Despite the idiotic sneer that such principles are “fashionable”, it is always the ideas of secularism, libertarianism, internationalism, and solidarity that stand in need of reaffirmation.
On 7th December last year, some twenty Muslim men stormed a book launch in Amsterdam and promptly declared a death sentence upon the book’s author. They unfurled a black banner adorned with hateful Arabic, began chanting “Takfir!”, and threatened to break the author’s neck. When the audience bravely formed a human shield around the hunted writer, the men began demanding that the event be shut down. The writer and the audience, to their credit, stood their ground, until the Dutch police arrived, eventually arresting a number of the extremists, after which discussion of the recently published book resumed. What is important to note about this small but sordidly telling episode is the nature of the book and the person that had driven these men into such an apparently murderous rage. For the author – a slight but brightly articulate woman called Ishrad Manji – is no apostate, and her book – Allah, Liberty, and Love: The Courage to Reconcile Faith and Freedom – is no Satanic Verses. Manji is, in fact, an avowed believer in Islam, and her book, as its title suggests, is nothing more threatening or ‘offensive’ than a reasoned call for a reformist approach to Islam and a plea for moderation amongst her fellow Muslims. For this, apparently, did she deserve nothing less than death.
What must be understood about the reactionary mind it that it hates its own moderates and progressives before it even begins to hate its nominal enemies. “The first aim of religious violence,” argues Nick Cohen in his new book, “is to stop experiment by the faithful and enforce taboos.” Calls from the squeamishly liberal-minded for writers and artists to show ‘restraint’ and ‘respect’ when dealing with religious or cultural matters are therefore doing the extremists’ work for them by asking the impossible. If Muslim extremists cannot tolerate a fellow believer even suggesting reform, then no amount of restraint will appease them. If Islamists find the mere existence of a gay Canadian Muslim writer provocation to murder, then no amount of ‘respect’ will calm their noxious minds. If a moderate Muslim writer cannot promote her book unharried and unthreatened in the historical heart of liberal Europe, then there is nowhere in the world where free thought and free expression cannot be menaced. Over twenty years on from Rushdie and we have still to fully absorb the key lesson of that disgraceful episode: capitulate to threats, genuflect in front of hurt feelings, offer ‘respect’ to those who demand it at the point of violence (and therefore don’t deserve it by definition) and we watch the borders of our civilisation recede. Offer the hand of friendship, and you’ll take back a stump.
Speaking of the freedom of the press, John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty that “the time, it is to be hoped, is gone by, when any defence would be necessary.” Those who share the assumption may review the above and wonder what the fuss is about. Some, eyes alighting upon the seeming oxymoron of Nick Cohen’s title – You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship In An Age of Freedom – may find their mind echoing the thought. A book about censorship? In the 21st century? In the post-Google age? After the ‘Twitter Revolution’ of Iran and the ‘Facebook revolutions’ of the Arab Spring? Where such minds miss the point is in mistaking progress for victory; ground gain for zero losses. While it is undoubtedly true that the average man has more freedom than the average man at any time in history, it does not follow that we live in a world where freedom of thought and expression are granted full reign – even, as Cohen sets out to show, in the advantaged West. The enemies of free expression do not lie down, even when defeated. The censorious are always with us. When the powerful can silence dissent, history shows that they probably will. Complacency, in this sense, can be fatal, and one suspects the complacent to be the main target of Cohen’s book. The problem, in other words, is with those who don’t think there’s a problem. (I had to chuckle at the writer who began his review by saying, evidently with a straight face, “It’s a strange title: we plainly can read Nick Cohen’s latest book,” inadvertently proving Christopher Hitchens’ maxim that the literal mind is baffled by the ironic one.)
