Tag Archives: Salman Rushdie

Pope Francis, Salman Rushdie, and Charlie Hebdo

20 Jan

 

 

(Prefatory Note: This post is a much modified piece published a few days ago in AlJazeera English, and republished elsewhere on line. As many have now done it tries to enlarge the context in which the Charlie Hebdo events are understood beyond a highlight film clip in ‘the war on terror.’ The alleged link between the Chouachi brothers and Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) allows the attack on Charlie Hebdo to be experienced as the French 9/11, and with this a return of France to a status of post-colonial geopolitical relevance. Without grasping the relevance of how the dominant treat the dominated within our societies and throughout the world, we are consigning ourselves to many repetitions of the private and public horrors experienced in France on January 7, 2015.)

 

 

There is some common ground, but not much. The killings in Paris last week were horrifying crimes that expose the vulnerability of democratic societies to lethal vigilante violence, whether facilitated from outside or as a spontaneous expression of homegrown psychopathic alienation. Beyond this naked, morbid reality associated with the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, police officers, and the supermarket hostages there is nothing but darkness, and in that darkness some dangerous monsters lurk.

 

We can be again thankful for the moral clarity of Pope Francis who a few days ago in the impromptu setting of a plane taking him from Sri Lanka to Manila shined a light upon the darkness. Unlike those who so ardently wielded the slogan “Je suis Charlie” the pope understood that free speech without limits is an invitation to indulge the worst negative impulses that will then operate as viruses destroying the vital organs of the body politic.

 

What Pope Francis underscored was the impossibility of reconciling dignity with hurtful insults, especially as directed toward the already marginalize and socially vulnerable. He illustrated his view by saying that if one of his companions on the plane, Dr. Alberto Gazparri a Vatican official, hurled obscene insults at his mother Gazparri could expect to receive a punch. The pope called such a physical response normal: “It’s normal. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.” Perhaps, this is too strong an expression of limits, but it does indirectly raise the Derrida urgent question of how and whether we can ever learn to ‘live together’ in peace, with respect within globalizing social space, while swallowing differences of race, class, religion, ethnicity, gender.

 

Francis went on to say the obvious, that to kill in response to any provocation, however severe, hurtful, and lewd, is not compatible with religion properly understood. If it claims a religious motivation, such behavior is an expression of “deviant forms of religion.” He goes on to say “To kill in the name of God is an aberration.” At the same time, how lines are drawn with respect to acceptable and unacceptable forms of provocation is highly political, changeable, and culturally influenced and even constructed.

 

In one respect France and other governments understand both sides of this argument, but twist it for political purposes. The popular African comedian Dieudonné has been repeatedly charged with criminal offenses because his humoraous routines deeply offend Jews, Zionists, and Israel. He is being currently prosecuted in France for ‘defending terrorism’ It turns out that there are no less than 54 pending cases in the country associated with ‘condoning terrorism’ by way of speech. The Associated Press reports that despite present tensions and the public celebration of free speech the government in Paris has “ordered prosecutors around the country to crack down on hate speech, anti-Semitism, and glorifying terrorism.” But note no message by the French government is sent mentioning ‘hate cartooning’ or addressing the surge of ‘Islamophobia’ in the country in the days following the January 7th attack on the Charlie Hebdo editorial offices. A large number of mosques in France and elsewhere in Europe have been desecrated in the last week. There are numerous reports of harassment of Muslims as they walk the streets of the country, and indeed throughout Europe. It is understandable that the Muslim community as a whole feels on edge given the ambiguity of the ‘je suis Charlie’ fervor that includes a new press run of 5 million, compared to the former figure of 60,000, that features a cover demeaning the prophet Mohamed. The ambiguity arises because there is a merger of solidarity with the victims and their families after such a shocking attack and an endorsement of their depiction of the Muslim religion as depraved and degrading.

