On offensiveness . . .

Almost two decades ago, I spent several months as an intern at the American Civil Liberties Union in New York, working on free speech cases. It was one of those potentially endless summers that begin receding into memory even as they’re happening, and over the course of those months I fell for the city, gently but hard, to an extent that hasn’t dissipated and probably never will.  The tokens of my affection were many, and here’s a shortened version from a kind of love letter I wrote at the time: ‘treacherous rollerblades, Harlem voodoo sticks, frothing hydrants, stuffed hummingbirds, Loisaida love potions, undersky arias in Central Park, quacking sirens, mooing firehorns, first-edition hardbacks, brunch on Broadway, alien ball games, channel surfing, Roach-motel checking, OJ-Simpson-on-the-run, iron fire-escapes, and so on.’ Memories of that summer are inextricably bound up with the 43rd Street offices of the ACLU, which was surrounded by the hobos and peep shows of a Times Square that was only just starting to clean up its act. We spent several weeks challenging an effort down in Cincinnati to criminalise a bookstore owner for selling Pier Paolo Passolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. It’s a weird film, and one so self-evidently offensive that it’s been intermittently banned by censors in both the UK and Australia, but it seemed obvious to me then that the vibrancy I was enjoying in New York rested in large part on the capacity of the US to accommodate offensiveness. A degree of friction is inevitable in any society that allows for diversity and values creativity. That’s still my view. As I wrote in my recent book about the shari‘a :

pluralism begins to wither whenever touchiness is allowed to become a measure of lawfulness. Social groups grow competitively sensitive, and cultures shrink into silence or explode into violence. The right not to be offended consumes the rights of people who are said to have caused offence. There are few incentives to take account of a defendant’s intentions, mental capacity and, ultimately, whether the events alleged took place at all.

The point has been well proved by the recent attempt to frame a young girl for blasphemy in Pakistan, and the current furore over the Youtube posting that obscenely libels the Prophet Muhammad. The latter film has so little redeeming social value that the real blasphemy seems to me to lie in taking it seriously, but there are thousands of people who disagree, and a couple of days ago, someone got in touch by email to ask why I thought some Muslims were so quick to get so enraged at slights so glancing. Rapid responses to ongoing events don’t come naturally to me – one reason why this blog is so slow to update – and the following was as good an immediate answer as I could provide:

There are at least two ways of answering your question – theological and practical – but both are interconnected. Insofar as anger against the film rests on religious underpinnings, it draws on an attitude to sanctity which, as you know, is common to all three monotheisms. But though the Qur’an warns blasphemers to expect a terrible judgment from God, it actually tells Muslims to ignore insults. Islamic states only imposed punishments very rarely, and it’s only since the Satanic Verses crisis of 1989 that blasphemy has become news. As that suggests, the violence today is a primarily political phenomenon – part of the same huge half-century process that has seen anti-colonialism, wars, occupations, urbanisation and economic grievances fuel the growth of politicised Islamic movements everywhere. That’s not to excuse the terrible murders in Benghazi, but to contextualise them. A mob armed with mortars and RPGs is a symptom of political chaos rather than religious certainty – and it’s important to keep in mind that the overwhelming majority of people who suffer violence in Islam’s name, even in Libya itself, are Muslims themselves.

Having had a few days to reflect, a couple of other thoughts have suggested themselves, and in the interests of said contextualisation, I’m going to tack them on here. The first, which will already be obvious to most intelligent readers, is that Muslims don’t have a monopoly on hateful violence. There are Christians in Uganda, Jews in Israel, and Buddhists in Myanmar who’ve pursued their communal interests through brutal means; and though suicide belts are nowadays associated all too closely with crazed Muslims, it was the ostensibly Hindu Tamil Tigers who invented them and used them in vastly greater numbers until the beginning of the twenty-first century.   And that leads to my second thought. Any attempt to acknowledge the full spectrum of bad religious arguments is liable to inspire hardline atheists to insist that they prove just how ignorant, or even wicked, it is to believe in God in the first place. At the risk of offending them (and to their credit, offence is at least one thing most know to take in their stride), it’s a dumb claim. Anyone who tries to reduce faiths to the sum of their most violent adherents is failing, at a very profound level, to understand the full extent of the religious experience. If one had to identify a single feature that lies at the essence of all world religions, the most plausible one wouldn’t be hatred, or fear, or even rivalry. It would be the way that every faith tries to instil a degree of humility in the face of the unknown: an awareness of human frailty, an acknowledgement of life’s shortness and the universe’s immensity, a concern to tame the ego before it’s too late. It’s certainly possible to shrink the awesomeness of faith into a belief that God is well served by despising a ridiculous Youtube film, or that He’s the root cause of all our problems. But either way, it’d be a mistake.

A summer interlude – redux

Spirits have rather risen in London of late, with alfresco Olympian bonhomie breaking out all over town, and I figured it was high time to nudge down my doleful post of last month. Here’s a happy photo instead, taken from a friend’s houseboat on a warm evening last weekend. Capital!


