What we talk about when we talk about riots

Johann responds to the riots. He apologizes humbly; he explains that he only meant that free speech is a good idea in general but not of course if it offends anyone, or risks offending anyone, or might offend anyone if the wind were from the north, or could conceivably offend a very touchy person who hadn’t eaten in four days and had a hangover; he says it has always been his view that writers and journalists and thinkers and polemicists should always first consult with the community, and the leaders of the community, and the spiritual guides of the community, and every cleric within a five thousand mile radius, and Wall Street, and the tide tables, and a homeopath, before writing anything longer than a shopping list or more substantive than a signature on a check. He says he doesn’t know what got into him when he wrote that article that so offended some very nice people (men mostly, or entirely) in Kolkata that they rioted so enthusiastically that the central city was shut down. He says it must have been something he et. He says from now on he will write only friendly, indeed affectionate things about religion.

No he doesn’t. He does the other thing.

What should an honest defender of free speech say in this position? Every word I wrote was true. I believe the right to openly discuss religion, and follow the facts wherever they lead us, is one of the most precious on earth — especially in a democracy of a billion people rivven with streaks of fanaticism from a minority of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. So I cannot and will not apologize.

Attaboy. Not that it so much as occurred to me that he would say anything else.

It’s also worth going through the arguments of the Western defenders of these protesters, because they too aren’t going away. Already I have had e-mails and bloggers saying I was “asking for it” by writing a “needlessly provocative” article. When there is a disagreement and one side uses violence, it is a reassuring rhetorical stance to claim both sides are in the wrong, and you take a happy position somewhere in the middle. But is this true? I wrote an article defending human rights, and stating simple facts. Fanatics want to arrest or kill me for it. Is there equivalence here?

Uh – no. We need to defend human rights, and we need to defend our right to defend human rights, as people rioting and arresting and threatening make all too horribly clear. It’s bottomlessly depressing that anyone thinks Johann did anything conceivably remotely wrong, any more than Sayed Pervez Kambaksh did, as Johann points out:

[C]ompare my experience to that of journalists living under religious-Islamist regimes. Because generations of people sought to create a secular space, when I went to the police, they offered total protection. When they go to the police, they are handed over to the fanatics — or charged for their “crimes.” They are people like Sayed Pervez Kambaksh, the young Afghan journalism student who was sentenced to death for downloading a report on women’s rights. They are people like the staff of Zanan, one of Iran’s leading reform-minded women’s magazines, who have been told they will be jailed if they carry on publishing. They are people like the 27-year old Muslim blogger Abdel Rahman who has been seized, jailed and tortured in Egypt for arguing for a reformed Islam that does not enforce shariah law.


At the end of the piece, as at the end of the Indy piece that so outraged the rioters, Johann urges people to read B&W. If I had a flag I would wave it.

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