 

This kind of double standards toward these two kinds of hate speech performs a variety of insidious functions for the French state. It uses the language of ‘terrorism’ or ‘anti-Semitism’ to demonize its political enemies and ‘freedom of expression’ to insulate its political allies from any adverse consequences. It blends the criminalization of terrorist advocacy and anti-Semitism with public action taken in the face of strong criticisms of Israel, especially if proposes concrete nonviolent action as is the case for the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign. And it makes it even clearer to Muslims that they are fair game for Islamophobes and xenophobes. In effect, a French political community is being upheld that seeks to include Jews as valued and protected members while reinforcing the Muslim understanding that their residences and social standing can be fully understood by reference to the negatively imaged banilieus of the country depicted by the corrupted custodians of public virtue as virtual no-go zones for ordinary Frenchmen, and hazardous neighborhoods even for public officials and the police.

 

In the wake of these events, there is in the West the mainstream media has given a renewed prominence and sympathetic look back at the ordeals that Salman Rushdie endured after the publication of his satirical novel The Satanic Verses in 1988. Rushdie, appearing as a guest on Bill Maher’s talk show and delivering a lecture at the University of Vermont, understandably defended freedom of expression as an absolute right. His words, deeply felt, are worth heeding as the counterpoint to the views expressed by Pope Francis: “And so artists who to that edge and push outwards often find very powerful forces pushing back. They find the forces of silence opposing the forces of speech. The forces of censorship against the forces of utterance..At that boundary is that push-and-pull between more and less. And that push and pull can be very dangerous to the artist. And many artists have suffered terribly for that.” To speak as an ‘artist’ is not a warrant for hate speech that is directed at a group where there needs to be a balance struck between opposed societal values.

The context of Rushdie’s recent remarks was the Charlie Hebdo incident, but his outlook was intended to be sweeping in its generality as applicable to Islam in general. And yet he did not, nor did Bill Maher, pause to take note of those powerful forces in the West that have tried to shut down critics of Israel by shouting ‘anti-Semite’ at the top of their lungs. Some sensitivity to Jews is certainly appropriate as a social value in our post-Holocaust world, but such sensitivity should not be coupled with insensitivity to the victimization of the Palestinian people by the state of Israel. Without some degree of consistency it is difficult to consider clearly how societal balance should be struck in a given situation. The intermingling of East and West has given rise to deep grievances among many Muslims throughout the world, and calls attention to exploitative structures of political, economic, and cultural life within our world that link the domineering to the dominated, giving rise to desperate forms of resistance in response to despicable forms of domination by the powerful and rich.

 

It should not be surprising that the killers in Paris were moved to action by Abu Ghraib pictures portraying the torture and humiliations of Muslims held in American run Iraqi jails. In 2007 Chérif Kouachi said these words in a French court: “I was ready to go and die in battle. I got this idea when I saw injustices shown by television on what was going on over there. I am speaking about the torture that the Americans were inflicting on the Iraqi.” Was it wrong for Kouachi to be appalled? Was it wrong for him to want to act in support of his beliefs? What were his real life options? Of course, it was wrong to do what he did. As W.H. Auden wrote in a famous poem: “Those to whom evil is done do evil in return.” This is essence of blowback, a kind of warning to the rich and powerful to act justly. Yet we find the rich and powerful in denial, and so the vicious cycles of blowback persist in their fury.

 

What makes this confrontation so difficult to resolve is that it engages at least two truths, not the single one that has dominated public space. The essential beginning of ethical credibility is an insistence upon consistency. Either Rushdie and France have to uphold the freedoms of Dieudonné whose humor they find abhorrent as well as safeguard the publication of Charlie Hebd discriminating as between various ethnicities and religions in its midst when it comes to drawing lines between protecting the freedom of expression and punishing hate speech.

 

The U.S. Supreme Court long ago decided that free speech does not entitle someone to yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater. This is what courts are for, to draw these lines in specific cases, balancing opposing truths in the light of practicality and the evolving values of the community. What a judicial body had to say about race or homosexuality a century ago is different than what is says today. And as we in American know too well, the prevailing ideology among the justices is often of greater relevance in determining how such lines are drawn than are the legislative, constitutional enactment, and cultural norms being interpreted. In some respects, then, such determinations are more part of the problem than of the solution.

