Freedom of expression cannot be sought invidiously in one territory, and ignored in another. For with authorities who claim the secular right to defend divine decree there can be no debate no matter where they are, whereas for the intellectual, tough searching debate is the core of activity, the very stage and setting of what intellectuals without revelation really do... the [campaign against the fatwa] is not really about offence to Islam, but a spur to go on struggling for democracy that has been denied us, and the courage not to stop. Rushdie is the intifada of the imagination." Edward SaidOliver Kamm had a short essay in the Times at the weekend, attacking, in his usual sharp and well-evidenced way, the propensity of the liberal left to let reactionary attitudes off the hook because of the false notion that the ideals of freedom of speech are eurocentric and because of a false notion that ethnic and religious groups should be protected from offence.
The example of Bernie Grant's response to the Rushdie fatwa, as related in Tony Benn's diaries, is quite shocking:
“Bernie Grant kept interrupting, saying that the whites wanted to impose their values on the world. The House of Commons should not attack other cultures. He didn’t agree with the Muslims in Iran, but he supported their right to live their own lives. Burning books was not a big issue for blacks, he maintained.”The emphasis is mine, on a statement that is one of the most disgusting I've read recently.
However, as is often the case, I think Kamm over-states his case in conjuring up a monolithic "left". He gives just five examples: Grant, a Danish journalist writing in the Guardian, Baroness Shirley Williams, Ken Livingstone, and Verso Books. Do these examples really sum up "the left"? Livingstone is (or at least has been) a significant figure, but does anyone listen to Shirley Williams these days, let alone Jacob Illborg? And in what sense is the centre-right politician Williams to the left of Christopher Hitchens, who Kamm positions as the voice of reason in debate with her? And how many actually existing left-wingers outside universities really talk about eurocentrism?
On the Rushdie affair, at the heart of his argument, it is of course true that there were left-wing appeasers of the fatwa-ists, informed by a reactionary version of multiculturalist dogma. On the whole, however, the right utterly failed to defend Salman Rushdie - conservatives like Roald Dahl and Immanuel Jakobovits (mentioned by Kamm) were among his attackers, while the Thatcher government made little effort on his behalf.
Who was it that did defend him? Well, sections of the left. On the one hand, there were writers and intellectuals organised by International PEN, including people like, yes, Tariq Ali, Harold Pinter, Edward Said. On the other hand was what we can loosely call the black left: the broad, grassroots, secular and feminist organisations in the postcolonial communities of Britain, groups like Southall Black Sisters and Women Against Fundamentalism.
Ruthless criticism of cultural relatavism is important and necessary, as is ruthless criticism of the liberal multiculuralist dogma about "causing offence". But such a broad brush dismissal of the whole left on this basis is premature.