If you can’t say something nice, shut up

Minette Marin on New Labour and Geert Wilders and Fitna.

Admittedly the film does not try to distinguish between Islamist terrorists and ordinary law-abiding Muslims, or to show how Muslims have lived together peacefully with others all over the world for centuries. So Fitna is extremely unbalanced and, in that sense, misleading. However, what the film does show are precisely the things, I believe, that deeply worry a lot of non-Muslims. Again and again we are told that Islam is a religion of peace and equality; how does that tally with some of what the Koran says?


What makes such anxieties really toxic is the feeling that they are suppressed and ignored by our government. Critics of Islam, however reasonable, know they are likely to fall foul of the many new Labour laws against freedom of expression, in particular against incitement to religious hatred, which was enacted under Muslim pressure.

Precisely. Critics of Islam, however reasonable, also know they are likely to fall foul of people who have, as Kenan Malik says, internalized this idea that criticism of Islam is 1) taboo and 2) in and of itself ‘defamation.’ As I mentioned, the copy editor for Does God Hate Women? flagged up ‘possible defamation’ in eight places. What I didn’t spell out (but you probably guessed) is that all the items cited were simply criticism, with arguments and evidence, of a kind that is utterly taken for granted in ordinary public discourse. They were not in any normal sense ‘defamation’ – it’s just that they were not flattering. The copy editor seems to have made exactly the leap that some protectors of religion would like everyone to make, and equated frank criticism of religious ideas and practices with ‘defamation.’ The copy editor seems to have drawn the conclusion that frank criticism of Islam (as I noted, there were no such queries about other religions, which got their share of criticism) is somehow illegitimate.

The fact that this even comes up is, it seems to me, a very bad sign. Even if nothing comes of it, even if everyone concerned decides ‘no problem,’ there’s still something dreadfully thought-stifling in this queasy anxious nit-picking readiness to make criticism and defamation the same thing.

(It’s also, of course, a very funny joke that this readiness, this internalized censorship, is precisely part of the subject of the book. It is very funny that the copy editor read the book and nevertheless proceeded to enact the very kind of befuddled censoriousness that is under discussion. ‘Defamation,’ indeed! Give me a break!

40 Responses to “If you can’t say something nice, shut up”