Hindu Vivek Kendra
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Your absolute right to be heard

Your absolute right to be heard

Author: Ian O'Doherty
Publication: Irish Independent
Date: October 6, 2008
URL: http://www.independent.ie/opinion/columnists/ian-odoherty/your-absolute-right-to-be-heard-1490581.html

Um, haven't we been here before? Twenty years ago, a largely obscure author -- well, as obscure as someone who had already won the Booker can be -- Salman Rushdie, published his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses.

An avowed atheist and apostate from Islam, Rushdie knew the book was going to drive a large section of the Muslim community completely Tonto; but, as he said at the time and subsequently, it's a writer's duty to make people confront their own beliefs and prejudices.

Cue the now infamous fatwa and riots across the Muslim world and in Britain, while the Japanese translator of the novel was assassinated in retaliation for his involvement.

It also provoked one of the largest cultural schisms of modern times.

Muslims living in the West couldn't understand why someone would want to offend them, and the rest of us looked on in bafflement at the sight of people openly inciting murder against a guy, simply because they didn't like his book -- while simultaneously draping themselves in the cloak of victimhood. It was a piece of double-think that would have made Orwell proud and, it can be argued, at the time it placed as big a wedge between Westerners and the Muslim world as the war in Iraq is doing today.

And, proving that it would appear none of us has learned anything in the two decades since that kerfuffle, we're right back where we started.

This time, the book in question is Sherry Jones' The Jewel Of Medina, a fictional retelling of the life of Aisha, Mohammed's child bride. It has been derided by those who have read it, with one early review comparing it more to a Mills and Boon novel than the serious historical reimagining it claims to be.

But regardless of the merits or otherwise of the book, the memory of The Satanic Verses still rings loud in the ears of proposed publishers, Random House, who dropped the book in fear of the prospect of "violence from a small, radical element".

Tellingly, there hadn't even been any threats made against Random House at the time, but as poet and former Czech President Vaclav Havel remarked on his time as a writer behind the Iron Curtain, the biggest danger was that fear of censorship ultimately placed the censor in their artist's own mind, so that they began to not even bother writing something that could bring some heat down on them.

That's exactly what happened with Random House and their cowardly, despicable capitulation to threats which, bizarrely, hadn't even been made.

And then, in one of the most oddly under-reported stories of recent times, the London home of the British publisher of the book was fire bombed by angry Muslims.

Three men tried to burn Martyn Ryjna alive because he plans to release the novel, yet people in the British media simply seemed to shrug their shoulders.

In fact, a lot of the media's reaction to the attempted murder of a publisher was that he pretty much got what he deserved, because he liked publishing controversial books and was simply looking for publicity.

Then, incredibly, Anjem Choudhary, one of the biggest race baiters in Britain, went public with the opinion that anyone who insults Mohammed deserves the death penalty; and that if the book is published, then the people involved will be killed.

Now, if you or I were to go public and threaten the lives of people in the publishing industry, we would immediately -- and correctly -- be hauled in front of the courts for making threats with menaces.

But when we see a situation in Britain where members of al-Muhajiroun can demonstrate outside Parliament waving placards saying "Death To Infidel" and "Slaughter Those Who Insult Islam" and not be arrested, are you surprised that this small, pathetic weirdo can get away with it?

In fairness to Choudhary, the murder of someone who insults Mohammed is indeed part of his faith; but that merely says more about his religion than it does about our society, and it should be remembered that we are not -- for now, anyway -- a Muslim society with Muslim rules.

In fairness to the Inayat Bunglawala from the Muslim Council of Britain, he has previously dismissed Choudhary as a "nutter" and recently admitted in the Guardian that he was wrong to call for the banning of The Satanic Verses. He doesn't accept that banning The Jewel Of Medina is the right way to go, either, saying: "Let Rushdie, Jones and co write as they please. Muslims are likewise at liberty to use those very same freedoms to promote their own understanding of the mission of the Prophet Mohammed."

That remains perhaps the most mature and sensible comment from any Muslim commentator on the issue that I've seen, and he seems to have realised that banning something because it offends you is a two-way street.

The Dutch politician Geert Wilders realised this when, during the controversy over his inflammatory movie Fitna, he tried to have the Koran banned because he said he found it offensive.

Rushdie, to his credit, came out last week and said that he certainly did not regret writing The Satanic Verses and, as someone who had his life and the life of his family turned upside down for decades, he was adamant that he would still write the book today.

That represents the triumph of words and the free exchange of ideas over the stultifying blanket of censorious, belligerent religious conformity.

Although, having said that, as someone who has had to review Rushdie's last two books, I often felt like issuing a fatwa on the man myself -- he has become the literary equivalent of Paul McCartney: revered for his early work but seemingly incapable of releasing a decent record for the past two decades.

The Jewel Of Medina sounds, frankly, awful tosh and no doubt would have sunk into well deserved obscurity.

But that's not the point.

The point is that all writers, even the really bad ones, have a right to be heard.

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