‘Airing the truth is not the same as concocting a lie; but neither must be made impossible’

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Being denied access to any opinion loses us more than we can know. As John Stuart Mill explained in On Liberty, we have to be able to hear the whole range of opinion for two primary reasons. First, because what is kept from us may be true or contain a portion of truth. Second, because if we allow our opinions to go unchallenged our truth risks divorce from its rational roots, becoming a dogma too feeble to be sustained.

In the past month, Britain has seen two examples of censorship that warrant the sounding of the siren of Mill.

First, we saw the alleged attempted firebombing of the home of a London publisher who had been due to bring out The Jewel of Medina. This debut novel by Sherry Jones — which Gibson Square offered to publish after it was dropped by Random House — focuses on the relationship between Islam’s prophet and his favourite and youngest wife, Aisha.

In the wake of this incident, the novel’s publication has now been dropped a second time. Any but the most determined British readers, who may obtain copies from Serbia and other countries willing to publish the book, will now be unable to judge the book’s contents for themselves.

So what is the loss here? The truth is that it had begun even before the book was cancelled, indeed ever since Denise Spellberg, an associate professor at the University of Texas, who was sent the work objected to it on the basis that it took “sacred history” and turned it into “soft-core pornography”. This has now become the standard line of criticism of the work’s unread contents.

Leaving the “sacred history” claim aside, how can this story be seen as “soft-core”? Muhammad was in his early fifties when he married Aisha.

According to Muhammad al-Bukhari — one of the most respected compilers of Muhammad’s sayings — Aisha was then “a girl of six years of age, and he consummated that marriage when she was nine years old”.

This is, admittedly, awkward. So embarrassed was ex-nun Karen Armstrong that in one of her interminable books she portrays Aisha as having reached puberty at the time of her deflowering. Armstrong cites the Persian Muslim historian Abu Ja’far Muhammad al-Tabari to back up her claim. But Tabari actually quotes the following: “The Messenger of God married me when I was seven; my marriage was consummated when I was nine.”

But why, cowed critics always ask, do we even need to talk about this? I would suggest at least one reason to be getting on with. Western politicians routinely speak in praise of Muhammad and the tenets of the faith that he founded. That is fine. But holding up Muhammad as a moral guide whilst discussion of uncomfortable facts about him is made impossible means he is not the subject of critical inquiry, but solely of proselytising. At a time when every other religion is subject to critical inquiry, the advantage this gives Islam should be considered seriously. We are in the realm of Mill’s first justification for freedom of speech here: what is being said must be said because it is true; silencing the truth ennobles lies.

But with the other diminution of freedom of speech this past month we pass from the first of Mill’s defences to the second: the risk that an opinion being silenced might lead to the enfeeblement of truth.

In early October, an Australian “historian” called Frederick Toben was arrested as he passed through Heathrow. Held in custody under the European Arrest Warrant, he currently faces extradition to Germany for posting information on the internet of an “anti-Semitic or revisionist nature” which, while not illegal in Britain, constitutes a crime in Germany.

It is not currently hard to find people willing to condemn Holocaust denial or its near cousin, Holocaust diminishment. Nor, for now, is it hard to find experts who can refute Toben’s claims. But the question that the Toben case raises is whether, as the last survivors of the Holocaust die out, we want to risk a situation arising in which our most eloquent answer to Holocaust denial is a legal silencing. Deniers should be defeated in the open. For that to happen, the full range of opinions, including false ones, has to be available to us and succeeding generations, even when we are forced to hold our noses.

Sherry Jones has the right to mention Muhammad’s child-bride because it is a fact, borne out by the most distinguished Islamic scholars. Frederick Toben has the right to diminish the Holocaust because he forces us to know more and be better (not to get too Rumsfeld-ian) at knowing why we know what we know. Airing a truth is not the same thing as concocting a lie; but neither must be made impossible.

More books, not fewer, are needed. As John Milton famously put it, “As good almost kill a man as kill a good book.” Recent events suggest that there are people who would like to do both. They could have done with considering Milton’s follow-on point: “Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image… he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself.”

Whether The Jewel of Medina is a good book or not, its loss will be a collective one.