As if London’s feelgoodery weren’t fortune enough, I’ve just had a stroke of personal luck. After several weeks of silence, I heard yesterday that the government of Myanmar/Burma has agreed to let me into the country to research a report about its progress (or otherwise) in safeguarding the rule of law. That decision didn’t come a moment too soon, because I’m booked to fly out tomorrow afternoon, but the important thing is that it came – and now that the door’s been opened, I’m curious as a cat to squeeze on through and look around. I’ll not blog while there, as internet chatter is apparently liable to be misconstrued by the authorities . . . but there’ll be plenty of opportunities in the report to reflect on whatever I find. Meanwhile, to keep things ticking over, here’s a video of the panel discussion on America’s anti-Islamic panic in which I participated last month, and here’s the first paragraph of a (paywall-protected) piece on News International’s phone-hacking exploits that I recently wrote for the London Review of Books.

A summer interlude

It’s summer in England. Clouds are massing, hail is dropping, and flood alerts are proliferating. In fields up and down the country, cows are recumbent and festival-goers are huddling together for warmth. I managed a brief escape last week – to speak at a conference in Washington DC and watch Fourth of July fireworks in New York (temperature c. 34°) – but I’m now back and hunkering down in the damp for some legal research. Whatever happened to those long, hot, riotous summers we used to know?

Anyway, in my melancholy mood, I’m going to wander way off-topic, by posting one of my favourite sonnets and imagining myself elsewhere. The poem is called Love Is Not All, by the American Edna St. Vincent Millay, and it’s rather beautiful.

Love is not all: It is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain,
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
and rise and sink and rise and sink again.
Love cannot fill the thickened lung with breath
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
even as I speak, for lack of love alone.

It well may be that in a difficult hour,
pinned down by need and moaning for release
or nagged by want past resolution’s power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.

It may well be. I do not think I would.

A bar-room brawl . . . almost

I’m now officially done with trying to hawk my book to America, though I’ve been busily lining up reasons to come back later in the year. This trip’s swansong came on 8 May, with three radio interviews – including this 45-minute segment for the Leonard Lopate show on WNYC – followed by a reading at the legendarily louche KGB’s on East 4th Street. Below is what part of the room looked like, if the eye and lens of my multi-talented artist-dancer-lawyer-photographer friend Miriam Aziz are to be trusted. Dim though the lights might have been, the venue’s hosted some serious literary luminaries over the years, and I was tickled pink by my invitation to speak there. Great fun was had by almost all, but the saloon-side Q&A came to a suitably chaotic conclusion when someone on a bar-stool followed up a curt question with several lengthy interjections. After challenging various assertions I hadn’t made, he warned everyone present that I didn’t just happen to be wrong about Islamic history; I was deliberately lying, he said, because that is what Islam requires of its followers when they talk to infidels. I tried persuading him he was mistaken, but he was having none of it. Ah well. There’s only a limited amount you can really do to counter that argument . . .

Shari’a, Stateside

I’m in the United States to promote my book Heaven on Earth, and enjoying it hugely. Over the week just gone, I spoke at stops in Manhattan, Washington DC, Baltimore and Boston last week, and there are dates in Seattle and Chicago yet to come. Early reviews in the New York Times and elsewhere have been very favourable (they’re linked above), and the reception for me personally has also been welcoming. Although the book aims primarily to explain and criticise the repressive interpretations of shari’a that are nowadays ascendant in Muslim-majority states, I’m just as concerned over here to talk about the many attacks on ‘shari’a law’ being promoted by right-wingers in search of a scapegoat. Those attacks draw on popular fears of Islam, and though it would be stupid to deny that some maniacs have done some very frightening things in Islam’s name, it seems just as clear to me that the anti-shari’a activists are pursuing a goal that has virtually nothing to do with the threat of violent extremism. Anyway, Americans who’ve come out to hear me have been genuinely curious to hear my take – and even when they’ve disagreed, they’ve invariably done so with respect.

Here are links to three radio shows that I’ve appeared on over the last week: New York’s The Takeawaya lunchtime programme hosted by Dan Brodrick on Baltimore’s WYPR, and an interview with Terry Gross on Fresh AirThe last is nationally-syndicated, and its broadcast indirectly produced the nicest moment of my tour so far, when a Washington DC cab driver, chatting over his shoulder as I sat in the back seat, suddenly recognised my voice from the show. He turned out to be a voracious reader, and though a university education has remained elusive since he left Ethiopia 16 years ago (‘it is a dream’, he said, dreamily), he was well-informed on mattters ranging from healthcare reform to the debating procedures of the British parliament (in respect of which, he thought things had gone downhill since the retirement of Betty Boothroyd as House of Commons Speaker). And then, when the ride came to an end, he not only decided to come to my talk, but bought my book as well. I’m not sure what he’ll make of it – he was a Jehovah’s Witness with rather firm ideas about divine law – but if you ever read this, Sisay, I’d be pleased if you found my thoughts half as interesting as I did yours.

