Asia Bibi and Sir Roger Scruton don’t have much in common. She is a lowly farm labourer from a rural part of Pakistan where she experienced great poverty, hardship and persecution, on account of the fact that she is Christian. He is an erudite professor, a knight of the realm, and not short of a few bob.
And yet something binds these two into unlikely bedfellows: both are currently keeping a low profile in response to mobs that want to punish them for the crime of insulting Islam.
This week, Bibi was finally released from death row after Pakistan’s Supreme Court overturned the obscene conviction against her for mocking Muhammad (a charge she always denied). But she is in hiding, because mobs of irate Islamists still want her to suffer death for her speechcrimes against Muslims. Scruton, meanwhile, is dodging the public gaze, in far greater comfort than Bibi of course, because mobs of irate leftists want him to suffer social death for his speechcrimes against Muslims.
These two mobs differ only by degree. Sure, no one is threatening to string up Sir Roger. But the same sentiment drives both his furious harassers and Bibi’s wicked persecutors: a deep and instinctual intolerance, a belief of such colossal arrogance that it will strike many of us as being utterly alien to the exercise of civilised public life — the belief that you have the right to destroy, whether by death or social death, anyone who offends you or your belief system.
This is the story, the genuinely depressing story, of Sir Roger being hounded and shamed over his opinions. A noisy Twittermob, which includes, to their shame, Labour MPs, wants Sir Roger cast out of the government’s housing commission, Building Better, Building Beautiful, on the grounds that his beliefs make him unfit for public life.
Some of those beliefs pertain to Islam. The mob is furious that he has questioned the term ‘Islamophobia’ and that he once said certain European authorities downplayed sexual crimes committed by immigrants. This is true. But truth counts for nothing to the time-rich opinion tyrants who want anyone who thinks differently to them expelled from public life.
Scruton’s other unfit beliefs include questioning the idea of ‘date rape’, not thinking Viktor Orban’s Hungary is the most evil nation ever, and wondering a few years ago whether gay sex is normal. The only civilised response to the heated, excitable revelations that Sir Roger thinks these things is: so what? Who cares? What does any of this have to do with housing? Are we saying that there are some beliefs so foul that anyone who holds them must be deprived of influence in public life?
In that case, cast out all Muslims: many of them think gay sex is a little iffy. As for Christians, let’s interrogate these suspicious people over their views on same-sex activity before we let them anywhere near parliament or government. And don’t even think of granting influence to ex-Muslim secularists who think Islamophobia is a jumped-up term — shut them up, cast them out, not welcome here.
The level of intolerance today is staggering. We are witnessing an ethical cleansing of public life; an attempt to expunge the public sphere of anything deemed wrongthink by the noisy, well-connected PC brigade.
Before Sir Roger there was the Spectator’s own Toby Young, cast out of the Office for Students over past jokes. Sir Tim Hunt was expelled from respectable society over a gag at a science discussion. People went for Boris for the crime of thinking Muslim women should have the right to wear the niqab even if it makes them look like letterboxes. The mob is constantly circling Tory London mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey because he has traditionalist views on welfare benefits and law and order. They went after Tim Farron simply because he believes (but has never acted on this belief) that gay sex is sinful. You aren’t even allowed to think certain things anymore. It’s chilling.
What is most extraordinary about this growth of ethical cleansing is that its practitioners always deny the charge of authoritarianism. ‘We are NOT Stalinists’, censorious Corbynistas cry, protesting way too much, before they while away their afternoon trying to get someone sacked because he once said something they didn’t like. ‘It’s only censorship when the state silences people’, the new mobs say, as they light their metaphorical torches and head out to silence the latest person to have committed heresy.
Please. Who do they think they’re kidding? It's been recognised by every supporter of freedom of speech in history, from the freed American slave Frederick Douglass to Britain’s own John Stuart Mill, that the tyranny of wisdom and the pressure to conform are if anything greater threats to freedom of speech than censorious laws. Douglass wrote one of the greatest defences of freedom of speech — seriously, read it, here — after a mob invaded a public meeting of slavery abolitionists and shut it down on the basis that it was offensive.
Today’s so-called radicals are the moral descendants, not of the heroic Douglass, but of that nasty mob of angry men who believed they had the right to silence speech and people that offended them.