25 Years After the Fatwa

Today is the 25th anniversary of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Brendan O'Neill has marked the occasion with a contrarian essay that condemns the censors of the Islamic world but also argues that "the true motor of the culture of offence-taking and censorship today" is actually "moral cowardice among the cultural elites of the West, not moral fury on the part of Muslim groups." Here's the core of his argument:

I saw Salman Rushdie at McDonald's at midnight.When Western publishing houses and theatres do hold back from publishing or displaying material critical of Muslims, often it isn't because massive mobs have been hammering on their doors but rather because they themselves feel uncomfortable with expressing strong, possibly offensive opinions. So in 2008, Random House decided not to publish Sherry Jones' novel The Jewel of Medina, which tells the story of the Prophet Muhammad's relationship with his 14-year-old wife Aisha, after one academic reader said it 'might be offensive to some in the Muslim community'. Both the London Barbican and Royal Court Theatre have in recent years cut or cancelled plays critical of Islam on the entirely pre-emptive basis that they might stir up Muslim anger. In each case, it wasn't threats from agitated Muslims that caused the censorship—rather, elite fear of the spectre of agitated Muslims generated self-censorship. Today's concern about what 'might be offensive' to Muslims is best understood as an externalisation of the cultural elite's own internal doubts about art, politics and debate, a projection of their own uncertainty about what is sayable and unsayable on to an imagined mass of seething Muslims.

In essence, what the fatwa has provided over the past 25 years is a justification for the cowardice of the West's own gatekeepers of knowledge and publishers of literature, who, feeling increasingly unsure about what can be said and depicted in this era of multiculturalism, cultural sensitivity and professional offence-taking, often display an instinctive urge to hold back, to pulp, to unpublish....And of course, this in turn inflames some Muslim groups' belief that they have the right to surround themselves with a forcefield against offence.

I'm wary of efforts to determine a single "true motor" for any historical development, but I think O'Neill has certainly identified an important motor. And his point about projection is well-taken. It doesn't take much imagination to think of other times a process like this has been at work—in the attempt, say, to respond to Benghazi by suppressing a movie.

Bonus link: Our interview with Rushdie.

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  • ||

    One of these days I'll actually finish Midnight's Children.

    The second half sounds so good, but I can never get past the first half.

  • Hugh Akston||

    Did you ever take Post-Colonial Lit with Anne Kiley?

    I think we were supposed to read Midnight's Children, but the only book I clearly remember reading was A House for Mr. Biswas.

  • anon||

    OT: I always think your name is ebonics for "who u aksin?"

  • ||

    Yeah. That's where I got through half of Midnight's Children. I think Anil's Ghost was my favorite from that course though.

    She liked me. She'd track me down around registration and fill in any gaps in my schedule.

  • Hugh Akston||

    Anne was pretty awesome. Even if the throw pillows on her sofa were clearly made from former cats.

    They used to do an annual trivia competition called Win Anne Kiley's Money. I don't recall anyone ever beating her.

  • ||

    Yeah, I consistently enjoyed taking lit classes with her. I think I would've enjoyed them more as a reading club than a class though. Nothing killed my love of reading like having to write papers about what I was reading.

  • Hugh Akston||

    Eh. I had a pretty good time writing my paper for Shakespeare, mostly because Anne failed to talk me out of writing about Titus Andronicus.

    Did you talk Post-Colonial lit as part of a pair in '03 or 04? Because we might have been in the same class.

  • ||

    Actually I think I did, but I can't recall what the other half of the pair was.

  • Hugh Akston||

    Neither can I. I'm pretty sure I only took the English half of it.

  • mad libertarian guy||

    Nothing killed my love of reading like having to write papers about what I was reading.

    Try going to grad school for lit and you'll discover exactly how to kill your love for the written word.

  • Square||

    I didn't read a book for probably four years after I finished my dissertation.

  • Hugh Akston||

    The Jewel of Medina

    Never read the book, but the movie was decent. Michael Douglas was great as Mohammed, but I had a hard time buying Kathleen Turner being 14.

  • ||

    I thought Danny DeVito was Mohammed.

  • anon||

    Damnit, it'd be a lot funnier for a jew to play mohammed.

  • WTF||

    I don't know, Danny DeVito as Mohammed would be awesome.

  • Notorious G.K.C.||

    Michael Douglas isn't technically Jewish, but according to Wikipedia he's close enough to cheese off the Mohammedans:

    "His paternal grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Chavusy (now in Belarus, then part of the Russian Empire)."

  • ||

    Damnit, it'd be a lot funnier for a jew to play mohammed

    "Woody Allen is.... MOHAMMED."

  • Notorious G.K.C.||

    Not even Mo deserves that. I mean Woody Allen married a girl who was too young for him!

  • Hugh Akston||

    You're thinking of the Jihad of the Roses.

