A licence to be offended

The case of The Jewel of Medina shows that the real threat to free speech comes not from Islamic radicalism but from elite cultural cowardice.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Martin Rynja of Gibson Square publishers should be congratulated for saying he wants to publish The Jewel of Medina after Random House bottled it.

The novel by Sherry Jones tells the story of the prophet Mohammed’s relationship with his 14-year-old wife Aisha. Random House had it lined up for publication, but, feeling nervous, it first sent the book to academics for advice. One responded: ‘You can’t play with a sacred history and turn it into soft-core pornography.’ (Why can’t you? Who says so? Novelists can do what they like.) Random House got cold feet, and in August it announced that it was pulling the book because it ‘might be offensive to some in the Muslim community’ and could ‘incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment’ (1).

It was a grey day for free speech. One of the biggest publishers in the world had held back a book on the basis that there are some things novelists ‘can’t’ or shouldn’t say and because it feared a possible irate reaction amongst a small minority of Muslims. After the precautionary principle, we have pre-emptive censorship: the metaphorical burning of books by publishers themselves on the grounds that their content might, just possibly, offend someone.

Thankfully, though, there are some small publishers with cojones. Gibson Square of London, headed by Martin Rynja, said it would publish The Jewel of Medina in the UK. And this week it paid the price of Random House’s gutless transformation of the novel into an internationally infamous tract that Muslims are bound to be riled by: Rynja’s home-cum-office was firebombed and he is now in hiding under armed police guard. His plans to publish The Jewel of Medina are in ‘suspended animation’ (2).

Rynja may once have publicly denounced me as ‘Glenda Slagg’s twin’ after I wrote a scathing review for the New Statesman of another of his books, Londonistan by Melanie Phillips (perhaps he is more tolerant of dangerous books than he is of damning book reviews?). But I would now like to declare myself Martin Rynja’s twin: someone who also passionately believes that there’s no such thing as ‘can’t’ when it comes to creative writing and that no book should ever be banned, burnt or bullied out of existence.

Yet we shouldn’t allow the ongoing battle of The Jewel of Medina to blind us to the wider war over free speech. Reading the coverage of the Medina controversy, one could be forgiven for thinking that the main threat to free speech today comes from a handful of Islamists wielding firebombs. The novelist Sherry Jones said ‘you have to ask whether a thug with a gun or a petrol bomb should be allowed to censor the people of Great Britain’, as if censorship is the work of a handful of weird-beards rather than the state or powerful publishing corporations (3). Others claim that ‘fear’ and ‘intimidation’ of the sort executed by the men who attacked Gibson Square is leading to censorship (4).

This gets things entirely the wrong way round. And it seriously underestimates the top-down cultural trends that have nurtured a new form of censorship over the past 10 to 20 years. The Medina episode shows that the true threat to free speech today comes not from Islamists but from a cowardly cultural elite, and from a political climate that positively encourages people to take offence and to campaign against words that ‘hurt’ them.

To claim that a few thugs are giving rise to censorship is to miss a trick – the trick, in fact. In reality, it is the already-existing fear amongst the cultural elite that gives rise to the thugs. Never mind Mohammed’s prophecy and a few individuals’ desire to protect it from ridicule; we should be far more concerned about the self-fulfilling prophecy that was the violent assault on Gibson Square. It was Random House’s caution, fuelled by the doubts of one non-Muslim academic, which transformed Sherry Jones’s book from what sounds like a fairly run-of-the-mill novel into an internationally talked-about possibly violence-inducing text. It was their safety-first, censorious instincts which guaranteed the book would become a flashpoint issue for Islamists whose Offence Antennae are permanently switched to overdrive.

Some have said, quite rightly, that those who threw the firebombs this week were acting out of ignorance; they haven’t even read the book, far less thought about it, evaluated it, debated it. Yet such ignorance is legitimised by Random House, whose attitude to The Jewel of Medina sent a clear message to the world: some material is so dodgy, so potentially dangerous, that it should be kept out of the public realm. A major publisher, backed by serious academics, elevated ignorance – ‘the condition of being unaware’ – over knowing, just to be on the safe side. If this week’s firebomb-throwers executed their action because they believe certain things about Mohammed ‘can’t’ be said, and that this book should never see the light of day because it ‘might be offensive’ to Muslims, then they were given a green light by the elite guardians of culture itself.

There have been numerous incidents in recent years where cultural institutions in Britain have pre-emptively censored content that ‘might be offensive’ to Muslims. The identity of terrorists in an episode of the BBC’s flagship hospital drama, Casualty, was changed from Islamists to animal rights extremists after pressure from BBC chiefs. A play called Up on the Roof, due to be performed by the Hull Truck Theatre Company, was rewritten after the Danish cartoon controversy in 2005; its Muslim character was changed to a Rastafarian.

