Salman Rushdie, Islam and the limits of Free Speech


In the wake of the protests that are rocking the Muslim world, Sir Salman Rushdie has been all over the news, giving us his views on free speech in this BBC interview (and innocently promoting his soon-to-be-released memoirs.)  I’m interested in how this reflects events historical and current, and it’s relation to my current work-in-progress novel, which until circa May included a graphic depiction of Muhammad, and still contains a lot of Gods acting badly. As a writer and a thinker and a person, I disagree with him.

This is an illegal Iranian copy. How ironic.

In 1988 Rushdie published The Satanic Verses, a magical-realist novel about the experiences of two Indians migrating to Britain, one of whom has long vivid dream-sequences. In one such sequence, there is a clearly fictional (rather than ‘truth-claiming’, ’historical’, ‘academic’ or even ‘realistic’) account of a disputed episode in the life of Muhammad, Allah’s Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him), in which Muhammad briefly embraces polytheism, then rejects it as the Devil’s influence. This caused huge controversy and violence in the Muslim world, including a fatwa (demand of murder) called by the paramount Iranian cleric Ayatollah Khomeini, which caused a huge diplomatic rift with Iran, forced Rushdie into 24 hour police surveillance, and resulted in the wounding or outright assassination of several of his publishers and translators, plus the bombing of bookstores.

Before I launch into another inarticulacy, I’ll state a few things straight. I am 100% opposed to anyone being threatened or killed for exercising free speech, or facilitating it. Also I am largely convinced that Rushdie did not foresee the levels of violence his novel would cause, and did not intend such consequences. Good, that’s out of the way. Now I can be offensive.

In the interview, Rushdie calls for ‘bravery’, implying both that his own publication was brave, that the Danish Cartoons and American “The Innocence of Muslims” film are valuable in their contribution to free speech, and that more ‘brave’ individuals should publish similarly inflammatory works in the name of free speech. Having literary pretensions, and having written then deleted a scene wherein an alcoholic creates graffiti showing Muhammad having anal sex with a white prostitute, this was interesting to me.

But I completely disagree. I think the works above (mine included) are stupid and offensive. I don’t think anyone should have had a hair on their head harmed for creating them, but the idea that they are some paragon of virtue is insane. Why?

Oh look, Muhammad is depicted. In Isfahan, Iran, no less. He’s cradling the Caliph Ali, who has just been assassinated.

It’s all been done before without such offense or violence. The satanic verses were first written down in Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah ­– The Life of the Prophet of Allah, in the 760s. This was the first known account of Muhammad’s life, and originals no longer exist, so the best we have is a transmission by Ibn Hisham from c.830, critically translated into English by Alfred Guillaume in 1955. Bear in mind that Muhammad supposedly died in 632, so even Ishaq’s original was based on over a century of oral transmission, a Bedouin tradition which theoretically maintains authenticity through isnads (recitation of the chain of transmission at the end of each episode.)
Since then, both Muslim and non-Muslim academics have known about them and discussed them, their most damning implication being that Muhammad was fallible (the devil tricked him) and thus the rest of the Qur’an might be compromised. Moreover, Western academics have discussed much more offensive issues; from the 1970s John Wansbrough, Michael Cook, Patricia Crone and Christoph Luxenberg began different types of academic evaluations of Islamic tradition and sources, generally concluding that the received history of early Islamic expansion is a total fabrication, that Muhammad (as we imagine him) did not exist, that Islam was a heretical branch of desert Judaism which was forced to retrospectively construct a separate identity after the radical success of the Radishun and Umayyad conquests, oooh the list goes on. Really fucking offensive stuff.

Most of these guys did cause ‘furores’, but nonviolent ones, largely consisting of a variety of secular and Islamic scholars criticising their methods. The debate continues today, and was ineptly summed up by Tom Holland in the Channel 4 documentary Rushdie describes (which, by the way, did air – I literally watched it.)

These historians, and many many others of various faiths and proficiencies, have investigated the issues raised in the naughty video. I should know, I had to read lots of them for my degree. I watched the naughty video, and I can tell you, the articles were more compelling, more comprehensive, more believable, and best of all, not outrageously and unnecessarily blasphemous. Decent works continue to be published investigating topics that the video criticises, including but not limited to:
-Muhammad being insane and/or illegitimate
-Early Muslims converting for riches, status, sexual benefits or power
-Muhammad taking multiple wives, some by force, one (Aisha) being extremely young
-Early Muslims slaughtering Jews and others
-Early Muslims praying towards Jerusalem, not Makkah, on Muhammad’s direction

16C Turkish depiction of ‘Mo’, with obscured face and long sleeves.

