Free Speech in a Plural Society
The Conference Room, British Library, London
February 20, 2009
Ian McEwan’s novel, Saturday, begins with the image of a sharp, bright light in the sky
that the neurosurgeon Henry Perowne sees from the corner of his eye on a restless
night when he is unable to sleep. It is a troubling time for Britain; it is February 15, 2003, the
day of the big march, where hundreds of thousands of people from around Britain are
going to come to central London, with the vain hope of stopping the impending war in
Perowne is a liberal; he does not like torture – in fact, he has learned much about Iraq by
treating an Iraqi refugee fleeing the terror of Saddam Hussein. And yet, surrounded by
the prevailing orthodoxy of opinions among his friends and colleagues, in his
cosmopolitan home in Fitzrovia he cannot match the intensity of arguments, which his
daughter, for example, would articulate later that afternoon, after the march.
Now let us take a step further back, and think of another explosion in the sky – the flight
AI 420, Bostan, blown up by extremists. Two men emerge from that explosion,
descending gently towards earth, still dressed impeccably, one’s hat not out of place, the
other able to sing an old Raj Kapoor song, as they are headed for “proper London, yaar,
They fall on windswept, chilly English coast. The Miltonian allusion is clear, and we are
to return to Milton momentarily.
The two men are Saladin Chamcha – the man without a face but 1,001 voices, and
Gibreel Farishta, who acts in theological films in India, and who will soon hallucinate,
and imagine an alternate interpretation of the origin of a great faith, questioning the
source of our inspiration.
Farishta and Chamcha are of course imagined; they are characters in Salman Rushdie’s
novel, The Satanic Verses, about which I will say more a bit later.
What I’d like us to imagine is us descending from the sky, and arriving on an English
landscape today. And what will we see? We will see a thriving print media, questioning if
the prime minister was paying attention to the City, while he was opting for light
regulation of the financial sector, during his watch at Treasury. We will learn inane and
anodyne gossip about footballers and celebrities. We will see the Big Ben and we will
turn up at the Speakers Corner at Hyde Park, where all kinds of people will give vent to
all sorts of theories.
From The Independent and The Guardian on one hand, and The Daily Telegraph and
The Mail on the other, we will see most opinions given space. Britain will look like the
post-card image of the mother of parliaments, the land of ancient liberties, of Magna
Carta, and of Milton’s Areopagitica.
Now, let us pause for a moment and consider what else we might see, if we had the kind
of pinpoint accuracy that Google Earth provides these days. And if we look across the
park, there is the Science Museum, which, in 2007, decided to cancel a talk by James
Watson, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist, because in an interview in The Sunday
Times he said he was “inherently gloomy about the prospects for Africa” because “all
our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—
whereas all the testing says not really.”
Inevitably, there was a furore, and the great and the good condemned Watson. The
board of the state-of-the-art Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in the US, where Watson
has spent decades pursuing advanced research, removed him from his administrative
responsibilities, pending further deliberation.
Watson is a known maverick in the scientific community, and he has in the past made
provocative remarks. He is not a development or social policy expert. He later clarifiedhis position, saying we do not know enough about how genes determine our capacities in different environments.
That should have been the end of it, and his initial remarks resembled the ramblings of
just the kind of people he says are not worth spending time with. His new book is
ironically called Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science. Cheering the
museum for showing Watson the door, London’s ebullient mayor, Ken Livingstone, said
Watson’s views were “not welcome in a city like London, a diverse city whose very
success demonstrates the racist and nonsensical nature of (his) comments.” This, from
a mayor who did not have much of a problem inviting at tax-payer expense a cleric to
London, who supported suicide bombings in Israel, and who supported the death penalty
This is not at all to suggest that Watson’s views have scientific basis. The science of
intelligence is disputed; the Herrnstein-Murray hypothesis of intelligence being
distributed on a bell curve along racial lines has been challenged; and in the hands of a
mass murderer like Hitler, such “theories” can have catastrophic consequences. To be
fair, Watson has supported none of this, and in his mea culpa, he has shown how little
Contrast British response to Watson’s remarks with the American reaction to the
fulminations of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian President, who has denied not only
the Holocaust, but the existence of homosexuals in his country. In September, Columbia
University faced considerable political pressure in the US, with many calling on the
university to withdraw an invitation made to the Iranian leader. Instead, Columbia went
ahead with its invitation, and then, asserting its own values, Columbia’s president, the
feisty Lee Bollinger, launched a blistering attack on Ahmadinejad’s record and the values
he espouses. In doing this, Bollinger gave a new meaning to the dictum attributed to
Voltaire: I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. In
Britain, universities want to boycott academics merely for having an Israeli passport.