The Barbican in London cut out sections of its production of Tamburlaine the Great for fear of offending Muslims. And the Royal Court Theatre in London – so often the home of daring new theatre – cancelled a reading of an adaptation of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata which was set in a Muslim heaven.

As with Random House’s reneging on The Jewel of Medina, the decisive factor in each of these bouts of self-gagging was not hard evidence that mass Muslim outrage is brimming under the surface of British society, waiting to burst forth, but rather caution amongst elite elements. In our deeply censorious climate, where the government has outlawed expressions of ‘religious hatred’ and city councils such as Brighton ban art that ‘incites hatred’, arts bodies are beginning to self-censor anything that might be construed as hateful. As I argued on spiked last year, where the Stasi controlled art in Soviet-era East Germany, ‘such an intrusion is not necessary in contemporary Britain; instead, arts institutions have a “Stasi of the mind”, a censorious official in their brains telling them to err on the side of caution and ditch anything that might cause a fuss’ (see How a Sensitivity Stasi is eroding artistic freedom, by Brendan O’Neill).

It is wrong to see Random House, major theatres, newspapers and other institutions as ‘capitulating’ to radical Islamism. This is the argument put forward even by those who recognise that cultural cowardice, rather than Islamist thuggery alone, plays a key role in the new censorship. This assumes that there is a coherent and active body of outraged Muslims that can be capitulated to. In truth, in every instance of public Muslim anger in recent years – from the Danish cartoon riots in the Middle East to the protests over Pope Benedict XVI’s comments about Mohammed – the disturbances have occurred after handwringing debates in the West about whether certain images should have been published or certain words spoken. Time and again, it is cultural self-doubt at the top of society that inflames an occasionally thuggish (and always shortlived) reaction on the streets.

Cultural bigwigs are not capitulating to anybody. Rather, the concern about what ‘might be offensive’ to Muslims is better understood as an externalisation of their own internal doubt about the role of art today: about the boundaries of art; what is sayable and unsayable; the relationship between artistic freedom and new notions of words-that-hurt. An already-existing, deeply ingrained lack of confidence and vision amongst our rulers is being projected on to the post-9/11 discussion of Muslim sensibilities. Strip away the exaggerated fear of a Muslim reaction against offensive art, and the coded concerns about ‘acts of violence by small segments’, and you will see an art-and-publishing world struggling to make sense of issues of sensitivity, PC, offensiveness, a world in such disarray and so unsure of its mission that it errs on the side of nurturing ignorance over pursuing enlightenment.

If the sometimes angry reaction against ‘offensive’ art is a product of the cultural elite’s own predictive fantasies, then it is also inflamed by the politics of complaint that underpins multiculturalism. At a time when we are continually told that words and disrespect can hurt fragile communities – and that it is up to the government to protect them through censorious legislation such as the Religious Hatred Act – it is not surprising that some self-serving Muslim leaders and radical Islamists leap upon any ‘anti-Muslim’ statement as something outrageous that mush be crushed. The firebombers in London this week, like the anti-Danish and Pope-mocking protesters before them, are better seen as the militant wing of mainstream multiculturalism rather than an alien institution that is ‘censoring the people of Great Britain’. They got their licence to be offended from the authorities.

The struggle to publish The Jewel of Medina is only one small battle in a far larger war, and the three alleged firebombers at Gibson Square are a mere symptom of a widespread culture of cowardice and ignorance. If we are serious about defending artistic integrity, completely free speech and the fullest public debate possible, then we should start by launching an intellectual firebombing of contemporary censorious trends.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. He is speaking at the debate ‘Poetry and Radicalism: Mouthing Off or Making a Difference?’, organised by the Institute of Ideas, at the Vibe Bar in London E1 on Tuesday 7 October. Other speakers include poet Chris McCabe, novelist Imogen Robertson, poet and playwright David Bowden, Times journalist Paul Dunn, and Dr Gary Day, fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. For information, and to book a ticket, click here.

Previously on spiked

Helene Guldberg said Salman Rushdie should be ashamed of his secular fatwa. Nathalie Rothschild reported from a demo against the filming of Brick Lane. Five authors of books on terrorism that were banned in the UK told us what wer’re missing out on. Brendan O’Neill welcomed the abolition of the blasphemy laws, but said Ofcom and others are keeping their censorious spirit alive.
Or read more at spiked issue Free speech.

(1) Respect for religion makes censorship the norm, Guardian, 30 September 2008

(2) Plans to publish controversial novel about wife of Mohammed suspended after firebomb attack on publisher’s home, Daily Mail, 2 October 2008

(3) Plans to publish controversial novel about wife of Mohammed suspended after firebomb attack on publisher’s home, Daily Mail, 2 October 2008

(4) Respect for religion makes censorship the norm, Guardian, 30 September 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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