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after the fatwa, the free speech wars

(extract from From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and its Legacy)

spiked review of books, april 2009

In October 1989 the Muslim Institute helped organize a large meeting on the Rushdie affair at Manchester Town Hall. TV cameras were present. On the platform was the Institute’s founder Kalim Siddiqui. The fatwa, he told the audience, was just, and Rushdie had to die. How many of you, he asked, support the death sentence? The majority of the audience raised their hands. How many, Siddiqui asked, would be willing to carry it out? Almost the same number kept their hands up. It was an electrifying moment, caught on camera and replayed on the evening news.

The barrister Francis Benyon phoned Frances D’Souza, chair of the International Committee for the Defence of Salman Rushdie. Siddiqui’s comments, and his actions, Benyon suggested, were illegal. Why not pressurize the Director of Public Prosecutions to bring a case of incitement to murder against Siddiqui? Failing that, why not bring a private prosecution against him? A few months earlier, Benyon pointed out, Siddiqui had defended the fatwa and the killing of Rushdie on Hypothethicals, a TV programme on moral dilemmas, which that week had been considering the Rushdie case. And on virtually every anti-Rushdie demonstration, some of which Siddiqui had helped organize, the placards and slogans could not have been more unambiguous: ‘Kill Rushdie’.

The committee debated the issue. ‘I had a view,’ D’Souza says, ‘which was not an immediately popular one, least of all with Salman.’ In her view, ‘Siddiqui’s words, although shocking and distasteful, did not constitute incitement since neither he nor his followers were in any position to carry out the fatwa, nor were they ever likely to be in such a position. They had no weapons, no knowledge of Salman’s whereabouts and no immediate intention of carrying out their threats. Therefore, using the famous American court ruling on incitement, there was no “clear and present danger” of Siddiqui’s words becoming action.’ The committee took D’Souza’s words to heart and no more was said about the issue.

Eighteen years later, the Metropolitan Police took a very different view when confronted with a group of Muslim demonstrators protesting against the Danish cartoons. In October 2007 around three hundred Muslims gathered outside the Danish embassy in London. Abdul Muhid, said to be the leader of the demonstration, was filmed by the police chanting ‘Bomb, bomb the UK’ and waving a placard with the slogan ‘Annihilate those who insult Islam’. Mizanur Rahman called for UK soldiers to be brought back from Iraq in body bags. ‘We want to see their blood running in the streets of Baghdad’, he told the crowd. ‘We want to see the mujahideen shoot down their planes the way we shoot down birds. We want to see their tanks burn in the way we burn their flags.’ Umran Javed shouted, ‘Bomb, bomb Denmark. Bomb, bomb USA.’ Abdul Saleem chanted, ‘7/7 on its way’ and ‘Europe, you will pay with your blood.’

The demonstrators were even less in a position to carry out their
threats or to incite others to do so than Kalim Siddiqui had been. There was no clear and present danger. Nevertheless, Rahman, Javed and Muhid were all sentenced to six years’ imprisonment for ‘solicitation of murder’, while Saleem was jailed for four years for incitement to racial hatred.

The contrast between the treatment of the anti-Rushdie protestors
and the anti-cartoon demonstrators is the story of how far attitudes to free speech have changed over the past twenty years. It is also a morality tale: be careful what you campaign for. The kind of censorship of offensive thoughts that the anti-Rushdie protestors demanded was the very kind of censorship of offensive thoughts that imprisoned the anti-cartoon protestors. Restrictions on speech, the aims of which were supposedly to protect the culture and dignity of minority communities, are now exploited to undermine the civil liberties of those very same communities.

The conviction of the cartoon protestors shows how, over the past
two decades, the authorities have used the law both to expand the
notion of ‘hatred’ and to loosen the meaning of ‘incitement’. The law is now used to criminalize not just speech that directly leads to harm, but speech that might indirectly cause harm, or which is regarded as morally unacceptable.

In 2008 Samina Malik, a shop worker from west London, received a nine-month suspended prison sentence for possessing materials ‘likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism’. She was a twenty-three-year-old fantasist who dreamed of jihad, and combined an intense hatred of Britain with the kind of adulation for Islamic terrorists that teenagers usually reserve for pop stars. She also wrote awful poetry under the moniker of the ‘Lyrical Terrorist’. ‘Let us make Jihad / Move to the front line / To chop chop head of kuffar swine’ gives a flavour of her talents. ‘It’s not as messy or as hard as some may think/ It’s all about the flow of the wrist’ ran another of her ditties, entitled ‘How to Behead’.

