Thursday, October 02, 2008

Another 'free speech' controversy


As usual, it involves Them (not because They are particularly responsible for frustrating free expression, but because They preoccupy the minds of newspaper editors). The story is that a debut novelist named Sherry Jones wrote a book about Muhammad's wife, Aisha, as part of a $100,000 book deal with Random House. An historian at the University of Texas, who happens to specialise in Islamic history, was given an advance galley of the book and described it as both historically inaccurate and offensively anti-Muslim. In all likelihood, if Random House was prepared to pay that much for a debut novelist, they were going to publicise it like crazy. It's a big investment, and so I suppose they expected the frisson of a juicy novel about the original patriarch of Islam and his wives would result in big bucks. Well, the whiff of a backlash caused Random House to freak out. They postponed the book deal purportedly on account of safety fears, and then signed a termination agreement with the author so that she could pitch it to someone else. Gibson Square in London, (the publisher of Melanie Phillips' racist crap, Londonistan), took up the offer. The millionaire owner's house in Barnsbury was then clumsily attacked, apparently by three young males who are said to have shoved a petrol bomb through the letter box. But said publisher is now standing firm, resolute, unwilling to be forced back into the "dark ages" (or into the red, as it used to be called).

So, now it's a 'free speech' issue, and the predictable battle lines are being manned. The right, and their liberal allies, insist that it's a straightforward matter of Anglosphere traditions of free speech being subverted by Johnny Foreigner (I have decoded the artful euphemisms to save you the trouble). Well-meaning liberals say that there's no such thing as free speech, that there exist taboos and restrictions on expression that we barely even acknowledge as well as ones that we are all perfectly well aware of. They say that 'we' defer to the sensibilities of many other groups, but not Muslims, and thereby communicate that 'we' don't give a damn about what they consider important. Moreover, since this is connected to the conspicuous dehumanisation of Muslims in the context of the 'war on terror', anti-racists ought to take the side of the embattled community and expose the demands for 'free speech' as in fact demands for the protection of racism. I will not equivocate. I find the latter view far more persuasive and sociologically realistic than the former, which is obviously implicit in the way I've presented the arguments. I am not arguing for a book to be banned, but nor am I going to be picketing Random House: they aren't obliged to publish a book if they don't want to, and there's no indication that they broke their contractual agreements. It is unfortunate that publishers have so much more bargaining power than writers, but that isn't a problem peculiar to the case of Sherry Jones. This is not a case for protected speech. As for Gibson Square Books Ltd, there is no serious threat to its owner: the three stooges have been arrested, and they don't appear to have been professional operatives if they were nabbed by police at the scene of the crime. In truth, the publisher will have the damages repaired, lap up the publicity and reap the profits. That is business, not bravery. Yet there is something troubling about the well-meaning liberal argument.

This is an example of the kind of argument I'm referring to. It rightly estimates that the commitment to free speech is really fictitious. It rightly judges that publishing anti-Muslim material in this day and age is far from heroic. And it rejects the idea that there could ever be absolute free speech, arguing instead that such restrictions as do apply should be fair and judicious (and, one could add, cautiously applied). We have plenty of examples across Europe that support the first point: here are a few, a small sample but compelling enough in themselves. And there are plenty of curtailments of expression that have been designed with Muslims in mind, such as restrictions on the wearing of the hijab in several European countries, albeit wearing the hijab is an entirely harmless procedure that could offend no one but a bigot. There is also a restriction on speech that 'glorifies' terrorism. There is also a restriction on the kinds of published material one might possess, such that the so-called 'lyrical terrorist' Samina Malik was prosecuted and convicted for possessing materials likely to be useful for terrorism, despite the fact that she was obviously not a plotter. On the matter of who gets protected and who doesn't, recall that it was suggested in 2005 that Muslims might be entitled to the same protection against bigotry as other groups targeted by racists. This was another occasion for a 'free speech' binge, in which liberals moaned that their right to criticise religion was being attacked (this was false). And shortly thereafter, there was a legal case in which Nick Griffin and Mark Collett of the BNP were acquitted of incitement to racial hatred, in part because of their defense arguing that they had attacked Islam as a religion, not Muslims as such. The fact is that Muslims can experience racism every day, but may not expect any help from the law because it is not officially considered racism. This says a great deal.

Plain enough. However, there is a trap in basing the argument too much on respect for a particular sensibility, inasmuch as it is not obvious that one can ascribe a particular sensibility to a whole class of people. The example of The Satanic Verses makes this clear. Though it is clear that many Muslims were offended by it, it is not clear that most wanted to see it banned, much less see the author get done in by an amateur assassin. And I suspect that most Muslims couldn't really give a toss what some trash novelist says about their religion. Even if I am wrong in those inferences, the basic point remains that discussing the issue in these terms hands the argument to those who claim to be defending 'free speech', who can say that you're actually deferring to the sensibilities of 'extremism', to sensibilities that many Muslims reject. The real issue is that 'free speech' is not involved here, at all. While commentators including Salman Rushdie and Geoffrey Robertson QC bluster about "self-censorship" and "cowardice" on the part of the publishers, the reality is far more prosaic.

The mundane truth is that one publisher protected its reputation by postponing and then cancelling publication of a putatively offensive anti-Muslim novel, while another intends to build on its reputation by publishing said material. The big publishers avoid controversy, the small ones crave it: who knew? Despite the energetic efforts of polemicists and hacks to produce a dense collage of imagery and associations whose total effect is to incriminate Muslims in particular as an egregious threat to free expression, this is not about courage or Enlightenment or ethics, but about strategies for conquering market share. As far as I know, neither publisher has been the recipient of a legal threat, and the current publisher is protected by the state in the unlikely event that a handful of sad young arsonists tries to burn his house down again. There has not been any censorship worth the name. If there were to be censorship, perhaps in the form of a legal challenge to prevent publication, then there would be an argument. And if a court decided that the book was actually in violation of the law - unlikely given the law's bias against Muslims - one could then talk about whether censorship was justified, what the limits on free speech should be, etc. As it is, 99% of this melodrama has been concocted by overheated imaginations.