Given that such works are being quietly trotted out without serious fatwa concern, violence, or even much media hype, I would argue that defending the naughty video on free speech grounds is silly. The same things and worse have been said, but not so offensively. You might want to watch the video if you haven’t already – I’m sure you’ll agree with me that, even beyond the ‘acting’ and weak production values, it’s a steaming pile of wank. I genuinely don’t understand why anyone bothered producing it, as anyone who sees that video and changes their opinions on Muslims is an astonishing blend of ‘gullible’, ‘bigot’ and ‘moron’.

So I can only interpret Rushdie’s call to bravery as being a call to be unnecessarily offensive just because you can. Now, I’m not ideologically opposed to needless offense. I’m offensive quite a lot. But the wonderful free speech we have in the West is a privilege, and as ?Spider Man? said, that entails responsibilities. Responsibility not to endanger people.

Remember I said I believed Rushdie didn’t know what trouble his book would cause? Well, I am absolutely fucking convinced that the creators of the Muhammad film knew.

Remember Uncle Ben!

And I’m surprised and confused that this is the sort of action Rushdie is calling for. Knowledge of potential harm elevates the filmmakers’ actions from petty bullshittery to something truly sick. Because, whilst not excusing any of the protesters and killers involved, the creators of that film deliberately catalysed a situation which has killed people. It’s killed the well-meaning US Ambassador to Libya, it’s killed other embassy staff, terrified many more, and killed several protesters and security forces across the Muslim world, from Algeria to Malaysia to the Philippines [which aren’t all acting the same]. I removed my Muhammad-depiction from my novel draft for quite separate reasons [mostly word count], but if it was still there, I’d be removing it now. It simply isn’t worth the risk.

Creating such a video isn’t brave, Salman*. Doing anything of the sort is worse than cowardly, worse than pathetic. The filmmakers remain anonymous, presumably leading pedestrian lives in America, whilst their actions have exposed hundreds and thousands of innocent diplomats to horrific violence. The violence-perpetrators are at massive fault, yes, but how is causing such controversy ‘brave’?

Indeed, how does it advance the cause of free speech? It looks to me like it totally polarises the two sides who we need to bring into dialogue. Much of the rationale behind the protests rests on misconception.

The Royal Family are INVIOLABLE and SACRED ****

Because, in Egypt and Libya until last year, and in many Muslim countries still, all films required government knowledge and permission, and because many Muslims aren’t aware of the mechanisms of youtube and American law, they think this video is explicitly supported by the US government. An equivalent (roughly) would be for Francois Hollande to sit outside Marylebone Station selling portraits depicting HRH Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, with her norks out. I cannot predict what response that would cause, but I’d be willing to bet some of the more hot-blooded middle-Englanders would reach for their best shotgun/cricketbat/idiotstick.

What would Muhammad do?**
Oh, interesting. Another aspect of the controversy is Muslim hypocrisy. I’m no Islamic apologist, but I’ve read quite a lot of their old literature, and I’d say Mo was a pretty nice guy. He seems to have been adept at ‘turning the other cheek’. For years and years when he was preaching in Mecca, he and his followers were beaten, mocked, persecuted, impoverished, embargoed, and eventually driven out (to Medinah) by the Quraysh polytheist majority. When in Medinah, he drew up a wonderful Constitution of mutual respect and aid for the city’s polytheist, Jewish, Christian and Muslim inhabitants. This embodied the Muslim concept of ummah, or ‘community’, which was based on freedom and tolerance.***
He really was a forgiving, turn-the-other-cheek kinda bloke, as you’d expect from someone explicitly within the Abraham tradition. Thus, when his movement had gained a pan-Arab following, he peacefully met the Qurayshi leaders at al-Hudayybiya and negotiated a bloodless cessation of hostilities. The next year he preached in Mecca, and the Quraysh converted. He didn’t hurt them. Indeed, he promoted many of them within the Muslim hierarchy, and two (‘Uthman and Mu’awiyah) went on to become Caliphs, i.e. emperor-and-pope of the entire Muslim empire.
So from a very brief survey of Muhammad’s example, it doesn’t seem like he’d advocate global violence and hatred just because a film mocked him.

The size of the Islamic Caliphate at the death of ‘Uthman (all three colours)

What should we do?

Communication is the key. On both sides. I certainly don’t understand why Western embassies didn’t issue ‘nothing to do with us’ type statements as soon as the crisis looked like it was brewing. I’m certainly very heartened by the Libyan outpourings of grief and sorrow at Chris Stevens’ death.

