Thursday, February 07, 2008

Yusuf Al-Qaradawi and freedom of speech

Inayat Bunglawala, writing in the Guardian, claims that the British government's refusal to give Yusuf Al-Qaradawi a visa, thus refusing permission to enter the country, violates Qaradawi's freedom of speech:

Gordon Brown's government has finally caved in to the noisy mob who have been angrily demanding that the elderly Islamic preacher, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, should be refused a visa to come to the UK for medical treatment.

Well, so much for free speech. You will recall that during the Satanic Verses and the Danish Cartoons row, British Muslims were repeatedly lectured to about the need to adapt to western notions of free speech. You may not like what is written or drawn, we were told, but as long as it does not break the law, you need to learn to put up with it.

The problem with this argument is that Mr Qaradawi's freedom of speech has not in fact been curtailed. His words have not been banned from the media or the internet, he can continue giving interviews, making speeches, etc. It's just he's been refused permission to enter the country, which is no more of a violation of his freedom of speech than if I were to refuse him entry to my house.

The point is that freedom of speech is the right to express your views with your own resources, or resources you otherwise have permission to use, to anyone willing to listen. Freedom of speech does not give me the right to enter your house without your permission. Similarly it does not give a non-citizen the right to enter a country, whether he wishes to do so in order to spread his views or simply to have a holiday. The non-citizen must get permission from the country's government to do so (said government exercising this power on behalf of the people of that country).

In practice permission is often granted by default, assuming you apply/arrive through legal channels. But governments have always had the power to refuse permission, a power which the are supposed to exercise in defence of the country concerned (e.g. to repel foreign invaders or anyone else who poses a risk to that country's population). In this case, the British government has decided Al-Qaradawi poses some sort of threat. Whether they are right in that decision is a separate matter from any alleged violation of freedom of speech.

Mr. Bunglawala is confusing freedom of speech with the right to be provided with a platform of one's choice in a location of one's choice. No one has that right.

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