Watson’s faux pas was not surprising, and, sadly, nor was the ease with which the
British establishment had forgotten its old commitment to free speech, because of the
assumed codes of behaviour of operating in a multicultural, plural society.
This is hardly the first such instance. Just last week we have seen Britain convulsed in
another debate, over whether to allow the Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders into
London, to show his film, Fitna, at the House of Lords. Unlike Keith Vaz, the MP who
defended Wilders’s expulsion from Britain on Newsnight the other day, I have seen the
film; and it is, indeed, 15 minutes of unremitting boredom. But rather than let Maajid
Nawaz of the Quilliam Foundation debate with him in London, Vaz wanted Nawaz to fly
to Amsterdam to have his debate. But then Vaz has been through this before; he was
among the Labour Party MPs who marched with those who were protesting against The
Satanic Verses. A Man of All Seasons, he saw nothing wrong in phoning Rushdie a
week later, expressing his sympathies over protests. Biology has a word for it –
We did the right thing in Britain in protecting Rushdie’s freedom to imagine and speak;
this country made good use of its tax-payers’ money by providing him with the protection
he so justly deserved. Freedom of speech is meaningless if we are not to bear its
consequences. But in the years that followed, we have seen the emergence of a climate
where almost anyone who wishes to take offence over what he or she does not like, is
able to get speech circumscribed. Let me turn to some such instances.
Last year, three men were detained after they allegedly tossed a petrol bomb at the
home-office of Martin Rynja, who runs the Gibson Square publishing firm. Gibson
Square has shown the courage – or audacity, or foolhardiness – to publish The Jewel of
Medina, a novel based on the life of Aisha, the Prophet Muhammad’s wife. This is
dangerous territory: Earlier this year, its American author Sherry Jones discovered that
Random House, which had decided to publish the novel and paid an advance for it,
changed its mind and dropped the book. The publishing house did so after receiving
unfavourable notices from a critic who was shown the manuscript, and following Internet
chatter that suggested that the book would be highly controversial. Ironically, Random
House publishes Salman Rushdie, who knows a thing or two about those who seek to
silence others. When Random House pulled out of publishing the book, Rushdie
expressed his disappointment, calling it “censorship by fear.”
A couple of years ago the British government praised the British media for its restraint in
not republishing the Danish cartoons that have offended many Muslims. The state
department has also called those cartoons offensive. The problem though is that it
makes free expression a matter of accounting, of balancing costs and benefits. We are
all judges now, preferring the good of public safety to the harm of public disorder and
death threats. How did we get here?
I do want to emphasize one aspect here: we have to decouple free speech from cultural
relativism. It is a British right, rooted in ancient liberties for which Lilleburn and John
Wilkes fought and went to jail, and which Milton campaigned with passion for. I was born
in India; and I derive my position not only from Voltaire’s defence of ideas he disagreed
with, or Milton in Areopagitica, or John Stuart Mill’s thoughts, but also from my own
traditions and thinkers, too. The Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore wanted India to
awaken in that heaven of freedom “where the mind is without fear and the head is held
high”. Mahatma Gandhi had said “freedom is not worth having if it does not connote
freedom to err.”
Freedom of expression, then, was not only the product of Western Enlightenment; it
belonged to all of us. And it included the right to say something outrageous, something
offensive and even something stupid. Speaking to Der Spiegel after the Danish cartoons
were published by Jyllands Posten, Pnina Werbner of Keele University said: “There’s a
difference between a novel of great merit […] and […] cartoons that are in many ways
trivial, have little artistic merit and are deliberately provocative and gratuitous.”
