What is worse – Kilroy’s anti-Arab views or defending them?

I had hoped that last Sunday’s Express would make a serious attempt at assuaging the very broad offence caused by Robert Kilroy-Silk’s anti-Arab column on January 4. After all, editor Martin Townsend informed me that letters would be published on the matter, as well as a response from the Muslim Council of Britain.

That much was true, but I was not told that the Sunday Express would devote almost six times as much space in defense of its columnist – contrary to Townsend’s claim that "the views expressed in Robert’s column are not those of the newspaper" – and that the MCB would be asked to "tone down some of the criticisms of Kilroy."

The newspaper contained huge headlines on the columnist’s "anger", "why they’re all backing" him, how the BBC let "so loyal a servant" down, that his father died defending the right to free speech and that "all views have a right to be heard in our free society" –” in this case, those of Kilroy-Silk being "the truth".

The attempt to make this an issue of free speech is disingenuous in attempting to justify the mass publication of racial prejudice, and offensive by implying malevolent motives behind Kilroy-Silk’s critics. It is foolish to claim that Britons, who enjoy free speech, would want it taken away. This is just one of the rights that make us proud and happy to be British.

However, it is common sense and I presumed, until Kilroy-Silk’s comments, common knowledge that no freedom is unlimited. Indeed, the Sunday Express itself talked of "the responsibilities that come with" free speech, which Kilroy-Silk described as being "accurate and fair" and not causing "gratuitous offence".

He called for the "destruction" of Arab states, claimed they or their people have contributed nothing to civilization, and described their culture as morally inferior. Is he or the newspaper seriously suggesting that these blanket accusations fall within the boundaries of responsibility, accuracy and fairness, or that they contain "nothing racist"?

Will the Sunday Express now publish and defend those who deny the Holocaust, urge "Pakis" to "go home" or call for black people to be locked up, on the pretext that they are flexing their freedom of speech? I am certain Kilroy-Silk’s father would have disapproved of that.

It is precisely because we live in a multicultural society, not despite it, that the avoidance of incitement is so legally and morally important. Otherwise we risk displaying and fomenting the same condemnable extremism and intolerance we see in other parts of the world.

In the case of Arabs and Muslims, they have long been negatively stereotyped by some in the realms of film, the media, politics and public discourse, with very real, disturbing and sometimes tragic consequences. Kilroy-Silk’s comments only feed misconceptions. As the MCB’s Inayat Bunglawala pointed out: "We have seen what this kind of demonisation of entire peoples led to in Nazi Germany during the Second World War."

As such, this episode takes on a much wider significance than the concerns of Arabs and Muslims. The countless complaints against Kilroy Silk’s comments that I have read from people of all ethnicities and faiths are testament to this.

However, his reaction and that of the Sunday Express can only be seen as either confused or justifications with minor, cosmetic concessions. Kilroy-Silk claimed in the newspaper: "I didn’t intend to say that all Arabs are uncivilized because clearly I don’t believe that. That’s stupid. That’s nonsense… I am not a racist. I abhor racists and any form of racial discrimination." He said the article was published in April 2003 without uproar, and he allegedly meant to refer to Arab states rather than people.

However, this month’s published version was in its raw form –” last year’s was edited, a senior source at the Sunday Express told the Independent on Sunday, to "make it less inflammatory". Furthermore, most Express content is inaccessible online, and this month’s headline was far more likely to grab readers’ attention – "We owe Arabs nothing" – than last year’s "Us, loathsome? Shame on them." Besides, is it any better to attack a group of countries wholesale rather than their people?

His tendency for controversy is nothing new. In 1992 he described Ireland as "a country peopled by peasants, priests and pixies." In 1995, in response to a complaint by the Islamic Party of Britain against the columnist, the then editor of the Daily Express told Q News: "I can see that this kind of generalisation is too sweeping and I don’t think too fair on any group of people."

He has yet to apologise for any of these incidents. He "accepted" that his anti-Irish comments were "both offensive and unjustified", and he "regrets" the "considerable offence" caused in this latest episode, but these are cleverly spun words that fall short of an apology.

He claims "a right, indeed a duty, to point out injustices wherever they occur in the world, Western countries or otherwise." But he has been consistently silent about injustices in occupied Arab lands such as Iraq, Palestine and Syria’s Golan Heights.

He condemns the BBC’s suspension of his show, but admits: "I understand this has not come at a very good time for the BBC. It is under an enormous amount of political pressure and things are very difficult for it. If I was in its shoes this is the last thing I would want. I’d be saying, ‘What a bloody pratt. We need Kilroy doing this like a hole in the head’."

The Sunday Express apologises for "any offence caused", not for Kilroy-Silk’s comments. It adds that "it was never the meaning or intention of the piece" to be a racial attack, but refers to the "legitimate disgust" of "Muslims, Arabs and others…at Kilroy’s column…" It claims "to reflect…legitimate concerns…in a manner that is fair, just and unclouded by prejudice and bigotry," yet devotes almost six times more space to defending their columnist than those who were offended by him.

The newspaper says it "has a duty to uphold… the responsibilities that come with" free speech, and claims to "exercise restraint in the language we use to our express our opinions", but admits that "we should have advised Robert to make it clearer that he was making a political –” and not a racial –” point."

Furthermore, it completely misrepresents Kilroy-Silk’s row with the BBC, claiming that Britain is "firmly backing" him and that he was suspended "for lambasting Arab governments" and after he "drew attention to the amputations, repression of women and suicide bombings common in some Middle Eastern states."

Criticisms aimed at Kilroy-Silk are far from a defense of such policies. Arabs and Muslims worldwide would like nothing more than their human rights respected and voices heard. But for him to claim to speak on our behalf defies his actions and opinions, past and present.

That his future is unlikely to be any different means that he should be dismissed by the BBC and the Express and his show axed. Anything less would send a dangerous message that prejudice is tolerated or even condoned in a country that prides itself on equality and respect for all. This is a slippery slope that everyone has an interest in avoiding.

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