March 21, 2013 § 4 Comments
I have just taken part in an exchange of letters with Nada Shabout, director of the Contemporary Arab and Muslim Cultural Studies at the University of North Texas, which focused on the question: ‘Should religious or cultural sensibilities ever limit free speech?’ These first four letters are published in the latest edition of Index on Censorship magazine. There was no room to take the debate further in print, but we are continuing the discussion. The new exchanges will be published on the Index website, and also here.
I regard free speech as a fundamental good, the fullest extension of which is necessary for democratic life and for the development of other liberties. Others view speech as a luxury rather than as a necessity, or at least as merely one right among others, and not a particularly important one. Speech from this perspective needs to be restrained not as an exception but as the norm.
The answer to whether religious and cultural sensibilities should ever limit free expression depends in large part upon which of these ways we think of free speech. For those, like me, who look upon free speech as a fundamental good, no degree of cultural or religious discomfort can be reason for censorship. There is no free speech without the ability to offend religious and cultural sensibilities. For those for whom free speech is more a luxury than a necessity, censorship is a vital tool in maintaining social peace and order. « Read the rest of this entry »
January 30, 2013 § 24 Comments
How should we respond to the controversy over the Gerald Scarfe cartoon? Last Sunday – Holocaust Memorial Day – the Sunday Times published a cartoon by Scarfe, its regular cartoonist, depicting the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu building a wall with blood-red coloured cement, in which were trapped Palestinians.
The cartoon instantly created international outrage. The Board of Deputies of British Jews, which has complained to the Press Complaints Commission, denounced the cartoon as ‘shockingly reminiscent of the blood libel imagery more usually found in parts of the virulently anti-semitic Arab press’. It was ‘all the more disgusting’ for being published on Holocaust memorial day, ‘given the similar tropes levelled against Jews by the Nazis’. Israel’s ambassador to Britain, Daniel Taub, similarly condemned ‘The use of vicious motifs echoing those used to demonise Jews in the past’. The ‘crude and shallow hatred of this cartoon’ made it ‘totally unacceptable on any day of the year’ and ‘particularly shocking and hurtful on international Holocaust remembrance day’. In Jerusalem, the Speaker of the Knesset, Reuven Rivlin, wrote a letter Monday to his British counterpart, John Bercow, expressing the Israeli people’s ‘extreme outrage’ at the cartoon. He was ‘shocked that such cartoons can be published in such a respectable newspaper in the Great Britain of today, fearing that such an event is testimony to sick undercurrents in British society’. It ‘blatantly crossed the line of freedom of expression’. ‘We will think about how to act against the paper’s representative here in Israel’, warned Yuli Edelstein, Israel’s Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Minister. « Read the rest of this entry »
September 14, 2012 § 11 Comments
One thing should be clear. The violence across the Muslim world in response to an American anti-Islamic film has nothing to do with that film. Yes, The Innocence of Muslims is a risibly crude diatribe against Islam. But this obscure film that barely anyone had seen till last week is no more the source of the current violence than God is the source of the Qur’an.
The details of the rioting in Benghazi that killed the US ambassador and sparked the current crisis still remain unclear. What is clear, however, is that the violence is being driven less by religious fury than by political calculation. In Libya, Egypt and elsewhere, the crisis is being fostered by hardline Islamists in an attempt to seize the political initiative in a period of transition and turmoil. The film is almost incidental to this process. The real struggle is not between Muslims and non-Muslims, but between different shades of Islamists, between hardline factions and more mainstream ones. The insurrections that transformed much the Arab world over the past year have created a new terrain for the battle between Muslim factions for political supremacy. But the struggle itself is nothing new. The same tensions fuelled the confrontations over The Satanic Verses and the Danish cartoons. I have long argued that both were primarily political rather than religious conflicts. I am publishing here two edited extracts from my book From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and its Legacy which describes the development of both conflicts. « Read the rest of this entry »
June 24, 2012 § 1 Comment
My Milton K Wong lecture, ‘What’s wrong with multiculturalism?’, that I gave in Vancouver earlier this month, was broadcast on CBC on Friday. I have already posted the transcript of the talk, in two parts, here and here. (The broadcast has been slightly edited to fit the CBC schedule; the transcript is in full.) There is a Milton K Wong website dedicated to discussion and debate around the themes of the talk.
June 7, 2012 § 6 Comments
This is the second part of the transcript of my Milton K Wong lecture that I delivered in Vancouver last week. I posted the first part earlier this week. The talk will be broadcast in full on 22 June on the CBC’s Ideas strand.