But who decides artistic merit? What constitutes provocation? In the neat world of
academic distinctions, Werbner may be able to separate the two and say, Rushdie yes,
cartoons no. But the assassin will target both. If the priority is to avoid provoking him, we
have lost the battle already, for he wants total silence. To take a sartorial analogy, it is
like telling women not to wear miniskirts because they’ll inflame passions. There are no
half-measures, like checking the appropriate length of the skirt. In such a circumscribed
universe, it is hijab or bust.
Rynja, who published Sherry Jones’s novel, says he opposes censorship and
champions free speech. Gibson Square has also published Robert Pape’s study of
suicide terrorism, “Dying to Win”, and its forthcoming titles include the memoir of
Levrenti Beria, Stalin’s KGB chief, by his son Sergio, and a book about the killing of
Father Popieluszko, which led to the unravelling of Polish Communism. If anything,
Gibson Square is an equal opportunity offender.
It is in that spirit that I wish to emphasise that mine is not a tantrum about one particular
religion. In December 2004, the Birmingham Repertory staged a play called Behzti
(Dishonour) which dealt with a rape and murder in a Sikh community centre. Before
staging the play, the company had held discussions with leaders of the local Sikh
community to gauge their feelings and likely response. Those discussions did not really
help; once the play was performed, a group of angry Sikhs protested, and one day, they
stormed the theatre. Fearing escalating tension and further public unrest, the authorities
suggested to the theatre company that it should reconsider the programme. The theatre
group closed the production.
Instead of standing up for Britain’s ‘ancient liberties’, then minister in charge of racial
equality, Fiona Mactaggart, said: ‘When people are moved by theatre to protest … it is a
great thing… that is a sign of the free speech which is so much a part of the British
tradition.’ Some of us will be visiting the exhibition later this afternoon; I doubt if there are
many documents which show those aspects of the British tradition in good light.
In a post-modernist twist, the minister had transformed the notion of protest theatre –
one which forces audiences to think again and demand social change – into one where
those resisting change protest against the play, to prevent it from being staged in the
first place. And somehow, in Mactaggart’s Orwellian universe, that protest, which
stifles free speech, becomes a sign of freedom of expression, and, weirdly enough, a
part of the British tradition. Suddenly, it is no longer traditional to tolerate views you
disagree with; tradition has come to mean that you impose your views violently on
others, or to prevent others from hearing views with which you disagree.
And yet, if tradition is to mean a set of customs or practices that have evolved over time,
then Mactaggart may have been on to something. For acquiescing with bullies seems to
be the emerging tradition in Britain. This is where we have come, twenty years after the
fatwa. Some blinked at that time, so others taking offence believe they, too, will get the
rest of us to blink, if they shout loudly enough. Lack of resolve at the first time,
rewarding those who called for a ban on the book, and honouring with a Knightood Iqbal
Sacranie, former head of a Muslim organisation in Britain, even though he had not
objected to calls for Rushdie’s death has emboldened others : they think they, too,
should get away with it. This is mutually-assured madness.
This leads to narrowing our public dialogue and discourse. It has now become
acceptable for anyone upset over anything to demand an apology at best, or a ban, at
worst. That they don’t succeed each time is a good thing, but for how long?
It is time to say: enough.
The same month Sikhs were expressing their disapproval in Birmingham,
James Anstice, a lecturer, was upset because Madam Tussaud’s museum in
London had displayed a nativity scene in which the football star David
Beckham and his wife Victoria, or ‘Posh Spice’, were dressed up as
Joseph and Mary. Actors Hugh Grant and Samuel Jackson were shepherds,
Kylie Minogue was an angel, and George W Bush, Tony Blair and the Duke of
Edinburgh stood in as the three wise men. Anstice was angry about this, and he
destroyed the Beckham statue. The next year at his trial, he was given a light fine and
discharged conditionally. In early 2005, some 47,000 Christians complained to the
British Broadcasting Corporation over its screening of Jerry Springer: The Opera, and a
Christian group even launched a private blasphemy suit against the corporation. If the
show is not blasphemous, a spokesman of the group, Christian Voice, said, ‘Nothing in
Britain is sacred.’
