From the Archives: Censor and sensibility

Sunday December 12, 2004
The Observer

INTELLECTUAL LIFE HAS reached a pretty pass when the reporters of the Daily Mail can look down on liberal London from the moral high ground. But such is the likely result of a rumbling scandal about the treatment by Index on Censorship of the murder of Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam last month.
The idea that Index could have been at the centre of a scandal would once have been absurd. It was founded by Stephen Spender in the early 1970s to fight for the right of Soviet dissidents to speak freely. Vaclav Havel, Nadine Gordimer, Salman Rushdie, Doris Lessing, Arthur Miller, Aung San Suu Kyi and many another clear and strong voice used its pages to denounce the suppression of opinion wherever it occurred. Yet when it contemplated the warm corpse of a film-maker who had been ritually slaughtered for dramatising violence against Muslim women, its instinctive reaction was so hateful it still has the power to shock six weeks on.

Index giggled.

Rohan Jayasekera, the associate editor, invited readers of its website to see van Gogh’s murder as a smart business move – ‘Applaud Theo van Gogh’s death as the marvellous piece of street theatre it was,’ he cried. ‘What timing! Just as his long-awaited film of Pim Fortuyn’s life is ready to screen. Bravo, Theo! Bravo!’ Jayasekera slyly suggested the film maker was suffering from an inherited strain of insanity because he was ‘a descendant of the mad genius Dutch painter,’ before going on to say that you couldn’t be surprised that his film had provoked a furious response because it was ‘furiously provocative’.

You may be able to guess the rest of the argument. As has become commonplace, the perpetrator was whisked away from the crime scene while the blame was piled on the stricken victim. The real censor wasn’t the murderer, but van Gogh, who was guilty of roaring ‘his Muslim critics into silence with his obscenities’. The real extremist wasn’t the murderer but van Gogh, who was ‘a free speech fundamentalist’. The real murderer wasn’t the assassin who fired eight bullets into a defenceless man, sliced open his throat and stabbed him in the chest, but van Gogh who was on ‘a martyrdom operation’ and so, presumably, was responsible for his own death.

What was most telling was Index’s treatment of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who worked with van Gogh on the film. I can remember when she would have been a liberal heroine. Ali is a Somali, who was circumcised at five – if you want the gory details of what female circumcision involves, by the way, I’m afraid you’re going to have to look them up. She fled from an arranged marriage at 22. She overcame enormous handicaps to become a Dutch MP and, as free men and women are entitled to do, decided she didn’t believe in God. Needless to add her secularism made her dangerous enemies, and the police had to protect her from Islamists. Their guard was increased when the killer stuck a five-page letter addressed to her to van Gogh’s body with a dagger.

In the 20th century, feminists had a little success in persuading Western liberals that women should be treated as independent creatures whose intelligence ought to be respected. But these small gains can go out of the window when brown-skinned women contradict the party line that religious fundamentalism is all the fault of poverty or racism or Bush or Israel and isn’t an autonomous totalitarian ideology with a logic of its own. Jayasekera dismissed Ali as if she was some silly geisha girl. That her experience of mutilation and abuse could be expected to inform her mature thinking didn’t occur to him. She was a traumatised fool who had allowed a white man to manipulate her into an ‘exploitative working relationship’.

The ridicule and contempt has been too much for many who once admired Index, and one of those ferocious rows about basic principles is brewing up nicely.

Frank Fisher, a former production editor, said the article’s message was: ‘Capitulation. Surrender. It says, “Come at us with a gun and we’ll turn tail and run. Our defence of human rights is not so heartfelt that we’re prepared to risk offending you.”‘ Ann Leslie, the Mail ‘s foreign correspondent, who has worked for Index in the past, is sickened by its behaviour. At the time of going to press Index staffers were still pleading with her not to renounce them, so I can’t be certain she will walk away in disgust. But put it like this: anyone who has admired Miss Leslie’s exposures of the apologists for tyranny and persecution over years will know that she is a hard woman to soft-soap.

Index’s editors and board said in a statement that no one was ‘more distressed by the murder of an artist for his opinions’ than they were. If this is true, they’ve a funny way of showing it. When I asked Jayasekera if he had any regrets, he said he had none. He told me that, like many other readers, I shouldn’t have made the mistake of believing that Index on Censorship was against censorship, even murderous censorship, on principle – in the same way as Amnesty International is opposed to torture, including murderous torture, on principle. It may have been so its radical youth, but was now as concerned with fighting ‘hate speech’ as protecting free speech.

For all the sniggering malice of his writing, Jayasekera was right to say that van Gogh hated religion. He laid into Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims in the most offensive manner he could muster. If I’d had been his editor, I’d have asked him to tone it down once or twice. It’s true, too, that attacks on religion can on occasion be a form of covert bigotry against the Arabs, the Irish and, increasingly, the Americans.

Why not go along with the new tough liberalism and, as David Blunkett is suggesting, make it a criminal offence to incite religious hatred? There are plenty of reasons why not; many were well made in the Commons last week, but MPs didn’t point out that when society decides that people’s religion, rather than their class or gender, is the cultural fact that matters, power inevitably passes to the priests for whom religion does indeed matter most.

To their shame, many on the left have broken with the Enlightenment to perform the dangerous manoeuvre. They have ridden the Islamic wave and agreed to convert one billion people into ‘the Muslims’. A measure of their bad faith is that they would react with horror if this trick was pulled on them, and they were turned into ‘the Christians’ whose authentic representatives were the Archbishop of Canterbury and ‘Dr’ Ian Paisley.

With an equal inevitability they have reinforced the very Islamophobic stereotype they claim to oppose and betrayed their comrades in the Arab world and in their own countries on an epic scale. Index on Censorship ‘s dismissal of Ayaan Hirsi Ali is scarcely novel. The supposedly socialist Stop the War coalition has dismissed the Iraqi Kurds, who were the darlings of the left when Saddam was America’s ally, and all the Iraqi communists, socialists and democrats who want free elections. Instead they told the beheaders and bomb-planters from the Islamist far right and the remnants of Saddam’s fascist Baath Party, that they should fight with ‘whatever means they find necessary.’

The supposedly politically correct Ken Livingstone welcomed Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi to London in the summer, even though the Egyptian preacher’s website supports the killing of gays and Israeli civilians and the beating of wives who don’t obey their husbands. Livingstone dismissed protests as ‘Islamaphobic’ and thus set himself against the 2,500 Muslim intellectuals from 23 countries who complained to the UN Security Council about al-Qaradawi and other ‘the sheiks of death’.

I suppose the Muslim intellectuals must be Islamophobes too

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