Joan Smith has a piece in the Independent about religious censorship of open debate in Britain, a supposedly free country. It is well written and argued, as Smith’s writing invariably is, but what distinguishes it is that it is the only defence of our liberties in the Sunday papers.
Consider the events of the past few days:
i) At Queen Mary, University of London students went to hear Anne Marie Waters speak on behalf of the One Law For All — a campaign to stop Sharia law afflicting British women. An angry young man entered the lecture theatre. He filmed the audience on his mobile, and told them he knew where they lived and would track them down if a single negative word was said about Muhammad. The organisers informed the police and the meeting cancelled.
ii) Secularists at University College, London, came under attack for publishing a cartoon on its Facebook page of ‘Jesus and Mo’ having a drink together. The Muslim group that wants to ban the image got a sympathetic hearing in the media, despite arguing openly for censorship. Extremist websites, meanwhile, reacted with the fanatical language that so often appears on such sites: ‘May Allah destroy these creatures worse than dogs,’ wrote one blogger. I heard on Thursday night that one of the UCL secularists had gone into hiding in fear of his life.
iii) Salman Rushdie was due to speak at the Jaipur Literary Festival, but had to pull out because of threats of violence. He now believes that the local police were complicit in the attempts to silence him. Rushdie is not being paranoid. Credible reports in the Indian press support him. Hari Kunzru read an extract from the Satanic Verses as a gesture of solidarity and then had to flee the country. (You can read his account here)
At least the Indian press covers the story. In Britain there is silence. As Joan asks:
‘Why hasn’t there been a furore about all these incidents? Why aren’t MPs and ministers insisting on the vital role of free speech? None of the people involved was threatening anybody, unlike the three Muslim extremists convicted two days ago of inciting hatred against homosexuals. It’s been left to organisations such as the National Secular Society – I’m an honorary associate – to say that a fundamental human right is being eroded in the name of avoiding “offence”.Most people in the UK don’t condone violence, but a worrying number think we should be careful around individuals with strong religious beliefs. This argument is mistaken, because it suggests that believers aren’t as capable of exercising, or under the same obligation to exercise, judgement and restraint as the rest of us.It’s also based on fear, tacitly acknowledging a link between demands for censorship and threats of violence. One often leads to the other, and it isn’t just atheists and secularists who should be very worried indeed about that.’
My latest You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom was published on Thursday. One critic complained that I lambasted liberal-minded people for their cowardice. He did not seem to doubt that they did bite their tongues for fear of violence, or of accusations of Islamophobia or some other kind of religious prejudice, but that the subject should be avoided. I am sorry but it cannot because it is self-censorship of the worst kind: the censorship that cannot admit it exists. Journalists, academics and authors turn away and pretend nothing is happening in case an admission of timidity tarnishes their image as fearless speakers of ‘truth to power’. The result is that this weekend Joan Smith is a lone voice rather than a singer in a chorus of disapproval.
I should not have to add that the people the liberal mainstream lets down are liberal Muslims and ex-Muslims who need help in their fight against theocratic oppression. In my book I quote Pascal Bruckner, who put it better than I ever could. ‘It is time to extend our solidarity to all the rebels of the Islamic world, non-believers, atheist libertines, dissenters, sentinels of liberty, as we supported Eastern European dissidents in former times. Europe should encourage these diverse voices and give them financial, moral and political support. Today there is no cause more sacred, more serious, or more pressing for the harmony of future generations. Yet our continent kneels before God’s madmen, muzzling and libelling free thinkers with suicidal heedlessness.’
A Rally to defend “Freedom of Expression” has been organised by One Law for All for Saturday 11th February 2012 in London, see details at the following URLs: http://www.onelawforall.org.uk/hold-this-date-11-february-a-day-to-defend-free-expression/ and on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/events/212823392145531/