Pussy Riot are mere magnets for West's hypocrisy

 

OPINION:PUSSY RIOT have provoked an outpouring of hypocrisy across the western world. The very media outlets that praise the band loudest are studiously careful to censor certain facts about their newly anointed heroes for free speech.

For example, few report that previous protests by members of the group include staging an orgy in a Moscow museum and publicly masturbating with a chicken leg in a supermarket. Nor are the lyrics of their songs – deeply offensive to many Christians – usually printed.

Instead, we are presented with an airbrushed picture of pretty, idealistic heroines making a brave stand against tyranny. The truth is more complex than this.

“Freedom of speech” has been on the outraged lips of legions of western celebrities since three members of Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in jail for hooliganism last week.

But just how committed are the western chattering classes to freedom of speech?

Imagine if four white men from an English punk band called “Mickey Riot”, with strong links to the English Defence League, gatecrashed Friday prayers in the East London Mosque.

They push aside the imam, make offensive gestures at those present, mock Islamic religious beliefs and perform a bad punk song that is grossly offensive to Muslims everywhere.

Would Amnesty, Madonna, Bjork, Alicia Silverstone and their ilk be queuing up to lend their support during the band’s subsequent trial for incitement to religious hatred?

Or how about if four men from a radically conservative Russian religious group disrupted a feminist conference in Moscow, barging on stage, shouting and mocking the deeply held feminist beliefs of the women present.

Before security can intervene, they perform a brief pro-Putin polka, with lyrics that are crude and derogatory to women. The police prosecute the protesters for hooliganism and they are sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. Would Amnesty International weep at the injustice? Would celebrities line up to decry this violation of freedom of speech?

We know the answer. In both these scenarios, Amnesty and Madonna would probably applaud the police and public prosecutors for taking such robust action against hate speech. Two years of imprisonment, they might argue, is somewhat harsh – but an appropriate deterrent.

Therein lies the hypocrisy of the West’s self-appointed advocates of free speech. They discriminate on the basis of gender, race, religion, ethnicity and political ideology.

Change the gender and the politics of the protesters and you get a completely different result. The western bien pensant’s belief in freedom of speech extends only to those they agree with.

Pussy Riot are hardly poster girls for serious political protest. Their behaviour would likely get them arrested even in London, Stockholm or Amsterdam.

Do they really deserve to be suddenly elevated to the status of political martyrs for freedom and democracy, alongside Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King?

The Australian government has a useful document offering advice on the conduct of protests. It says “conducting a protest . . . is accepted as a right provided it is conducted peacefully and does not impinge on the rights of others”.

Surely, people of all faiths should be entitled to gather peacefully in their places of worship? This human right is, after all, guaranteed by article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Putin regime is undoubtedly reprehensible, and the Orthodox Church is disturbingly closely allied with it. However, it is possible to protest against these associations without disturbing ordinary Russian people in their place of worship.

Pussy Riot shouldn’t have been jailed for their antics. I sincerely hope they are released. However, their western supporters should ask themselves whether they truly believe in freedom of speech, or just in a shallow version of it that can be defined as: “I will defend your right to say something, provided that I agree with you.”

For that is also Vladimir Putin’s definition of freedom of speech.

While the West fawns over Pussy Riot, it largely ignores the tens of thousands of ordinary unglamorous Russians who have protested in recent years – without invading churches or insulting people’s religion.

These vastly more important protest movements have been sidelined by a western media drawn inexorably to pretty faces and celebrity-led news. The end result is that we are given a distorted picture of the tragic demise of Russian democracy.


Rory Fitzgerald is a journalist and lawyer. roryfitzgerald.com

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