I have just returned from the Jaipur Literary Festival, infamous for the recent reprise of the 1989 threats against Sir Salman Rushdie by Muslims the world over, lamentably applauded by leading churchmen, politicians, historians and otherwise liberal journalists. Coincidentally, I am reading You Can’t Read this Book, Nick Cohen’s brilliant broadside against ‘censorship in an age of freedom’.
Censorship and freedom of speech, then, are much in my mind this week. Cohen’s book, I should say, includes other aspects of censorship and intimidation which I shall not discuss here, including the tacit censorship imposed by the charter for libel tourism which is the current Law of England, and the intimidation of bank employees by dictatorial bosses like the odious “Fred the Shred” (today deprived of his knighthood, and if we must have scapegoats it couldn’t have happened to a nastier man).
At the Jaipur festival, in defiance of intimidation from the civil government, three courageous Indian writers began their literary presentations by publicly reading from The Satanic Verses. I chose to support Rushdie in a different way, by reading from my own ‘Words for Rushdie’, published in New Statesman at the time of the original fatwa – for that magazine was an honourable exception to the widespread fashion to blame the victim rather than the Muslim perpetrators of the outrage.
The organizers of the festival were placed in an impossibly difficult position. Let down as they were by the spineless Rajasthan government, who had eyes only for the Muslim vote in the current elections, they did their best. They were personally threatened by a baying mob of bearded youths who invaded the festival compound promising murder and mayhem if Rushdie was allowed so much as a video link (as Germaine Greer said at the time of the Danish cartoons row, “What these people really love and do best is pandemonium”).
In my speech I compared the Muslim fatwa-mongers to the Papal Nuncio who, in 1580, encouraged Englishmen to murder Queen Elizabeth because she was “the cause of so much injury to the Catholic faith . . .” I went on to say:
‘Our whole society is soft on religion. The assumption is remarkably widespread that religious sensitivities are somehow especially deserving of consideration – a consideration not accorded to ordinary prejudice. . . I admit to being offended by Father Christmas, ‘Baby Jesus’, and Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer, but if I tried to act on these prejudices I’d quite rightly be held accountable. I’d be challenged to justify myself. But let somebody’s *religion* be offended and it’s another matter entirely. Not only do the affronted themselves kick up an almighty fuss; they are abetted and encouraged by influential figures from other religions and the liberal establishment. Far from being challenged to justify their beliefs like anybody else, the religious are granted sanctuary in a sort of intellectual no go area.’
Here are two possible reasons one might offer for kowtowing to a violent threat such as was visited on the Jaipur Literary Festival last week.
I shall give in to your demands to suppress freedom of speech, purely because I fear your threats. But don’t for one nanosecond confuse fear with respect. I do not respect you, I despise you and everything you stand for – especially given that your faith is apparently so weak in argument that it requires violent threats to shore it up.
It seems to me that there is nothing reprehensible in such a response. It is not cowardly, simply prudent, and Nick Cohen praises Grayson Perry for using a milder version of it. But the same cannot be said of the following:
I shall give in to you because I know that freedom of speech is not part of your culture. Who am I to impose Western, colonialist, paternalistic ideas like freedom of speech on your very different and equally valuable culture? Of course your ‘hurt’ and ‘offence’ should take precedence over our purely Western preoccupation with freedom of speech, and of course we’ll cancel the video link.
Nobody would express this patronising thought in quite such brazenly explicit terms, but I have concluded that it is the subtext of a great deal of the woolly, liberal accommodationism that we saw at the time of the fatwa and the Bradford burning of the books, as well as during the Danish cartoon affair. The closest approach to it that I know was the German judge who, in 2007, denied the divorce application of a Moroccan-born woman on the grounds that the Koran permits husbands to beat their wives.
Nick Cohen quotes Robert Hughes on the hypocritical double standard of liberal academics:
‘On American campuses, they held that if a man so much as looked around with a lustful eye, or called a young female a ‘girl’ instead of a ‘woman’, he was guilty of gross sexual impropriety. Yet abroad it was “more or less OK for a cabal of regressive theocratic bigots to insist on the chador, to cut off thieves’ hands and put out the eyes of offenders on TV, and to murder novelists as state policy. Oppression is what we do in the West. What they do in the Middle East is ‘their culture’. Leftists could not make a stand, because to their minds defending Rushdie would at some level mean giving aid and comfort to racists and strengthening the hand of the one enemy they could admit to having: the imperialist warmongers in Washington, DC.’