In 2006, a group of self-proclaimed Hindu activists attacked Asia House, an art gallery in
central London, which was showing the works of Maqbul Fida Husain, who is 92 years old,
and is easily India’s most widely-known painter. The reason for their anger: Husain
has depicted Hindu deities in the nude. Husain has been the target of a vicious
campaign in India where over a thousand spurious cases against him have been filed.
And again in 2006, on a Sunday afternoon, London’s most famous street in the city’s
East End, Brick Lane, saw a bunch of 60 men and women marching up and down,
seeking to stop the filming of Monica Ali’s acclaimed eponymous novel. They claimed
Brick Lane dishonoured the Sylheti Bangladeshi community. They succeeded partly; the
production company had to move elsewhere, but the film got made. However, when it
was premiered, the royal family avoided attending the event, for fear of offending the
The protesters at Brick Lane were careful to emphasise that their problem with the novel
was not so much about faith, as about the way Bangladeshis were presented in the
novel, which takes the notion of such protests to a different level, moving it beyond faith,
and into the realm of any specific interest group. Indeed, intolerance has moved beyond
religion: In 2002, Paul Kelleher (since jailed for causing criminal damage) beheaded a
statue of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher using his cricket bat at London’s
Guildhall. The Conservative Party at one point forced its then MP (and now London
mayor) Boris Johnson to apologise to Liverpudlians because a Spectator editorial (he
edited the magazine at that time) said Liverpool’s residents wallowed in victimhood – a
remark that upset Liverpudlians.
Let us spend a few minutes over Bradford, to understand why. There, a group
of Muslims decided to burn copies of The Satanic Verses, whose main thrust was that it
was a post-modern fable about migration and the hybridisation that follows, where
identities no longer remain pristine and pure, but intermingle, transforming themselves
and the society around them.
Rushdie dared to imagine an alternate universe, with a central character hallucinating
and going mad, who thinks he is at the focal point of the birth of a great religion, and
pictures himself at its centre, visualising himself as the messenger. In so doing, he goes
deep into the abiding mystery of Islam: did Satan, at any stage, deceive Mohammed into
believing that there was nothing wrong in worshipping Lat, Uzza and Manat, the pagan
goddesses of the pre-Islamic world? Did Mohammed realise the mistake when
Archangel Gabriel told him so, and then he disowned the verses, bringing Islam
back to its monotheistic path?
Far from being an insult, here was an imaginative way to explore the nature and
meaning of inspiration. Rushdie explained once: “The main character (an Indian movie
star) is going insane. He decides to step out of his life and step away from it. He is losing
his mind and is becoming convinced that he is, in some way, the Archangel….
(The novel) is about angels and devils and about how it’s very difficult to establish ideas
of morality in a world, which has become so uncertain that it is difficult to even agree on
what is happening. When one can’t agree on a description of reality, it is very hard to
agree on whether that reality is good or evil, right or wrong. Angels and devils are
becoming confused ideas…. What is supposed to be angelic often has disastrous
results, and what is supposed to be demonic is quite often something with which one
must have sympathy. It (the novel) is an attempt to come to grips with a sense of the
crumbling moral fabric or at least for the reconstruction of old simplicities. It is also about
the attempt of somebody like myself who is basically a person without a formal religion,
to make some kind of accommodation with the renewed force of religion in the world;
what it means, what the religious experience is.’
It was an attempt to come to grips with the disunities and discontinuities around us, to
discover an inner moral core, binding our fabric – was misinterpreted as an attack on a
faith, and that interpretation has clouded any meaningful discourse on the novel.
But this, as readers of Rushdie would probably infer from another of his novels,
Haroun and the Sea of Stories, was P2C2E, or a Process Too Complicated To Explain.
Far easier for the imam, then, to proclaim: ‘Death to Rushdie’, for raising doubt, for his
certainties must prevail.