Cohen has set out to write “an examination of how censorship in its clerical, economic and political forms works in practise,” and he begins, as he must, with the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, a controversy he calls “the Dreyfus Affair of our age.” (Indeed, Cohen can, “place [the] public figures of my generation by where they stood on Rushdie.”) The fatwa, in his view, “redrew the boundaries of the free world, shrinking its borders and erasing zones of disputation from the map of the liberal mind.” Although Rushdie outlived the Ayatollah and his book remained triumphantly in print, the fatwa had a crippling effect upon the Western intelligentsia. They had, in Kenan Malik’s phrase, “internalised the fatwa,” leading to a reflex that sought to blame the victim of religious hatred for stirring up that hatred. The sinister conservatives who said of Rushdie that “he knew what he was doing” have since become the frightened liberals who turn on people far braver than themselves: condemning the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten for printing cartoons of Muhammed, rather than the theocrats who stirred up violent mobs; unable to offer an ounce of solidarity to the persecuted Somali-born dissident Ayaan Hirsi Ali because she was a “new atheist” and an “Enlightenment fundamentalist” and thus roughly equivalent to the butcher of Theo Van Gogh; and finding nothing to say to the fundamentalists who forced India’s greatest contemporary artist, M. F. Husain, into exile for painting nude Hindu goddesses, despite the awkward fact that Hindu gods and goddesses are always naked, and quite often copulating. “Today’s supporters of religious censorship claim that they are different,” writes Cohen, “They say they are not advocating censorship because they believe we must bow down before Church and the state, but because we must respect different cultures and say nothing that might offend them.”
In the secular West, of course, it is Mammon we bow down before, and in the second part of the book Cohen tilts his pen towards the corporate plutocracy who have the both the money and the power to silence dissenting voices from within their ranks. (“Every time you go into your workplace, you leave a democracy and enter a dictatorship,” in the book’s most arresting phrase.) Highlighting the inadequacies of employment law in granting protection to employees who might be troubled by institutional wrongdoings, Cohen argues that the costs of taking action – the loss of not just employment, but of a whole career – vastly outweigh the possible benefits of going public. “Every whistle-blower I have known has ended up on the dole,” he points out. Such disincentives, he suggests, played their part in the 2008 financial crash, where the great and the good of our moneyed master race faced a choice between keeping schtum about risky derivatives while reaping untold riches, or doing the honourable thing by warning regulators or the press about bad deals, and never working in finance again.
The world’s wealthiest, together with a pliant judiciary, have another blunt instrument at their disposal, in the form of England’s increasingly anachronistic libel laws, which allow the rich and censorious to exact financially ruinous penalties on writers and publishers. English courts have long been a friend of the litigious rich, but in the 21st century they have become an embarrassing stain upon Britain’s reputation as a beacon of liberty. In England, after all, a Dutch oil company can sue the BBC for reporting that it dumped toxic chemicals in the Ivory Coast; a Russian oligarch can sue an American magazine for exposing the gangsterish roots of his wealth; a Saudi plutocrat can sue the American publishers of a book uncovering his links to Islamist terror funding; an association of quack medics can sue a science writer for correctly pointing out their therapy has no scientific basis; and an indulged, mollycoddled film director once convicted of drugging and orally and anally raping a thirteen year old girl can sue an American magazine – via video link – for damaging his reputation with the ladies.
The belief that ‘If you are telling the truth, you have nothing to fear’ does not apply in England. The courts say you are guilty until you prove yourself innocent. They take no account of the difficulty in persuading confidential sources to place their careers at risk by taking the witness stand. They tell the claimant that he does not need to prove that he has suffered damage or harm. They do not consider whether the claimant has a good reputation to defend. They are presided over by judges drawn from the pseudo-liberal upper-middle class who have no instinctive respect for freedom of speech or gut understanding of its importance.
