Wednesday, June 20, 2007


For my thousandth post (yes, I know it seems like a million, and at least threequarters about poker), what better subject, given that I freely express myself no matter how boring, whiny or just stupid I'm feeling, than freedom of expression?

Although I do believe it has limits, I believe that limits are dangerous. I understand and appreciate the argument for having no bounds at all on free speech, and I don't at all discount it. I believe that shouting fire in a theatre should be punishable, shouting "kill the nigger" should be punishable, and denying that millions of people were killed as a means of inculcating hatred is a defamation, also punishable, but if there were the least hint that those beliefs opened the door to broader restrictions on speech, I would be in the no restrictions camp before you could say fuck on Channel 4.

What I think sets the things I listed apart from other forms of speech is that there is very broad acceptance that they are injurious. This is not to say that the majority should prevent the minority from speaking its mind, but that very few are going to argue that this is the kind of mind you should be speaking. This makes it very easy to side against the few, and I'm aware that that is a factor in considering these forms of speech unacceptable. I am not doctrinaire about this issue, except that I'm basically intolerant of restrictions on speech. I simply feel that these things are wrong. I explained in the post about Irving that even those who support the freest speech would support defamation laws, and that Holocaust denial can be seen as similar to lying about someone's reputation. We do not not permit that, and I'm not sure that a society that did would be a better place.

Can you defame a religion though? Or its sacred figures? I do think this is a tricky area, because the immediate answer seems to be "of course not", yet how does lying about Muhammad differ from lying about the Holocaust? We take the Holocaust to be factual because it is so well attested. For Muslims, Muhammad is equally well attested. The haditha give the facts about Muhammad in the same way that the survivors of the Holocaust give the facts about the camps. It is important, I think, to recognise that for followers of Islam there is an equally grave offence in gainsaying the haditha as there is in gainsaying the testimony of those who suffered in Auschwitz.

Would I support prosecutions of writers who wrote that Muhammad was a pigfucker and a lunatic? No, I would not. (I do not in fact want Holocaust deniers to be prosecuted either, although I do support those who do.) But I do not think it would be entirely unreasonable that Muslims would want them. I do think that it would be unreasonable for them to suggest that the writer should be killed, or that other people in the society that the writer came from should be subject to suicide bombings on account of permitting him or her the freedom to say that Muhammad fucked pigs. I would deplore both the speaker and those who encouraged the suicide bombing.

So I do not think this is a straightforward subject, and I do not have an easy answer. It would be easy to renounce nuance and jump into the no restrictions camp, but I do not on the face of it have a problem with defamation laws (although I do not support them at all as they stand in the UK or Australia) nor with laws against perjury and to some extent threatening language.

Sir Salman Rushdie did not write that Muhammad fucked pigs. You would think he had, to read the furore The satanic verses aroused. He wrote what might be called a variant history of Muhammad, which Muslims on the whole would find unacceptable. Two things one needs to know in considering the issue are that the Qur'an, although it is taken to be the infallible word of Allah, is a collection of "rememberings" gathered by an early caliph. There were dozens of "Qur'ans" floating around when he collected it, and they were in many ways divergent. Islam was not then the monolith it is taken to be now (and it is not that monolith today, although it is less tolerant of divergence than Christianity). The satanic verses may have existed, but were excised. They weren't really in keeping with the tone of the Qur'an, not because of the acceptance of polytheism (which Muhammad is said to have included to try to broaden Islam's appeal and then reconsidered, claiming that Satan had inspired him to stick the verses in) so much as the idea that the entire text was not divinely inspired but some might have been the work of Satan. This would clearly be problematic for a scripture because of the obvious inference. This was not the big problem with the book, although in itself it would have been upsetting to Muslims, but the Prophet's wives' being prostitutes definitely was.

