Why bother

Kenan Malik reminds us of the wise and reasonable words of Khomeini when he put out the hit on Rushdie and his accomplices.

[O]n February 14, 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa. “I inform all zealous Muslims of the world,” he proclaimed, “that the author of the book entitled The Satanic Verses and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its contents are sentenced to death.”

Note that – not just Rushdie, but also all those involved in its publication who were aware of its contents should be murdered by religious zealots. What a nice guy. It’s a shame he never had a chance to meet Torquemada; they would have gotten along so well.

And of course it’s so sensible and fair – that all human beings in the world should be required to say nothing about Islam that fails to meet with Khomeini’s approval, on pain of death. Islam is not incidentally but centrally a set of laws and restrictions and limitations that control the lives of people who are subject to them (people who ‘submit’ to them), but people are not allowed to discuss those laws in a way Khomeini (and his successors) might not approve (and to be safe of course we should understand that as in any way at all, since we don’t know for sure what they do or don’t approve). So an intrusive controlling demanding religion full of sexist laws and arbitrary restrictions must be immune from criticism and discussion, because if we discuss it the wrong way we might be murdered.

[T]he argument at the heart of the anti-Rushdie case – that it is morally unacceptable to cause offence to other cultures – is now widely accepted. In the 20 years between the publication of The Satanic Verses and the withdrawal of The Jewel of Medina, the fatwa has in effect become internalised. “Self-censorship”, Shabir Akhtar, a British Muslim philosopher, suggested at the height of the Rushdie affair, “is a meaningful demand in a world of varied and passionately held convictions. What Rushdie publishes about Islam is not just his business. It is everyone’s – not least every Muslim’s – business.”

What’s wrong with that idea? Anything?

Yes. What’s wrong with it is the implicit assumption that passionately held convictions deserve – perhaps even have a ‘right’ to? – forebearance and polite silence. But convictions aren’t things that need or ought to have forebearance and polite silence. Convictions that can’t survive the encounter with other convictions probably aren’t worth passionate tenacity; at any rate it isn’t possible to protect them without paralyzing mental life, and a universally paralyzed mental life is not a good thing.

Norm has more.

The liberal principle that we may interfere with the actions of another (only) to prevent harm to others does have its difficulties since, like many other conceptual boundaries, the boundaries of the concept of harm are fuzzy. But the principle, if it is one, that freedom of speech must be curbed to avoid offending people, is manifestly a qualification of the right of free speech that all but destroys the usefulness of the right. For there are no boundaries on what people can be offended by.

Quite. And if you broaden the meaning of ‘harm’ to include ‘offense’ then you make speech and its cognates unable to do what they are centrally for. A thought or an argument or an idea that can’t possibly offend anyone is a very bland mild tame idea, that makes nothing much happen. Ideas like that aren’t worth bothering with. We can’t have ideas that matter without the risk of offending someone.

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