  • WTF||

    it isn't because massive mobs have been hammering on their doors but rather because they themselves feel uncomfortable with expressing strong, possibly offensive opinions.

    You mean offensive like "Piss Christ" and that painting of Mary with elephant shit? It is odd that the only offensive opinions they feel uncomfortable expressing are those against certain, specific groups, while others are fair game.

  • Hugh Akston||

    Jesusians don't have a reputation for murdering people who insult them.

  • creech||

    Not for a couple hundred years anyway.
    Course Catholic and Protestant shit in Northern Ireland went, maybe still, goes on. Perhaps in two or three hundred years, Islamic extremism will be a terrible and embarrassing part of their past?

  • Hugh Akston||

    We can only hope.

  • Notorious G.K.C.||

    A "Catholic" terrorist in N. Ireland is someone who doesn't go to Mass on Sunday. A "Protstant" terrorist is someone who doesn't go to the Presbyterian meetinghouse.

  • Notorious G.K.C.||

    Please delete "is someone who," it is too broad for the point I was trying to make. Thank you.

  • BSubversive.com||

    Beheading is a highly effective method of quieting the opposition.

  • ||

    I blame old age. Christianity was way better at intimidating people just a few hundred years ago. The faith needs a good mid-life crisis and it can go back to sweeping through valleys and wiping out all the Jews and Huguenots again.

  • Swiss Servator, Befehl!||

    Um...Huguenots were Christians.

    Now if you want an internal fight - try another Albigensian Crusade?

  • ||

    Um...Huguenots were Christians heretics.

    Heretics offend the Jesus with their doctrinally incorrect beliefs. And I'm mostly just being glib.

  • Swiss Servator, Befehl!||

    So then your beef is with Roman Catholics, not "Christians" as such? Methodists haven't attacked or crusaded or the like to my knowledge.

  • ||

    I don't actually have a beef with any of them. There are some pretty vicious historical moments that involve Christians, but I don't know that Christianity/Catholicism is to blame so much as dickish people who by default were Christians of one type or another and who used their faith as a justification of bad action. Catholics come across worse by virtue of a longer history that includes much more political entanglement.

    Actually, I'll make an exception for the historical Calvinists, what absolute holier than thou scolds. I don't have a problem with any of contemporary Calvinists I've met though.

  • Swiss Servator, Befehl!||

    "I don't have a problem with any of contemporary Calvinists I've met though."

    Then you must have avoided my relatives in the eastern part of the Netherlands...

  • ||

    Then you must have avoided my relatives in the eastern part of the Netherlands...

    Very likely. Calvinists are pretty under-represented in my life. It makes them easier to like.

  • Zeb||

    Methodists haven't attacked or crusaded or the like to my knowledge.

    Not yet.

  • TheZeitgeist||

    It is odd that the only offensive opinions they feel uncomfortable expressing are those against certain, specific groups, while others are fair game.

    Christians being passive is a relatively new phenomena; however the more lefties accommodate the camel fucker's cult the more Christians will figure out killing a couple socialist-PC pricks gets it done.

    For instance, you think Clowncare would be all up in Catholic charities regarding contraception if the potential 'blowback' included shit like car bombs?

    There wouldn't be funny plays about the Mormons on Broadway (attended by Hillary among others) after a one measly suicide bombing. Jon Liebowitz Stewart's smarmy Jesus joking face would shut-the-fuck-up after one of his writers suddenly lost track of his head on the way home from work.

    The lefty intelligentsia is demonstrating that violence works. Horrible precedent, like everything else lefties do.

  • amelia||

    For instance, you think Clowncare would be all up in Catholic charities regarding contraception if the potential 'blowback' included shit like car bombs?

    You make a good point.

  • Floridian||

    You won't sucker us into an FBI sting Amelia, if that is your real name.

  • Zeb||

    Of course violence works. How do you think governments come about and function?
    No one is figuring out anything new here. And if any US Christians started doing any terrorism here, I would think that the vast majority of Christians would condemn them and ostracize them, as they should.

  • anon||

    FAA Grounds drones that deliver flowers instead of hellfire missiles.

    Goddamnit FAA, fuck you and everything you do. Fucking fucks.

  • WTF||

    As sarcasmic says, being free means asking permission and taking orders.

  • Ayn Random Variation||

    When I saw the title I thought this was another article about the Christie and the GW bridge

  • GILMORE||

    "... rather because they themselves feel uncomfortable with expressing strong, possibly offensive opinions."

    Can we be less wishy washy in pointing out the wishy washyness of the left?

    I disagree with the idea of the mainstream left being, "uncomfortable with strong opinions"

    = because they are perfectly comfortable having strong opinions about Political Censorship, Calling Everything 'Racist', Pretending to Moral Superiority by taking a faux-'objective' stance, and 'Sympathizing' with our enemies... not because of what our 'enemies' in the Fundamentalist Islamic world hate = but using them as a convenient springboard to *ask Tough(tm) Questions* about Capitalism, Colonialism, Cultural Hegemony, and all the other things they normally complain about, albeit this time under the pretense that they're doing so because of the "Dialogue!" terrorism has introduced in our society.

