British publishing is now such a neurotic and hypocritical business there are stories it cannot cover. Nor should it try. When journalists, writers and artists can’t be honest with their audience, when they can’t even be honest with themselves, silence is preferable to the damage their double-standards bring.
Last month our media commemorated the imminent anniversary of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie by trying and failing to report the threats to the life of Maajid Nawaz, the chief executive of Quilliam Foundation. In a vindication of Kipling’s “once you have paid him the Dane-geld/you never get rid of the Dane” fanatics are after Nawaz not because he satirised the founding myths of Islam, as Rushdie did, or projected sexist verses from the Koran on to a naked woman’s body, as Theo van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsi Ali did, but because – brace yourselves – he tweeted a picture of Jesus saying “Hey” and Muhammad saying “How ya doin’?”
Students in the audience for a BBC discussion show were wearing T-shirts bearing the innocuous greeting that welcomes visitors to site of the atheist comic strip Jesus and Mo. The BBC went into a panic about whether to show it. Nawaz tried to be calm. He sent a link to the cartoon. “This is not offensive & I’m sure God is greater than to feel threatened by it,” he said.
Seizing their chance to do down a rival, two “community leaders” Mo Ansar and Muhammad Shafiq began a campaign against him. Shafiq called Nawaz a “blasphemer against the prophet” which is not a charge you throw around lightly if you want to keep people safe. Other online warriors went much further and threatened to assassinate Nawaz. I am told the police are taking the case seriously.
How to report it? No editor would think of covering Dieudonné M’bala M’bala without showing the quenelle. However offensive Jews and I guess gays and gypsies find the new Nazi salute, no one thinks that they would kill journalists for broadcasting it. Islamists on the other hand just might kill for a cartoon of the prophet. When the BBC interviewed the artist behind Jesus and Mo, its editors told him privately they could not show his drawing of Jesus saying “Hey” and Mo saying “How ya’ doin’?” because jihadis might murder the corporation’s correspondents in Pakistan. The BBC, along with the entire national press, banned it.
Channel 4 News managed to show a cartoon Jesus, because it reasoned Christians would take it on the chin, but it covered Mo in what looked like a giant black egg.
On Twitter, its news reader Jon Snow attacked people who berated Channel 4 for its cowardice. If they were so brave, Snow said, they should run the cartoon themselves and see what happened to them. In other words, Channel 4 was as frightened as the BBC and the newspaper editors were that Islamists would injure or kill its staff.
Fear may not be a noble reason for censoring, but it can be an honest one if you admit its existence. If I worked at the BBC and my colleagues told me that showing a bland cartoon might endanger lives in Pakistan, I wouldn’t broadcast it. If I worked at Channel 4 or edited a national newspaper, I wouldn’t put my colleagues’ safety at risk either. But I would also tell the viewers or readers that I was censoring out of fear: not respect or cultural sensitivity but pure fear. I would make it clear to them that freedom and secularism were in danger in Britain. I would say that the people who provoked the fear deserved no more true respect than a gangster did.
Not one editor has dared admit that he or she is afraid. The editor of Newsnight did not mention threats to his colleagues’ lives when he talked to the Independent about the Nawaz case. Rather he implied that he was a responsible journalist, while his critics, rather than, say, potential terrorists, were macho maniacs. “A lot of the people disappointed with us for not using it really wanted a demonstration of liberal virility rather than more informative journalism,” he said. John Snow was no different. He might have shown his paranoia on Twitter but offered no true explanation for Channel 4 News’s behaviour on air.
In my You Can’t Read This Book, I gave 10 rules for fighting back against dictatorial regimes and movements. The simplest, and the most important was
If you are frightened, at least have the guts to say so
Once one did not write the word ‘liberal’ and add ‘hypocrite’. Since the Rushdie Affair, the reflex has become automatic. The worst aspect of the fear the ayatollahs spread was that Western intellectuals were afraid of admitting that they were afraid. If they had been honest, they would have forced society to confront the fact of censorship. As it was, their silence made the enemies of liberalism stronger
After reading my book, Richard Dawkins composed an honourable form of words for curators, comedians, editors, publishers and all others who confront the fear of violence.
I shall give in to your demands to suppress freedom of speech, purely because I fear your threats. But don’t for one nanosecond confuse fear with respect. I do not respect you, I despise you and everything you stand for – especially given that your faith is apparently so weak in argument that it requires violent threats to shore it up.
If you admit to being afraid, you are acknowledging the scale of suppression. And it is only when you acknowledge that suppression exists that you can begin a campaign to challenge it. As it is, editors and senior journalists in the British media are not prepared to destroy their self-congratulatory image of brave “speakers of truth to power” by saying they are scared. The results are pernicious whichever way you cut them.
1. The thugs have won.
To use the blimpish cliché, journalism, academia, the arts and much of politics have given in to terrorism or more precisely the threat of terrorism. They will censor on behalf of the people who least deserve it, while satirising, exposing and criticising soft targets. This is such a shameful and shamefully obvious fact, no one will admit its truth in public.
2. Our culture is becoming absurd…
And not just because arts administrators, editors and publishers refuse see themselves for what they are: anxious bureaucrats, with a worthy bourgeois’ desire to watch their backs and save their skins. This cartoon, freely available on the Web, shows Jesus and Mo saying “Hey” “How ya doin’?” I am sorry if I am deploying a sledgehammer here, but what kind of preposterous society is too frightened to show that?
3. The liberal mainstream has abandoned liberal Muslims.
What is Maajid Nawaz meant to think? He says on a public platform that a bland cartoon is not offensive. He has rejected Koranic literalism, endorsed tolerance, and done everything the mainstream wants an integrated Muslim to do. And look at how the mainstream treats him. It agrees with his persecutors by ruling that the image is so shocking no national newspaper or broadcaster can show it. Meanwhile editors’ failure to level with their audience and admit that they are censoring because of a fear of violence, has the added malign consequence of diminishing the real threat that Nawaz and others face.
4. Britain treats all Muslims as dangerous children
Nawaz needs solidarity and help in the fight against his enemies, but in most instances the threat of Islamist violence in Britain is small. The author of Jesus and Mo tells me he would happily reveal his identity but his wife won’t let him. Most critics of Islamism, are never harmed. But as I say in You Can’t Read This Book, a little fear, goes a long, long way. By succumbing to it, editors are saying that Muslims are too infantile and stupid to handle the robust arguments of grownups. They must fence them off from the rest of society, patronise and talk down to them, while ensuring that the real business of democratic life goes on elsewhere. Jon Snow and the Newsnight and newspaper editors may not realise it, but they are afflicted by a strain of Islamophobia.
If they cannot tell the truth to their readers or viewers, if they cannot present an uncensored report or say why they are censoring it, they should not cover stories like Nawaz’s at all. When dishonest journalism does more harm than good, the only honourable course is to shut up and get out of the way.