All entries for Sunday 05 February 2006

February 05, 2006

Literature and Free Speech

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Like others, I am very concerned to see the events that have taken place in response to these Danish cartoons caricaturing Islamic symbols. The cartoons featuring satirical versions of Islamic symbols were first published in the Danish newspaper, Jyllands Posten, in September last year. Now the situation has escalated with their republication in France, Germany and elsewhere. The situation is complicated with guilt on both sides and the way that the publication of cartoons was handled was insensitive as I will explain in a moment.

These debates have a great weight for the future of literature and free speech. Of course, we always knew that attacking religion could be dangerous. We only have to remember Salman Rushdie and the death threats that he suffered after the publication of The Satanic Verses . Even now, Rushdie's readings tend to be high security affairs with the audience being searched and police officers on guard at every exit. However, I think that we have to realise that this religious outrage in response to criticism in not a simply 'Islamic problem' as some would lead us to believe.

Remember the Sikh protests at the Birmingham Rep last year over Behtzi by Gurpreet Kaur, a play that showed a rape in a Sikh Temple. BBC News quoted Mohan Singh, a local Sikh community leader as saying: 'When they're doing a play about a Sikh priest raping somebody inside a gurdwara, would any religion take it?' Another example could be the Christians currently protesting in Birmingham over Jerry Springer, the Musical . Also think about the censorship in the US due to the extreme Christian right.

Perhaps one might argue that the Islamic reaction is more extreme. Have there been any cases recently of Christians or Buddhists or Sikhs carrying placards stating 'Butcher those who mock our religion' or burning embassies? Perhaps not. But if this is an extreme reaction, I think that we have to question why this has occurred. Does such a violent reaction have something to do with the vilification of Islam – Mulsims being invaded, repressed, imprisoned, reduced, threatened, attacked etc etc?

But to get back to the issue of free speech, we have to take some responsibility for the reaction of Muslims to these caricatures, yet on the other hand, we should not – cannot – back down on the issue of free speech. Free speech is not a sacred cow as it has been described by some critics in the last few days – it is a fundamental principle of our society and to endanger it is to endanger our freedom. The BNP have been banging on for years making racist and rude statements and as we have found out recently, to involve the law in repressing such speech does not work. Rather it is consensus which punishes such culprits through exclusion and stigma.

I guess that I have a number of points to make here:
1. That violent reactions to criticism of religion are not a specifically Islamic problem.
2. That attitudes towards and treatment of Muslims needs to improve, so that members of the Islamic faith do not feel that they are singled out as a minority and vilified.
3. That violent protests and calls for punishment of those who speak against one's beliefs are not valid or useful – rather the answer should be counter-criticism or exclusion of the speaker.

Unfortunately, as a minority of Muslims react violently to the cartoon's published, it reinforces the cartoon's original criticism – that Islam promotes a culture of violence. Those who know Muslims will realise that although Islam contains violent elements, this is only a part of modern Islam. My fear is for literature – how will writers be able to write anything critical about Islam or a Muslim character – or indeed in relation any of the religions in this current climate – when such a feeling of fear is being created? How will journalists and cultural critics be able to act similarly? Every culture or religion needs criticism and freedom of speech is freedom itself.


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