The story I have told so far is of a Europe that is not as plural as many imagine it to be, and of immigrants less assertive of their cultural identities than they are claimed to be. Multicultural policies emerged not because migrants demanded them, but primarily because the political elite needed them to manage immigration and to assuage anger created by racism.
Why, then, have we come to imagine that we are living in particularly plural societies, in which our cultural identities are all-important? The answer lies in a complex set of social, political and economic changes over the past half century, changes that include the narrowing of the political sphere, the collapse of the left, the demise of class politics, the erosion of more universalist visions of social change. Many of these changes helped pave the way for multicultural policies. At the same time, the implementation of such policies helped create a more fragmented society. Or, to put it another way, multicultural policies have helped create the very problems they were meant to have resolved. I want to demonstrate this through two examples. The first is a riot in Britain, of which you may not have heard, the second a cartoon crisis in Denmark, about which everyone has heard. « Read the rest of this entry »
April 2, 2012 § 18 Comments
‘I have definitely become a free speech fundamentalist,’ says Flemming Rose. Perhaps that should not be surprising. It was, after all, Rose who, as culture editor of the newspaper Jyllands-Posten, helped launch the Danish cartoon controversy in 2005. He had picked up on a story about the difficulties that children’s author Kåre Bluitgen had faced in finding an illustrator for a book he was writing on Islam. Every illustrator that Bluitgen had contacted had been worried that he would end up like Theo van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker ritually murdered on the streets of Amsterdam by a Muslim incensed by his anti-Islamic films. Rose wanted, he said, to see ‘how deep this self-censorship lies in the Danish public’. So he set a challenge to Danish cartoonists: draw a caricature of the Prophet Mohammed and we will publish a selection in Jyllands-Posten.
Rose approached 42 cartoonists, 12 of whom accepted the challenge. Their caricatures, including Kurt Westergaard’s infamous image of the prophet wearing a turban in the form of a bomb, were published in Jyllands-Posten on 30 September 2005. ‘The modern secular society,’ Rose wrote in a commentary, ‘is rejected by some Muslims. They demand a special position, insisting on special consideration of their own religious feelings. It is incompatible with contemporary democracy and freedom of speech, where you must be ready to put up with insults, mockery and ridicule.’
To Rose’s critics, the very act of publishing the cartoons, and of provoking Muslims into a response, was irresponsible, even racist, particularly against the background of Denmark’s growing hostility to immigrants, especially Muslim immigrants, and even more so given Jyllands-Posten’s role in feeding such hostility. In the eyes of his critics, Rose has always been a ‘free speech fundamentalist’, and not in a good way. « Read the rest of this entry »
March 18, 2012 § 6 Comments
Actually, I seem to have been talking about this for much of the past two decades; ‘this’ being free speech, multiculturalism, Islam, Islamism, the issues at the heart of DV8’s extraordinary new show Can We Talk About This? now playing at London’s National Theatre. Lloyd Newsom’s company has, for more than quarter of a century, blurred the lines between dance and theatre as a way of, in the company’s own words, ‘reinvesting dance with meaning, particularly where this has been lost through formalised techniques’. It has always tackled controversial and difficult subjects, but the latest is likely to be the most challenging yet.
I was one of a host of people whom Lloyd Newsom interviewed in preparation for the show. I finally got to see the finished product on Friday. It was a strange experience having my words spoken back to me from the stage. The whole show is stitched together through other people’s voices, voices taken from those various interviews, and from interviews and debates on TV and on stage, including a spat between Shirley Williams and Christopher Hitchens on BBC’s Question Time and Jeremy Paxman mediating between Anjem Choudhury and Maajid Nawaz on Newsnight. You experience it in the audience as a tapestry of ideas, always moving and whirling like a dancer’s ribbon, but which builds up thread by thread, layer by layer, into a tightly woven, almost inescapable, argument. The voices are not recordings; every word comes out of the mouths of the dancers, which adds to the sense of perpetual motion. Their ability to dance and talk at the same time still leaves me breathless and bewildered.
The show opens, as most of those in the audience must have known, with a cast member demanding of the spectators ‘Do you feel morally superior to the Taliban?’ It’s a nod to Martin Amis who asked that same question to a hostile audience in a notorious debate at London’s ICA, back in 2007. It is hardly the most sophisticated of questions. Yet its very unsophistication reveals so starkly the spectre haunting the liberal moral swamp. Had the audience been asked ‘Do you feel morally superior to the BNP?’, or even ‘Do you feel morally superior to David Cameron?’, I have no doubt that a forest of hands would have been raised. As it happened only a handful were willing to admit that their values might have been a mite more elevated that those of the Taliban. « Read the rest of this entry »