It started with the fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1989 and has been gaining momentum ever since: the idea that if you are offended by a book, play, film or whatever, and you then whip up a sufficiently vigorous campaign to get the book (or whatever) banned, you will probably succeed in at least some of your aims.
I for one didn’t appreciate at the time, the importance of the Satanic Verses business, or how significant the weak-kneed response of sections of the liberal-’left’ intelligentsia would prove to be, in setting a precedent and encouraging the enemies of free speech and free thought. While the majority of the majority of the literary/intellectual world gave some degree of support to Rushdie, a significant minority (notably Roald Dahl, John Le Carre and Germaine Greer) scabbed. ‘Mainstream’ politicians including Roy Hattersley and Norman Tebbitt took the opportunity to direct their fire at Rushdie, rather than those who threatened to kill him. The majority of tthe ‘left’, after initially supporting Rushdie, got cold feet and backed off.
The Satanic Verses was not, of course, withdrawn or banned. But a paperbeck edition was put on hold, booksellers took it down from display and – all in all – the bigots could claim at least a partial victory.
Apres nous les deluge: militant Islam exposed the weakness and decadence of the post -Chatterley trial liberal consensus in favour of free speech: inevitably, other religious, ethnic and communal groups followed suit. Since then we have witnessed the (ultimately successful) Christian fundamentalist campaign against Jerry Springer: the Opera, the closure of Gurpreet Bhatti’s play Behzti after Sikh “community leaders”and their supporters picketed Birmingham Rep, and the closure for “security reasons” of an exhibition of paintings by MF Hussain after protests by the so-called “Hindu Human Rights Group”. I would include in this list of shame the craven failure of the mainstream British media to publish the Danish “Mohammed” cartoons earlier this year, though I am aware that that is a somewhat more contentious example in the eyes of other contributors to this blog: I’ll discuss it later if anyone wants.
Anyway, now we have the splendidly named Campaign Against Monica Ali’s Film Brick Lane: they have succeeded in preventing the filming of scenes in Brick Lane itself and now intend to burn copies of the book at a rally in London tomorrow. The exact motivation of the campaign is not clear to me, but it seems to have something to do with the fact that Monica Ali’s father is a non-Sylheti Bangladeshi from Dhaka, and that Sylheti Bangladeshis (the vast majority in the UK) believe that Ali has insulted them in various unspecified ways. In fairness, it should be noted that quite a few Brick Lane Bengalis have come out against the campaign and even one of the campaign committee members, Lutfur Ali, says his aim is not so much to stop the filming, as “to sensitise the film-makers to our concerns” (Guardian, July 27). needless to say, very few of the campaigners have actually read the book (the Guardian found just one who had).
Once again the wretched Germaine Greer has weighed in against free speech, supporting the campaign against the film and sneering at Monica Ali as a “proto-Bengali writer with a Muslim name” (Guardian G2, July 24).
And once again it is an ethnic minority artist who is under attack from self-appointed, reactionary, male, “community leaders”. The least that monica Ali has the right to expect from the white liberal/’left’ intelligentsia is some elementary support: and not to be scabbed upon by the likes of Greer.