To be sure, once the fatwa was declared, many authors, politicians, editors, and
academics came to Rushdie’s defence. The advocacy group ARTICLE 19 – derived from
the Universal Declaration, also on display here – which was founded in 1987, almost as
if it was prescient of the Rushdie affair that was to unfold within two years, proved not
only its relevance, but also its integrity by standing up for the novelist during those
difficult years. Rushdie has described those years of exile as his “plague” years, when
few wanted to associate with him. This was the time when bookshops were being
threatened with bombs, and a few retailers decided not to stock the novel. (Some staff
at retailers like B Dalton’s protested; they insisted that their management should not
cave in). Police on Indian streets had shot at demonstrators, killing over a dozen people,
some of whom wanted to march to the British Council library in Bombay and raze it,
because they mistakenly thought the library carried copies of the book. I remember it
vividly; as a young reporter I walked alongside that procession; I also spoke to police
officers who had given the orders to shoot.
Elsewhere in the world too there were demonstrations in front of British embassies.
Tragically, Hitoshi Igarashi, the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses, was
murdered. Ettore Capriolo, its Italian translator, was wounded in an attack, as was
William Nygaard, its Norwegian publisher. That attack shook the senses of Oslo
residents: driving me to his home one day, a classmate of mine called Tore, now an
international investor who wishes he had more time to read good books, slowed his car
near the spot where Nygaard was attacked, and shook his head as he told me: ‘That
was wrong, very wrong. How can anyone attack a publisher?’
What a Norwegian investor understood so instinctively was lost on some men and
women of letters in London, paving the way for the collective acquiescence that
followed. The fatwa was the time to stand up, unequivocally, supporting free speech, free
expression, creativity, and imagination. A roll-call of those who blinked, then: In India,
Khushwant Singh, himself never one to shun controversy, told Penguin India, as its
editorial advisor, not to publish the book, because doing so would invite violent
repercussions. In Britain, Germaine Greer refused to sign the petition supporting The
Satanic Verses, because it was ‘about his own troubles,’ adding that Rushdie was ‘a
megalomaniac, an Englishman with a dark skin.’ While not condoning Rushdie’s
persecution, John Le Carre called the novel an affront to Muslim sensibilities. He then
added there was ‘no law in life or nature that says great religions may be insulted with
impunity.’ Edward de Bono, the lateral thinking guru, suggested that if Rushdie had the
right to speak – and in the process offend some – then the reader had the right to feel
offended. Roald Dahl, John Berger, Paul Johnson, and Hugh Trevor-Roper too thought
writing the book was somehow Rushdie’s mistake and he had invited trouble.
Would they also blame the young girl wearing a miniskirt for attracting wolf whistles, if
not a sexual assault, for inviting trouble?
The comparison with the miniskirt is not coincidental, nor facetious. As Rushdie noted in
an essay subsequently, those who opposed his work were also those against rock
music, miniskirts, and kissing in public. They were against individuals who stand out,
who take charge of their own lives. (As Christopher Hitchens astutely noted after the
failed bombs at London’s nightclubs that greeted Gordon Brown’s assumption of office
as Britain’s prime minister, the terrorists had targeted locations where young people
gather, precisely because they objected to hedonistic liberalism).
Writers noted that danger: If Brick Lane has a message, it is of the gradual assertion of
an immigrant woman’s identity, even in a claustrophobic surrounding. Ali’s protagonist is
a 19-year-old woman called Nazneen, who has come to London in an arranged
marriage. Her husband wants her to stay at home and bear children. Ultimately, he
leaves Britain, but she chooses to stay on. If anything, the predominantly male
protesters against the filming were troubled by this portrait of an emancipated woman,
because she threatened their hierarchy and control over their lives. ‘This is England,’ a
friend, Razia, tells Nazneen. ‘You can do whatever you like.’ Ten years earlier, in The
Black Album, Hanif Kureishi had warned us of what lay ahead if the fundamentalists
were ignored. In The Satanic Verses, Rushdie had presciently called that ghetto ‘the city
visible but unseen’.
No one was questioning a reader’s right to feel offended. The issue was what the
offended person would do in response. You don’t kill a chef who produces a bad meal.
You don’t tear up the movie screen when a film disappoints you. You don’t demand your
money back if a novel you buy turns out to be not to your liking. You switch the channel
you don’t like, you turn off the radio, or you close the book. You don’t go to that
restaurant again. You move on.
