is No Offence
Twenty-three essays, one issue, brilliantly discussed. Penguin brings us a new collection as part of its 70th anniversary celebration. This collection of essays has been compiled in association with English PEN, part of an international organisation that champions freedom of expression and the "right of writers, artists and anyone to say whatever they feel without fear of persecution or penalty".
Do we need laws on hatred? Should creativity be curtailed by laws citing religious sentiments as an excuse for censorship? Can freedom of expression be equated with blasphemy? These are some of the questions that the book raises.
In 2005, the Labour government in Britain decided to try and make a crime of "incitement to religious hatred", proposing a law to curtail it. Such a law would have wide-ranging implications, as it could be used to censor anyone—writers, comedians or just about anyone wishing to make a statement about religion. The PEN view is that it "serves as a sanction for censorship of a kind which would constrain writers and impoverish our cultural life. Rather than averting intolerance, it would encourage the culture of intolerance that already exists in all religions".
In 2004, PEN listed 1,000 writers who were in prison for their writing. Since then, 12 have been killed and still more have disappeared. If the law were to be passed, many more such incidents might take place.
Free Expression is No Offence tackles the issue of free speech in the post 9/11 world from a variety of angles. Its authors draw on their wide-ranging experience to show just why it is that attempts to curtail freedom of expression must be vigorously resisted by anyone who wants all faiths to live side by side peacefully, and the many cultures of this world to thrive.
There can be none better than Salman Rushdie, whose life has been so enmeshed by this very issue, to begin this collection. In spite of his long campaign against racism, The Satanic Verses earned him the wrath of the very people whose condition he so brilliantly describes. His view that "wherever religions, with their narrow moralities, get into society’s driving seat, tyranny results" is echoed by almost all other writers in this compilation.
Included here are articles by Rowan Atkinson—better known as Mr Bean—Yasmin Alibhai Brown, Hanif Kureishi and Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, whose play Behzti had to be closed after running to packed houses at Birmingham Repertory Theatre in the wake of violent protests by Sikhs.
Censorship has always existed in society. Hitler burned books before he burned people. Lenin once said: "Ideas are much more fatal than guns." History is full of examples where freedom of expression has been disallowed, beginning as early as AD 66, when Aristophanes Lysistrata was condemned by Plutarch. The Talmud, main source of rabbinical teaching and Jewish lore, was burned, banned and confiscated repeatedly by the Catholic Church. The Bible in translation was banned by the Synod of Canterbury and so was the New Testament, the first printed book. Galileo’s Dialogue on the two Great Worlds, Milton’s Areopagitica, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species `85 the list is endless.
Today, we might like to believe we are free from such infringements. However, in the face of evidence to the contrary, it becomes imperative for us, as a society, to face the issues raised by this book and decide whether repression in the name of protection should be accepted or whether worries about security and respect for others can bring down liberties by becoming codified in a law.
Politics has no business interfering with religious sentiment and using it to further its own cause. As Rowan Atkinson says, "It seems a shame that we have to be robbed permanently of one of the pillars of freedom of expression because it’s needed temporarily to shore up a political edifice somewhere else."
Maybe what is needed here is a little "intolerance" of this proposed law against "religious intolerance".