Why are councillors doing Islamists’ work for them?

Posted: Mon, 5th Jun 2023 by Jack Rivington


After a councillor was denied mayoralty for criticising Islam, Jack Rivington warns politicians are playing into the hands of Islamist fundamentalists.

Last week, members of Boston Borough Council decided that the principle of free expression, and the traditions of their mayoralty, were less important than potentially offended religious feelings.

By convention as the longest serving member, Councillor Mike Gilbert was due to be appointed mayor of Boston for a one year term. However, following an intervention by several fellow councillors, he was blocked from taking up the position last month on the grounds that he had made past comments criticising aspects of Islamic religious doctrine.

These comments, posted on social media during the football World Cup in Qatar, drew attention to several features of Islam which Cllr Gilbert considered to be in conflict with the rights of women and LGBT people. Namely that in Islam, homosexuality is punishable by death, and women are considered to be of a lower status than men.

Despite Cllr Gilbert very clearly stating that his criticisms were not of Muslims themselves but of particular religious doctrines, a number of borough councillors saw fit to denounce him for what they characterised as 'hate speech'.

Cllr Anne Dorrian, who was serving as mayor at the time, said councillors had a political and moral obligation to "refrain from using hate speech". Failure to condemn such speech, Cllr Dorrian warned, could be interpreted as expressions of "approval or support". Cllr Dale Broughton also criticised the remarks, saying that they did "little to bring about social integration" in Boston.

It's disappointing that our elected representatives don't consider themselves at least equally obligated to defend the right to freedom of expression, integral as it is to our democratic society, or to advance the cause of secularism, which is the best guarantee of social cohesion and integration that we know of.

Through their actions, the councillors have signalled that religion, and in particular Islam, should be beyond the realm of reasonable public debate. Although attempts by religious fundamentalists to impose blasphemy codes and suppress freedom of expression around Islam are so regular as to no longer be surprising, it is alarming to see UK politicians so readily line up to support the same cause.

No argument was presented by the councillors as to why the comments were hateful, or indeed factually incorrect. Cllr Gilbert's concerns were simply deemed unmentionable, remarks which should not have to be read, tolerated, or thought about. Cllr Gilbert's name has been unfairly smeared, and those responsible can't even be bothered provide an explanation.

Is there any justification for such censorship which does not involve the claim that criticism or even discussion of ideas amounts to a personal attack on individuals? If applied to any non-religious ideology the ridiculous nature of this claim becomes apparent. Criticising the idea of a constitutional monarchy, for example, does not amount to a grave insult to the personal dignity of committed royalists – any claim that it did would be worthy of ridicule. There is nothing to justify religious viewpoints being treated any differently.

It is worth recalling the motivation of Cllr Gilbert's posts: to highlight injustices being done to women and LGBT people by those who employ Islamic doctrine as a justification. This, of course, includes people who are themselves Muslims, many of whom are engaged in their own battles against regressive religious dogma. By the logic of Boston's councillors, expressing solidarity with a significant proportion of the Muslim community is somehow hateful towards them.

Let us imagine that Cllr Gilbert's comments had instead been made by, say, an ex-Muslim lesbian. Would the councillors have disparaged and discounted them in the same way? If not, why not? Are the comments themselves hateful, or are they only hateful in virtue of being spoken by a particular kind of person?

Following the council meeting, Cllr Gilbert was invited by the imam of Boston's mosque, Abdul Hamid Qureshi, to a meeting where they could discuss his "assumptions", which he described as "speculative rather than factual" and "out of context and selective". Irritating and patronising though this is, the opportunity for dialogue should be welcomed. It would be nice if Mr Qureshi could also make clear his position on the supposed 'hateful' nature of Cllr Gilbert's remarks, or defend the right to freedom of expression despite his disagreement with what was said.

The people most likely to be grateful to Boston's councillors are religious fundamentalists, who now don't even have to kick up a fuss for free speech to be suppressed. As Boston's councillors have made clear, there's enough useful idiots who are willing to do it for them.

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Tags: Free speech