Criticism of Islam and freedom of speech

No pluralism without pussies

Salman Rushdie has accused the US writers who boycotted a prize for "Charlie Hebdo" of displaying a lack of character. But the best-selling author is missing a crucial point: freedom of expression is not absolute. A commentary by Johan Schloemann

The Prophet Muhammad was an abhorrent camel driver. He spread his superstitions with brute force. The Koran is an indigestible book that offends common sense.

So, now we've put that down in black and white. Isn't that courageous? And don't we all have to fight for the right to be able to say such things? After all, these offensive statements about Islam are not ours, but those of Voltaire. The figurehead of the French Enlightenment expressed these opinions in a letter to Frederick the Great in 1740.           

One has to wonder, however, what is actually to be gained by spouting such insults. The fact that such disparaging religious criticism, along with "blasphemy", are no longer prohibited by law in many Western countries today (and should no longer be prohibited anywhere) certainly doesn't mean that they are necessary at all times and in every conceivable form. This is the crux of the dispute that has now broken out among literary figures and intellectuals in the USA.

Six prominent writers decided not to participate in a gala put on by the authors' association PEN on Tuesday in New York where "Charlie Hebdo" was awarded a prize for freedom of expression. All six dissenters strongly condemn the terrorist attack on the editorial team of the Paris-based satirical magazine, which should be a matter of course among thinking people. But they are made uneasy by the thought of taking part in a standing ovation in evening dress for depictions of the Islamic religion's founder that display aggressiveness and a deliberate disregard for the religion’s image ban, two things they cannot accept.

The Australian writer Peter Carey, who lives in the USA, warns of self-righteousness in New York and "cultural arrogance" in France towards the large Muslim minority.

The edition of the satirical magazine "Charlie Hebdo" published seven weeks after the attack on the magazine's editorial offices in Paris (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/Langsdon)
"The right to free speech is indeed absolute, but only to the extent that of course no expression of opinion justifies violence and terror," writes Johan Schloemann. "If, however, the defenders of this right speak only of closed ranks and the readiness to fight, they themselves risk sliding into a totalitarian rhetoric against which they were actually trying to defend liberal society"

Rushdie is making a mistake

Salman Rushdie reacted promptly to the news, commenting that the six who didn't want to participate were "pussies" without character. In his correspondence with PEN, the best-selling author criticises the dissenting authors as being "horribly wrong" and speaks of the "battle against fanatical Islam", which he says must be won.

Salman Rushdie has good reasons for his stance, having lived under the shadow of a fatwa calling for his murder ever since the publication of his novel "The Satanic Verses" in 1989. But he is making a mistake, one that has once again gained prevalence in the wake of the ideology-based killings in Paris: namely, to enshrine freedom of expression as an absolute right over other basic rights in liberal societies, such as respect for the free practice of religion. The right to free speech is indeed absolute, but only to the extent that of course no expression of opinion justifies violence and terror. If, however, the defenders of this right speak only of closed ranks and the readiness to fight, they themselves risk sliding into a totalitarian rhetoric against which they were actually trying to defend liberal society.

Nowadays, both critics and sympathisers of Islam can quickly end up attracting false friends. Unfortunately, not a few of those who are gathering under the banner of "freedom of expression" are in fact seeking to give a proper rebuff to Muslim immigrants in particular. In this situation, we can say that how far we can take the criticism of religion must not be influenced by the threat by radical Islamists.

At the same time, however, the substantive assessment of what the "Charlie Hebdo" artists have published must not be influenced by the fact of their murder. The fact that there are writers who insist on such differentiation and warn against demonstrative heroism is not a weakness of "the West". Even if Salman Rushdie now regrets his choice of words: without pussies there can be no pluralism.

Johan Schloemann

© Suddeutsche Zeitung 2015

More on this topic
In submitting this comment, the reader accepts the following terms and conditions: Qantara.de reserves the right to edit or delete comments or not to publish them. This applies in particular to defamatory, racist, personal, or irrelevant comments or comments written in dialects or languages other than English. Comments submitted by readers using fantasy names or intentionally false names will not be published. Qantara.de will not provide information on the telephone. Readers' comments can be found by Google and other search engines.
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.