Anwer Sher, Dubai, UAEOriginally from Pakistan, Anwer Sher is based in Dubai and writes for Gulf News, Khaleej Times and Emirates Today. His varied career experience includes banking, consulting, and real estate development. He has a Masters degree in International Relations. more »
The Current Discussion: A London publishing house was firebombed for agreeing to publish 'The Jewel of Medina', a controversial novel about Muhammad's wife, which Random House dropped earlier this year because it feared terrorist threats. In hindsight, was Random House in the right? Does this justify censorship of this kind in the future?
I am totally for free speech and have always spoken for it, and yet there are times when I have to use my conscience as a humanist to question when free speech is deliberately aimed at offending the sensitivities of communities and religious people. I would agree that religious people should be calm and not be too offended, especially by attacks that are clearly inconsequential to the essence of their faith, there must still be a measure of responsibility when we deal with historical elements and facts and their subsequent treatment into literary fiction. To argue that only Muslims are offended by blasphemy would be wrong, considering that even Christian nations have banned so-called literary works that have offended their faith. The recent controversy over the book on Aisha the favorite wife of Prophet Muhammad is a case in point. I have not read the book, so I have to rely on what various commentators who have read it has said thus far. When Prof Denise Spellberg made the point that the book is distorting historical fact to the point of creating soft pornography, I am tempted then to argue that free speech has gone too far. In the first place such distortion does us no good in understanding someone's, and secondly one has to question the motives of the writer and the publisher.
However, the fire bombing of the publisher's office is an act of intolerance and it would have been wiser to resort to legal means, if possible, to prevent the publication of the book. I know many reading this will argue that this shows the intolerance of Muslims, forgetting that in 1988 (October 22 to be precise) a French movie theater was torched by Christian fanatics who protested against the screening of the controversial movie 'The Last Temptation of Christ'. The banning of free thought has been around for as long as one can remember, including books like Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller, (from 1930 to 1962 in the United States) and the list is indeed very long,
As a writer, then, one has to decide where the balance lies. I simply would say that every publisher or writer does know in his heart and mind where there thread of reason ends and the intrusive insult begins. To argue that we are all tolerant to the point of never being offended is frankly a misnomer. I am just as offended by Andres Serrano's offensive photograph of Jesus Christ on the Cross as I am by any portrayal of any Prophet in an offensive manner. The delicate matter always will be who decides what is offensive and what is not offensive, where that fine line is drawn.
I am all for a discussion on religion, but to be offensive is wrong. After all I am sure Jews would be offended if Random House decided to publish Mein Kampf, the controversial autobiography of Adolf Hitler, and while they may not be firebombed I am sure the sensitivity of Jews would be riled up on account of such a silly act of a publisher. I would certainly sympathize with the Jews, as publishing Hitler's words serve no purpose today. While we need tolerance from all this is a time for everyone to be sensitive and bring understanding into the world. There is no reason to offend people for the sake of offending them - this is easy. It's harder to be caring about other people, and this is where we have to balance free speech with blasphemy. I have always said, Never offend someone over religion, race or sex. It's a dictum that has always worked well for me. I cannot believe it will be wrong for society as a whole to follow that.