What is deemed “offence to a community”

Kenan Malik on the attack on Rushdie and free inquiry:

The Rushdie affair was a watershed in British political and cultural life, thrusting to the surface issues such as radical Islam, terrorism, the boundaries of free speech and the limits of tolerance. It was also a turning point in the way many thought about these issues. There developed in its wake both a greater hostility to Muslims and a stronger sense of the moral unacceptability of giving offence to other cultures or faiths in a plural society.

Rushdie was charting this new terrain, capturing the sense of displacement and dislocation, which he found exhilarating. The Satanic Verses was, he wrote while in hiding, “a love-song to our mongrel selves”, a work that “celebrates hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs”. Many critics of The Satanic Verses believed “that intermingling with a different culture will inevitably weaken and ruin their own. I am of the opposite opinion.”

Where Rushdie celebrated the unstitching of traditional boundaries, others yearned for new certainties. Fundamentalist Islam had previously had little presence within western Muslim communities. Now it gained a foothold, providing the certitude and purity that many began to crave.

It seems to me this is Kenan talking about the very things Maugham accuses him of failing to talk about. It’s also Kenan talking about a subject he knows a good deal more about than Maugham does.

Today, many believe that plural societies can only function properly if people self-censor by limiting, in the words of the sociologist Tariq Modood, “the extent to which they subject each other’s fundamental beliefs to criticism”.*

I take the opposite view. It is in a plural society that free speech becomes particularly important. In such societies, it is both inevitable and, at times, important that people offend the sensibilities of others. Inevitable, because where different beliefs are deeply held, clashes are unavoidable. They are better openly resolved than suppressed in the name of “respect”.

And important, because any kind of social progress means offending some deeply held sensibilities. “You can’t say that!” is all too often the response of those in power to having their power challenged. To accept that certain things cannot be said is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be challenged.

What is deemed “offence to a community” is more often a debate within communities. That’s why so many flashpoints over offensiveness involve minority artists – not just Rushdie but Hanif Kureishi, Monica Ali, Gurpreet Kaur BhattiSooreh HeraMF Husain and many others.

Rushdie’s critics no more spoke for the Muslim community than Rushdie did. Both represented different strands of opinion within Muslim communities. Rushdie gave voice to a radical, secular sentiment that in the 1980s was highly visible. Rushdie’s critics spoke for some of the most conservative strands. It is the progressive voices that such conservatives seek to silence that are most betrayed by constraints on the giving of offence. It is their challenge to traditional norms that are often deemed “offensive”.

And Maugham is on their side, while preening himself on being the more Enlightened one.

*See Tariq Modood’s comment @ 2 for clarification

3 Responses to “What is deemed “offence to a community””