Free speech for the ignorable

What a couple of shackling weeks for free speech.

A scheduled re-showing of Professor Tom Holland’s recent film, Islam: The Untold Story, was cancelled by Channel 4 owing to threats made against its maker. Having watched it, I, for one, am not particularly desiring of a re-run, because, well actually, I thought it was a bit dull. Its thesis as presented could easily have been communicated in far less than the time taken, it being padded out with over-arching efforts to convey the respectfulness with which Holland approached a sensitive issue: extended shots of him all benignly thoughtful and considerate; even joining in some Mecca-oriented bowing; and entertaining the opinion of esteemed scholar of Islam, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, to the degree of leaving unedited a quotation that makes him seem an idiot: something like, “Just because you can’t see something, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.” Quite what relevance such illogic has here, I don’t follow. Holland has gone to the lengths of responding to the criticism he has received. And why shouldn’t he? It is his film. And I note with pleasure that he does not feel it necessary to offer up a grovelling apology. He, again carefully and respectfully, points out the appropriateness of his subject matter for historical enquiry. Too right! So much for ingratiation.

The shit really hit fanaticism’s fan a few oblivious months after some other – by all accounts tinpot – film trailer hit the internet. This I haven’t seen, because its sub-standard-ness doesn’t sound very interesting. However, having the freedom to exercise my adult faculties and choose not to watch something I predict is a waste of my time, I do not consider it warrants protest. Apparently, however, the theocrats (want it) deemed an “insult” to Islam: after they eventually get wind of it, they dictate not merely that the insulted should not watch it, but that they should kick up an almighty stink. And then mob outrage, violence and murder ensue.

So why not, around 9/11, with uproar provoked by these humourless theocrats who decree that their minions should perceive a stupid little internet film as an insult and a threat, up the stakes a bit more? There has also been much TV/radio marking of the release of Salman Rushdie’s memoir, with inevitable recall of the fatwā that was pronounced five months after the release of (the, I always consider worth re-iterating, fictional work) The Satanic Verses, and the consequent effect on his life – and on (literary) freedom of speech. This saga still angers – particularly when we are reminded of how some of his fellow writers publicly deserted him; or the shameful continued banning of the book by its author’s country of birth and world’s largest democracy. And, in case you think it long resolved – it, err, isn’t. “Surely if the sentence of the Imam [Ayatollah Khomeini] had been carried out, the later insults in the form of caricatures, articles and the making of movies would not have occurred,” said the representative of the current Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Rushdie reluctantly acknowledges that a book such as The Satanic Verses would likely not find a publisher today. Which thus suggests that the Ayatollah’s representative should quit whingeing, as he can still beat this particular political drum whenever suits.

Our politicians have to stay diplomatic, of course. Have to voice their disgust/disappointment at whatever is the invented source of the latest flare-up, whilst avoiding poking the fire. But this appeasement doesn’t placate the orderers of outrage; those posturing perceivers of insult who continue to receive balanced consideration from much of our media. On Newsnight last week, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali rightly emphasised that the First Amendment ain’t going to be amended and people are just going to have to accept it, Kirsty Wark, in that way of giving air to all viewpoints (consider how ironic is that?), thus presenting ‘balance’ where (such as in creation-evolution, or climate-change) there is no point upon which to pivot, loudly interjected with,

“Do they not have the right to be offended?”

Although appreciating that this could have been misinterpretation of what she was probably being fed via her earpiece, I nevertheless laughed out loud at its asininity. Think about it for a second. If she’d have asked, ‘Do they not have the right to not be offended?’, then it might have worked as an answerable question (I think). But the right to be offended? What is that? Who on earth is saying anybody cannot be offended? The issue is the right to be offensive.

Surely the most effective response to offence is not to afford it the publicity of controversy – otherwise you spark not only protest and book-burning by those who haven’t seen/read it, but increased interest and consequent sale/distribution of more copies/viewings. You thus (intentionally?) draw attention to the insult. We comfortably ignorant westerners are often reminded of our failure to appreciate how keenly felt is this ‘insult’ to what Muslims hold dear. But is it? At least not until free expression, irrespective of quality, agitates the agitators.

Last week, Sam Harris opined that ‘The freedom to think out loud on certain topics, without fear of being hounded into hiding or killed, has already been lost.’ At last Saturday’s National Secular Society conference (on which, perhaps more later), Nick Cohen put it succinctly:

“We have a de facto blasphemy law… based on the threat of violence.”

and further urged:

“You must communicate to the public that this is going on.”

Yes.

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