The issue of freedom of speech as a fundamental human right has been brought to the fore, once again, in light of Julian Assange's arrest, owing to his WikiLeaks 'leaking' uncomfortable information about that dark horse, the US government. Both recent events and my own vehement belief in the necessity of free speech has prompted me to publish below a piece I wrote back in December 2008 on the matter:
On August 9 2008, The Guardian reported that American publishing giant Random House dropped plans to publish ‘The Jewel of Medina’ by journalist Sylvia Jones, for fear of inciting violence from terrorist groups. The novel is a fictional account of the prophet Muhammad’s relationship with his child bride, Aisha and was accused of making fun of Muslims and their history by Denise Spellberg, professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas. The decision called into question the state of free speech in the U.S.A. Six weeks later and the safety of Martin Rynja, owner of small, independent publishing house Gibson Square (which also published ‘Blowing up Russia’ by the late Alexander Litvinenko), came into question when his house was firebombed following his decision to publish the novel. Rynja was unharmed and sticks firmly to his “imperative” decision to publish Jones’ book.
The critics of the novel need to remember that this book is fictitious and not an attempt to accurately portray history: Spellberg took issue with the book on these grounds that it “play[ed] with sacred history and turn[ed] it into softcore pornography”. Obviously Spellberg is not getting enough herself. Not only is the book devoid of sex scenes (rather, chartering the couples love story), but also seeks to honour the prophet and is anything but disrespectful. This aim, according to Jones, is even more potent when written by a white, non-Muslim woman. One has to wonder whether these fire-bombers had even read this, hitherto unpublished, novel or whether they were ignorantly going by hearsay in the media.
The politics aside, even if the novel contained some risqué scenes that could possibly offend people; one needs to remember that this is fiction. I do not think that any social, sexual, political or religious niche has ever emerged from the realms of fiction unscathed. If you are likely to be offended by something it is best to close your eyes and ears and develop a thicker skin. I can appreciate that if the “Jewel of Medina’ was, indeed, blasphemous against Islam then this could cause offense to certain parties. This would still not be a just cause for halting publication.
Phillip Pullman, author of the beloved Northern Lights trilogy, reinforces this point by claiming that religion is the WORST reason to ban something. He says that religion is a wonderful thing that can be the source of moral wisdom and solace but turns sour once its leaders start meddling in the “social and intellectual lives of their flock”. The bid to destroy intellectual freedom is unarguably evil; evil being a notion which religion usually seeks to quash.
Do the censors not realise that by banning something that it not only makes us more aware of the illicit text/film/image but it makes us yearn for it more. Oscar Wilde makes this point through the character Lord Henry Worron in ‘A Picture of Dorian Gray’, “when the soul gets sick the way to cure it is to deny the senses nothing”, implying that to deny ourselves is to make our souls desire that thing more. Nothing can be truer and anyone reading this will, I am sure, agree.
A few days before Random House chickened out, exam board AQA “ask[ed] schools to destroy book containing knife poem”. It is clear from the choice of words The Guardian shares my opinion on the matter. Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Education for Leisure’ begins with the line “Today I am going to kill something. Anything”. This sparked concerns that G.C.S.E children studying the poem would get the wrong idea, given the increase in knife crimes.
On hearing this, my anger surged: that the education authorities could be so damn patronising. Can 16-year-old young adults not be trusted to handle controversial and very relevant issues? The poem might go a long way in reinforcing just how fucked up it is to carry a knife. By re-hashing the issue over and over through study of the poem, might the allure of knife crime not be dampened a little? By removing a poem about knives from schools it is only glamourising the conduct even more. Taboo issues will be a catalyst for debates and intellectual discussions - the point of and a means to learning.
These children need teachers not nannies who obviously think their pupils are capable of nothing else but monkey see monkey do. Carol Ann Duffy made an excellent point in her responsive poem, ‘Mrs. Schofield’s GCSE’, by reminding us that literature is littered with knife crime (hello, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth…). Pat Schofield, who made the initial complaint about ‘Education for Leisure’ thought that the poem dedicated to her was “a bit weird”. It is a wonder these critics do not think of better ways of articulating their indignation to appear slightly more intelligent so as to carry their argument further.
It is heartening though to see figures such as Rynja and poet laureate Michael Rosen rise to the defence of those who are simply exercising their right to free speech. I think, also, that in this climate of ever more stifling political correctness we all need to lighten up and not be so afraid of offending somebody somewhere.
"I disagree strongly with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."