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What is the legacy of free speech 20 years after Rushdie affair?

Ayotollah Khomeini

Ayotollah Khomeini

Press release issued: 11 February 2009

In February 1989, five months after the publication of The Satanic Verses, Ayotollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against its author Salman Rushdie. It is often seen as a pivotal moment in shaping the landscape of contemporary Western society. So, 20 years on, what is the legacy of the most famous free speech controversy of modern times?

Two of the UK's foremost commentators on multiculturalism are set to clash on the limits of free speech at a debate this week marking the anniversary of the fatwa against the author of The Satanic Verses.

At the Index on Censorship/Institute of Ideas debate at London’s Bishopsgate Institute this Thursday, Kenan Malik, the well-known Radio 4 broadcaster and writer, and Professor Tariq Modood MBE, Director of Bristol University's Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship, will go head-to-head on what the limits of free speech should be in a multicultural society. They will also tackle the legacy of the Rushdie affair, for both ethnic identity and civil liberties. Both will criticise the liberal left but from opposite sides and for different reasons.

Malik will argue that in the last 20 years free speech has been seriously curtailed in the name of multiculturalism and liberals have been complicit in the gagging of free speech:

"Today, we have come to accept that books do indeed cause riots and that therefore we must be careful about what books we write or what cartoons we draw, or jokes we tell, or art we create. There will always be extremists of the sort that firebombed the publisher of Sherry Jones’ Jewel of Medina exactly 20 years after the publication of The Satanic Verses. But our real problem is that their actions are given a spurious legitimacy by liberals who proclaim it morally unacceptable to give offence, and are terrified at the thought that anyone could or should give offence. The lesson of the Rushdie affair that has never been learnt is that liberals have made their own monster."

Modood will also take liberals to task. But rather than attack them for being too timid in defending free speech, Modood will slam inconsistency and double-standards in the liberal approach to free speech and multiculturalism:

"In practice no one actually disagrees with limits to freedom of speech as such (outside the BNP who is calling for the revoking of the incitement to racial hatred laws?), it is just that some will not limit it in the field of religion. In this, liberals are no less following a creed, indeed are no less fundamentalist, than some of those who they want to be free to abuse. The Satanic Verses brought the reality of multicultural Britain to the fore. If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict, they have to constrain the manner in which they subject each others' fundamental beliefs to criticism."

Malik will challenge the assertion that it is only the far-right calling for the revoking of hate speech laws. Another flashpoint is likely to be free speech in private conversation following Carol Thatcher’s removal from the BBC One Show for use of racially offensive language in the green room.

Joining the roundtable discussion will be Jo Glanville, editor, Index on Censorship; Stephen Law, Provost, Centre for Inquiry London; Amol Rajan, reporter at the Independent; Maheila Malik, Reader in Law at King's College London; and Inayat Bunglawala, advisor on Policy and Research at ENGAGE, an initiative designed to encourage British Muslims to interact more effectively in politics and the media.

From Fatwa and Book Burning to Jihad and Hate Laws: twenty years of ‘free speech’ wars will take place at 7 pm on Thursday 12 February at the Bishopsgate Institute, 230 Bishopsgate, London EC2M 4QH.  Advance booking is required.  Tickets are available at priced £7 / £5 (conc),  tel 020 7 392 9220.


Further information

Please contact Joanne Fryer for further information.
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