Friday, February 15, 2008

The beginning

From James Forsyth in The Spectator.

Today is the 18th anniversary of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declaring a Fatwa on Salman Rushdie for writing the Satanic Verses. It was a wake up call to the coming challenge to the freedoms of a liberal society but one that we failed to heed.

The Rushdie affair demonstrated the spinelessness of the British political class in the face of Islamic extremism. The Crown Prosecution Service refused to prosecute those who openly called for Rushdie’s death. The Islamist Kalim Siddiqui amazingly got away with telling a public meeting, “I would like every Muslim to raise his hand in agreement with the death sentence on Salman Rushdie. Let the world see that every Muslim agrees that this man should be put away.”

Both Labour and Tory politicians embarrassed themselves and failed to grasp how essential it was to protect the right to free expression. The Labour deputy leader called for the paperback edition not to be published and some backbench Tories whinged about how much Rushdie’s protection cost. Indeed, Rushdie ended up being pressured into contributing to his own security costs. All in all, a shameful episode.
The first of many to come, all with the same message, "Try it on. We'll just fold and probably apologise as well".


Riri said...

Haha! No! You can't be serious! I don't get it, why would they do such a thing? I don't buy the idea that they're scared of the Islamists, there must be a good political reason. Didn't Rushdie eventually have to flee to the US?

NoolaBeulah said...

The problem is not so much the Islamists, who can offer very little to anyone save the illusion that time can be stopped. The problem is with a large swathe of the intellectual and political elite of Western societies. Some of them have linked to the Islamists for the simple reason that they anti-American and anti-Western. The far greater number have swallowed so deeply the notion of Western guilt that they are incapable of standing up for the very principles that allow them to work, think and write.

The Rushdie case showed this clearly; the cartoon farce showed it again. Every newspaper in the Western world should have reprinted those cartoons the moment (months after their initial publication) the Danish flags started burning. The fact that they didn't was an implicit encouragement to use the same tactics again.

For people who lack conviction, those that have little else are terrifying.

Hazar Nesimi said...

Has anyone of you actually read the book. I did, or rather half did. Despite my dislike for Rushdie as personality the book is half-incomprehensible and half mystically provoking. Why Khomeini chose him as the target I can not comprehend.

Riri said...

I am not reprinting the cartoons would have been the right thing to do. Not because I think the reaction of some Muslims was justified, but simply because I don't think all newspaper editors would have necessarily thought the cartoons worth republishing. Especially for the purpose of "showing" the over-reactionary Muslims that their flag burning is not intimidating or effective as a way of protest.

Reprinting them would have meant joining in the childish game of both the reactionary Muslims and the Danish newspaper. I think this might have been what some politicians thought as well. I don't think any politician would let an "over-riding guilt complex" control their entire political career.

And call me cynical, but I think what the Danish newspaper did was to precisely provoke a certain section of Muslims whom they knew would react in the disgraceful way they did. They were after another stereotyping story and the cartoons were perfect for that. Kept the newspapers going for months and it will do for years to come now. Luckily, Muslims are getting the idea and calming down. No better way to learn than by mistakes.

So i suppose, all in all, the Danish newspaper did us a huge favour.

NoolaBeulah said...

Nazim, I tried to read Midnight's Children, but gave up after 50 pages. Of course, the quality or otherwise of the book was not the question. I suppose what made Khomeini choose him was the fact that he was both an apostate and a major literary figure.

I tend to believe the editor who pubished the cartoons in the first place. He had found out that the writer of a children's Life of Mohammad, a completely respectful book, could not find an illustrator because they were all afraid of the cosequences. So he commissioned the 12 cartoons as a form of protest. I don't find this unreasonable. You can't have a small section of society dictating to others by the fear of violence.

And there was no reaction when the cartoons were published; it all came months later. There would have been no reaction at all if some Danish imams had not travelled around the Middle East trying to whip up passion by showing them to various leaders, both of governments and organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood. This efforts proved fruitless until they inserted a couple of really nasty cartoons they'd obtained from somewhere. Finally, the reaction came. But it was a put-up job.

Riri said...

Well, I don't know much about the Danish culture or sense of humour, but the idea of the editor to protest against a primarily cultural value of still quite conservative societies in the form of very provocative and, well, offensive cartoons is very incomprehensible to me. Maybe he genuinly thought he was doing the right thing to promote "free speech", but I really struggle with this idea. He could have used cartoons, but to purposefully go for the most offensive ones you could possibly get is unprofessional and counter-productive to say the least. This type of thing is generally only done for publicity purposes.

But I think generally, people should try and understand that you don't have to be offensive to promote "free speech". People who adopt this approach are giving a bad example. It is true that Prophets (all of them not just Mohammed pbuh) are never illustrated in Islamic literature, but the rationale behind that is rather complicated and elaborate. Supression of free speech is not even a tiny sub-element of that rationale. And this, the Danish editor completely missed out.

Still, no amount of offensive cartoons could possibly justify murder and violence.

NoolaBeulah said...

But, Riri, where's the 'free' in 'free speech' if it can't be offensive? That's the whole point of it.

