This essay, on the importance of free speech for those without power, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on Shamima Begum and British citizenship.) It was published on 19 July 2020, under the headline ‘It’s the powerless who suffer when free speech is threatened’.
The cartoon shows a bearded man in paradise, reclining on a couch in a tent, with a virgin on either arm. God pokes his head in. ‘Do you need anything?’ he asks. ‘Yes, Lord,’ the man replies. ‘Get me some wine and tell Gabriel to bring me cashews. Take the empty plates with you. And put a door on the tent, so next time you can knock before you come in, your Immortalness.’
Four years ago, Nahed Hattar, the Jordanian writer and intellectual, shared the cartoon on Facebook, captioning it ‘The God of Daesh’. He was charged with inciting ‘sectarian strife and racism’ and ‘insulting Islam’. In September 2016, outside the Amman courthouse where he was about to stand trial, Hattar was shot dead by a Salafist gunman.
Telling jokes in the Arab world is no laughing matter. Yet as a new book, Joking About Jihad, shows, poking fun at Islamists and jihadists has become an essential part of Arab culture. Comedians and cartoonists, the authors Gilbert Ramsay and Moutaz Alkheder observe, play an important role in ‘shattering once seemingly inviolable taboos, transgressing the boundaries of consensus while somehow also enabling conversations where they once seemed impossible’.
The context of the free speech debate is very different in the West. Many of the questions facing writers and artists and comedians are, however, similar. What is taboo? How far can we upset people? Should we transgress consensual boundaries?
In the Arab world, those pushing the boundaries of speech work within brutally dictatorial states and know the dangers of provoking popular outrage. Hattar is only one of dozens of writers and artists who have lost their lives in recent years for transgressing taboos. It takes immense courage to stand up for free speech in Jordan or Egypt or Saudi Arabia.
In the west, writers and artists also face murderous threats, from the fatwa imposed on Salman Rushdie to the mass killings of Charlie Hebdo staff in January 2015. But there is also, unlike in most of the Muslim world, a general presumption of freedom of expression and laws and institutions that broadly protect free speech. This has made many sanguine about threats to speech.
After the Charlie Hebdo massacre, there were protest marches and words of outrage from politicians. But many liberals and the left felt uncomfortable about defending, even in death, figures associated with Charlie Hebdo. Three months after the attack, a host of prominent writers boycotted the annual gala of PEN America in protest at its decision to award the magazine a courage award.
Compare that with the response in the Arab world. Writers and artists, even those critical of the magazine, were, as the Beirut-based critic Kaelen Wilson-Goldie observed, unequivocal in their support because they saw the killings as part of a broader threat. At a vigil for Charlie Hebdo in Beirut, ‘people added on to the ‘Je suis Charlie’ hashtag: ‘Je suis Samir Kassir, Je suis Gebran Tueni, Je suis Riad Taha, Je suis Kamel Mroue’’. All were writers, cartoonists or intellectuals assassinated for their work.
Arab activists recognise that censorship aids the powerful, while free speech is a vital weapon for those struggling for change. It’s a point often forgotten in the west.
It’s true that few of the signatories have been silenced (though it’s also worth pointing out that Kamel Daoud, for one, still faces a death fatwa). It’s the ‘little people’ without power or platforms whose lives are particularly disrupted if they say the ‘wrong’ thing, whether that be Muslim students in Britain, Mexican-American truck drivers, children’s authors, shopworkers, anti-Israel protesters or political analysts.
These are all distinct cases and the now-fashionable term ‘cancel culture’ is not particularly useful in helping us think about the different forms of silencing that people face. Nor are the conditions of censorship in the west comparable to those under which Arab writers and activists operate. The point, rather, is that the harsh conditions make Arab activists aware of the significance of free speech in a way that many in the west no longer seem to be. Would many of the jokes or cartoons for which Arabs risk their lives be published in the west without facing considerable pushback from liberals? I doubt it.
Being able to dismiss concerns about censorship? Now, that’s the voice of privilege.