Last week I spoke at the launch of Draw The Line Here, the book of cartoons published by English PEN in response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre.
I touched on a few things that I have already noted here: the punctured optimism after the 7/7 bombings, for example. I also explicity noted the fact that, on the day after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, all but two British newspapers carried the same terrible image of the murdered policeman Ahmed Merabet, yet only those same two newspapers (The Guardian and The Independent) felt able to reproduce the relatively benign image of Mohammed on the cover of Charlie Hebdo the following week.
Amazingly, I also encountered a heckler during the speech! He protested that the incredibly crass cartoons that sometimes found their way into the pages of Charlie Hebdo were not worth defending. I unequivocally disagreed.
A recording of my speech is embedded below (and also on SoundCloud). Continue reading Heckled about Free Speech and Charlie Hebdo
Charlie Hebdo is not a racist publication. But even if it was, its stand against fundamentalist religion took courage and should be applauded.
Freedom of expression is being debated yet again, and this time my colleagues at the PEN American Center are in the middle of the discussion. Six of its members have withdrawn as ‘literary hosts’ from the annual fundraising gala, in protest at the decision to award Charlie Hebdo a ‘Freedom of Expression Courage’ award.
In the New York Times, Peter Carey, one of the boycotting authors, is quoted as saying:
“A hideous crime was committed, but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about?”
Salman Rushdie was also quoted in the New York Times piece, defending the award:
“If PEN as a free speech organization can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name,” Mr. Rushdie said. “What I would say to both Peter and Michael and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them.”
Continue reading Round-up: Charlie Hebdo and the PEN Courage Award
Last month I was pleased to be invited by Trans World Radio, the Christian broadcaster, to take part in their TWR Today programme. I spoke to presenter Lauren Herd about free speech in the context of blasphemy, offence and freedom of religion.
During the discussion I tried to articulate something that has been bothering me about the debate we have been having about free speech, following the Charlie Hebdo massacre:
… So when even free speech campaigners are making the case for offence, I find those arguments frustrating because I feel that argument has been settled, in favour of free speech.
To be clear: I’m not knocking those campaigners who write think-pieces that defend the right to offend. I’ve published such pieces myself in the past few weeks, as have my colleagues at English PEN. Rather, my frustration is over how much of the debate is still focussed on whether there is any legitimacy in censoring for reasons of religious offence. There is none.
Moreover, it is unfettered free speech that enables the freedom of religion. Lauren Herd gave a pithy and poetic summing up that I predict will become a staple of my rhetoric on this issue:
We may not like hearing attacks on what we believe, but it is that same freedom for one person to express, that allows us to profess what we believe.
You can listen to the show on the TWR website, on SoundCloud, or via the player below.
Continue reading Discussing free speech and freedom of religion on TWR
First posted on the Independent website.
Do we see a glimmer of light in the dark case of Raif Badawi? King Abdullah has referred the case to the Saudi Arabian supreme court, following the international dismay at the public flogging Badawi received earlier this month.
Last week the news was grim. The imprisoned blogger might not have received his scheduled 50 lashes on Friday morning, but this was no act of clemency on the part of the Saudi authorities. The flogging was only delayed because Badawi was too ill and weak from his flogging the week before.
One-thousand lashes and a 10 year prison term would be a brutal punishment for any crime. But the fact that Badawi has received this sentence for insulting Islam and of founding a liberal website is astonishing. The world is appalled. The Charlie Hebdo murders have drawn public attention to ideas of freedom of speech and blasphemy, and the Raif Badawi case offers a chillingly convenient coda to the events in Paris. Continue reading We can win the fight to save Raif Badawi from the horror of Saudi Arabian ‘justice’
On Friday morning, I led a small vigil outside the Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in support of Raif Badawi, the blogger convicted of ‘Insulting Islam’ and ‘founding a liberal website.