Cohen berates a similar hypocrisy in the treatment of the Somali-born hero Ayaan Hirsi Ali in the Netherlands, when her life was hideously threatened in a letter skewered to the murdered body of Theo van Gogh by the butcher’s knife with which his throat had been cut. The two of them had collaborated on making a remarkably gentle and understated ten-minute film about three quietly suffering Muslim women. That was the ‘offence’, the ‘hurt’ to Islamic sensitivities for which van Gogh was slaughtered and Ayaan threatened. Cohen’s point is that the liberal intellectuals who should have been her natural allies deserted her just when she needed them most. She was forced to flee the Netherlands, where she was a Member of Parliament, and took refuge in the USA, offered sanctuary by an American political institution that was far from her natural political home.
Ayaan was shabbily treated even by her neighbours, who feared that they might be collateral damage if her apartment was attacked. Worse, a Dutch court ruled that the placing of Ayaan in a new place of safety was “a breach of her new neighbours’ human rights.” And Nick Cohen quotes a chilling example of the same kind of thing in England. Peter Mayer was Salman Rushdie’s courageous publisher at Penguin Books, and he received many death threats, including one scrawled in blood. An anonymous telephone call told Mayer that “not only would they kill me but they would take my daughter and smash her head against a concrete wall.” Cohen takes up the story:
‘Far from rallying to defend an innocent girl and her innocent father, the parents of her classmates demanded that the school expel her. What would happen, they asked, if the Iranian assassins went to the school and got the wrong girl? And Mayer thought, “You think my daughter is the right girl?” The same cowardice greeted him when he applied for a co-op apartment in New York. “There were objections that the Iranians could send a hit squad and target the wrong apartment. As if I had done something wrong.”
‘Mayer spoke truer than he knew. After Rushdie, the fear of a knife in the ribs or a bomb at the office meant that liberals who stuck by liberalism were in the wrong. They knew the consequences now. If someone killed them, they were guilty of provoking their own murder. In the eyes of most politicians and most of the journalists, broadcasters, academics and intellectuals whose livelihoods depended on the freedom to debate and criticise, the targets of religious violence had no one to blame but themselves.’
Elsewhere in his book, Cohen discusses bien-pensant responses to the so-called ‘new atheists’ in similar terms.
‘The new atheists thought that the best argument against Islamist terror, or Christian fundamentalism, or Hindu or Jewish nationalism, was to say bluntly that there is no God, and we should grow up. Fear of religious violence also drove the backlash against atheism from those who felt that appeasement of psychopathic believers was the safest policy; that if we were nice to them, perhaps they would calm down. Prim mainstream commentators decried the insensitivity and downright rudeness with which the new atheists treated the religious. The complaints boiled down to a simple and piteous cry: “Why can’t you stop upsetting them?”
You cannot if, like Ayaan Hirsi Ali you are confronting clerical oppression’
Cohen is rightly sympathetic to the plight of moderate Muslims caught between their own murderous co-religionists on the one hand, and the racist bigots of the white right. He takes ironic comfort from the fact that only one third of young British Muslims between sixteen and twenty-four support the execution of apostates. Only!
When I publicly tackled Sir Iqbal Sacranie, Britain’s leading ‘moderate’ Muslim, on this very question, he repeatedly evaded it before finally conceding that death is indeed the prescribed punishment for apostasy but pleaded that “it is very seldom enforced.” So that’s all right then. Roll on the (‘inevitable’ according to the Archbishop of Canterbury) Sharia Law. Sir Iqbal who, by the way, was knighted for services to ‘community relations’, said of Salman Rushdie, at the time of the fatwa, “Death is perhaps too easy for him.”
Oh but of course, we mustn’t be shocked, it’s their culture and we must respect it.
By RICHARD DAWKINS – RD.NET
Updated: Wednesday, 01 February 2012 at 8:19 PM – An RDFRS Original