Firebombing Free Speech

Three men are under detention here in London after allegedly tossing a petrol bomb at the home-office of Martin Rynja, who runs the Gibson Square publishing firm here. Gibson Square has shown the courage – or audacity, or foolhardiness – to publish The Jewel of Medina, a novel based on the life of Aisha, the Prophet Muhammad’s wife.


This is dangerous territory: Earlier this year, American author Sherry Jones discovered that Random House, which had decided to publish the novel and paid an advance for it, changed its mind and dropped the book. The publishing house did so after receiving unfavorable notices from a critic who was shown the manuscript, and following Internet chatter that suggested that the book would be highly controversial. Ironically, Random House publishes Salman Rushdie, who knows a thing or two about those who seek to silence others. When Random House pulled out of publishing the book, Rushdie expressed his disappointment, calling it “censorship by fear.”

Rynja says he opposes censorship and champions free speech. Gibson Square has also published Robert Pape’s study of suicide terrorism, Dying to Win, and its forthcoming titles include the memoir of Levrenti Beria, Stalin’s KGB chief, by his son Sergio, and a book about the killing of Father Popieluszko, which led to the unraveling of Polish Communism. If anything, Gibson Square is an equal opportunity offender.


We have been through this before, most notably with Rushdie himself. It was 20 years ago this autumn when the Indian author Khushwant Singh, then an editorial adviser to Penguin in India, told the publisher not to publish Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, because it would lead to riots. Penguin complied; the Indian Government went a step further and prevented the book from being imported into India, making the world’s most populous democracy the first to ban that novel. In February 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini declared the fatwa on Rushdie, forcing the Indian-born author into an involuntary exile, a period he has described later as his “plague years.”


The following 20 years should have strengthened the resolve to defend free speech. But it has been a sobering period. The Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses was killed; its Italian translator and Norwegian publisher attacked. In the charged atmosphere following the attacks of Sept 11, a Moroccan immigrant murdered the outspoken Dutch film-maker Theo Van Gogh in Amsterdam, after he collaborated with the former Dutch parliamentarian Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and made a film called ‘Submission’ that many Muslims found offensive. In 2006, the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten published cartoons depicting the prophet, which angered many Muslims further; riots followed in many cities. The UN Human Rights Council has passed a resolution against defaming religion.


British newspapers refused to publish the Danish cartoons, some congratulating themselves for having acted responsibly. British politicians also praised their restraint. That acquiescence has emboldened other faiths to demand bans on plays or art they do not like. In 2004, angry Sikhs attacked the Birmingham Repertory because the group was staging a play that dealt with rape and murder in a Sikh community center. Two years ago, a group of Hindus attacked an art gallery in central London, because it showed the works of Maqbul Fida Husain, the 93-year-old Indian painter whose many works include some in which he has painted Hindu deities in the nude. An upset Christian lecturer destroyed the waxworks models of soccer star David Beckham and his wife, Victoria “Posh” Spice, because they were dressed up as Joseph and Mary at a nativity scene at Madame Tussaud’s. The petrol bomb attack in London is the latest installment of that saga.


This was an attack by a minority to force the rest of us into accepting that their right to take offense trumps others’ right to express themselves. The more that’s accommodated, fewer ideas will be explored, fewer novels will be imagined, art will be visualized, sculptures be shaped. It is an assault on our imagination.


We must assert and preserve our ability to say the unsayable, and argue the unthinkable, even if the book, the cartoons, the sculptures, the canvases, are not to everyone’s liking and may not meet universal standards of artistic excellence (for who determines those, anyway?) Otherwise we will have to swallow our words and circumscribe our thoughts.


As Lisa Appignanesi, president of the English PEN, said: “The way to counter words is with other words, not petrol bombs and violent acts.”


Salil Tripathi is a London-based writer, whose book on censorship by Hindu nationalists will be published in 2009 by Seagull Books. He is on PEN’s Writers-in-Prison Committee in London.



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