Malik was no T.S. Eliot. But neither was she an Osama bin Laden.
She was a young woman with some disturbing thoughts in her head. Yet apart from writing doggerel, her only action was to download inflammatory material from freely available websites – some of which I have downloaded myself. Any would-be bomber unable to do so himself is hardly likely to have the wit to carry out a terrorist outrage. The real crime for which Malik was convicted were the thoughts and desires in her unhinged mind. Malik’s conviction was later quashed by the Court of Appeal. But the case should never have come to court.

The cartoon protestors and the Lyrical Terrorist are not the only Muslims to be convicted of having bad thoughts. In 2006 the radical preacher Abu Hamza, whose incendiary sermons at Finsbury Park mosque in north London were supposed to have influenced the 7/7 bombers, was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment for incitement to murder and racial hatred. ‘The person who hinders Allah’s rule,’ he preached, ‘this man must be eliminated.’ His barrister, Edward Fitzgerald QC, claimed that Hamza was simply quoting from the Qur’an, even handing jurors copies of the Holy Book to check for themselves. ‘Mr Hamza has said things that most people will find deeply offensive and hateful,’ Fitzgerald told the jury. ‘But he is not on trial for describing England as a toilet. There is no crime of simply being offensive.’

Another ‘preacher’, Abu Izzadeen, was filmed praising jihad as the ‘responsibility of every single Muslim’. ‘So we are terrorists,’ he said. ‘Terrify the enemies of Allah. The Americans and British only understand one language. It’s the language of blood.’ He was jailed for four and a half years.

Such cases have led to cries of ‘Islamophobia’. The British government, many claim, is deliberately targeting Muslims for harbouring unacceptable thoughts. It is true that the war on terror has been used to impose greater restrictions on civil liberties. When the government introduced a new Terrorism Act in 2006, one of its most controversial parts was the section outlawing the ‘glorification’ of terrorism. Direct, intentional incitement to terrorist acts – whether or not they occur as a result – had been a criminal offence for some time. What was new was the outlawing of ‘indirect incitement’ – the celebration of, or apology for, acts of terror. The Terrorism Act 2006 is deliberately vague about what constitutes either glorification or terrorism, and does not require demonstration of intention on the part of those charged with an offence.

It would be wrong, though, to pin the blame for such curtailment of
free expression simply on the war on terror. The anti-terror laws have exploited a culture of censorship that already existed. The expansion of notions of incitement and hatred began long before 9/11, as did the blurring of the categories between giving offence, fomenting hatred and inciting violence. Some of the fiercest critics of the war on terror have been among the most vocal in arguing for restrictions on free speech, seeking to outlaw, for instance, incitement to racial and religious hatred.

In the debate about The Satanic Verses, many suggested that Salman Rushdie was fomenting hatred by using abusive words about Islam. Shabbir Akhtar called Rushdie’s novel ‘an inferior piece of hate literature’. The distinguished American academic, and liberal Muslim, Ali Mazrui compared The Satanic Verses to Mein Kampf. Both books, he wrote, ‘are works of alienation and basically divisive in intent and in impact’. Both are ‘anti-Semitic but directed at different sections of the Semitic people’. And if, in Mazrui’s eyes, the giving of offence was indistinguishable from the creation of hatred, so, it seemed, was the fomenting of hatred from the inciting of violence. ‘A book can be a lethal weapon,’ wrote Mazrui. ‘A pen writing three provocative paragraphs in London could let loose a flood of dangerous consequences a world away. When is a writer guilty of manslaughter? Could it conceivably be at the moment of writing itself?’

Few would take seriously the comparison of The Satanic Verses and
Mein Kampf, or genuinely entertain the idea that Rushdie might have been guilty of manslaughter. Nevertheless in a more restrained fashion both these ideas have worked their way into British culture and the legal system. In January 2006, Iqbal Sacranie of the Muslim Council of Britain told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that homosexuality was ‘not acceptable’ and described as ‘harmful’ the idea of civil partnerships between same-sex couples. Scotland Yard’s Community Safety Unit, which keeps an eye on hate crime, immediately launched an investigation into the comments. In so doing it demonstrated the legal blurring of the ideas of giving offence and fomenting hatred (though it would be hard even to argue that Sacranie was being offensive). Sacranie’s is not the only such case. The very idea of hate speech has become a means of rebranding obnoxious political arguments as immoral ones, and hence, rather than of challenging such sentiments politically, of seeking criminal sanctions to outlaw them.

