The Current Discussion: A London publishing house was firebombed for agreeing to publish 'The Jewel of Medina', a controversial novel about Muhammad's wife, which Random House dropped earlier this year because it feared terrorist threats. In hindsight, was Random House in the right? Does this justify censorship of this kind in the future?
Censorship can be interpreted in different ways, be it state-enforced censorship or selective and voluntary restraint. But I fail to see censorship in this matter. Random House, a large publisher with vast international business, has made a business decision to drop publishing a controversial novel, perhaps one out of tens of thousands proposals that it receives in due course of business (The web site of Random House lists 10,000 books available on line for a brief browsing or purchase). Alternatively, a competitor picked up the business. This is hardly a case for a gripping thriller of writer’s suppression.
The firebombing could be a violent crime of extremists ideologues or a different problem. Blasphemy and defamation of religion and religious personalities are criminal acts in most societies. Austria, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Australia, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Ireland, Iran, Israel, Italy, India, Pakistan, most Latin American and Arab countries, if only to name a few, all have laws against such conduct. A famous, but hardly unique, British test of such laws was the Salman Rushdie affair and the brouhaha about his Satanic Verses novel. Publishers were delighted with the unexpected publicity as it was simply business—radicals were buying their product to burn it! Hence, they kept on fuelling the indirect publicity, all about a very confusing novel written by a relatively unknown writer of children stories. Mr. Rushdie had not dreamed of such rise to fame. More bewildering was the narrow definition of blasphemy in English law, a country where a quarter of the population is not Christian and where only a third of the population regularly attend church. The offence narrowly applied to Christianity and the Church of England. On more than one occasion, criminal prosecutions of blasphemy and religious libel were launched by a fundamentalist group named Christian Voice in Britain. One famous case was against the government-owned British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in connection with a stage production show of the American Jerry Springer that supposedly offended Christians. (The offence of blasphemy in England and Wales was abolished in summer of 2008, but a long trail of case law remains to serve as a review of the past.)
Notwithstanding, many censorship rules remain on the books in Britain and in other EU countries, where the “freedom” of expression is not an absolute right. British censorship rules continue to apply to films in theatres where every fiction film must first obtain a public viewing license from a review board. Newspaper articles remain subject to a self-policing censor practice since the second World War-- articles in breach of the privacy of, or offensive to, the Royal Family or “sensational” political stories that can “adversely” affect society. There are also established decent public conduct laws that protect privacy, social behaviour, libel and defamation of public figures, let alone religious role models and prophets. Other EU countries such as Germany, Austria and The Netherlands, for example, completely ban the Nazi doctrine or any publication or broadcasting of, say, Hitler’s famous Mein Kampf as they all ban the Nazi party. It is now an offence in the European Union to refer to a person of Roma origin as a “Gypsy” and Russia has strict rules against promotion of many sects of protestant Christianity.
The focus must shift to criminal conduct. There are established laws to deal with arson and the perpetrators must certainly be held answerable without a relapse to the sensationalism. The extremist minds set to justify criminal conduct as their means of protest ought to be reminded of the law. Firebombing a book publisher in London, or an abortion clinic in middle America, or a car bomb in the middle of a Baghdad market all have roots in the same settings of unacceptable behavior-- just as more memorable and spectacular, but aimless, hate crimes of bombing Underground trains in London, or crashing airplanes into New York buildings. Alas, criminal behavior ought not to be confused with, or hyper-emotionalized as, a social trend, a legal issue, a ban or censorship. On balance, publishers might wish to balance their for-profit business aspirations against a breach of laws or offending a significant proportion of their community where they earn their income. It seems that Random House made a cool-headed and responsible decision; their competitor is wistfully chasing the shadows of the Rushdie Affair.
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