 

I find myself siding with the abstract sentiments of Pope Francis, but in sympathy with Rushdie’s view of minimizing the role of law and the state. In this respect, if we impose limits by way of government we are entering the domain of censorship. At the same time, we need to protect individuals and groups against malicious forms of defamation and hateful attacks on identities without confusing such protection with efforts to channel public awareness in certain prescribed directions. My own experience suggests that ‘freedom’ of this sort has been used by some pro-Zionist and pro-Israeli organizations to discredit and deter and criticism of Israel, and especially of Israeli state crimes victimizing the Palestinian people. In Rushdie’s case we need to protect his right to publish The Satanic Verses, while condemning the fatwa imposing a death sentence for blasphemy and apostasy, yet respecting the right, and possibly the duty, of non-Western political communities to prohibit distribution of such a book due to its provocative nature in certain civilizational settings.

 

Obviously, there are no cookie cutter answers. The proper limits are a matter of history, ethics, cultural priorities, political leadership, societal circumstances, and most of all, spiritual sensitivity. I feel that the central question is raised by Derrida’s inquiry into how we can learn to live together as well as possible, or at least better. For me living together, given the originality of our historical moment, involves the construction of overlapping communities of destiny—from family to world, with a major focus on national and sub-national political communities without forgetting the wholeness of humanity, our too often suppressed or distorted species identity. Such an undertaking needs to be combined with a greater effort to establish a global political community so that challenges posed by climate change, nuclear weaponry, infectious disease, religious and ethnic intolerance, world poverty, and societal marginalization can be addressed more effectively and humanely.

 

 

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Hazards and Hopes of Limitless Freedom of Expression

4 May

             One of the glories of the Western Enlightenment, especially as embodied in the lifeblood of political democracies is freedom of expression, the right to give voice in public spaces to unpopular, tasteless, provocative, and even outrageous ideas, and especially those critical of the prevailing political order without fear of retaliation. In the United States particularly the right to express ideas and opinions are extended to symbolic acts such as burning the American flag as a way of dramatizing the repudiation of official policies, or more broadly, the right to challenge the symbolic ascendancy of nationalism and patriotism. The U.S. Supreme Court has generally takes a very broad view of freedom of expression but finds some outer limits. It indicated famously that it would validate laws prohibiting members of an audience from falsely shouting ‘fire!’ in a crowded theater. It explained that the likely result is panic and a stampede that can hurt of kill. Even at the height of the Cold War, with McCarthyism creating waves of conformity, the endorsement of Communist ideas were generally allowed, although loyalty oaths for certain types of employment were imposed and actual, and even suspected, Communist Party affiliations were punished both formally and informally. The dividing line in wartime and during periods of national tension is very thin as exemplified in the United States by past laws on seditious speech and required loyalty oaths, which when the crisis expires are often in retrospect disowned as mistakes.

 

The Rushdie Fatwa

 

            These issues are often more easily be balanced by delicate legal and politics acrobatics within national political space, but finding a comparable balance globally has become far more precarious, if it is possible at all. The exceedingly difficult nature of the problem became evident to many after Salmon Rushdie in 1988 published Satantic Verses to Western critical acclaim and widespread Eastern censure, climaxing in the issuance of a fatwa by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on February 14, 1989 that declared it a duty of Muslims to kill Rushdie and to hold mortally accountable anyone anywhere who was associated with the publication of the book. Demonstrating that such words have deadly consequences, a Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarishi was stabbed to death in 1991, as was an Italian translator of Satanic Verses. In addition, a Norwegian publisher of the book was violently attacked and barely survived. Rushdie himself went into hiding for about a decade with Britain effectively providing twenty-four hour police protection. In most countries with large Muslim populations the book was banned, with the notable exception of Turkey, and bookstores in the West that carried the book were threatened, and several were burned. Obviously, the fatwa had severe harmful effects on a variety of ‘innocent’ persons that carried far beyond Iran, the country of utterance by its supreme leader, that is, if innocence is assessed by Western liberal norms.