Most Libyans aren’t dancing on his grave. They understand he actually did a lot of good.

It’s important in the future for a much better cultural dialogue to exist, which need not be ‘apologist’ but at least conveys the respect and values of somewhat incompatible belief systems. Equally, we in the West need to communicate amongst ourselves regarding the freedom of speech, and the huge responsibility that it gives us. Rather than legally limit us, it asks us to self-moderate. It’s perfectly possible to criticise all the aspects of Islam (or anything else) without putting lives, property and international relations at risk. If you’re considering making a racist film, consider this first, because chances are, you are catastrophically ‘wrong’.

*Speaking of bravery, we probably shouldn’t dwell on the fact that Rushdie very publicly proclaimed himself a born-again Muslim and apologised for all offence caused by Verses. I can’t really condemn any attempt to save one’s life, I just think it’s quite bad faith to call for apparently-suicidal levels of ‘bravery’ in light of one’s own life history. [Edit 19-9-12 I now understand quite how desperate his situation was, and how quickly he regretted this temporary volte-face. It would certainly require personal bravery to knowingly expose yourself to the danger and threats that he experienced. Clearly I, then, am a coward both for myself and for others.]

** Based on the commonly-accepted sira and the general hadith, neither of which I actually credit much as evidence. Ho hum.

*** Yes, they did end up massacring the Jewish tribe, but it wasn’t because they were Jews. It was because, when Medinah was under siege from Arab polytheists, the Jews tried to betray the Muslims to save themselves.

**** I hope that, without a blog underlining it, readers can spot for themselves the gender disparity between reactions to Kate’s naked photos and Harry’s naked photos.

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16 thoughts on “Salman Rushdie, Islam and the limits of Free Speech

  1. I like the main arc of your argument – on a slightly tangential point – somewhere in the tumblverse it’s been suggested that one of the embassy staff who was killed along with the ambassador had previously made some untoward comments on colonialist lines – I can’t find anything to back that up so I’m not going to speak ill of the dead unnecessarily, as all I can find is stuff saying that the guy was indeed an Eve user: – but maybe you should do some digging and report back, along with any thoughts you may have as to who might be behind the film…

    • Cheers for that, I’ll look into it. If he had been spouting colonialist lines, I guess that just feeds into my argument – free speech has consequences, especially in countries that are lawless or don’t have our laws.

      The news world has no answer for the creators of “The Innocence of Muslims” – originally people thought it was Pastor Terry Jones, the Californian already infamous for publicly burning a Koran (another example of real class). In this article (from today) it seems Egypt at least is convinced it was him, and he was working with Egyptian Coptic Christian ex-pats inc Nakoula Basseley Nakoula living in America. However, various media sources have investigated and deny the Jones link. One very well informed (and not antisemitic) friend told me she’d seen something suggesting Jewish involvement too – from the film, I’d imagine Coptic is more likely since there are early scenes set in modern-day Egypt, painting Copts as victims of Muslim brutality

  2. I thought Clinton did make such a statement (which Romney thought was after the killing of the Ambassador, which is why he criticised, then found out he was wrong).

    Anyway, I pretty much agree.

    • Yeaaahs she did, but from America. I really mean that the individual ambassadors needed to have built up much better dialogue with the local communities, and when the Vid crisis began, should have immediately explained their stance In Arabic and In Public, rather than (apparently, this is a simplification) hiding behind their walls.

      I’m happy whenever Mitt puts his foot in his mouth. He’s so good at it.

  3. I think that although it’s a laudable hope it’s an impractical one. The issue at stake is not just the offensiveness of the subject matter which causes these demonstrations in response (that’s just what propels them to world news status and demands a response, I could scribble a stick figure Mohammad fucking a horse and it wouldn’t make the news unless I put it on Tumblr and got two thousand people to reblog their outrage,) but the debate that surrounds whether there can be fruitful dialogue along the lines you suggest with the actual people who stage suicide bombings in retaliation and kill innocents in misplaced retaliation (as opposed to the vast majority who comprise the mainstream who are clearly willing to discuss and debate as in your examples), and who could at least possibly stage similar displays if they were aware of minor Western publications with little presence in the accessible mainstream discussing what they consider it offensive to discuss.

    It begins to look a lot less like moderate self-censorship and a lot more like cowardice, when we argue that it’s only right that we reach a general consensus of what is offensive, what should be publishable under some nebulous standards and what we must fear will provoke a seriously disproportionate response. For all the stupidity, the arrant callousness and foolishness of the film-makers the current tragedy *does* lie on the shoulders of the people who choose to kill ambassadors, who choose to strap bombs to themselves- or to strap bombs to others.

