing satire of the French government. During his subsequent 11-month stay at the Bastille, Arouet wrote his first theatrical success, Oedipe, using his famous psuedonym, Voltaire.

‘Nothing can be more contrary to religion and the clergy than reason and common sense’, he wrote. Given his attitude to the Ancien Regime, the threat of incarceration frequently forced him into exile – not that it was without its benefits. In England during the late 1720s, he immersed himself in the work of Locke and Newton; and in Luneville, eastern France, the respite granted by his adulterous relationship with Marquise du Chatelet saw him translate Newton’s Principia Mathematica and devote himself for a time to the natural sciences.

Voted into the Academie Francaise in 1746, Voltaire moved to the Swiss-French border in 1753. He remained in Ferney near Geneva for virtually the rest of his life, producing probably his best-known work, Candide, a staunch rejection of any fatalistic acceptance of the way of the world. ‘We must cultivate our garden’, he averred. His death in 1778 meant he never got to see the logical goal of his morally charged rationalism: the French Revolution.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill described the row over a protest at Wootton Bassett as a political pantomime and described al-Qaeda’s culture of complaint. Tim Black heard an anti-fascist protestor declare that ‘Voltaire never saw concentration camps’. Kenan Malik discussed the post-Rushdie affair free-speech wars. Josie Appleton argued that young Muslims are being taught to complain. Munira Mirza discussed the realities of Muslim identity in Britain. Or read more at spiked issue Free speech.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Free Speech


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