bullet holes

Shortly after the attack on the free speech meeting in Copenhagen earlier this month, I gave an interview to Anton Geist of the Danish newspaper Information. It was published last week. Here is a rough translation (my interview was given in English, so parts of this have undergone a double translation, from English to Danish and back to English again).

If we say it’s wrong to give offence,
we provide terrorists with their arguments
by Anton Geist, Information, 21 February 2015

A few hours after the attack on the Lars Vilks Committee event last weekend, Kenan Malik went on Twitter. ‘Wonder how long it will be before someone argues that those in Copenhagen must have known it was offensive to talk about free speech?’, tweeted the British-Indian writer who for many years has been a key debater in the worldwide discussion on freedom of expression and has distinguished himself with criticism of the left for having abandoned support for freedom of expression and for the progressive ideals of the Enlightenment.

‘Too often in cases such as this, people blame the victims for the attacks. The victims must have known that what they did would provoke others, say the critics – that Salman Rushdie must have known that what he had written in The Satanic Verses was offensive, that Charlie Hebdo cartoonists must have known that what they published in their magazine was offensive’, says Kenan Malik.

But even if the question was rhetorical, it was not long before Malik ran into the kind of arguments to which he referred in his tweet. For instance, the leading Guardian journalist Andrew Brown wrote in a column after the Copenhagen attacks that support for freedom of expression in Scandinavia was almost religious in nature and that its proponents were no more willing to make ‘sensible compromises’ than Islamists. ‘But this is a moment when everyone will need to step back from their principles and show more of the pragmatism for which Denmark is also famous’, Andrew Brown suggested.

For Kenan Malik, Brown’s column reflects the widespread belief that free speech defenders are in some way to blame for attacks like those in Copenhagen because they insist on their right to give offence. It is a view that, as Kenan Malik says, is particularly widespread among ‘so-called liberals’. Blaming the victims is closely linked to the appeal to pragmatism. ‘Drop your principles, forget freedom of speech, give in to terror’, is Kenan Malik’s translation. He points out that this strategy does not discourage more terror, as its proponents seem to imagine. On the contrary:

‘We have in the last quarter century created a culture where many, including liberals, have come to believe that it is morally wrong to offend other cultures, other religions, other peoples. We have, so to speak, developed a moral commitment to censor. It has been a fundamental shift in our attitudes towards freedom of expression. The consequence has been to endow terrorists with a certain moral legitimacy. The more society licenses people to feel offended, the more people will feel offended, and the more will certain people be willing to take extreme measures to promote their agenda.’

– Are you suggesting that those who criticize the defenders of freedom of expression create an environment conducive to terrorism?

‘I’m not suggesting that liberal critics of free speech advocate terrorism. I’m suggesting rather that the insistence that it is morally reprehensible to cause offense gives a certain moral legitimacy to terrorist acts. And if it is morally wrong to offend others, then some people might imagine it acceptable go all the way and put an end to those kinds of immoral violations.’

– Critics of your position will say, to the contrary, that the events in Paris and Copenhagen shows that people’s insistence on unlimited freedom of expression leads to more violence.

‘If you choose to be pragmatic and rein in free expression, you allow the terrorists to win. You create a situation where if you want to get something banned, you shoot someone, or attack a meeting or hold a violent protest to make people more pragmatic. Think of how we draw the line between what is acceptable and what is unacceptable, and how that which is unacceptable constantly enlarges. Today what may be unacceptable may be images of Muhammad. Tomorrow something else may be deemed unacceptable. In the Netherlands, for example, there’s a campaign to get the Qur’an banned because some deem it ‘offensive’. If we accept that speech should be restrained if it is offensive, should we accept that the Qur’an be banned because some people are offended by it? And if not, why not?’

Satanic Verses burning

The terrorist attack against Lars Vilks Committee happened on the 26th anniversary of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. And like the Iranian theocracy issuing a bounty on Salman Rushdie’s head, Islamic State has allegedly offered $100,000 for the killing of Lars Vilks because of his drawing of Muhammad as dog.

Kenan Malik wrote the 2009 book From Fatwa to Jihad which describes the case of Salman Rushdie as a watershed in the debate on freedom of expression. In the book he describes how back in 1989 there was widespread public support for Rushdie. His point is that there is no longer the same rejection of attacks on freedom of expression.

‘There has been a fundamental change over the past quarter century. There is today a much greater degree of self-censorship because of the belief that it is morally wrong to offend others. If you look back at the 26 years since the Rushdie affair, then one can say that Rushdie’s opponents lost the battle, but they won the war. They lost the battle because The Satanic Verses continues to be published. But they won the war because their core arguments that it is wrong to give offence have become mainstream. In a way, we have as a culture internalized the fatwa. Many newspapers, for instance, no longer publish things that are seen as provocative or offensive.

