Support Free Speech, Blasphemous and Otherwise.
by: John Tyrrell
Monday, 30 September 2013 is International Blasphemy Rights Day. Use the day to exercise your rights. You can even blaspheme against Apathetic Agnosticism. It's your right.
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It is twenty-five years since the controversy over The Satanic Verses erupted, and to note the occasion, the Huffington Post Featured a blog entry by Todd Green, Ph.D., assistant professor of religion at Luther College.* You can read it here:
According to Green's brief bio, he writes and conducts research on secularization and Islamophobia in Europe. He is currently writing a book for Fortress Press that surveys the history of Islamophobia in Europe and North America. And I think the article should be read in light of Green's focus on Islamophobia. While he does not come out flatly against free speech, Green seems to think free speech is somehow unfair to supposedly powerless Muslims. And in my view, through this article, he misrepresents The Satanic Verses, he misrepresents Rushdie's influence prior to the controversy, and he comes to an unacceptable conclusion.
The novel offended many Muslims because of its portrayal of Islam as a deceitful, ignorant, and sexually deviant religion. Rushdie described Mecca as 'Jahilia,' a term signifying the period of ignorance prior to the revelations received by Muhammad. He referred to Muhammad as 'Mahound,' a medieval Christian designation that implied Muhammad was some kind of false deity. He gave the names of Muhammad's wives to twelve prostitutes in a brothel. And most controversially, he invoked a discredited tradition in Islam, the so-called "satanic verses," in which Satan inspired Muhammad to compromise with the people of Mecca and to allow them to continue to worship other deities in an attempt to lure them to Islam.
The novel - and it is a novel - is written as largely magical realism and as such is not to be interpreted literally. The supposedly offensive passages are written in a section of the novel which is a dream sequence - which in an overall unreal story line takes us one step further from reality. Quite simply, Rushdie did not in the novel considered in its entirety present Islam as a deceitful, ignorant, and sexually deviant religion. To make that claim is dishonest. It lifts the dream out of context. But the protests over the novel came about because people who had not read the novel were told that Islam was insulted by the novel. The vast majority never turned a page and read. (That includes the Ayatollah Khomeini who issued a death sentence solely based on hearsay.)
Green does criticize the response of Muslims, but then goes on to say "it is Rushdie's defense of freedom of expression that deserves more scrutiny. Rushdie and some of his more outspoken supporters adopted a fairly uncritical approach to freedom of expression, assuming at times that this freedom benefits all members of Western societies equally." And this is Green's view of the problem. It's that supposed** assumption. In his opinion, Muslims don't benefit equally with the rest of us from free speech. And so he reaches the conclusion at the end of the article that we have to level the playing field between the Salman Rushdies on the one hand and the West's Muslim minorities on the other. And the implication is that we should limit, though not necessarily eliminate, criticism of Islam and Muslims in order to level that playing field.
But - remember back 25 years. How did Salman Rushdie get all that power that the playing field needs to be levelled? As Green writes: It is quite ironic that Rushdie, an ex-Muslim, wielded more power to shape popular opinions of Islam than all of Britain's Muslims combined.
I'd say that is not true. Before the controversy erupted, Rushdie was a literary author. Known to those who read literature, and mostly just in England, but not well known to those who read books for entertainment, and almost unknown to the non-book-reading general public worldwide - the vast majority. Rushdie was not famous. He did not wield power. What gave Rushdie power were the protests. That's the real irony. Not the one that Green misidentifies, but the real irony is that it was the protests of Britain's Muslims, India's Muslims, and the fatwa of the Ayatollah Khomeini that gave Rushdie and his book the publicity that brought it to the attention of the wider public.
Any power and influence Rushdie has as a supporter and promoter of free speech and as a critic of Islam can be attributed directly to Muslims using acceptable free speech and unacceptable violence to try and silence him. Muslims captured the attention of the world with their protests and made Salman Rushdie a living martyr. Muslims made him world famous, not just to the literary minority, but to everyone.
It's like the Danish cartoons, mention of which Green also throws in in his argument about levelling the playing field. No-one outside of Denmark would know about them if a handful of Danish imams had not made a point of circulating them around the Islamic world, deliberately stirring up violent protests.
Any unevenness in the playing field is not because the supporters of free speech have an unfair advantage in using it. No - it is ever present threat of violence that makes the playing field uneven and makes some voices silent. And that's where the free speech playing field need to be levelled - remove the threat of violence from those exercising free speech.
* Which Luther College is not clear. There are several.
** I say "supposed" because he provides no evidence to support the idea that Rushdie actually made this assumption.
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