    It also *does* come down to an issue of free speech in the end. We revolt against the crude, the disgusting and frankly shitty bigotry and hatred of that film, it should not have been made and the fact that it has is horrific. But are we saying that the response is at all proportionate? That there is any insult strong enough that to protest you must kill? It’s not brave to create such works (particularly when hiding behind anonymity,) but it does demonstrate at this moment in time there is a gulf between what we find acceptable, and between what Islamic extremism finds acceptable, and that there is no way to meet in between without compromising core beliefs.

    We do protect those who abuse free speech, who take no account of its duties as well as the rights that pertain to it, because that is part of our society, and there is quite frankly no way of eliminating that element unless you do bring the law into it. On the same note do you suspect that the US ambassador’s life would’ve been saved if such a statement as you suggest had been issued? Or would the violence have continued, for the obvious reason that the film was only the straw on the camel’s back of a seriously volatile situation that has been brewing for some time, only given the excuse of ‘legitimate’ rage?

    This is probably very garbled so I apologise, it’s been a long night

    • Obviously it isn’t acceptable to kill someone for exercising the right to free speech, but the argument is that they should not provoke that kind of response intentionally. If somebody created the film with the intention of causing violence, then that should be condemned; not because what they have said, but why and how they have said it. (Not condemned by law, I might add, but morally) The response isn’t proportionate, but if the film makers knew what the response could be, and wanted it to happen then it is irresponsible. It is easy now to say “Oh well those people that killed because of a silly little film are obviously stupid, it’s only a film after all”, but it is far stupider to know that they might, and see if they will or not.

      As you say, we do protect these people, and we should because if law comes into it, it fucks the whole “free speech” thing up for everybody. But just because we protect them doesn’t mean they were right, it means everybody else has to learn from their mistake, and try not intentionally offend people that might over-react.

      That’s what I think, anyway.

    • Para 1
      Many of the academic issues mentioned were widely known – Luxenberg, for example, is the guy who suggested much of the Qur’an borrowed Syriac words which gave vastly different translations, e.g. 72 virgins = 72 white grapes. But no devastation.
      I agree that there are a minority who’ll go mental in any case, but I don’t think they can achieve much if all the people they currently whip up are against them.

      Para 2

      Yes, I said that the killing was unacceptable, and the killers certainly bear some of the blame. Unfortunately, unless we/America have a very effective empire that controls the whole world with excellent police, then ‘protecting our free speech’ is effectively impossible. We do not have jurisdiction over other nations who do not accept free speech. When their actions are predictable, and violent, then I don’t give a pooh whether not-provoking them is called ‘moderation’ or ‘cowardice’. I care that people aren’t killed, and that one person wantonly exercising their free speech doesn’t jeopardize the lives of others.

      Para 3

      No, the response was not proportionate. Yes, there is a gulf between (some) Western values and (some) Islamic values. Longer term, as an atheist, I’d like everyone to stop holding such values. But I’m not writing about that, I’m writing about there here and now of artistic responsibility. Neither ‘art’ like this, nor Western invasion, do anything to help secularise the Muslim world (esp when many Christians hold equally crazy views.)
      Para 4
      I have no idea – there’s currently a bit of debate in Libya and the US as to whether that specific incident had been planned beforehand by Quadaffi loyalists, or if it was a spontaneous single-issue attack. Until we know that, it’s impossible to tell. Given the aforementioned outpourings of grief and support from urban Libyans following the killing, I’d imagine that if the latter is the case, he might well still be alive.

      Thanks very much for such a long and thoughtful response

      • Para 1
        I would disagree with your definition of widely known. When we take into account precisely the people who are committing these atrocities there are commonalities that are wise to take heed of. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both the video and cartoons have been transmitted through a highly visual medium, as opposed to a written one. Of course such mediums lend themselves automatically to caricatures, to broad strokes that are liable to cause offense, but they are by virtue of themselves automatically understandable. They do not require translation to understand the gist of, they do not need academics who are already engaging in these debates to spread them, and above all they are perfectly designed to be easily spreadable (youtube, internet,) as opposed to texts that are not making a mainstream splash.
        It’s a situation where we must understand that our own specialities are unusual. What you have read, what I have read isn’t actually a measure of it’s general significance. My mother will not have heard of any of the Islamic scholars I can quote, and I will bet you a large sum of money that the suicide-grunt on the ground will have no more connection with or knowledge of the debate of minor portions of the Qu’ran than she does.

