Several recent events have come together:
- The reaction in the Muslim world to the stupid film Innocence of Muslims
- The publication of topless photographs of the Duchess of Cambridge
- The renewal of the fatwa against Sir Salman Rushdie
All of these have to do with freedom of speech/publication. I have a particular interest in this subject as I ‘survived’ an attempt to block the publication of a novel.
Let me deal first with Sir Salman Rushdie and The Satanic Verses. This novel, first published in 1988, is the fictional story of two men, both steeped in Islam, but distracted by the temptations of the West. One of the men survives by returning to his roots; the other, caught between his spiritual need to believe in God and his intellectual inability to return to Islam, commits suicide. It won the Booker prize that year. In February, 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini issued the fatwa calling for the death of Rushdie. There were violent protests throughout the Muslim world calling for the death of the author. Over the following decade, thousands of people were killed, many of them secretly in prisons in Muslim countries. In the UK , a private prosecutor sought to bring Rushdie to trial for ‘blasphemous libel’. The magistrate refused, but the prosecutor took his case to the High Court. Thirteen Muslim barristers tried to get the book banned, and as a consequence, they were forced to specify how the novel was blasphemous. Geoffrey Robertson, QC, who defended Rushdie and the publisher says that the barristers were able to identify only six blasphemies, but nothing was found to actually vilify God or the Prophet. The Home Office then announced that it would allow no further blasphemy prosecutions. It said, “. . . the strength of their own belief is the best armour against mockers and blasphemers.” For the next decade, Sir Salman Rushdie lived under constant police protection, in hiding and fearful of assassination. In 1998, the reform-minded president of Iran, Mohammad Katami, declared to the UN General Assembly that the Rushdie matter was “completely finished.” But the fatwa has never been annulled, and now Ayatollah Hassan Sanei, head of an important Iranian foundation, has raised the bounty on Rushdie’s head to $3.3 million. He said, “If the imam’s order was carried out, the further insults in the form of caricatures, articles and films would not have taken place. The impertinence of the grudge-filled enemies of Islam, which is occurring under the flag of the Great Satan, America, and the racist Zionists can only be blocked by the administration of this Islamic order.” (What I would say, in response to the Ayatollah, is that he can only assume that the insults would not have taken place. It is also possible to assume that if the fatwa had been carried out, the insults against Islam would be even more common than they are now.)
Then we have the 13 minute film, Innocence of Muslims, apparently made by a convicted fraudster, who allegedly misled the cast as to the purpose of the film, and re-dubbed their voices. The film, which is said to demean the Prophet, was dubbed in Arabic and up loaded onto YouTube. Immediately, the violent protests and the killings (including an American ambassador) began. It doesn’t matter that the film was made, unprofessionally, by an Egyptian Coptic, in likely violation of his parole terms, with an underpaid, misled cast. It matters only that the film was produced on American soil and it demeans the Prophet. Why this apparently mindless reaction by the Muslim world? First of all, it has to be said that not all of the Muslim world acted mindlessly. In an article for the Daily Telegraph, David Blair quotes a friend in Tunisia as saying: “My Prophet would not worry about a video. He wouldn’t care about that. My Prophet would care about the state of our societies. He would want us to be developed, he would want us to be successful.” It seems to me that there are several answers to the ‘Why?’ question. First, some elements in the Muslim world stir up sentiments to support their own position. For example, the Taliban have whipped up violent protests in Afghanistan. Secondly, some governments seize on any criticism of Islam as a means of distracting the population from the failures of government. In Sudan, there have been huge demonstrations against the regime of President Omar Al-Bashir. He has allowed the crowds to attack embassies, rather than him. Third, I think there is a general misunderstanding in the Muslim world, of what freedom really means in practice. Certainly, freedom is what the Arab Spring sought to create. But freedom also must include what Rushdie called the ‘freedom to offend’ (this does not include libel, which is intended to cause measurable injury). In his article, David Blair quotes Inayat Bunglawala, who at the age of 19 was burning The Satanic Verses, but more recently wrote, “Our detractors had been right. The freedom to offend is a necessary freedom.” Finally, it seems to me that some Muslims – particularly those not well educated – may harbour unconscious feelings of inferiority. For them, their Islamic faith is a source of consolation. When their faith is attacked, they take it personally. They fail to remember that Islam is one of the world’s great faiths, with 1.5 billion followers. They fail to reason that so great a faith, based on one all-powerful God does not need to be protected by a thousand or a million lowly humans. They fail to understand that the “Lord of the Worlds, the Lord of Mercy” would want his people to live in harmony, not discord. That is what I, as a Christian, believe.
So, since I believe in the freedom to offend. Wasn’t the Duchess of Cambridge offended by the photographs taken of her? Yes, she probably was. OK, one might say, if she was offended, and one has the freedom to offend, what’s her problem? The problem is that she has the freedom to be private. Most of us take our privacy for granted. But try to imagine what it would be like to have photographers trying to take your photograph during every waking moment. If they could, they would follow you into the shower and beyond. I think privacy is a particularly important freedom for the Duchess. I hope that the paparazzo and the editor both spend a year in jail and have to cough up £36,000.