Sunday, April 13, 2008

Universal Right to Freedom of Expression?

Salman Rushdie
(Image from Wikipedia)

In this week's Spectator Magazine, Matthew d'Ancona interviews Salman Rushdie in "We have been wimpish about defending our ideas" (Wednesday, April 9, 2008) and finds that the novelist has some interesting things to say.

They're discussing Rushdie's recent novel, The Enchantress of Florence -- I haven't read it and have no literary opinion -- but slide over into other issues, largely because the novel is, in part, a novel of ideas. Rushdie wants to defend some ideas that he considers universal:
"The part of this book that deals with ideas -- I suppose there is an unsaid subtext here, which is that there are such things as universals. There are ideas which grew up in the West, and in a slightly different form they grew up as well in the East -- the idea of freedom, of open discourse, of tolerance, of sexual freedom even to the level of hedonism, these are things which human beings have come up with as important ideas everywhere that there have been human beings. So to say that that we must now consider them to be culturally specific . . . is a denial of human nature. If there is an author's message in this book, it was actually the discovery that I made that the worlds of the book were more like each other, than unlike."
Concerning Rushdie's views, d'Ancona observes that "[t]he corollary of this recognition, . . . [Rushdie] thinks, should be a much more robust defence of the core values that offer the only chance of global co-existence -- notably freedom of expression."

I guess that Saudi cleric Muhammad Al-Munajid would disagree with Rushdie, for in a talk that aired on Al-Majd TV on March 30, 2008, he 'argues' against journalists in his country who want to reinterpret Islam:
The problem is that they want to open a debate on whether Islam is true or not, and on whether Judaism and Christianity are false or not. In other words, they want to open up everything for debate. Now they want to open up all issues for debate. That's it. It begins with freedom of thought, it continues with freedom of speech, and it ends up with freedom of belief. So where's the conspiracy? They say: Let's have freedom of thought in Islam. Well, what do they want? They say: I think, therefore I want to express my thoughts. I want to express myself, I want to talk and say, for example, that there are loopholes in Islam, or that Christianity is the truth. Then they will talk about freedom of belief, and say that anyone is entitled to believe in whatever he wants . . . If you want to become an apostate -- go ahead. Fancy Buddhism? Leave Islam, and join Buddhism. No problem. That's what freedom of belief is all about. They want freedom of everything. What they want is very dangerous. ("Saudi Cleric Muhammad Al-Munajid Warns: Freedom of Speech Might Lead to Freedom of Belief," MEMRI, March 30, 2008)
I think that Rushdie would be entirely unfazed by this Saudi cleric's argument. In fact, he would largely agree with some points. The debate about free expression is one not only about freedom of thought but also, inevitably, about freedom of belief -- which entails the freedom to criticize other people's beliefs . . . and even to ridicule, as Rushdie goes on to note in a not-exactly-oblique allusion to the recent "Muhammad-Cartoon" controversy:
"We have to get thicker-skinned. If we end up going on being this thin-skinned, we're going to kill each other. So we need to have the ability to hear unpalatable stuff. What would a 'respectful' cartoon look like? The form itself requires disrespect -- so you either have the form, or you don't . . . I think we're being extremely wimpish at the level of ideas. People must be protected from prejudice against their person. But people cannot be protected from prejudice against their ideas -- because otherwise we're all done."
"And who, exactly," asks d'Ancona, "is being 'wimpish'?" Rushdie replies:
"[T]he idiotic Archbishop [of Canterbury] who says there can't be one law for everyone. That slide into cultural relativism is very, very dangerous. This is supposed to be a really intelligent man. Yet that was a schoolboy mistake. How could anybody who knew the history of this country seriously offer the thought that there should not be one law for everyone, that people would not be equal before the law? It seems to me that the basic principles on which any free society is based are freedom of expression and rule of law -- that's it. If you have those, then you have the foundations of a free society and if you don't have those, you don't. So to say 'we will voluntarily give up one of those pillars' and not to see that it brings the whole house tumbling down is stupid."
Now, I met the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, in 2003 at The St Andrews Conference on the Gospel of John and Christian Theology (which misspelled my name as "Horrace Jeffrey Hodges"!), and I liked the man, but I have to side with Rushdie on this point, and I can't imagine what the Archbishop was thinking when he argued that shariah could be allowed to rule over some issues in the lives of British Muslims, defending his view with the argument that there can't be one law for everyone.

I suppose that I ought to read the Archbishop's talk before I object too strongly . . . but not at the moment.

Anyway, I'm with Rushdie on this one, as I was with him on the Satanic Verses controversy in 1989 -- though some, as d'Ancona recalls, were not:
The Rushdie Affair was the terrible warning that most of the world ignored: some, outrageously, blamed the author himself for his predicament, not grasping the scale, depth and ferocity of what he was up against. He was the canary down the mine into which the whole world tumbled on September 11.
Some four years later, about 1993, in a small seminar that I was attending in Tübingen, I heard Hans Küng criticize Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses. To Küng's credit, he did defend Rushdie against the Khomeini's fatwa. But not strongly enough, in my opinion, for Küng thought that Rushdie should have anticipated the violent reaction . . . and should have avoided the entire mess, Küng implied, by submitting in advance.

That submission would have been prudent, I suppose, but in the longer run unwise.

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