When Mazrui suggests that Rushdie might be guilty of manslaughter
because his words inflamed rioters in India, he is obscuring the relationship between words and deeds. Rushdie had no intention of causing violence and the rioters were acting on their convictions, not on Rushdie’s words. ‘One of the things that the free speech and
censorship issue raises’, the psychoanalyst and writer Adam Phillips observes, ‘is can we control the resonances, the interpretations, of our words? And the answer to that is: we can’t.’

There is usually, in other words, no direct relationship between words and deeds. How people respond to words depends largely on the individuals themselves. They are responsible for interpreting the words and translating them into actions. Between words and deeds stands a human being, with a mind of his own, an ability to judge between right and wrong and a responsibility to face up to his own actions. It is not the words themselves that cause things to happen, but our estimation of the value and truth of those words. Free speech empowers the speaker. It also empowers the listener, placing a premium on his or her ability to weigh up the arguments and draw their own conclusions.

Most people would accept that there is a distinction between words and deeds and yet in the post-Rushdie world the law often acts as if
there is no space between the two. ‘Words are deeds,’ Aesop wrote in his fable ‘Trumpeter Taken Prisoner’. And this is how it appears to the law. Muslim protestors who chant ‘Bomb, bomb Denmark’ or ‘Behead those who insult Islam’ may be moronic and offensive. But the idea that they are inciting murder is equally moronic and offensive to our intelligence. People do not respond to words like robots. They think and reason, and act upon their thoughts and reasoning. Bigots are, of course, influenced by bigoted talk. But it is the bigots who must bear responsibility for translating talk into action. In blurring the distinction between speech and action, incitement laws blur the idea of human agency and of moral responsibility.

The convictions of the cartoon protestors, Samina Malik, Abu Hamza, Abu Izzadeen and others are not an expression of Islamophobia. They are an expression of the changing attitudes to words and deeds, a change that those who now cry foul about these convictions did much to bring about. Liberals and anti-racists have long argued that not just harmful actions but bad thoughts and evil ideas, too, should be a matter for the criminal law. The authorities are now applying that belief not just to racist bigots but to Muslim ones too.

In America, the home of free speech, many influential voices are now calling for the First Amendment to be amended to outlaw the ‘hate speech’ of radical Islamists. ‘A book can be a lethal weapon,’ wrote Ali Mazrui about The Satanic Verses. ‘His weapon was words,’ wrote Andrew McCarthy, senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies and former US federal prosecutor, about a speech by the Islamic cleric Omar Abdel-Rahman. Six weeks before the first bombing of the World Trade Center, in 1993, Rahman had claimed that the Qur’an makes acceptable ‘jihad for the sake of Allah, which is to terrorize the enemies of God and our enemies too’. ‘With an enemy committed to terrorism,’ McCarthy wrote in Commentary magazine, ‘the advocacy of terrorism – the threats, the words – are not mere dogma, or even calls to “action”. They are themselves weapons – weapons of incitement and intimidation, often as effective in achieving their ends as would be firearms and explosives brandished openly.’ It is vital, he suggested, to ‘criminalize the advocacy of militant Islam and its metier, which is the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians’.

It is a call that has been taken up by Newt Gingrich, former Republican speaker of the House of Representatives. He has demanded the rewriting of the First Amendment to ‘break up [the terrorists’] capacity to use free speech’. With the criminalizing of criticism of Islam has come the criminalizing of Islamic dissent. With the ban on incitement to religious hatred has come the ban on the glorification of terrorism. Far from specifically targeting Muslims, the law is taking it upon itself to determine what anyone, Muslim or non-Muslim, can say about others.

Many of those who opposed the law against the glorification of terror supported the criminalizing of religious hatred as a protection for a beleaguered minority. Many of those who opposed the religious hatred law as infringing legitimate speech supported constraints on the glorification of terrorism as a necessary measure in the post-9/11 age. We cannot have it both ways. If we invite the state to define the boundaries of acceptable speech, we cannot complain if it is not just speech to which we object that gets curtailed. If the twenty years since the Rushdie affair have taught us anything, it should be that.