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.

from Hit & Run http://ift.tt/MjJcBu

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