August 12, 2008
A festival of groveling to terrorists
If works of art are withdrawn because of fear of reprisal, we lose the chance for open debate
Have you heard about the first novel by a young American woman that has become the “new Satanic Verses”, sparking terrorist attacks on the publishers and riots by Islamic militants that make the protests against Salman Rushdie's book look like an English tea party?
No, you probably won't have, since there is no book for anybody to riot about. The US publishers Random House pulled The Jewel of Medina by Sherry Jones, due out today, on the ground that it “might be offensive to some in the Muslim community” and “could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment”. An executive told the author that they had stopped her racy historical novel about Aisha, young wife of the Prophet Muhammad, out of “fear of a possible terrorist threat from extremist Muslims” and concern for “the safety and security of the Random House building and employees”.
There had been no acts of violence or terrorism, nor even threats or protests. All that happened was that one non-Muslim associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas, who was sent a proof copy, apparently cautioned that the book would be seen as “a declaration of war... explosive stuff... a national security issue” and more offensive than The Satanic Verses. There swiftly followed a riot of retreating publishers, and the book was blown out before anybody had the chance to set light to it for the cameras.
It looks like another example of a quiet wave of self-censorship and cultural cowardice sweeping Western art circles. Two years ago, when the Deutsche opera in Berlin scrapped a production of Mozart's Idomeneo for fear that it might offend some Muslims, I described it as “pre-emptive grovelling”. This now appears to be the modus operandi of the transatlantic arts elites.
It has just been reported that the BBC has dropped a big-budget docu-drama, The London Bombers. A team of journalists had spent months researching it in Beeston, Leeds, home of some of the 7/7 terrorists, and a top writer was preparing the final draft, when it was scrapped. The journalists were reportedly told by BBC executives that it was Islamophobic and offensive.
Last year, the New Culture Forum published a survey of similar cases, from the BBC hospital soap Casualty changing Muslim terrorists into animal rights activists, to the Barbican cutting out scenes from Tamburlaine the Great and the “cutting-edge” Royal Court Theatre cancelling an adaptation of Aristophanes' Lysistrata, both for fear that they might offend some Muslims.
The threat to freedom here does not come from a few Islamic radicals, but from the invertebrate liberals of the cultural establishment who have so lost faith in themselves that they will surrender their freedoms before anybody starts a fight. The mere suggestion of causing offence to some mob of imagined stereotypes is enough to have them scurrying for a bomb shelter, their creative imaginations blowing up small protests into the threat of a big culture war. Of course, such pre-emptive grovelling only encourages any zealot with a blog to demand even more censorship.
Who needs book burners if “offensive” books are not allowed to be published in the first place? Why bother to protest against provocative plays if the theatres will turn the lights off for you beforehand? There is no need even for a polite exchange on Points of View if the controversial programmes never get made.
The quality or lack of it in the self-censored works is not the issue here. That associate professor from Texas condemned the novel about Muhammad's wife as “soft porn”. But so what if it was? Free expression should mean freedom for what others see as filth, too. If there are artists childishly causing offence for its own sake, feel free to ignore them, but not to gag them.
Pre-emptive grovelling, encouraged from the top down by our illiberal authorities, is bad for the arts and for society. The arts can only flourish in a climate of cultural anarchy rather than compulsion and conformity. The attempt to limit what can be said must have a chilling effect, encouraging other writers and artists to pull in their horns.
Such self-censorship is also dangerous for those who don't much care about high culture. There is indeed a lesson from the Satanic Verses controversy, but not the one often cited. The dominant response to that clash of cultures was to try to bury it beneath worthy multicultural claptrap about celebrating difference. After more than 15 years of such attempts to suppress honest debate, the tensions festering beneath the surface exploded on the London transport system. As one female Muslim writer critical of the decision not to publish The Jewel of Medina says: “The series of events that torpedoed this novel are a window into how quickly fear stunts intelligent discourse about the Muslim world.”
As an old libertarian of the Left, who has long upheld the Right to Be Offensive, what makes me most angry today is to see fearful self-censorship and pre-emptive grovelling in the name of liberal values. That really is something worth intellectually rioting about.