Wednesday 13 January 2010 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
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.