Art, liberty and extremism: How should the artist engage with threats to free speech?

We live in a society where the right to freedom of speech is constantly under threat. The attack on this most fundamental of liberties happens on two fronts. Far right conservatives, such as religious fundamentalists, and fascism that hides behind traditional doctrines of faith, and bland, second-hand liberalism of the type innovated by Tony Blair and which now effects and controls the mainstream media and politics in the UK.

The second is the most threatening, because extreme conservatism, however it masquerades, can always be exposed for the baseless and violent ideology that it truly is – if there is a body of thought and political activism to challenge it.

When liberalism is neutered, when vested interests and the status quo become more important than free exchange of ideas and social development, liberty loses its radical edge. Liberty becomes nothing more than tolerance, and tolerance fast becomes nothing more than appeasement, an unwillingness to upset the stability of the now.

In discussion: Lib Dem candidate Maajid Nawaz (left) and playwrite Cosh Omar (right) held a conversation on extremism and liberalism at The Hospital Club in Covent Garden, London
In discussion: Lib Dem candidate Maajid Nawaz (left) and playwrite Cosh Omar (right) held a conversation on extremism and liberalism at The Hospital Club in Covent Garden, London

Such a mentality is the dominant one in our present society. In our own perceived sense of comfort, where the middle-classes feel they have too much to lose by getting proactive about their rights and liberties, what is more preferable is license and consumer choice, rather than social responsibility and the evolution of ideas. Paralysis is dressed up in the freedom of choice to buy and watch and consume, while true freedom rots from neglect.

In a discussion called Free Speech, Creativity and Naivety, Lib Dem candidate Maajid Nawaz and playwrite Cosh Omar shared a conversation on these issues at London’s Hospital Club. Both former radicals and Islamist extremists with similar experiences and journeys, Maajid and Cosh discussed the escalating threats to truly liberal thinking in the modern world.

Far from being some utopian end-of-history synergy, western society, and particularly the UK and Europe, seems to be under the delusion of a fatuous liberalism, where multi-culturalism and diversity require fear tactics and the silencing of challenging opinions in favour of a bleached out public space where disagreement and disputation are seen as enemies, rather than the foundations, of our society.

Maajid himself, an outspoken critic of Islamist fundamentalism and the founder of think-tank Quilliam, has had direct experience of violent far right extremism and the spinelessness of modern liberalism in the face of it.

After recently re-tweeting pictures of t-shirts that satirically represented the prophet Mohammed, Maajid experienced a torrent of abuse and direct death threats. Not only that, aerial photographs were posted on the internet with further threats against his fiancee’s family.

The response by the liberal community, and indeed the inner circles of the Lb Dem party, was either to maintain a criminal silence over the threats, or to blame Maajid himself for being irresponsible. Rather than seeing his courage in the face of extremism, and his honesty as a public figure, he was attacked for ‘egoism’ and ‘irresponsible behavior.’

Such accusations are typical of the false-left and the neutered liberal. What these people consider liberty is home comforts and the right to aspire to materialist elitism.. This, unfortunately, is all that is left of the grand tradition of British, radical liberalism.

In a pre-Blair, pre-Thatcher world, such attacks on someone’s freedom and life on the basis of public utterance would have been unthinkable and indefensible. Today, the victim is blamed rather than the attacker. Liberalism protects those who assault the liberty of others, and it does so in the name of tolerance. What really inspires this submission is fear. A terror in the face of a violent ideology.

As a result, those who speak up against extremism are seen as enemies of social stability, and accused of extremism themselves. Orwell himself, could not have foreseen such a capitulation.

Throughout Maajid and Cosh’s talk the theme of creativity became the central thrust of the conversation. What is missing from modern liberalism and modern artistic output, it was argued, is courage and fearlessness, a willingness to defend one’s right to speak out, even if the cost is death.

If British liberty stands for anything, and if it has a chance of standing for anything in the future, personal comfort and safety are meaningless when set aside the right for our children to enjoy freedom of expression.

After the talk Cosh Omar told me that artists and creatives must get tough and they must see their work in a wider context than simply their own lives and careers.

Artists, said Cosh, are uniquely placed to challenge the foundations of empty ideologies such as Islamism.


‘We need to see extremism for what it is, the bullshit of it,’ he told me. ‘All exposed self-identity comes from some romantic idea of what was. It is a romantic idea that is exported just to make you feel better about yourself and your children. It is just bullshit, and that is what Islamism is. It is an exported ideal of what it means to be Islamic.’

As a playwrite who knows full well the dangers of speaking out, Cosh insists that courage is the only way to ensure that your voice will be heard. If we truly believe in our ideals, then we must be prepared to brave the consequences. Such is the cost of defending liberal values.

‘I think you want to write what you want to write,’ he explained. ‘You have to, anyway. As long as you have a platform and there’s talent there and it will get put on, then it is great. The only test should be whether it doesn‘t go on is because it is shit, not because people are frightened.

‘It’s ridiculous. What are they frightened of? If you believe what you believe, if you think it is right, what are you fearful of? Evidently, the smallest door that is open to this ideal, creates enough draft to blow away your house of cards. If it is that powerful, then let’s do it, let’s take it on.’

Maajid Nawaz echoed these sentiments but added that there is a great strength in numbers: ‘It is biased of me to say it, but I will say it anyway. If there is one person that does it, they will be targeted. But if there is thousand people that do it, a million people that do it, it is much harder to target them.’

Maajid again emphasised that artists and creatives must see the bigger picture. What is in their hands is a value system, something that is far more important than their own personal concerns.

He added: ‘The only way for progress to occur is if you do a Galileo, if we break those taboos, if we speak out. The real prophet Mohammed was a heretic, Jesus was a heretic, Moses was a heretic, each one broke the taboos of their time, and incrementally humanity evolved. It is our job today to break the taboos of our society, with a liberal framework. Not just for the sake of it, because you could argue that Nazis broke taboos.

‘It’s not that, it’s basically to say, I have the right to my opinion and you have yours. I am not going to tell you, you don’t have the right to your opinion, but you must respect my right to my opinion as well.

‘The more we do that, the more liberalism becomes entrenched. And it is liberalism with a small ‘l’ that is what is under threat at the moment. We have just seen in the local elections, UKIP have soared in popularity. The far right have risen across Europe. Liberalism is being attacked.

‘And it is only by young artists breaking those taboos that we will begin to normalise the abnormal. I would say to those artists do not give up, just carry on, you are going to get hassle, you are going to get headaches, you are going to get people challenging you. One of us, two of us out of hundred, will die. But we do know that humankind will progress as a result.

‘Otherwise what are we living for? What we are living for from a humanist perspective, is the advancement of our being.’

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