Thursday, 24 March 2016

"Explain Brussels" Tweeter Arrested

Update 2: This could be the tweet that got him arrested. [Language warning re: replies.] Yes, that does indeed look like incitement.  It also suggests his interlocutor had reason to be afraid of him. So much for my carefully considered freedom-of-speech post. Well, here it is anyway:


Matthew Doyle of Croydon was so furious about the Islamist terrorist bombings in Brussels that he asked a passing woman in Muslim dress to "Explain Brussels."

"Nothing to do with me," said the woman.

"A mealy-mouthed reply" tweeted Doyle, and the Twitterati had hours of fun mocking him.  That's how Twitter rolls. That's also how free speech rolls. You say what you think, and then people cheer, blow raspberries or ignore you.

However, Doyle has now been arrested for "inciting racial hatred"--and the fun is over.

First, as we all should know by now, "Muslim" is not a race. It is either a religion, a political ideology (for many Muslims deny that Islamists are Muslims at all), or a mix of the two. If a white Scottish woman submits to Islam, marries a Muslim and dons a hijab (or not), she hasn't changed race.

Second, it is not a crime in the UK for men to ask strangers their political opinions and then diss them afterwards. On the face of it, that woman--presumably British, whatever her ethnic origins--gave a reasonable answer. An indignant man asked her a question, she perceived at once that her clothing had attracted his attention, and she defended herself. Personally, I would have gone with "I can't explain it. Isn't it awful?" but then I more-or-less dress to blend in. If my mother, who still wears a Canadian flag pin when she travels, is asked by an indignant Scottish stranger to "Explain the abuse of First Nations children in residential schools", I hope that's what she says.

Doyle has argued that the woman, by wearing Islamic clothes, was "wearing a flag" --presumably he means that she should be expected to account for the political ideology that led to the bombings. And this is where things get tough because he may have a point.

Not all Muslim women find it necessary to wear the hijab, the abaya (long cover-all coat) or, obviously, face veils. Millions of Pakistani women, for example, just wear Pakistani clothing. Thousands of Muslim women in Canada wear western clothes, and it is perfectly possible to dress modestly in western clothing. It is admittedly difficult to hide your hair in contemporary fashions, if you want to, but a few hairpins and a big knitted cap should do it. Wearing uniquely "Islamic" clothing seems to go beyond mere social and religious strictures about modesty into the political realm--as does my mother's Canadian flag pin.*

What about the habits of Catholic religious and priests then? Certainly their distinct dress--deemed optional by many religious and priests--makes them stand out, and a collar-wearing priest at my theology school--a wonderful professor I admire very much--was apparently spat on by a Canadian angry about clerical sexual abuse of minors. That behaviour strikes me as much worse--and of a completely different order--than "Explain Mount Cashel!"--a challenge to which my professor could have said "I can't. It's terrible. I went to a junior seminary; I could have been one of those boys."  On the other hand, he could have actually explained, saying "Lack of oversight, tribalism and a terrible culture of abuse among the Christian Brothers." However, when dealing with an emotional person, "I can't, it's terrible, it could have been me" gets top prize.

"Nothing to do with me", although technically true, would not stand a Catholic priest or nun in good stead when angry strangers ask about abusive priests and nuns.

"Nothing to do with me" would probably not stand me in good stead either, if I was asked about Catholic clerical abuse. As a matter of fact, it is something to do with me and every Catholic my age from a church-going family--we were all potential victims. The lady in Croyden lives in Europe, so--come to think of it--she herself is a potential victim of Islamist terrorism.

In fact, although I wouldn't call it mealy-mouthed, that lady did give an unsatisfactory answer. On the one hand, perhaps she was scared. (I wouldn't like a big guy challenge me on the street, either.) On the other hand, she missed an opportunity to show that Muslim Britons care just as much, and are just as frightened, as anyone else about Islamist terrorism. She wasn't a child or a vulnerable adult. If a Catholic man in extraordinary "Catholic dress" is expected to give an account for the behaviour of other men who wear such dress, then surely a Muslim woman who wears extraordinary "Muslim dress" should at least be able to commiserate with a fellow Briton about the violence of men who lay claim to the religious ideology her clothing expresses. Still--freedom of speech. She can say what she likes and get cheered or booed or ignored like everyone else.

Frankly, I believed that Doyle was out of order--surely many people are tempted to demand answers from anyone in Islamic dress after an Islamist outrage but contain themselves--until he was arrested. Now I think--hold on a moment.  Are we no longer allowed to express our disappointment when we dislike our neighbours' political opinions? For, when we are talking about Europeans' fear of Islamist terrorist attacks, saying "Nothing to do with me" does have political implications. Whereas a drubbing on Twitter is the price of Tweeting, it's outrageous that Matthew Doyle was arrested.

Update: More on Matthew Doyle. (,<-Language warning--Twitter is a sewage dump.) If he really did tweet the "towelhead" tweet, than he is certainly a jerk. I'm not interested in rehabilitating his character. My sole interests here are the freedom to elicit and express political opinions and solidarity with those protesting violence and abuse.

See Update 2 (above.)

Update 3: After thinking about it off and on all day, I'm sorry I wrote this post. After reading Doyle's whole Twitter thread, it was just too clear that he was not interested in any kind of neighbourly dialogue but scapegoating, plain and simple. Freedom of speech and the question of collective responsibility (who for what, who for when, who for who) are important issues, but Doyle's opinions didn't deserve my attention. Inciting followers to attack members of a religious minority was indefensible and disgusting.

*The ubiquitous Canadian flag pin or badge on the clothing or baggage of Canadians is an attempt to profit from Canada's relatively good reputation in the world while avoiding the drawbacks of being mistaken for an American or some other national the Canadian resembles. It is also a way to meet conversation-starved Canucks on the road; a homesick Quebecois all but fell into my arms on a trip to Germany.


  1. I'm so happy you're cheating and writing in the first person again Seraphic. You sound like you again, you were missed. I like the politics posts.


  2. Thanks, Sinéad! But is it or isn't it problematic when so many women columnists use "I" all the time? Of course, I guess a lot of men do too....