By Salil Tripathi, writer and journalist (from the Index on Censorship website)
IN 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini posed a stark choice: would we support an author’s right to express himself freely, or would we stand by as he is hunted down by state-sponsored assassins?
Margaret Thatcher was no fan of Salman Rushdie, but her government supported his right (at least in the early years), even as British Muslims burned copies of The Satanic Verses in Bradford and riots spread in South Asia.
Today, another British government praises the British media for its restraint in not republishing the Danish cartoons that have offended many Muslims. The State Department has called the cartoons offensive. Is this restraint? Or is it acquiescence?
Suddenly free expression is a matter of accounting, of balancing costs and benefits. We are all judges now, preferring the good of public safety to the harm of public disorder and death threats. How did we get here? Think of 9/11 and 7/7, two seminal events which dictated editors’ and politicians’ choices in Washington and London…
Since 1989, the determination to defend free speech against mobs has weakened. All faiths have an intolerant streak, and each intolerant act emboldens the next. Sikhs in the Midlands halt performances of Behzti, a play raising awkward questions about their faith. Hindus in India ransack an art gallery and destroy canvases by the elderly artist M F Husain, who has drawn Hindu goddesses in the nude. And a young Muslim executes Theo Van Gogh in Amsterdam, because his film Submission offends the immigrant.
Speaking to Der Spiegel, Pnina Werbner of Keele University says: “There’s a difference between a novel of great merit … and ... cartoons that are in many ways trivial, have little artistic merit and are deliberately provocative and gratuitous.”
But who decides artistic merit? What constitutes provocation? In the neat world of academic distinctions, Werbner may be able to separate the two and say, Rushdie yes, cartoons no. But the assassin will target both.
If the priority is to avoid provoking him, we have lost the battle already, for he wants total silence.
The idea that we restrict our freedom to express so that those who get offended easily may not go berserk, is deeply patronising and even more offensive to Muslims: it portrays them as unthinking hotheads influenced by emotion.
Everyone has the right to speak; the right not to listen; and the right to be a schmuck (like David Irving, who deserves his freedom as much as does Orhan Pamuk). Maybe those Danish cartoonists are schmucks, and the European editors are only trying to provoke.
We should still support those rights. Otherwise, we have to swallow our words and thoughts. And if we do that, we shall have little to talk about and less to debate. And our conversation with those whom we must not provoke will only be about agreeable topics, like the weather.