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Freedom of speech: who, when, where?

March 30, 2006

"If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear." (George Orwell)

Hello again,

Are English teachers aware of the the restrictions they may face when teaching in non-secular cultures? An English-language lecturer has been fired from her post at Zayed University in the United Arab Emirates for handing out the controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad to her class. Frankly, I am hardly surprised and I can’t imagine what she thought she was doing. So, does that make me anti free speech? Not at all, but freedom of expression, like all human activity, needs to be carried out responsibly. I think the Danish originals had every right to be published in Denmark, a non-Muslim country. I am sure that in Denmark, as in the rest of the western world, there is respect for people’s right to their religious beliefs . . .

. . . But they are they are beliefs and as such, like all religious faith, entirely subjective. It is not a right of Islamists to dictate to non-Muslim countries what they may or may not say or print. In Britain we have seen some ludricous examples of political correctness with some local authorities and schools talking about the “winter festival” instead of Christmas for fear of upsetting the non-Christians in the community. What utter nonsense this is. It subverts the principles of religious tolerance that are fundamental to western societies. It is logically possible to say that I respect your right to believe in any creed you wish while reserving my own right totally to reject such beliefs. This is my position, unequivocally.

But if I am teaching Muslims in an Islamic country I have the responsibility to respect local law and local sensitivities. It is crass and insulting therefore to behave as the fired teacher did. Many teachers going from liberal, open cultures to societies that attempt to control, not only what people say and write, but what they think, will be ill prepared for the restrictions they will find. And it works conversely. When students from tightly controlled cultures come to the West, they are often perplexed by the freedoms they discover. I once taught a group of Saudi policemen who found it astonishing that the British press could openly criticize members of the royal family.

Schools have a responsibility, it seems to me, to prepare new teachers in their induction courses for local cultural taboos. I understand that the university in question will be giving new teachers sensitivity training in future.

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