Now I can see the case for not permitting this expression in a Muslim nation, and I can see the case too for Islamic nations' banning the book. The passages in question were grossly offensive to Muslims, and I think Sir Salman was well aware that they would be. Should novelists avoid offence? No, I don't think so. Would I want a novelist prosecuted who wrote a novel in a fictional world in which the Holocaust was a fabrication, or who had characters who denied it happened? No, I would not. But I do see that there's no bright line between fiction and nonfiction.

Fiction is composed of lies. That's what it is. It is not true and does not pretend to be. That is the convention. If we tell a story we intend to be understood to be true, we call that history. Sir Salman did not write history. He did not intend for anyone to be persuaded that Muhammad was inspired by Satan or that his wives were prostitutes.

But what if he had been writing about someone still living? Would that the book was fictional protect him from laws on defamation? No. If he wrote that Tony Blair fucks pigs in his next novel, he could be sued. I doubt Blair would bother, but he'd have an easy case, so far as I know. Of course, Muhammad cannot sue.

I do not have an easy answer to this. I supported Sir Salman at the time, and I still do, in that I defend his right to write what he wrote. I think he was a silly prick for writing it, but I've never considered being a silly prick to be a hanging offence.

I do not care much about knighthoods either, but I believe that Sir Salman deserves recognition. He is a great novelist, although I'd suggest he has only written one great novel, Midnight's children, which is far superior to The satanic verses, and itself severely defamed Indira Gandhi, although I think Sir Salman would defend himself on the basis that it was true. He might defend himself against claims that he defamed Muhammad on the basis that the facts cannot be known. I do not know that this is a strong defence in a defamation case (one generally has to show one's statements to be true) but it would seem to excuse making up a story about Muhammad if one can claim that all stories about Muhammad are likely equally fabricated.

So I salute Sir Salman, and I think the committee that proposed his knighthood, although their reasons were poorly considered, should not be castigated for rewarding a writer whose ambition might have outstripped his talent, but still encourages other writers to aim high, and write big works on big themes, which is no bad thing, even if those themes are not acceptable to some.

On the same subject, I noted a snippet in the Private Eye that made me stop and think. Amnesty International has concerns about freedom of expression in universities in 14 countries. You could probably name most of them without needing to be told which they are. One would certainly be Egypt, where a blogger who criticised his uni was not only expelled from it but jailed.

But the university union in the UK is sanctioning only one nation, which was not on that list, of course, given that you are perfectly free to say whatever you want in an Israeli university. I am fiercely opposed to Israeli policy in the West Bank and elsewhere, but I am equally fiercely opposed to the horrid dictatorship in Egypt, if not more so. I do not understand why I should support a boycott of one and not the other, and I have not read anything that even resembles a coherent argument for it.


At 7:24 pm, Anonymous high-in-the-sky said...

Is there an equivalent book to 'The Satanic Verses", in which the old testament god is viewed in an alternative light?

At 7:30 pm, Blogger Dr Zen said...

What immediately comes to mind is Ecce homo by Michael Moorcock, which has an interesting take on Jesus. The last temptation of Christ is another. Not OT, I know, but I can't think of any offhand.

At 11:48 pm, Blogger The man in the corner said...

Mohammed was 600 years after Christ, +-30. Just under 600 years ago, we had the Inquisition.
It's a little too neat, and the sums aren't exact anyway, but...

At 3:39 pm, Anonymous theminotaur said...

A great book which provides an alternative view of the New Testament, i.e. the story of the crucifiction, is _Master and Margarita_ by Mikhail Bulgakov. In the novel, this story is presented (in a manner of speaking) by Satan who pays a visit to the late 1930s Stalinist Moscow. On a certain level, it can be taken as a treatise on totalitarianism, but of course, as all great novels, it is infinitely layered. Unfortunately, a lot of the humor is lost in translation, but it is nonetheless an excellent read.

At 3:47 pm, Blogger Dr Zen said...

Very good pick, mino! I don't know enough Russian to vouch for the humour in the original, but the English version is just fantastic. Behemoth has to be about my single favourite character in fiction. Given the subject matter, obviously a must for any writer or wannabe.


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