Unlike in America, where the onus is on the claimant to prove malicious damage, England’s libel laws are heavily tilted towards the accused. In practise, the exorbitant costs of fighting a libel case cast a chill over investigative journalism in the UK and elsewhere, as publishers weigh the potential penalties involved and decide to nix writing that may land them in court. “I still recall the shame I felt when the legal director of Human Rights Watch in New York told me she spent more time worrying about legal action from England than from any other democratic country when she signed off reports on torture, political persecution and tyranny,” admits Cohen. Reading these passages in the context of the Leveson inquiry, where know-nothing actors and comedians have been lining up to testify to the beastliness of the British press and clamour for restrictions on its power to rake muck, one is reminded of how fundamentally important an unfettered press is to a democracy like ours. Besides the crimes against free inquiry chronicled in these pages, the whining of pampered celebrities seem laughably tame. Our libel laws are not often enough thought of as an organ of censorship, meaning their insidious effect continues to permeate unnoticed and unchallenged by all but the bravest. “Censorship is not always about hiding secrets,” Cohen points out, “Sometimes it is just an assertion of raw power.”
Power – political power – informs the final part of You Can’t Read This Book. Even before 2011’s wave of Arab protest, there existed a marked tendency among “techno-utopians” (Cohen’s phrase) to assume the technological freedoms bought by the web would magically translate into corresponding political freedom. The succession of revolts rocking the Arab world reinforced this impression, as dazzled Western journalists continually emphasised the role social networking sites had in organising revolt. The internet, on this view, was heralding a new age of freedom, as dictatorial regimes lost control of what their subject populations could read or say. People could outwit authority and organise rapidly. When the government attempted a crackdown, the results could instantly be uploaded to YouTube, where the eyes of the world would be watching. The results were right there for everyone to see. When the Arab Spring began to slide into its bloody winter, this view began to change. As revolution gave way to counter-revolution the flaws in the utopian argument became obvious. “As well as empowering the citizens of democracies and dissidents in dictatorships,” argues Cohen, “[the internet] empowers elected governments, dictatorial regimes, police forces, spies, employers, blackmailers, frauds, fanatics and terrorists.”
The Tweets that gave birth to the Iranian ‘Green Movement’ were quickly seized upon by the Ayatollah’s thugs, snuffing out the revolution before it had really begun. The mobile phones that allow the West to view, practically in real time, the slaughter of Syrian rebels, have hardly tempered Ba’athist violence. On the contrary, the regime uses the same technology to film then upload retribution videos of the security forces beating captured rebels as a way of warning off further revolt. The point Cohen emphasises is that: “most dictatorships do not want total control, but effective control.” Regimes like those in Iran, Syria, and China can live with the web, because they have the tanks. As Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya show only too well, overthrowing tyrants cannot be done virtually. Genuine political change involves physical action. In tyrannical regimes this often means putting one’s life in danger. In Egypt, the revolution only happened because the army took the side of the people. In the case of Libya, it was NATO killed the beast, not Twitter.
In the light of all this, it is no surprise that Cohen has little time for the type of t-shirt radical that thinks publishing American secrets from the safety of Sweden constitutes the ultimate act of rebellion. That the grotesque figure of Julian Assange can be held up by so many as a free-speech hero only goes to show how muddle-headed is so much modern thinking about censorship. When Assange – a man entirely incapable of human empathy – released his cache of American diplomatic cables, he followed through on his explicit anti-Western agenda by knowingly leaking the names of hundreds of dissidents, from Belarus to Afghanistan to China, alongside them. The fact that this meant some of the most violent and reactionary forces on the planet being able to exact revenge upon those who had spoken to or aided American diplomats meant nothing to Assange. Indeed, his response was unequivocal: “fuck them”. Assange is typical of the faux-radical left in never having faced physical danger and knowing nothing, therefore, about genuine physical courage. Partly for this reason, he shows nothing but contempt for those struggling with arduous battles against oppression and censorship. His betrayal, in this sense, is an all too typical one.
In considering the types of censorship that exist in the 21st century, one must look past the seductions of technology and the illusions of total freedom that it brings. One must push up against the tougher realities of meaningful political change. The fight for free expression never ends, because there will always be those who wish to, and are capable of, stifling dissent. The debate is, for this reason, always worth having because it is a fight over first principles. “True censorship removes choice,” Cohen remind us, “It menaces and issues command that few can ignore.” The author has written a stirring polemic that is sure to find an audience among those who value language, liberty, and the undeniable – indeed essential – connection between the two.