A Despatch from the Dark Side – William Shawcross’s ‘Justice and the Enemy’

Any writer who wants to stay sane accepts criticism with grace – or at least the pretence of it – but hostile reviews always cause stress. And there’s a flipside. The fresher the memory of slaving over a book, the more you’re likely to empathise with other writers who’ve done the same. That can skew perceptions when it comes to reviewing, in that it’s easy to switch your focus away from a book’s merits and become impressed by the fact that its creator managed to research and write it in the first place.

I recently had to deal with the problem in connection with a book by William Shawcross called Justice and the Enemy, which argues that the US should abandon many of its traditional ideas about fair trials and due process to confront terrorism more effectively. Although the thesis is both wrong and dangerous as far as I’m concerned, the effort put into its expression seemed to merit a degree of respect – especially because about the only thing more unpleasant than a self-righteous author is a ranting reviewer. Anyway, if anyone’s interested in my attempt to engage with Shawcross’s very dubious arguments, my piece for the Literary Review is here.

The World Today, Yesterday

I spent two hours on Saturday morning as one of two guest panellists on the BBC World Service’s The World Today Weekend. There’s not much point catching up on old news, admittedly, but I’m linking the programme here and here just in case anyone’s interested in my thoughts on matters ranging from torture in Egypt to Werner Herzog’s contempt for chickens.

Heaven on Earth – interviews, views, counter-views, and reviews

The British edition of my book Heaven on Earth has just been launched, and the last few days have been busy. The week began with an interview in the Guardian, in which I proposed that there was nothing wrong with Muslims choosing to have their domestic and property disputes resolved by religious arbitrators, so long as it was entirely voluntary. Given that such tribunals are used by other British religious communities and are subject to all the ordinary laws of the land, it seems to me that it’s to everyone’s benefit that they operate openly – not least because that encourages the scholars concerned to promote Islamic approaches to mediation that are consistent with human-rights legislation. Not everyone agreed, and quite a few critics instantly assumed that I was a dissembling fanatic who secretly favours misogyny and violent punishments all round. For the record, I’m not and I don’t.

Anyway, the original article is posted here, and a follow-up interview with Julian Worricker on the BBC World Service is about 40 minutes into this file. On a similar theme, I’ve also written a blog post for the London Review of Books about the recent decision of a US federal court to injunct Oklahoma’s absurd attempt to ban state judges from acknowledging the shari’a.

Meanwhile, the first reviews of the new book have appeared, and all of them so far have been pretty favourable. You can read them in full via the relevant link near the top of this page.

Thanksgiving Special II – Stealth Halal Turkeys

In a world racked by wars and revolutions, it’s almost possible on occasion to lose sight of the insignificant issues. Almost, but not quite – because there are always some bloggers vigilant to spread absurdities that the MSM can’t be bothered to publish. And one of the most ludicrous of them all, right-wing pundit Pamela Geller (best known for her tireless efforts to call President Obama a lying, terroristic, un-American Muslim) has just excelled herself. As Americans were settling in to celebrate Thanksgiving, she published a warning that patriots risk serving up birds which have been slaughtered in accordance with Islamic law – ‘stealth halal turkeys’, as she called them.

Geller’s capacity to make sense of the world surrounding her is limited, admittedly. Her political views on the Yugoslavian civil war and post-apartheid South Africa are peculiar enough for even some Islamophobes to find her embarrassing, and her support for the English Defence League gives a good indication of where she stands on the political spectrum more generally. And though she portrays herself as a champion of ‘Judeo-Christian’ orthodoxy, no thoughtful observant Jew would happily accept her claim that it is ‘torturous’ for Muslims to slit animals’ throats, given that kosher meat relies on  precisely the same method of ritual slaughter. All in all, it seems fair to assume that her terror of halal turkeys is now gaining expression simply because she is hawking the book mentioned at the beginning of her blogpost.

But there is one odd detail that is worth flagging up, all the same – namely, that Geller is not alone in her concerns. Three years ago, a similar turkey-phobia was attributed to Anjem Choudary, the former solicitor whose loudmouthed extremism has long made him the go-to guy for anti-Muslims in search of a straw man. But as far as Choudary was concerned, turkey were anything but a stealthy way of submitting to Islam. Christmas turkey dinners were, in fact, a step down ‘the pathway to hellfire’.  Coincidence or conspiracy? Given Choudary’s many similarities to Geller – not just the fear of Trojan turkeys, but also a common hatred of Barack Obama and a commitment to a civilisational clash without end – it would be unfair not to speculate. But only Geller and Choudary can know for sure . . .

Thanksgiving Special – America’s Chemical Weapons in Cairo

Following on from my last post, Rachel Aspden’s blog included a detail which set off an interesting, if virtual, mission of my own. Her account of Tahrir Square on 22 November mentioned that at least some of gas canisters being fired there carry blue ‘Made in U.S.A.’ stamps and are manufactured by a Jamestown, Pennsylvania-based company. Curiosity led me to a recently posted twitpic of a similar shell here, to Combined Tactical Systems Inc.’s website, and thence to a blogpost for the London Review of Books.