What constitutes free speech? At first glance, this a rather basic question but it is far more complex than one might think - and we lose it at our peril. If Rushdie can be silenced, so can we all. By Maarten Hoffmann
Salman Rushdie wrote a fictitious book in 1988 entitled The Satanic Verses. Great offence was taken by muslim hard-liners, mainly Iranian, and the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a worldwide fatwa calling on all Muslims to kill him. 34 years later, they tried, stabbing him up to 15 times as he stepped onto stage in the US to give a speech.
This is the definition of the death of free speech and must be fought, battled and defended to the last man and woman with a breath in their lungs.
I recall well the shock and disgust felt across the world that followed the fatwa over the idea that writing a book could lead to death. Suddenly, the simple act of writing was fraught with danger. Society cannot survive without free speech. Democracy is built on the right to dissent, on the right for people to holds opposing views. Our society needs freedom of expression to protect us for the worst atrocities that governments can visit on their citizens.
The French magazine Charlie Hebdo published a simple cartoon of the prophet Mohammed in 2015, and their office in Paris was bombed and 12 people were killed, with 11 badly injured.
Let’s get this straight. You have the right to be offended, you have the right to be outraged and you have the right to argue your point. But you DO NOT have the right to murder people who transgress your views or beliefs.
Hardline Muslim doctrine states that if you dishonour their beliefs, you should be killed. We in the UK have beliefs. Christians might hold Jesus in such high regard and would be offended if l said he didn’t exist, if l said the Bible was a made up story to keep the masses in check, if l said he was gay, trans or an idiot, or published a cartoon of him in a dress, that would be my right.
It is NOT your right to kill me for those views and anyone who feels it is, should be sanctioned immediately and the killer should be sent for trial and would likely be jailed for life for first degree murder. There is no defence in UK law, or most other countries, for murder for religious reasons. Murder is murder.
Freedom of thought and expression are essential for civilised life. But this does not mean we have the right to hate speech, or incitement to violence, or words that denigrate or dehumanise - free expression should be exercised with respect. But it is not a crime to doubt or question others’ religious views.
I fully supported Rushdie in the eighties as l didn’t believe that he wrote his novel to deliberately cause offence. A novel is a dialogue of voices. A novel is not polemic. It creates a world to question a world. I believe we must protect the realm of the imagination. No one should be killed because of a novel, as violence is never the answer to disagreements and an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.
In the eighties, Booker award author, Ben Okra lampooned the rigged Nigerian elections and was strongly advised to leave the country immediately as his life was in danger. A year later, author Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged in Nigeria for protesting against the environmental damage caused by oil drilling in his home state. Nine journalists, including Maharani Durrani, were killed in a bomb blast in Afghanistan in 2018 for writing about women’s rights. Czech journalist Pavla Holcova was shot to death with his fiancée in 2018 for investigating the links between Slovak prime minster and the Italian mafia. Mexican journalist Leslie Ann Montenegro was shot dead in 2018 for poking fun at local politicians. Jamal Khashoggi was killed and dismembered in 2018 by, allegedly, the Saudi head of state for his views - and so it goes on.
In 2020, 69 journalists were murdered for their views or for what they wrote. Throughout history, the thoughts that will take us forward have often been censored but the thoughts that liberate us always triumph in the end - often over the corpses of those brave enough to take a stand.
And this is not just about journalists - none of us can function without a measure of courage. Our lives would be intolerable without freedom of thought. And now some lunatic called Meer Asif Aziz has stated on Twitter that JK Rowling is next - for her views!!
If one writer can be silenced or killed then we can all be. We cannot allow this legitimisation of the murder of an artist in our world.
To kill one imagination is to kill all our imaginations. It is too late in the day to turn back the clock of human liberties.