Gibson Square redux

It’s normally the case that, whenever this sort of thing happens, we get a chorus of apologists saying, in effect: ‘Well, what do you expect, publishing that book/staging that play/publishing that cartoon. You know how temperamental these Muslims are!’

Happily, this chorus I anticipated has not materialised. It seems that the debate about religion and free speech has become more mature since the MoToons crisis. Even the reactionary Inayat Bungawala is making sense on this one.

There are just a couple of counter arguments I’d like to pick up on.

First, via Norm, someone called Charlie Gere, Director of the Institute for Cultural Research at Lancaster University, has a letter in today’s Guardian. You can tell where his argument’s going from the first line: ‘While in no way condoning firebombing the publisher’s offices…’

[…] I find Jo Glanville’s defence of the publication of Aisha, the Jewel of Medina as an act of courage on the part of the publisher ridiculous (Respect for religion now makes censorship the norm, September 30). Would she be so ready to describe as an act of courage a decision to publish a book denying the Holocaust, or advocating paedophilia, or race hate, or antisemitism, or violence against women? Probably not. And if not, there are limits to her conception of freedom of speech – as there are limits to that of anybody else who wishes to live in a relatively open society but would also object to such publications.

The hypotheticals Gere uses – a book advocating paedophilia or Holocaust denial – would be considered polemical non-fiction, not fiction. Books arguing, say, Holocaust denial wouldn’t find a good non-fiction or academic publisher because their conclusions would involve an Irving-style distortion of historical facts – and as we’ll see, not being published isn’t the same as being silenced.

Non fiction has standards and rules that don’t apply to creative fiction; laws of truth and veriability. These extreme examples wouldn’t even be considered for publication, and the fact that Random House only dropped Jones at the eleventh hour suggests that her fiction is on a higher level than deliberate hate propaganda.

People seem to forget that Sherry Jones’s book isn’t a thesis but a creative work of fiction.

There is no such thing as free speech – and a good thing too. There are rather just degrees of tolerance, permissiveness and relative freedom, with boundaries, legal, social and cultural. And there are always limits, many of which we are barely aware of, so much do we take them for granted. The issue with this book and others that have offended Muslims, including The Satanic Verses, is that their publication is liable to give Muslims the possibly correct impression that a culture riddled with its own shibboleths, taboos and areas of interdiction does not consider it a problem to offend their sensitivities, not least by trivialising their religion and their culture in works of fiction. This is far worse than being anti-Muslim. It treats Muslim sensitivities as being beneath consideration. No wonder they are angry.

As Norm says, at least he’s honest:

I’ll give him one thing: he’s bold enough to identify his own view by an accurate designation. Others prefer to say the same sort of thing by dressing it up as ‘free speech yes, but badaboop, badabeep, badabadaba’. Good on Charlie for telling it like it is; there’s no free speech, you can only say what’s permitted, what’s tolerated, within your society and your culture. This does get to the bottom of things. For if speech is not protected whatever might be thought of it within your community, your society, your culture – and democratic as they may be – then you are only free to speak and think within limits laid down for you by others… which is not free speech.

Norm is right – we must give Gere full credit for being candid enough to actually say that religious sensitivities are more important than free speech. Norm also points out that Gere doesn’t seem to know that ‘until relatively recently anti-Semitic tropes and stereotypes within English-language fiction were not altogether rare.’ And poetry: hello, Mr Eliot.

I love Gere’s assertion that Western culture is ‘riddled with its own shibboleths, taboos and areas of interdiction’. Yes and Western authors have always drawn on the stupid and sinister aspects of Western capitalist democracy – from George Orwell to Joe Stretch. I suspect there are a lot of Muslim authors who find much in Islamic tradition to attack and ridicule.

And his last line: ‘No wonder they are angry.’ But are they? Our only evidence of that is the arrest of three people, possibly Islamic fundamentalists, plus a few bloggers responding to Spellman’s condemnation. These guys are obviously angry. Leave aside the argument over whether people who firebomb in the name of Islam should be considered Muslims. Should we require proposed works of fiction to be vetted by fanatics and criminals?

The second counterargument comes from, naturally, our old friend Stephen Mitchelmore. He’s annoyed that one of his favourite novelists, the pro-Milosevic propagandist Peter Handke, hasn’t had a book published in the UK for seventeen years. On this, Mitchelmore comments: 

Publishers in this country are keen to denounce censorship when it threatens cashing in on Islamophobia yet, when it comes to publishing one of the greatest living writers, silence; censorship is the default position.

Mitchelmore’s link is to some Gibson Square coverage.

Now, I’ve never read Peter Handke. He might be the most amazing writer ever. He might be the new Ezra Pound. But not having a novel published can hardly be described as censorship: if it could, every unpublished novelist, or published novelist not published in a certain country, could claim to be a victim of censorship. Handke is a successful novelist who is in no danger of censorship or intimidation. End of.

Bear in mind that it’s very, very unlikely that Stephen Mitchelmore (or Charles Gere) has read The Jewel of Medina. So on what authority can he describe its publication as ‘cashing in on Islamophobia’?

This is what Sherry Jones says about Islam:

Yes, well I went into my reading with absolutely no preconceived notions except that Muslims had attacked the World Trade Center and that the Muslim regime in Afghanistan was very oppressive to its people, especially women. And so, you might say that my initial impressions of Islam were negative.

But as I read – books by Western scholars, Islamic scholars, religious clerics, ancient Arabic poetry – what I gained from my reading was an impression of Islam being a religion of, primarily, peace. I read that Muhammad admonished his followers to fight in self-defense only. That’s really what he was doing all those years too. He was constantly being persecuted, assassination attempts, etc.

You could say that the revealer of Islam, Muhammad, embodied Islam. He lived this incredibly ascetic life – totally unmaterialistic, gave everything away to the poor. He could have lived like a king but he didn’t. He was very respectful toward women and, actually, I was so impressed by how he gave women rights that we didn’t even possess in this country until the early 20th century. He was generous and kind and compassionate. He forgave people who had done him wrong if they asked him for it.

The more I read about Islam at the beginning stages, the more impressed I was. Muhammad endured so much persecution, there was never any doubt in my mind that he was sincere and that he was a visionary. He gave up everything for his belief in God and his, I believe, sincere desire to bring the truth of one God to his own people.

Having developed that respect, out of all the reading that I did – and, you know, I read some stuff by older historians who claimed that he went out and conquered in the name of Islam and forced people to convert. But the newer stuff that I read, the more recent historical writings, actually refute that. And the impression I gained of him was of an incredible man and a great, heroic leader.

Now, I know Mitchelmore doesn’t normally bother reading the books he wishes to attack. But couldn’t he at least read about them?


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