Defending Offence: A reply to a writers’ question (1)
The reason I have not gone all out attacking Islamism in my art is because I feel the real that someone will slit my throat…
(Grayson Perry, quoted by Nick Cohen, pp 50 “You Can’t Read This Book” 2012)
…I worked on this opera about Jerry Springer. And, um, we got accused of being blasphemous, which was, came as a genuine surprise, ’cause it honestly had had really good reviews in the Church Times and Catholic Herald when it first went out in the theatre. So it was kind of weird, it all came a bit out of nowhere. We got 65,000 complaints when it went out on television. The BBC executives that commissioned it had to go into hiding, with police protection. And me and the composer were going to be taken to court and charged with blasphemy. But at the end of June, the High Court threw the case out on the grounds that it isn’t 1508.
(Stewart Lee,transcript from his show “90’s Comedian”, published in 2010, “How I escaped my certain fate…”)
Since its publication, “You Can’t Read This Book” by Nick Cohen has become one of the most important publications of the of the decade for anyone who sees free speech and free thinking as vital to the progress of humanity. After publication, there have been many reviews, mostly positive, of a book that takes an overview of the state of play for anyone who wants to tell truth to power, or simply be well informed. Having divided his arguments into three sections – “God”, “Money” and “The State”, Mr Cohen then rounds on the forces that he sees as being the enemies of truth.
With the lamented early death of Christopher Hitchens, Cohen is perhaps the best contemporary western journalist and essayist we have nominally on the left. I consciously say “nominally’, as he has been alternately the darling and the whipping boy for certain parts of the left liberal commentariat for much of his career. Oh how they loved his well researched attack on Blairism in “Pretty Strait Guys’, and how they pilloried him for his support for the destruction of the Ba’ath regime of Saddam Hussein, even if it meant supporting an unpopular war. Yet the fair weather friends of the far left, and their careless parrots within the wider currents of mainstream left/liberal thought would do well to cast aside prejudice and read a passionate, well researched and and literate defence of basic freedoms that without which, no truly liberating progress can come about.
I had no real intention to add to the pean of praise heaped upon his latest work, yet in a reply to a post I made on the 18th, I found myself reaching for my copy once again. Jaime Lynch Staunton, a writer and blogger asked the question:
Who is being cowardly and subservient to religion? How?
To do Jaime justice, I will divide my answer into two sections, and two posts
In 1989, one of the great English Language novelists of modern times published his latest work. As in previous works, it was an exploration of themes close to his own experience as an immigrant from the Indian subcontinent to Britain. Salman Rushdies’ “The Satanic Verses” was attacked by fundamentalist clerics in Iran (a dictatorship had previously praised his earlier work), and the Ayatollah Khomeni pronounced a fatwa upon him, his publishers, and booksellers worldwide. Numerous attacks on bookstores and translators ensued or we threatened, most notably in Japan in 1991, the murder of an academic translator, and in Italy the stabbing of another. To their great credit, both the British Government and the publishing industry stood firm, and Rushdie has so far eluded his assassins.
There was a backlash, aided and abetted by those who should, and did, know better. Keith Vaz, MP for Leicester South, came to the fore in this country calling for the book to be banned, in effect asking that Britain follow the lead of Apartheid South Africa. Predictably enough, Norman Tebbit weighed in, to kick an opponent when he was down. More disturbing was the response of some other western authors…
Most bizarre of all though, was the noise by a number of eminent writers and authors. John le Carre’, John Berger, Roald Dahl, Hugh Trevor-Roper, and others began a sort of auction of defamation in which they accused Rushdie variously of insulting Islam, practising Western-style cultural colonialism & condescension, and damaging race relations.
(Christopher Hitchens, in “Unacknowledged Legislation, Writers In The Public Sphere”, Verso, 2000. pp.127)
Rushdie even managed perhaps the greatest feat of ecumenicalism, with the Archbishop of Canterbury, The Vatican, and the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel all issuing statements to the effect that the main problem with the fatwa was not the actual death threat, but the blasphemy committed by the writer. George Bush the first refused to follow in the footsteps of Vaclav Havel and Irelands’ Mary Robinson in upholding the international promise of the US constitutions’ First Amendment. Germaine Greer defended the rights of book burners everywhere, to her shame.