 

In 1998 Iran’s President Mohamed Khatami appeared to withdraw support for the fatwa, and seemed eager to bring to an end the anti-Rushdie worldwide campaign, but the fatwa remains formally in effect as it can only be withdrawn by the person who issued it, and Khomeini had died long before Khatami spoke out even assuming, which is highly unlikely, that the author of the fatwa might have been later inclined to back away from the harshness of the original condemnation. Had Khomeini been alive in 1998 he would have almost certainly reaffirmed the fatwa, and might likely have gone on to challenge Khatami’s qualifications to provide secular leadership for the country. With respect to the treatment of the Rushdie book there exists a definite clash of values and rights. In most countries in the West this publication was immediately treated as an important work of literature by a renowned author whose publication was initially not thought as posing any challenge to freedom of expression, while in many Islamic societies the book was immediately viewed as offensive to deeply held community and religious beliefs as to make its availability and distribution arguably unacceptable, and regarded by public authorities as such a grave threat to public order to lead several governments to ban its publication. This diversity about matters of cultural and religious propriety and the fixing of some limits on free expressions seems inevitable in a state-centric and multi-civilizational world that contains contradictory assessments of the balance between individual freedom and community values. This diversity is an accurate reflection of the world order that currently exists, and is incapable of being persuasively resolved by resort to claimed universal principle. Despite the worldwide rise of human rights, universal norms cannot resolve difficult controversies about rights and values, although almost everywhere except Iran the Khomeini fatwa was treated as a deeply troubling precedent. The fatwa claimed an unreviewable authority to mandate death by unreviewable decree to the author of a book and those who facilitated publication even though in their political space no law was broken or widely endorsed moral position was affronted. This fatwa was indeed a bridge too far!

 

How to prevent such abuses in the future is a daunting challenge. It is difficult to propose a better response than the ancient encouragement of comity among countries, but this reliance on reciprocal courtesy and respect among sovereign states can hardly be expected to exert much influence on those who act on the basis of genuinely held fundamentalist beliefs about good and evil. It is inevitable that there will at some point arise somewhere on the planet behavior that will give rise elsewhere to the formulation and implementation of efforts to punish or react to controversial ideas that are found offensive within and beyond territory.

 

The Danish Cartoon Controversy                                                     

 

            In many ways as insulting to Muslim sensibilities around the world as Satanic Verses, was the Danish newspaper’s publication in 2005 of twelve cartoons depicting the prophet Mohamed in a derogatory manner. In response, riots leading to several deaths took place in Asian countries. The Danish official defensive response to criticism after the event was to call attention to the existence of national penal laws that prohibited blasphemy or discriminatory statements. It was a curious gesture because at the same time the Danish prosecutor declared the inapplicability of these laws in this instance because the cartoons addressed matters of ‘public interest’ whose publication was thus entitled to special protection. Here, there was more at stake than the trouble caused overseas. The cartoons also caused intense discomfort to Muslim minorities living in Denmark and elsewhere in Europe. The publication and political debate that followed was properly regarded as confirming the reality of an Islamophobic climate of opinion taking shape in Europe. The Danish response was essentially premised on freedom of expression as insulating even deliberately insulting remarks and images associated with religions and their sanctified leadership. In this respect, Copenhagen was arguing that Islam was not being singled out. Every religion, including Christianity, it was said had been at various times attacked in a manner that could be construed as blasphemous. But what here of the predictable impact of the cartoons, causing violent reactions around the world and intensifying hostility to Muslims within Denmark? Is this not analogous to shouting fire in a crowded theater? That is, the publisher and editor of the Danish newspaper should have anticipated these harmful effects, although some observers have argued that the riots were not the foreseen, and were primarily caused by the cartoons. Seen in this manner, the ensuing violence was mainly the result of opportunistic and irresponsible mainstream religious figures in several Muslim countries seizing the inflamed moment by agitating mobs to bolster their own personal influence. Unlike Rushdie, who acted perfectly reasonably, given his British residence and citizenship, the Danish provocation should arguably have been avoided by self-censorship, and the violent responses in Asia were exaggerated reactions that also should never have happened. It is generally desirable to encourage free expression without the state administering the limits, but in that case it is up to the state to prevent riots and societal violence.

