‘Some artists have finally had the courage to admit that they are scared. But we need them to do better than that. We need people with a voice to show that they aren’t scared’
Last month Ben Elton said something which, though not funny, was still unexpected: “There’s no doubt about it, the BBC will let vicar gags pass but they would not let imam gags pass. They might pretend that it’s, you know, something to do with their moral sensibilities, but it isn’t. It’s because they’re scared.”
If so, the BBC would hardly be the first to quiver. The transvestite potter Grayson Perry admitted recently that he wouldn’t attack Islam in his art because “I don’t want my throat cut”.
But while Elton’s and Perry’s interjections are new, what they have observed is not. The knowledge that writers, film-makers, artists and cartoonists have tiptoed around even mentioning Islam is hardly novel. Since the 1989 fatwa on Salman Rushdie, and even more since the murder of Theo van Gogh, it’s a rare public figure who doesn’t save their political “bravery” for attacking George Bush, the Iraq war or perhaps the “Zionist entity”.
Hollywood directors continue to churn out dramas with Cold War enemies. The British television spy drama Spooks avoids the one terrorist threat that the public is actually thinking about. Public intellectuals like Richard Dawkins hold back on Allah in a way they refuse to do with other people’s deities.
Detailing just how isolated, though numerous, the exceptions to this cowed status-quo are, the Centre for Social Cohesion this month launches a publication (of which I am a co-author) cataloguing censorship-by-intimidation across Europe. Silent Jihad details the experiences of artists, journalists and politicians who have suffered threats, physical violence and even death, to demonstrate how widespread and invidious the extent of the new censorship has become.
Some cases — like the Danish cartoonists — have attained mythical status. Whoever thought we would be able to utter the words “cartoon crisis” with a straight face? Others have been fleetingly mentioned in the press: like the French philosopher and teacher Robert Redeker, who was forced into hiding in 2006 after writing an article critical of Mohammed for Le Figaro; and the Iranian-Dutch artist Sooreh Hera, who has been in hiding since January when both she and the exhibitors of her work were targeted with death threats for offending Islamic sensibilities.
Others cases, like that of the young Dutch comedian Ewout Jansen, are hardly known outside their own countries. Last year Jansen and his comedy partner said that they and other comics are regularly threatened by Muslim students if their material mentions the religion. The head of one of Amsterdam’s main mosques reiterated Khomeini’s infamous line that “there are no jokes in Islam”, and said that death was the only appropriate punishment if the jokes continued. Fearing the prospect of a mujahideen appearing live on stage, venues cancelled Jansen’s show.
And of course it’s not only artists and comedians who have come under threat for mis-speaking. Politicians and law-makers across Europe have had the same experience. Holland has most famously seen a number of politicians and policy-makers forced into hiding. Ayaan Hirsi Ali finally left for America, but the politician Geert Wilders recently collected a fatwa from al-Qa’eda after venturing into film-making.
The foreign affairs spokesman for Spain’s opposition Partido Popular, Gustavo de Aristegui received death threats through encrypted Saudi websites in 2006; now he lives with a security detail. The same year the Turkish-born German MP Ekin Deligoz was put under police protection when her life was repeatedly threatened for criticising the wearing of the headscarf.
The predominance of Muslims and former Muslims on the front line here is no accident. The Zaire-born Swedish integration minister, Nyamko Sabuni, has been under police protection since speaking out against female genital mutilation and honour killings. As with the cases of Hirsi Ali and Rushdie, it is when someone “from their own side” speaks out that hatred spills over into violence.
So there are obvious choices to make. Will we quietly accept that we live de facto under some of the strictest laws of the sharia? Or will more public figures do Islam the decency of giving it the same place as other ideas in our culture? A place where films are made, books and articles written, cartoons cartooned and religious and political opinions voiced which tell truths, lambast, lampoon and offend, but which afford Islam the dignity of equality.
The BBC and many other media have been cowed. Some artists have finally had the courage to admit they are scared. But we need them to do better than that. We need people with a voice to show that they aren’t scared. Pace the notably unfunny Khomeini, there are lots of jokes in Islam. And that is the sound we should hear — the raucous noise of unfettered debate, laughter and often inevitable offence. Intimidation has been very successful in preventing that offence, and in the process Muslims have been cocooned and the most reactionary versions of their religion accepted as the norm. The antidote is not concession, flattery or silence. The answer is noise.