Free speech became an essential part of a free society as a necessary defence against the rich and the powerful. If they couldn't be 'offended', then how could they be kept under some sort of control?

Now, obviously, Western Muslims are not, for the most part, rich and powerful. But it would be a bit difficult to frame a law, or even a code of manners, to spare them from offense. I mean, for some of them, the entirety of Western culture and society is an offense.

The treatment you would like really comes down to manners. The trouble is, for so long, writers and artists have been able to say what they want. The Christian churches, in particular, have been fair game for 200 years. A good deal of this has been distasteful and done to provoke a reaction, to shock. Much of it was cheap.

Nonetheless, it was a necessary corrective to centuries of suffocation by the churches, who, when they stopped leading Europe (16th Century or so), bent all their energy to holding it back. They have had to learn to live with it.

As I said, this takes on a different light when applied to a group which, in Europe, is not rich and powerful. It is nevertheless the group that has frightened those once-'fearless' castigators of all and sundry - from the BBC to the whackiest avant-garde artists, all are afraid of saying anything at all about Islam. (I recognise that this is generally not the case in the print media.)

In addition, is it not this very suppression that stifled the cultures of the Middle East and led to the weakness of today? And does all this not do even more harm to the public image of Muslims, who become associated with suppression and over-reaction?

Riri said...

- But, Riri, where's the 'free' in 'free speech' if it can't be offensive? That's the whole point of it

I didn't say it cannot be offensive, I just said that the way I see it, a newspaper editor should not associate offense with free speech so gratuitiously, especially with regards to such a volatile and hypersensitive minority community as European Muslims. I know I can say what I like and be as offensive as I like, but what is suppressing me in not lack of "free speech culture", but simply manners and the genuine belief that I will not be doing any good by purposefully hurting people. Especially if I know they have a tendency to overreact. I think it is a bit naughty to do this sort of thing and then say oh look, Muslims are complaining again, they don't "get free speech", do you know how awful it feels to be stereotyped as a terrorist? A villain? It hurts much more than being ridiculed and made fun of. Especially when the way you see it is that the terror and nastiness is being waged against you, not the other way round (Iraq, Palestine etc). In the current international climate, those cartoons were bad taste and nasty. You can still argue it's free speech, but I think that's smoke and mirrors. You might say you cannot get "free speech" if you put limits and expect people to observe some manners or a minimum responsibility, maybe, but I think that compromises credibility in the long run and then "free speech" like anything prefixed with "free" will lose meaning in confusion.

- In addition, is it not this very suppression that stifled the cultures of the Middle East and led to the weakness of today?

Certainly it had a major part to play. But it is changing now, but it will be gradual. Even if people in ME were free to say what they liked, most would find nothing to say anyway. And the rest would want to surf on the mediatic Islam-bashing wave to get approval of the Masters of The Universe. Would that be a good indicator that the ME is liberated from oppression against "Free Speech"? I think not. But the West would probably think it was a good indicator, because when Muslims get the idea that being disrespectful to religious figures, including Prophets, is an essential part of Free Speech, they would be on their way to freedom. Diverging perspectives, can't see it happening and I hope it won't. At least until people get to grips with more fundamental notions (democracy, sciences, history, politics, communication science etc).

- And does all this not do even more harm to the public image of Muslims, who become associated with suppression and over-reaction?

Of course it does, that was the whole point of the cartoons! Taking advantage of the weakness of a group like the Danish editor did is not worthy of respect in my dictionary. And on this basis, not worthy of a reaction. Most Muslims would agree with me. Anyway, I couldn't get any worse now, so I suppose that's a good thing.

NoolaBeulah said...

I understand what you're saying; we're obviously coming at it from two diametrically opposed viewpoints. You feel the offense; I merely imagine it. You see it from the point of view of Muslims not rampaging on the streets for whom it just seems gratuitous; I'm looking at how our political class reacts to those that are. You see your religion as the prime value; I see the Western system in the same light. Episodes like this are even more difficult precisely because they are over something so frivolous and vulgar as cartoons, 90% of which are nothing more. It's very hard to make a philosophical argument that doesn't spill over into everything else and thus lose definition.

Riri said...

Ah come on now Noolabeulah, you're really funny when you start slagging off the Brit politicians, calling them spineless, guilt-ridden and other stuff to this effect. But I can imagine your anger just like you could imagine "my offense" I suppose, because for you "Free Speech" is a sacrosanct value for you and I can see why it is fiercely defended by many. It is a great value to keep, there will always be something somebody says that offends somebody else I suppose, Free Speech should not be compromised for this inevitability.

I can understand how silly it was to ban a drama from addressing the issue of radical Islam (there was a series broadcast on Arabic channels which looked at terrorism by the way, there are also countless programs talking endlessly about extremist preachers and ridiculous Fatwas etc). So for Britain to ban that sounds a bit silly. Cartoon episode had slightly different connotations I feel and they may just not have wanted to help make it a bigger deal than it was getting without their help.

And then it would cost a lot to offer 24 hr protection for every artist in Britain you know, so that tory was right, hehehe!