Getting Irate So That You Don't Have To

Getting Irate So That You Don't Have To

Monday, 20 October 2008

The Thugs Are Winning Their War On Free Speech

Two stories linked by a common theme, which have emerged recently, demonstrate why there is plenty to fear for the future of free speech in this country.

The first relates to the decision by Sony to delay the release of a computer game because the soundtrack contains phraseology that can also be found in the Koran. Apparently the music was written by a Somali artist who's won a Grammy award, and has been available through online music stores for months. Muslims say that words from the Koran should not be set to music because the words are seen to have come directly from God. Doing so is seen as offensive.

You can sort of understand Sony's thinking in withdrawing the game while they change the music. They don't want their product associated with mass demonstrations and accusations of racism. They've taken a commercial decision based on the desire not to court controversy for the sake of a background component of a game in which they've made a huge investment.

The other case is far more worrying for me. It's about a book called "The Jewel of Medina", whose publication in Britain has been delayed following the firebombing - yes, you did read that correctly - of the publisher's home in London. The Jewel of Medina is a historical novel, in which author Sherry Jones tells a fictionalised version of the life of Aisha, one of Mohammed’s wives. Jones is quoted as saying that she wants her book to be "at once a love story, a history lesson and a coming-of-age tale".

One review I've read suggests it's not a very good book; Jones is accused of fabricating a storyline about a lover, Safwan, with whom Aisha runs away before deciding to return to Muhammad.

So, as a historical account it's not up to much, and apparently as a literary work it's no contender for the Booker Prize either. But is that why it hasn't been published ? Well, it can't be can it...God knows plenty of historically inaccurate trash hits the bookshelves every week and no one bats an eyelid. The reason for the publishers getting cold feet (apart from the firebombing of their homes, that is) is the risk of causing offence to Muslims.

From the Satanic Verses and Danish cartoons (among others) we can well remember what happens with things that "cause" offence to the Muslim community; riots, baying mobs, death threats, promises of another 9/11 and plenty more besides. In short, this novel has been denied its rightful place in the marketplace because of the threat of thuggery, hooliganism and worse. And, pragmatic though Sony's decision might be, it's hard to escape the conclusion that that too is a victory for the mob over the principles of free expression.

The bottom line is that the government in this country has failed utterly to support the right of its people to express - and to read, view and hear - opinions that others might find offensive. The right of a minority "not to be offended" (which by definition is an absolute nonsense) has in effect transcended the right of everybody else to engage in entirely legitimate, lawful activity.

This march of this "Offence Mob" is nothing short of a disgrace, and I'm sure it's not over. Because once you start failing to defend the right of publication of any material on the grounds that it causes offence, there are no limits; pretty much everything will be offensive to someone, somewhere.

The State should be stepping into the row about The Jewel of Medina; the police should be protecting those under threat and the government should be explaining, in words of one syllable, that free speech matters and anyone who doesn't want to be offended shouldn't read the book. They won't, of course, because they have neither the will nor the guts.

At the risk of having a fatwa issued on me, or a plague visited on my house (or blog), I'll just point out one thing: if you fancy sticking two fingers up to the fascists who want to suppress your rights - and those of Ms Jones - you can, if you're quick; you can buy used copies of the book on Amazon.

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