‘I once asked the writer Hanif Kureishi whether he thought The Satanic Verses could be published today. He replied that it would not only not be published, but it was unlikely even to have been written today. Not just because people fear violence, but also because they place moral constraints upon themselves. The notion of freedom of expression has shifted from the belief that it is a fundamental good that should be limited only in exceptional circumstances, to the view that it is inherently problematic and should be limited by custom.’

Many ‘so-called liberals’ defend limitations to speech in the name of tolerance. But, ironically, argues Kenan Malik, it is a view of tolerance that echoes racist claims. Many liberals have come to view Muslims as a group that cannot handle criticism of religion and religious institutions. Only liberal white people can handle provocation. Other groups we must be must be careful not to offend. ‘And here the anti-racist ideas of so-called liberals echoes right-wing, anti-Muslim bigotry, the idea that all Muslims are reactionary.’

The shift away from the ideals of free expression means that we no longer understand why it is so important to have the right to speak freely, even if in doing so we offend others, argues Kenan Malik.

‘People say that because we live in a plural society, in which there is a diversity of conflicting opinions, so we must limit what we say to each other. But it’s precisely because we do live in a plural society that we need to extend freedom of speech as far as possible. In a plural society, it is inevitable that people’s views will bump up against each other. It is far better if such conflicts are resolved openly and not suppressed in the name of respect or tolerance. Even more importantly, we need to understand that the giving of offence is not just inevitable in a plural society, it is also often important. For social progress, people often have to challenge many deeply-held views. “You can’t say that”, is the cry of those in power when that power is challenged. The biggest losers if we restrict freedom of expression are those challenging people and institutions in power. Minority communities, Muslims included, will be the losers.’

There is a struggle against authoritarian rulers takes place in the Muslim world, particularly after the Arab Spring, says Kenan Malik. ‘There are many people in the Muslim communities in the West and in Muslim-majority countries worldwide challenging religious institutions and dogma. Writers, artists, cartoonists and political activists. They put their lives on the line defending equality and fighting for liberty. The attacks in Copenhagen, and in Paris, were shocking because they are relatively unusual in the West. But in Pakistan or Afghanistan or Egypt, people fighting against entrenched power face such attacks all the time. To suggest that we should restrain our criticisms of religion is to betray those within Muslim communities struggling for freedom and equality and for a liberal, democratic society. It is to take the side of the reactionaries. That is why we need to defend the right to give offence not simply from a free speech perspective, but also from the perspective of the struggle for justice and progress.’


The photo of the 1989 burning of The Satanic Verses in Bradford © Garry Clarkson.


  1. Do you really detect a belief that it is morally wrong to offend others more widely held now than 25 years ago ? Is it not simply that it is now possible to offend more “others” and with less effort than ever before in human history, and more of the offended have the means to respond, whether it’s via twitter or terror and even greater offence. I daresay some of Kipling’s work could not have been written once the “natural” orders of class, race and gender he lived with had been deconstructed. What makes the verses un-writeable (if it truly is) is the empowerment of those offended by it. If some of us practice tolerance, restraint and pragmatism, perhaps it’s because we understand our right to be offensive extends precisely as far as our will and our ability to subjugate those we choose to offend. You may reasonably regard that as forcing a moral decision based on belief, but I don’t really see it significantly erring to one side or the other more than in previous generations, even if I personally found the government of 1980’s Britain morally repugnant in most of it’s decision making. If anything I see more (but less coherent) free speech, and a corresponding increase in (less effective) suppression and censorship. When tolerance fails the resulting violence is more likely, more protracted and more terrible, between equally (If differently) matched and motivated opponents, than in the rapid suppression of the weaker side by an overwhelmingly (and morally) superior force. I would contend that it is secular society’s moral weakness in failing to restrain our offensively materialistic urges in our relationships with middle eastern cultures which is in fact causing and provoking such offence.

  2. Despite the translation hiccups, Kenan, your ideas shine through.
    Now, so what? A candle has been fashioned of very interesting material. The wick is ready.
    Perhaps a fulsome discussion here can light a path that may approach an age-old question – are we really the rational species?

  3. damon

    There’s something that doesn’t add up with all this.
    Mass immigration has brought the views of Pakistan and the Middle East into western Europe.
    A majority of British Muslims say they are grossly offended by any defamation of their holy prophet, and I don’t think you can win any arguments with those who think like that. But the pro free speech camp says that they have to be forced to submit to western ideas of liberalism over that issue.
    It can’t be done as far as I can see.
    You can’t have it both ways. A multicultural society and totally free speech.
    Even the Jesus and Mo cartoons cause ructions and death threats.
    Maybe the (open borders) idea that you could replace the people of Denmark with people from Bangladesh and Denmark would still be the same country has finally been found out not to be true.

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