And yet, such reasonable responses are not considered enough by the fundamentalists,
and their liberal supporters felt it was wrong even to imagine an alternate universe. And
why? Because doing so would offend some people, and they might act irrationally.
If I were a Muslim, I’d find that offensive: that’s so hugely patronising about millions of
Muslims whose main concerns in life are completely different from what self-nominated
leaders of their faith claim to be.
The very idea of curbing one’s freedom over perceived offence was preposterous; it runs
counter to the very notion of dialogue, argument, and debate, on which liberal,
democratic, civilised societies were built. And yet, when the crunch came, a few Labour
Party MPs like Vaz marched in solidarity with some Muslims protesting Rushdie. Worse,
Iqbal Sacranie, who later headed the Muslim Council of Britain, was to say: ‘Death,
perhaps, is a bit too easy for him… his mind must be tormented for the rest of his life
unless he asks for forgiveness to Almighty Allah.’ To its shame, the Labour Government
knighted Sacranie before knighting Rushdie, indicating a peculiar sense of priorities.
The fatwa has made the taking of offence the norm. The beheading of a statue in
London, the attack on a theatre in Birmingham, the killing of a film-maker in Amsterdam,
the assassination of a translator in Tokyo, the ransacking of a research institute in India
– have occurred with relative impunity, because such attacks don’t appear surprising
anymore. Taking offence is becoming the norm. We have come to expect that if
someone writes, or paints, or imagines something that others find offensive, the
offended party will take the law in its hands and impose silence.
This should outrage us. Instead, some of us have been telling the writers to think more
pleasant thoughts, the artists to curb their imagination, the playwrights to tackle safer
topics, and not provoke the beast within all communities and religions. The next step will
be to tell the student not to walk to the Chinese tank commander, ask the
Burmese monks to accept their fate and not confront the authorities.
When prison guards refused to give him a pencil or a notebook, Alexander Solzhenitsyn
began memorising the novel he wanted to write, while in the Soviet gulag. On the island
of Buru, Pramoedya Ananta Toer did the same, and when he was finally released, the
world was richer, with his Buru Quartet. They lived in extreme, closed societies, where
words were precious, where words had to be smuggled in – and out. (I took several
copies of Pramoedya’s books to Indonesia during many visits there during the Suharto
era, for friends in Jakarta who could not buy the banned books). In Ray Bradbury’s
Fahrenheit 451, after books are obliterated people walk around an island, reciting great
works of literature – when words are suppressed in one form, they emerge in another
form – to keep books alive.
In Haroun and the Sea of Stories, the Prince of Silence and the Foe of Speech is called
Khattam-Shud, ruling a land called Chup (silence), which has a cult that promotes
muteness. It is a land at peace, in harmony. But that outward stability conceals inner
fragility. Such societies force people to live a lie: that their contrived cheer and forced
harmony are superior. Open societies appear brittle and frail because they are
cacophonous, where everyone can contradict everyone else, and where nothing is
sacred. But, Rushdie wrote: ‘All those arguments and debates, all that openness, had
created powerful bonds of fellowship between them… The Chupwalas (those from the
silent land) turned out to be a disunited rabble, suspicious and distrustful of one another.
The land of Gup (talk) is bathed in endless sunshine, while over in Chup, it is always the
middle of the night.’
It is time to move firmly on the side of noise and light, if we are not to continue to
circumscribe our thoughts, watch our words, and swallow our meanings. The alternative
is the middle of that dark night. And the bright light visible in the sky may not be a
shining star, but an exploding plane.
Everyone has the right to speak; the right not to listen; and the right to be a schmuck
(like David Irving, who deserves his freedom as much as does Orhan Pamuk). Maybe
those Danish cartoonists are schmucks, and the European editors are only trying to
provoke. We should still support those rights. Otherwise, we have to swallow our words
and thoughts. And if we do that, we shall have little to talk about and less to debate. And
our conversation with those whom we must not provoke will only be about agreeable
topics, like the weather – whose unpredictable performance has brought us here today.