 

            The challenge is a difficult one. It could be argued that a stronger civic tradition on Rushdie’s part, but even more so in relation to Khomeini, would have produced self-censorship. Long after the event, Rushdie expressed surprise, and even a tinge of remorse, that his novel had become an occasion for such a violent and enraged backlash. Long after the fact he gave the impression on occasion that he might not have written such a book had he anticipated the consequences for himself and others. In contrast, the Danish newspaper was forewarned of inflammatory effects but went ahead without any hesitation. In effect, self-censorship does not currently protect against the harmful effects of incendiary forms of expression in the hostile and commercially driven, even hateful, environment that exists, and even promotes a culture war against or on behalf of the Muslim world.

 

Burning the Koran

 

            The case of Terry Jones, the fundamentalist pastor of a small Christian church in Gainesville, Florida called the Dove World Outreach Center, founded in 1996 and serving 50 families, is a dramatic illustration of the dilemmas posed by hateful and irresponsible speech, not by a supreme leader as with Khomeini but by an obscure religious figure who would have remained forever unknown except for his outrageous provocation. The actions of Rev. Jones illustrate the ethical and political challenge in its most vivid form. Jones proclaimed his intention to burn the Koran on the anniversary of September 11 in 2010, even proposing the establishment of an “International Burn a Koran Day.” He had earlier published a booklet entitled “Islam is of the Devil,” and in August 2009 two children from his church were sent home from a local school because of ‘inappropriate dress,’ T-shirts with “Islam is of the Devil” emblazoned in bright letters. The Florida community did what it could to rein Jones in by informal action, denying Jones a burn permit and seeking to cancel the mortgage outstanding on his church. When asked to explain the recent shrinkage in his church membership by 50% Jones cunningly replied, “I think mainly just because the things we’re involved in are just really too hot for your normal Christian and your normal person.” Prior to the burning last month, many urged Jones to refrain, including even General David Petraeus who correctly warned that such anti-Islamic acts would endanger the lives of American troops under his command. And indeed two American soldiers were killed in distant Afghanistan apparently to avenge the Koran burning. Of course, such an incident should be appreciated as a personal tragedy for those singled out, although the American military presence in Afghanistan was likely a contributing cause, and in its own way an unlawful and irresponsible provocation. Should the state step in and impose a punishment or forbid such speech? On what authority? Should the idea of hate speech be associated with hostility to a book (as distinct from a person) that is treated as sacred by more than a billion persons? Is its denigration an intolerable incitement to public disorder? Does the answer depend on the national or civilizational setting at a particular historical, or are we now living in such a globalized and networked world as to make geographic boundaries of acceptable expression meaningless?

 

The Manning Case

 

            This brings me, finally, to the sad and illuminating case of Bradley Manning, a young intelligence analyst serving in the military. While Terry Jones is a free man despite deliberately generating violent reactions to speech and symbolic deeds known to be deeply offensive to many people, Manning seemingly acted out of conscience and belief facilitating the release of thousands of documents that had been classified by the U.S. Government, Iraq and Afghanistan war logs, confidential State Department cables, and other classified materials. As with Daniel Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers almost 40 years earlier, the evident intention of Manning was to inform people about the realities of government policies that were producing death and destruction in foreign countries. It seems that Ellsberg, also a government security specialist with privileged access and status, wanted the American people to know some core truths about the planning and perpetration of the Vietnam War that were dramatically at variance with what the public was being told about the war by the government. With Manning his range of motivations is not fully known, but he seems also to have become deeply disenchanted with the unlawful and immoral manner with which the United States was using its military power around the world, and the extent to which it was hiding war crimes behind heavy curtains of unwarranted secrecy. Manning has not yet been prosecuted, but has been held in demeaning and cruel conditions for many months. Without alluding to any extenuating circumstances, President Obama has not only said in response to a question from a journalist in the face of protests by human rights groups and others about Manning’s treatment in military prison that it was “appropriate and meets our basic standards,” but also was later caught on tape prejudging the case by saying in a private conversation at a fundraising dinner that Manning “broke the law,” and should be prosecuted.