Continue reading Railing against Saudi Arabia at the vigil for Raif Badawi
Last week, the works of the celebrated Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish were removed from the Riyadh International Book Fair because they were ‘blasphemous’. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Culture and Information said the books “violated the kingdom’s laws”. This theological position comes about because in some of his work Darwish treats Judaism, Christianity and Islam as equivalents, which obviously upsets the fundamentalists.
I spoke to the Guardian about the ban and was quoted in their report:
But the writers’ group English PEN issued a stinging rebuttal to the move. “It is bizarre and disappointing that the government of Saudi Arabia has allowed a small group of people to censor one of the Islamic world’s most important modern poets. The Riyadh international book fair is supposed to promote culture and commerce in Saudi Arabia, but this incident has had precisely the opposite effect,” said its head of campaigns, Robert Sharp. He also pointed to the case of newspaper columnist Hamza Kashgari, who was imprisoned without trial in Saudi Arabia for two years after he posted a short series of tweets in which he imagined a dialogue with the Prophet Muhammad.
“Blasphemy laws stunt cultural development,” said Sharp. “If the government truly wishes Islamic art and culture to flourish in the Kingdom, it must urgently repeal these outdated laws.”
Just as we were discussing offence, blasphemy and Islam, a reminder that hard-line Muslims are not the only enemies of free speech. Index on Censorship reports that The Reduced Shakespeare Company has been forced to cancel its production of The Bible because of complaints from religious groups.
Continue reading Christian fundamentalists cause theatre cancellation
Maajid Nawaz, the author of Radical and the Liberal Democrat Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn, has been at the centre of a controversy this week, after he tweeted a image from the satirical Jesus and Mo cartoon series. Maajid had been a guest on the BBC’s The Big Questions debate show, where the illustration had been discussed. He made the point that as a liberal Muslim, he found nothing offensive about the cartoon.
Cue an angry social media backlash. Many people tweeted their condemnations and threats over what they perceived as a blasphemy.
Continue reading Free Speech, Offence, and Maajid Nawaz
Following the news that two members of Pussy Riot have been sent to remote penal colonies in Russia, UCB Radio asked me on to Paul Hammond’s show on to discuss ‘Politics and the Pulpit’.
Is a church an appropriate place for political messages? There are two aspects to this question. The first is whether activists should protest in a Church. Was the uninvited ‘hooliganism’ of Pussy Riot justified? I cited the example of Jesus himself, who caused havoc in the Temple in what was surely a political as well as spiritual protest (see, for example, Mark 11-15). Continue reading On Politics, Power and the Pulpit
I really shouldn’t let the weekend start without jotting a few notes about the ongoing unrest in the Middle East, provoked by the YouTube video “The Innocence of Muslims” and fuelled by the French magazine Charlie Hebdo.
The protests have sparked another round of analysis of the the Muslim faith, with the predictable indictment of Islam as uniquely intolerant. The Onion published a very funny NSFW cartoon, blasphemous to all religions except Islam, with the headline ‘No-one Murdered Because of This Image’. Funny, yes, but not actually accurate as satire. The fundamentalist Hindus of India are not above threats and riots when their sacred images are appropriated. The internationally acclaimed artist MF Hussain spent his twilight years in exile because of threats made by his own countrymen, such was their dislike of his Mother India paintings. And Richard Gere’s effigy was burned by an angry mob after he kissed Shilpa Shetty.
The fact that Hindus riot too is instructive. When they do, it is at the encouragement of nationalists groups like Shiv Sena, who seek political power through demonisation and division. When Muslims riot, it is similarly due to local leaders seeking to win political support. Even the Salman Rushdie fatwā (also in the news this week due to the publication of Rushdie’s autobiography, Joseph Anton) was raised by Ayatollah Khomeini as part of a power-play. The old Ayatollah had been losing political support in the months leading up to Valentine’s Day 1989, when the infamous decree was issued. Continue reading Blasphemy and Cynical Plays for Power