    I posit that they are perfectly comfortable with 'Strong Opinions' insofar as those opinions are in favor of Government Punishment of Free Speech, a multilateral approach to international security, any excuse possible to impose controls and regulations on domestic and international trade, and to disarm and disenfranchise their 'cultural inferiors' whom have hitherto presented an obstacle to their gaining total control over US politics.

  • Mongo||

    Reason magazine has an article about chickenshits after the deletion of comments deriding Mohammed (PB&J) in a past H&R thread.

    BwaHaHaw!!

  • GILMORE||

    *Deletion of comments were more likely than not completely independent of any particular content issue, and more a factor due to the poster ('Merican) who simply spews an incoherent mess of bullshit where there are indeed a lot of words vaguely referencing race, religion, and race some more, but the point is not the content of his commentary so much as the nature of it, which is Serial Trolling and just as subject to removal as some nonsense-spewing idiot such as the SQRLSY1 character or Mary-Mary.

  • AlmightyJB||

    That's not how I remember it.

  • Mongo||

    Wrong.

    It really is unbelievable that Reason even brings up this subject after that incident.

  • GILMORE||

    I'm not familiar with whatever incident you mean. I thought maybe you were just referencing the Incredible Disappearing Racist (aka 'Merican); if not, then disregard my comment.

  • Mongo||

    In summation, people (regulars and lurkers) posted quips, observations and jokes. Some funny, some not. Entire thread sections were then deleted, with Gillespie (?) posting a weak-ass explanation.

    That's in the past but it takes a lot of chutzpah to call out other people now when Reason did the same thing.

  • Zeb||

    Here is the relevant thread with Nick's explanation: http://reason.com/blog/2010/05.....ne-draw-mo

    I thought it was pretty lame to kill the comments, but it did get a bit out of hand. A lot of people (myself included) took it as an opportunity to insult Islam in any way we could think of to emphasize the point.

  • AlmightyJB||

    Some points need emphasized.

  • AlmightyJB||

    Yeah no shit. Cultural elites huh.

  • albo||

    1. Victim - If you're a once-oppressed non-white, liberals have granted you the status of victim, which lasts forever. And they shy away from criticizing victims.

    2. Low expectations - Sure, rich, educated white Westerners can appreciate and tolerate criticism of their beliefs--that's just expected because they're so enlightened. But we can't expect poor brown people to have that level of intelligence, so we shouldn't force them to confront criticism.

  • GILMORE||

    Note: "Tough"(tm) questions are typically not 'tough' things at all, but simply an opportunity to reintroduce failed socialist ideas in the context of a new generation who no longer sees ideological communism as a direct foil to Western Interests, but rather a conservative cultural trend which exists in both Islam as well a in the ostensibly 'christian' west.

    ...that said:

    There are some on the left who realized early on that using the politics of terrorism to domestic political advantage did nothing to actually ameliorate or restrain these genuine ideological enemies within fundamentalist islam. See Hitchens.

    Sadly, rather than be welcomed as a alternative viewpoint in the diverse 'world of ideas', the establishment left vilified and ostracized him. Strong Opinions, indeed. Passionate and Determined Cowards, more like. They are supremely comfortable branding people NeoCons or traitors of the Left for daring to suggest military action in defense of national interests are sometimes justified, or that there is no extant rationalist Dialogue which the West has failed to engage its ideological enemies.

    They are cowards insofar as they are far more comfortable attacking and vilifying those they consider aspostates to their monolithic worldview, yet will roll over and piss on themselves whenever presented with some screaming 3rd world lunatics.

  • Archie Bunker||

    +1. Say what you want about Hitch's political views; the one constant was his ceaseless battle against his entrenched brothers and sisters on the "left" when it came to freedom of expression, especially when that expression had the potential to offend.

  • Flemur||

    The Jewel of Medina, ... after one academic reader said it 'might be offensive to some in the Muslim community'.

    "Spellberg sharply criticized the novel from a historical perspective, and also reportedly told Random House publishing the book might result in violence by radical Muslims."
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denise_Spellberg

    Self-censoring by Reason.

  • Robert||

    Thought experiment: Suppose in a city, a clandestine gang has started murdering about 10 people, apparently at random, per day. They send an anonymous note saying they'll keep killing unless you enact a ban on serving soda in larger than 1-pint cups. Should you?

  • CentristClassicalLiberal||

    I believe Salman Rushdie should have every legal right to say what he wants, but if he didn't exist the neocons would have to make him up. I don't like Islam but I tend to refain from Islam-bashing because it drives people to support military interventionism and legislation like the Patriot Act. Legitimate Muslim-bashing in the mainstream is almost always muddied-up by neocon sabre-rattling.

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