 

The Manning case is a further stain on the moral reputation of the United States. It exhibits a vindictiveness toward a citizen, and a low ranking member of the armed forces, who steps out of line, seeking to allow a wider public of a democratic society to know a series of ‘inconvenient truths.’ Perhaps, there is some justification for some secrecy in diplomatic communication, and thus for laws that punish improper disclosures, or leaks. But each case needs to be judged in relation to its specific context. This case has many extenuating circumstances, and calls for leniency and empathy, taking account of Manning’s motivation and the improprieties exposed, rather than the vindictive approach so far taken by American officialdom. Let us remember that high government officials often leak classified information for their own purposes, including the exertion of influence on the media treatment of controversial policy issues. They almost never suffer any adverse consequences, enjoying what amounts to de facto impunity. What is striking about the Ellsberg/Manning disclosures is the whistle blowing character of their actions, that is, essentially a contribution to public wellbeing. In Manning’s case the documents given to WikiLeaks, including a classified video of a military incident in Afghanistan (an Apache helicopter attack that killed two Reuters News employees and several civilians without any indication of a military target), as well as many documents confirming U.S. association with war crimes, government lawbreaking, and serious corruption. Such behavior deserves to be known by the American public and should never have been allowed to happen in the first place. Rather than condemning the disclosures, the behavior disclosed is what should have produced presidential anger and appropriate action.

 

In a healthy democratic society such behavior would be protected if the intentions of ‘unlawful’ were shown to be positive and reasonable, and no unwarranted harm could come to named individuals. According to reports, the documents released by WikiLeaks were carefully screened in advance to avoid targeting individuals. Complex modern societies are rendered more secure by the safety valve of whistle blowing, and at the very least, benign leadership should moderate the implementation of secrecy laws by an acknowledgement of the huge public benefits of and needs for governmental transparency. In this instance President Obama’s inappropriate assertion of Manning’s guilt prior to a criminal trial under the auspices of a military tribunal further highlights the degree to which statist interests outweigh both justice to an individual charged with serious crimes (remember that innocence until proven guilty by a court of law operating according to due process is a fundamental right) and disregards the interest of the citizenry in the greatest possible transparency on the part of their government. If due process prevails even a military tribunal should conclude that Obama’s statements have been sufficiently prejudicial, after all he is commander in chief whose views are not likely to be contradicted in a military venue venerating hierarchy and chains of command, to have the case against Manning thrown out. Such an outcome is also justified as a result of severe and sustained pre-trial abuse that cumulatively amounts to ‘torture,’ or what the Bush presidency chillingly called the techniques of ‘enhanced interrogation.’

 

            The German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, wrote in 1885: “The state is the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly it lies, too; and this lie creeps from its mouth: ‘I, the state, am the people.’” [Thus Spake Zarathustra, ‘Of the New Idol’]

In the Manning case this coldness is exemplified, as is the lie that because the state is the people, the people have no needs to know beyond what the state is prepared to disclose, however incriminating the information. This coldness of the state is expressed by criminalizing truth telling, branding it as virtually a form of treason, whereas a humane political community would seek to learn from those in their midst who are brave and dedicated enough to reveal to their citizen comrades what is hidden because it should never have been allowed to take place.  To punish righteousness is the seminal sin of organized power that the Bible warns about over and over again, and yet the ears of the modern cold state remain are plugged on principle, with the help of laws that stifle those forms of freedom of expression needed to ensure a lawful government. The same state that will go to great lengths to claim virtue for itself because it tolerates criticism will spare no effort to punish those who dare to expose its criminality. This punitive reflex must be curbed if democracy is to flourish in the 21st century.

 

 

V..4…2011