|Murphy riots in City Park Street, Birmingham, 1867|
I was struck by the similarities between the Murphy riots in Britain in the 1860s and the recent Dieudonné affair in France – a rather small-scale repeat and in a different context, but with still much in common:
1. Murphy was an obsessive anti-Catholic paranoid (“every Popish priest is a murderer, a cannibal, a liar, and a pickpocket”). Dieudonné is an obsessive anti-Semitic paranoid (“les gros escrocs de la planète sont tous des juifs” – “the big crooks in the world are all Jews”).
2. Murphy’s lectures in the North of England gathered impressive numbers of sympathisers. So do Dieudonné’s shows in his Paris theatre and throughout the country.
3. Murphy presented himself as a champion of free speech, and so does Dieudonné. The protestant Evangelical Mission (a strongly anti-Catholic organisation) said in Murphy’s defence: “Englishmen are being deprived by a Military Despotism at the dictation of ROMISH PRIESTS.” And Riposte Laïque (a far-right organization): “Le pouvoir se sert de Dieudonné pour interdire la liberté d’expression” – “the government uses Dieudonné to ban free speech.”
4. The then Home Secretary personally intervened against Murphy, saying “his words [were] only fit to be addressed to thieves and murderers”. The French Home Secretary condemned “Dieudonné’s racist and anti-Semitic words most firmly,” and won the legal battle to ban his most controversial show.
Fortunately, nothing like the Murphy riots happened, and only minor incidents have been reported here and there. But the question posed by Murphy’s lectures and by Dieudonnés shows is obviously the challenge they present to political liberalism: should we or should we not allow total freedom of speech? Where should we draw the line between free speech and incitation to violence and hatred? Your reactions are most welcome.