On the 11th of March, 2009 I was very frustrated. The 2nd battalion, The Royal Anglian Regiment had just returned home to a welcoming hero’s parade through the streets of Luton. All along the roads that the brave soldiers marched down, locals lined the pavements, applauding and shouting praise and welcome. It was a sight that awoke sentiments of pride and gratitude from most who were there, or who watched footage of the event on the local and national news. The country appeared to be proving what many had denied; that the British, whatever their opinion on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, were at the very least, fully behind the troops that fought. However, in one corner there were different chants. A number of Islamists shouted that; far from being heroes, the soldiers, sailors and airmen of the British forces were in fact murders and sadists! The returning troops were greeted on this stretch of road by vicious verbal attacks contradicting any words of support from other locals.
Watching this, I was at first very angry: This surely was freedom of speech, at its limits. Why had no one stopped them? Why were these men and women, in this corner of Luton, allowed to berate British servicemen only recently home from possibly the hardest service of their lives? Why were the police of all people, protecting them!?
On the other side of Britain, I again raised an eyebrow at a different slight. Channel 4 was airing a comedy show that took the usual, and now almost cliché punches at Catholicism. Yet this one in particular, seemed to go too far. A comedian stepped up and proclaimed that his own homosexuality had begun with his going to church? He stated unashamedly that having gone to mass every Sunday, he had seen ‘Jesus nailed to a cross, half naked’ and that all he could think, throughout the service was; “fit”! Surely this was freedom of speech, allowed to step too far. I, like many Catholics and much like many religious people of any denomination who find their beliefs used as the butt of corny and uninspired jokes was at first horrified.
Yet in both instances, it is important to view the wider picture. It is vital that we in Britain do not instantly see red when freedom to speak your mind, and chant your beliefs offends others. Instead we should be proud. We should be damn proud that those opposed to the wars in the Middle East are able to say so. We should be proud that those few men and women in Luton were able to recite their objection and their opinions. We should be proud that our police force surrounded this small group, not intent on silencing them, but instead intent on protecting them and their ‘voice.’
So too should we puff out our chests in the knowledge that anyone can criticise and belittle others beliefs. However much I disliked it, thought it distasteful and generally disagreed, I was still proud that in Britain, these things could be said. In Britain, women can chain themselves to fences to bring awareness to their inequality. Followers of Islam can protest, noisily about their opposition to the Middle Eastern wars; and Catholics, Jews, Protestants, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and even Jedi s can stand up, and feel free to state their opinions to the world, from a safe haven. Here, is a nation confident enough to allow her subjects to criticise and belittle her, and free enough to support them. Here is a ‘great’ Britain that outshines many countries; that does not impede on dress, beliefs or opinions, and for that I am very proud.