        Para 2
        The killers don’t bear ‘some of the blame.’ They bear the vast majority of it. It’s their weapons, their convictions, their twisted version of a peaceful religion who have taken lives, who’ve made it unsafe for others to live peacefully. It’s they who have killed an ambassador. We don’t have jurisdiction over the rest of the world, and I hope that our steps in that direction in the past have well and truly burnt our hands, and reminded us of the futility of ever desiring or hoping for it. We can’t enforce freedom of speech on it, but we can preserve it within our own boundaries, and yes that does mean accepting that there are grievous consequences sometimes. But I’d prefer a country where I can say what I want, no matter how ill advised, to a country where I am censored and told I cannot say something in case I provoke someone with no self control.

        I’ve asked how we can even enforce this without the aid of the law, and the answer is *we can’t.* There are thickos out there, there are people who want to watch the world burn, there are those who just want to stir the pot. Asking for moderation, thought, control and empathy from these people is impossible and a waste of time, because they’ve already demonstrated the lack of it. Until we suppress them through the law, they will continue on their wilful way.

        Para 3
        We can agree on wanting the world to be secular, but I will also point out that it’s not the job of ‘art’ to conform with government policy. Not that I include the film or the cartoons under ‘art,’ but the point still stands. That’s not art’s job, it’s not citizens jobs either. We have our morality, our own way of doing things, our freedom of speech and when we debate and talk with countries that are radically different we have to bring that to the table as well. Not in a ‘you should all be like this’ -I think we can all easily spot what’s wrong with that, but in a ‘we are like this.’

        Para 4
        I was incredibly touched by the grief shown on his death. It reinforced I think that if there is a war of ideas to win, then we can never lose sight of the people on the other end of it, that to do so, to strip their humanity from them and make them into a homogenous mass would be a crime. It’s why I get so depressed at the media sometimes, because it lacks an incredible amount of nuance. It transforms struggles into ‘evil Islam’ and ‘good Western freedom of speech’ when even discussions like this can show on a small scale how incredibly multifaceted it is.

      • Oops two things

        1. That should be Qur’an.
        2. Thanks also for the reply, it’s really interesting to hear another side on this

  4. Difficult to disagree with your post, even though the devil’s been pressing me to play advocate..

    While on this subject: did you see the post The Onion titled ‘No One Murdered Because of this Image’ ? Horribly offensive itself but sums up very nicely what the real issue here is…

  5. You seem to be trying to nudge the creation of this film into the “Shouting Fire In A Crowded Theatre” category of free speech. That is, when exercising your free speech rights might be reasonably expected to cause harm. The reaction of the various mobs can hardly be considered a reasonable one and the idea that we should give one inch of ground to these people is quite frankly letting the side down. Free Speech does not carry any burden (beyond no SFIACT libel/slander and incitement to violence) to be nice or respectful, nor to be virtuous. In addition, while being gratuitously offensive might have no virtue per se, when someone is trying to restrict that right through intimidation and violence then any free speech action in defiance of that becomes virtuous.
    The correct response to the parts of the Islamic world that have been riled by this is not to apologise, but to give a sharp schoolmarmish bark of “Grow Up”. Vast parts of said Islamic world have been reduced (at least in their male population, the women seem to be a little more sensible) to the status of petulant toddlers with AK47s. Quite frankly, maybe if more films like this were being made (though not by any official entity) they’d all get burned out by the sheer amount of protesting they need to do. Christopher Stevens is dead because of (an admirable in a way) refusal or inability to repel the rioters by force, not because some idiot in America refused to do the requisite Geopolitical Impact assessment before he switched on his camera.

    • I think there’s a definitional divide between ‘reasonably expected to cause harm’ and ‘unreasonable mob action’. I quite agree that the mobs are unreasonable, but I think such reactions are entirely predictable.
      So you think that in order to avoid ‘letting the side down’ we should expose hundreds of embassy staff and expats to mortal danger? For such a hopeless video, which really won’t have convinced anyone of it’s point?
      What brand of virtue are you working with? Aristotelian?
      Who, pray, is going to tell one billion people (who are comfortable in their own righteousness and education) to ‘Grow up’?! I think your understanding of the Islamic world is reductive and inaccurate; likewise your account of causation.

  6. I think it is wrong to think that dialogue will actually preserve freedom in the case of the literal mind and religious intolerance. Your question on my post got me thinking, and part one of my reply is up noe. See what you think…

  7. Pingback: FIGHT NIGHT LIVE: Archangel Carey vs. Nazi Zombie Faggots | Haywire Thought

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