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Last Updated: Monday, 19 January, 2004, 10:52 GMT
When speech is too free
By Ahmed J Versi
Editor and publisher of The Muslim News

Freedom of speech should not extend to tolerating views such as the anti-Arab remarks made by Robert Kilroy-Silk, says Muslim commentator Ahmed Versi, as it panders to those who would peddle race hate.

Robert Kilroy-Silk
It seems the BBC has reached a compromise with presenter Robert Kilroy-Silk which will allow his company to continue to make similar programmes - albeit with a different host - and he may even be allowed to have a future role within the corporation.

This despite the fact that the former Labour MP remains unrepentant on what he said: "I continue to believe that it is my right to express my views, however uncomfortable they may be." One wonders if this mutually acceptable solution would have been possible if anti-Semitic or anti-black comments had been made?

In trying to explain his anti-Arab comments made in the Sunday Express, Kilroy-Silk has not only blamed his secretary but contradicted himself. On the one hand he has offered a half-hearted apology in expressing regret for the offence caused in an article he claimed was republished in error. On the other hand, he has insisted that he has the right to freedom of speech to voice his views.

Repeat offence

Kilroy-Silk had written the same article for the Sunday Express last April. However, sub-editors at the paper tweaked the text to read "Arab states" rather than "Arabs". His recent column, however, ran unchanged. So the claims that he and his supporters continuously make that it was Arab regimes that he meant holds no water.

Tom Paulin, left, with Late Review presenter Mark Lawson
Late Review's Tom Paulin (left) was rapped for anti-Semitic remarks
Nowhere did this article make any distinction between Arabs and Arab states.

On the contrary, Kilroy-Silk painted all the Arabs with the same brush - as "suicide bombers, limb amputators, women repressors" - even though he later claimed that he had meant Arab states.

It seems, in taking advantage of freedom of expression, this is not the first time that Kilroy-Silk has aired such views.

He wrote in the Express back in 1995 that "Muslims everywhere behave with equal savagery. They behead criminals, stone to death female - only female - adulterers, throw acid in the faces of women who refuse to wear the chador, mutilate the genitals of young girls, and ritually abuse animals."

Limits on free speech

Freedom of expression is not absolute. There are limitations and it should not be used to propagate racist, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic and other xenophobic views. Such views can incite people to hatred.

Express front page
Kilroy's article sparked a national debate
As far as the BBC is concerned, it has public service broadcasting obligations to ensure the impartiality of its current affairs presenters, who are paid to field opinions. The other issue for the BBC is that Kilroy-Silk's comments have been referred to the police by the Commission of Racial Equality for investigation of possible prosecution under the Public Order Act, for incitement to racial hatred.

One of the most worrying aspects of this debate is that it comes amid a tide of Islamophobia. Last November, Europe Minister Denis MacShane called on Muslims living in the UK to choose between the "British way" or "the way of terrorists". He later apologised, saying that he should have chosen his words more carefully.

The danger is that when such comments are not retracted or addressed, this could open the floodgates that pander to the lowest elements in society. Muslim leaders have warned about the precedent leading to a similar rise to Nazi fascism in Germany that was assisted by propaganda, which dehumanised and vilified Jews.

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