Censorship by Fire

BY JONATHAN FOREMAN

Ours is a cowardly society. This is particularly true of the media and publishing industries. How else to explain the lack of attention paid to the Gibson Square incident.

This was the arson attack on a publishing house by three Muslim extremists last September. They were arrested at the scene of the crime and sentenced on July 7.

Gibson Square is a small house with some distinguished authors on its list including the philosopher AC Grayling and anti-capitalist cult-figure Naomi Klein. It was the only British publisher willing to publish Melanie Phillips’ Londonistan which subsequently became a bestseller.  Last autumn, its owner Martin Rynja, planned to publish a controversial historical novel called The Jewel of Medina about one of the wives of the prophet Mohammed.

The announcement fired up three British-born Muslim extremists, Ali Beheshti, Abrar Mirza and Abbas Taj. Heinrich Heine said that those who burn books eventually burn people; these men reversed the progression. Rather than burn the The Jewel of Medina after it came out, the three British militants decide to burn the publisher and his family in their Islington house – which was also his office.

They failed to destroy the house or kill its residents, though the police – who were aware of the plot – waited until the place was properly on fire before moving in to arrest three men.

However, as none of the few articles about the case have pointed out, the three men were  successful in their larger mission. They prevented the publication in the UK of a book they disapproved of.

This ought to be a big deal but it is not.

There was no outrage: no demonstrations, no flurry of OpEds and leaders. There was not a peep from Liberty, that bogus guardian of free speech fronted by media darling Shami Chakrabarti. 

Violent censorship is apparently tolerable and understandable, if carried out by “angry” Muslim fundamentalists. This is surely the bigotry of low expectations. Practicing Orthodox Muslims apparently cannot be expected to show the same forbearance as other people.

Ryjna learned his lesson and has postponed indefinitely the publication the Jewel of Medina. No other publisher, out of solidarity or concern for freedom of the press, has stepped in to take his place. Britain’s book publishers are no braver than her newspaper and magazine editors who shied away from reprinting the Danish cartoons. 

The three men were sentenced to four years each. They can take comfort in the immediate success of their mission and also its wider implications. British publishers will now be even more unlikely to publish any book that might be seen as “provocative” to a hypersensitive but violent minority within a minority. Authors like Bruce Bawer, whose While Europe Slept was published in America and on the continent but not in cringing Britain can forget trying to get his new book into print here.

It shows that terrorism — for that is what this crime truly was — really works. Indeed it works so well that people daren’t even call it by its real name. 

Since the Rushdie case it has become increasingly normal for editors and publishers to think twice before they get involved in the expression of views that might possibly seem controversial to the one ethnic or religious group in Britain that has successfully used physical intimidation as a means of censorship. It is now normal to fear Islamist violence — which when it takes place is too often deemed “understandable” and as inevitable as if it were like the weather, a fact of life that must be accommodated.

In these dark hours I wonder what it would take to wake up those in our cultural elite who claim to care about freedom of expression, who contribute to PEN and sign petitions in the paper.

Maybe it would only be if other groups — ethnic, religious or political —  were to stop playing by the rules and start using violence to enforce their literary tastes that the bien-pensant would finally take this kind of terroristic censorship seriously and stand up for a free society.

An autumn note

“For many, the end of this uneasy year cannot come quickly enough”

An ordinary killing

Ian Cobain’s book uses the killing of Millar McAllister to paint a meticulous portrait of the Troubles

Greater—not wiser

John Mullan elucidates the genius of Charles Dickens
Search