This weekend, I came across an outstanding editorial by the British journalist Johann Hari, “We should never pulp books out of fear of fanatics“. It opens by describing “the story of a novel you cannot read”:
The Jewel of Medina was written by a journalist called Sherry Jones. It recounts the life of Aisha, a girl who really was married off at the age of six to a 50-year-old man called Mohammed ibn Abdallah. On her wedding day, Aisha was playing on a see-saw outside her home. Inside, she was being betrothed. The first she knew of it was when she was banned from playing out in the street with the other children. When she was nine, she was taken to live with her now 53-year-old husband. He had sex with her there and then.
…You cannot read this story today – except in the Koran and the Hadith. The man Mohammed ibn Abdallah became known to Muslims as “the Prophet Mohammed”…
As Hari explains, this book no longer exists. Random House bought the rights, planned the book tour, and was about to release it to the public. But at the last possible minute, they had a panic attack over the possibility of a violent backlash by Islamic radicals. The book’s launch date, which had been set for last week, was scrapped, and they destroyed all the copies they had already printed.
This decision, according to Asra Nomani in The Wall Street Journal, was due mainly to a professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas in Austin named Denise Spielberg. Spielberg, who was sent an advance copy, found the novel’s frank sexual scenes of Mohammed “incredibly offensive” and sent out a blistering e-mail to a listserv of Middle East and Islamic studies graduate students. She also contacted Random House to tell them they were putting themselves in danger by publishing it. Right on cue, veiled threats against the publisher and the author began to spring up on Islamic websites. Random House soon caved in and announced that they would:
…indefinitely postpone publication of the novel for “fear of a possible terrorist threat from extremist Muslims” and concern for “the safety and security of the Random House building and employees.”
Sadly, the forces of political correctness and theocratic violence have once again conspired to undermine free speech. The bloodthirsty fanatics of the Islamic world think they can shut down any dissenting opinion through violence; meanwhile, the easily cowed intellectuals of the West think the proper response is to appease these fanatics and censor ourselves so as not to offend them.
People who say things like this, no matter what protests they make about tolerance and multiculturalism, are not the advocates but the enemies of Western society’s values. Yes, we stand for tolerance; which means that in a free society, all opinions may be voiced, and no one may shut down the free flow of dialogue by making threats or complaining that they are offended. And yes, we stand for multiculturalism; which means that all cultures have the right to participate in society together, to take part in that conversation and join the flow of ideas. Multiculturalism does not mean that the different groups in society should be split apart into balkanized sects, each one living behind their own hedge of laws to protect them from ever coming in contact with beliefs and values different from theirs.
Contrary to Prof. Spielberg, if the expression of an idea is likely to provoke violence, that is an urgent and vital reason why that idea should be expressed, not a reason why it should be silenced. To say otherwise is to admit that the fanatics control the debate – that they can stifle any opinion they dislike through the threat of violence – and to concede this is to lay down one’s arms and surrender to tyranny.
Western society stands for freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, freedom of expression. We have the right to say what we believe, even if it offends others, especially if it offends others – because the only way we progress is by confronting entrenched evils. To meekly tiptoe around established prejudices, letting the violently irrational control the terms of debate, will bring down all of society to their lowest common denominator and leave us mired in darkness and stagnation.
And it’s not just Westerners who are harmed by this. As Asra Nomani writes, Islamic society itself has a heritage of beautiful art and literature. That tradition, no less than Western free expression, has been targeted by the violent radicals. They would erase everything, not just from other cultures but from their own as well, that does not conform to their rigid and narrow-minded faith. Out of a foolish desire to safeguard multiculturalism, the defenders of political correctness would end up ultimately negating their own goal. Johann Hari sums it up well:
Insulating a religion from criticism – surrounding it with an electric wire-fence called “respect” – keeps it stunted at its most infantile and fundamentalist stage.
…Muslims are secure enough to deal with some tough questions. It is condescending to treat Muslims like excitable children who cannot cope with the probing, mocking treatment we hand out to Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism. It is perfectly consistent to protect Muslims from bigotry while challenging the bigotries and absurdities within their holy texts.
…[C]onsistent atheism is not racism. On the contrary: it treats all people, irrespective of skin colour, as mature adults who can cope with rational questions. When we pulp books out of fear of fundamentalism, we are decapitating the most precious freedom we have.
With all that said, I have to concede that I can’t entirely blame Random House. Large, established organs of journalism do, in fact, have employees throughout the world who might be at risk. This doesn’t mean that speaking out against the instigators of violence and theocracy is not vital or necessary. It just means that, as always in human history, the establishment powers that have the most to lose are unlikely to be the ones to do it. We will always need Voltaires, Thomas Paines and other independent minds who are willing to speak boldly and take on the forces of ignorance. If we make our case well, in due time the rest of society will follow.