Freedom of speech is Islamic, too

The easy assumption is that the Muslim world is hypersensitive because it does not believe in freedo

How do you demonstrate freedom of expression? If, like trees falling in the forest, the only proof of its existence is transgression, what is the difference between free speech and licence to demonise and incite religious hatred?

In Britain many curbs on free speech are already embodied in law: defamation, race hatred and the whole panoply of public order legislation. We know from experience that freedom of speech is not an absolute; it is etiquette. It is an essential ethos for the health of society and the liberty of the individual conscience, but an ethos that is best exercised with responsibility, balance and due regard for the existence of others.

I have just expressed an Islamic opinion. It may come as a surprise to many, but Islam endorses freedom of expression. The easy assumption is too often made that Muslims are hypersensitive because they have no experience of freedom of speech, or just don't believe in the concept. Nothing could be further from the truth, though sadly the truth is far from the common experience of most Muslims in most countries of the world.

The reasons why Muslims are outraged with the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad have little to do with freedom of expression. They have everything to do with Islamophobia and ugly demonisation of Muslims. What the cartoons portray should be of concern not just to Muslims but to all of us. Depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist makes that abomination integral to Islam. It suggests that Islam is intrinsically violent and irredeemable. It posits all Muslims as potential terrorists. In other words, it fuels the hatred against Muslims and constructs them as evil Others.

I find the cartoons offensive not because I am against freedom of expression but because I am against ignorance, prejudice and downright racism. However, I also find them offensive because, once again, I am being aligned with people I heartily loathe and disagree with - the Muslim fascists. The placards carried by some protesters, and such slogans as "Massacre those who malign the Prophet" or "Butcher those who mock Islam", are just as offensive to me.

There is another point here. The two extremes - the liberal and the Muslim fanatics - are squeezing out the moderate voices from all sides. The Danish cartoons are part of a common rhetoric of deliberate misconstruction of Islam. Their message is echoed, in different forms, by the liberal West Wing on television, by American Christian fundamentalists such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robinson, as well as the British National Party and our own home-grown right-wingers such as Rod Liddle - a pretty wide spectrum. When this view becomes common currency it provides a fertile soil for hatred of Muslims to grow in, and for violence against them to be perpetuated. It also frustrates and makes immeasurably more difficult the task of the vast majority of Muslims to repossess their religion from the lunatic fringe.

I believe, along with many Muslims and most of the Conservative front bench, that charges should be brought against the extremists behind the inflammatory protests in London. But what about those who started the ball rolling? Do they not have a case to answer? I think they do. Those who circulate ignorance and prejudice should not be allowed to hide behind facile notions of "freedom of expression". Freedom of expression is inextricably part of the equation of power and representation. Throwing scorn and abuse and inciting hatred against a marginalised and largely voiceless community is not a question of freedom. It is a gross abuse of power.

That the whole issue is about foreign darkies who have not yet learned to appreciate how we - the superior Europeans - do things was made amply clear by the editor of the German magazine Die Welt. He published the cartoons, he said, to highlight an issue "at the very core of our culture". So those who are seen as being outside this culture have to put up or shut up. It's the kind of choice Europe gave to the Jews, with all its attendant consequences. He went on to say that Europeans cannot "stop using our journalistic right of freedom of expression within legal boundaries". Thus throwing salt in the wound: Muslims are outside "legal boundaries" and have no comeback.

It is time Muslims were brought within legal boundaries. If the law can be used to defend the sacred notion of the Holocaust, then it can be used to protect the sacred territory of one of the great religions of the world. The Racial and Religious Hatred Bill (which, by the way, I opposed in its earlier incarnations) has to be resurrected on more sensible lines. The monotonous liberals have a stark choice: stick dogmatically to an absurdly abstract Eurocentric principle or see another holocaust in Europe.

Yet it is equally true that those Muslim groups which organise rent-a-crowd demonstrations here or elsewhere must be subject to restraint and embrace the etiquette of freedom of expression as reasoned argument. It is no defence of Muslims anywhere to flourish the language of extremism with mindless abandon. It certainly does not advance the cause of Muslims. It is, perhaps, proof of weakness. But it feeds the very monster against which they come to protest. Worst of all, it robs the voiceless majority of the very opportunity that freedom of expression should guarantee - a full and fair hearing for reasoned disclosure of their outrage.

We live in a world where access to free expression is a cockpit, a battle for power and territory. We are all interested parties in the rush to define which opinions and ideas are essential in the mental and emotional kitbag of the modern citizen. But we are not all equal in power, authority, knowledge and access. In an inequitable world our best ideals can often betray our arrogance and hubris more than they indicate our commitment to inclusion and common humanity.

It appears that I am also being accused of abusing my freedom of expression. My last NS column seems to have upset a few people, including David Aaronovitch. I accept that Aaronovitch has written a number of articles attacking racism and Islamophobia. Taking my cue from a scholarly paper, I was arguing that the collective opinion generated by commentators, of both the left and the right, has a single coherence. This constructed public knowledge is racist in nature and promotes orientalist fantasies. I was not accusing individual columnists of racism.