Sunday, February 12, 2006

'Satanic Verses taught us a lesson'

Spiegel - In her work as a social anthropologist, Professor Pnina Werbner of Britain's Keele University, has written extensively about the "Satanic Verses" affair and the tumult Salman Rushdie's novel created between western and Muslim cultures. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE she compares the greatest literary debate of our time to the outrage over Danish caricatures of Muhammad.

Pnina Werbner: During the Rushdie affair, there was also a major discussion about the limits of freedom of speech. The debate made it clear that despite our invocations of freedom of speech, even in the West freedom of speech is not absolute. After all, limits are set on pornography, for example. Freedom of speech today is to a large extent exercised through self-censorship -- not only through legislation, but by commercial interests, such as newspapers and publishing houses. They constantly make decisions about what should or shouldn't get publicized -- partly in response to audiences, partly in response to commercial interests, partially in response to the sensibilities of their viewers or readers. You can say what you like in the privacy of your own home, but if you try to get it published, to get your voice heard in public, you will find that your opinions may be unacceptable for purely commercial or pragmatic reasons.

In attempting to placate Muslims, you could try to argue that these cartoons are making a serious point -- not so much about freedom of speech, but about the way some Muslims are currently interpreting Islam. You could argue that the artists are trying to say, "there are people in your community who are commiting suicide in the name of Islam, who have hijacked Islam for their own purposes." But trying to make that valid point by depicting a bomb-wearing Muhammad is an unnecessarily offensive way of doing so.