Eventually, the fatwa was lifted, as part of the ongoing diplomatic efforts of Iran to gain better relations and recognition in the west. Then in 2007, the now Labour Government gave Rushdie a Knighthood for services to literature. Again various radical Islamist organisations claimed offence. Predictably, many on the right criticised the award being given to a writer so firmly opposed to “Mrs Torture”, yet even some of them defended his right to write what he thought, notably Boris Johnson and Peter Hitchens, whilst claiming his work to be “unreadable”. In the same edition of the BBC programme “Question Time” the daughter of Vera Brittan and Liberal Grande Dame Shirley Williams could not bring herself to support the appointment, saying that it was ill-timed, begging the old partisan question “if not now, when?”.
Now, with the murder of an American Diplomat and staff in Libya, apparently over manufactured offence caused by a grubby little film, and the French call to leave muslim countries over some cartoons, Mr Rushdie has become the subject of another well-funded fatwa bounty.
But of course, this is only one man, and one book. Hilary Clintons response to the supposed “offence” caused by the film “The Innocence of Islam” speaks volumes:
…our country does have a long tradition of free expression, which is enshrined in our Constitution and in our law. We do not stop individual citizens from expressing their views no matter how distasteful they may be.”
No British Foreign Secretary could say the same without contradiction on each point – historical, legal, and practical.
In December 2004, a crowd of up to 1,000 Sikhs protested outside Birmingham Repertory Theatre, some stormed the building, stopping the first performance of the play “Behzti (Disgrace), by the female British Sikh writer Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti. The play explores themes of abuse and hypocrisy within the Sikh community, and is set in a Sikh temple. It is, very obviously, a work of fiction. The play was cancelled after two days of negotiation involving the police and local dignitaries.
The leader of this self-appointed group, Mr Sewa Singh Mandla justified his actions thus:
In a Sikh temple, sexual abuse does not take place, kissing & dancing do not take place, rape doesn’t take place, homosexual activity doesn’t take place, murders do not take place
As reported in The Sikh Times, Steven Glover, writing in The Daily Mail expressed “a degree of sympathy” and found it “hard not to admire” the protesters. It was perhaps no surprise that the Roman Catholic Church in Birmingham, in the person of Archbishop Vincent Nichol would make common cause against free thought in these words:
Such a deliberate, even if fictional, violation of the sacred place of the Sikh Religion demeans the sacred places of every religion.
Of course, I should not have to remind any reader of the actions of Christian Voice over “Jerry Springer – The Opera”, the protests and threatened protests that forced 9 theatres to pull out of the nationwide tour, the level of threat which sent BBC staff into hiding…
The cumulative effect of these and others religious protests and threats has been, in one writers’ words to “internalise the fatwa”, so that many artists and writers self-censor, much as most did under the great dictatorships of the twentieth century. In the end, all authority, secular and religious, relies more on “the policeman in your head” rather than the policeman on the street. Although there are policeman out there, ready to pounce whenever one transgresses the shifting boundary of “offence”.
In the light of past scandals, the Arts Council is, as in the case of “Jerry springer” much less likely to grant money to any production that could cause offence to be manufactured. It is not hard to find a local politician, of any party, who will readily give voice to any loud “community” based campaign against whatever is seen as against any particular religion. The over used word “respect” is now the mantra when it comes to deeply held beliefs – as if simply believing something deeply enough makes it impossible to challenge. The Commission for Racial Equality conflates religion with race regularly, as do many others, which is insulting on both levels, if you think about it.
So, Commissioning Editors, Publishers, Producers as well as writers all tend to shy away from the new religious taboos – finding much more comforting and safe ways to shock us – a “Booky-Wook” here, a “Little Britain” there, but please, don’t offend the clerics too much eh?