Should we ban the ISIS flag?

While it’s perhaps unfair to compare British apples with Swedish oranges, it’s interesting to note that while in the United Kingdom waving a banner with a slogan “F*** ISIS”, and wearing a t-shirt with a picture of a man urinating on an ISIS flag amounts to “inciting racial hatred” against Muslims, a Swedish prosecutor just decided that the ISIS flag itself does not constitute hate speech and is therefore legal:

Prosecutor Gisela Sjövall announced last week that she would not prosecute a 23-year-old man who had posted the black ISIS flag on his Facebook page in June.

Police in Laholm, a town on Sweden’s west coast, had launched a criminal investigation into the man, who comes originally from Syria, on suspicion of committing “hate speech”.

“Put simply, one can say that he is expressing contempt for “all others”, and not against a specific ethnic group,” Sjövall told Sweden’s SVT broadcaster.

She said that while the swastika had now come to symbolise a hatred for Jews, the same could not yet be said of the IS flag.

“Up until now, we haven’t come to that point,” she told the local Hallandsposten newspaper. “That could change in ten years.”

All interesting arguments, if very debatable. I confess I have ambiguous feelings regarding banning things, including flags (as well as banning doing things to flags, like burning), but I often find my libertarianism here severely tested. This is in part because the attitudes to flags are so inconsistent in every respect.

Take the Nazi swastika flag. Ms Sjovall says that it’s bad and eminently ban-able, because it symbolises “a hatred for Jews”. And that it does, but one could also add that it symbolises hatred for the Slavs, who were considered sub-human only one rung up from the Jews, as well as for other groups in society: democrats, liberals, leftists, trade unionists, Gypsies, the handicapped, homosexuals and many others. Plenty of hate to go around. As a Pole, I find swastika offensive, but I’m not sure whether it should be banned.

Contrast this with the Soviet or Chinese red flags. Significantly larger numbers of people were murdered and mistreated under these flags, and to me they clearly represent hatred for anyone who is not a working class communist, including the rich, the middle classes, the intelligencia, religious people, and various restless ethnic groups not sufficiently enthusiastic about the Russian and Chinese imperialisms. Communist dictatorships were as evil as the Nazi one, but no one would dream of banning the red flags. This is partly because the Soviets and the Chinese emerged as victors from the Second World War and Germany did not, and so the Soviet flag continued to be in use until 1991 and the Chinese one still is, and partly because the vast political-intellectual-entertainment leftist complex in the West simply does not consider socialism to be anywhere near as bad as fascism. This is why red flags are still often seen while swastikas are not, the communist chic comes and goes while the Nazi one never arrives, and young people wear Che Guevara t-shirts but not Reinhard Heydrich ones.

And now the ISIS flag. I don’t think it’s correct to say, as Madam Prosecutor does, that it merely expresses a generalised hatred for “all others” and not against any specific groups, and therefore is not an example of hate speech (and why should hatred for all be OK, but hatred for some not?). It’s pretty clear to everyone who knows anything about ISIS, Islamism, and the Middle East, that ISIS flag represents hatred of groups as diverse as Christians, Jews, Shia Muslims, moderate Sunni Muslims and various other religious sects like the Yazidis, as well as Americans and other Westerners, democrats, liberals, leftists, homosexuals, feminists, and so on. It’s not very different to a Nazi flag in that regard, hence the popular term Islamo-fascism.

Unmentioned by the Swedes, but also mired in controversy is the Confederate “stars and bars” flag. Some want it banned for its association with the cause of slavery. Others see it as a simple national flag – however brief and incomplete a nation – and part of their historical heritage. Because of the First Amendment it will not be banned, though it seems that its use in official iconography will diminish over time.

No one bans communist flags, many countries ban Nazi flags (Germany, of course, but not the United States, with its strong First Amendment tradition), a few countries ban ISIS flag (the Netherlands banned it at public rallies; Germany banned it altogether).

If you are a libertarian and a free speech absolutist you should believe that no flags or symbols should ever be banned by the state. If you are sincere about hate speech you should believe that all the totalitarian flags – Nazi, communist, ISIS – should be banned. What we have instead is a weird mish-mash of attitudes and approaches. I, for one, would welcome some consistency.