Friday 18 December 2015

A 'liberal interpretation of the facts'?

I was intrigued by a comment over at Biased BBC about Anne McElvoy's just-completed series about British liberalism on Radio 4, British Liberalism: The Grand Tour:

The Limits of Liberalism
Radio 4
Some appalling lies being told about the Rushdie book burning by Fascist Muslims. It is difficult to hear the denial of reality & rewriting of history by those lefties such as Anne McElvoy.
It did not come as a surprise though to hear that some of the Fascist (Il)liberals actually wanted Rushdies book banned !

The relevant passage from the programme (which was very interesting overall) runs as follows:
Anne McElvoy: In 1988 Salman Rushdie published his novel The Satanic Verses. For many British Muslims the novel was deeply offensive. Frustrated by the failure of protests to have the book banned a group of Muslims gathered in a square in the centre of Bradford. They registered their outrage by burning a copy of Rushdie's novel. 
All this takes us back 300 years to 1683. We began this series with the burning of books condemned for containing 'damnable doctrines' under the rule of Charles II. It's easy today for a liberal to pick a side in that struggle but in the book burning of 1988 liberals found themselves facing a trickier dilemma. These book burners were not powerful representatives of an authoritarian state; they were members of a relatively powerless minority who believed that they had no other way to get their voice heard. One way or another though they still found themselves using the symbolism of Locke's tyrannical opponents.  
Professor David Feldman: In terms of liberalism the controversy over Rushdie's book raises two issues: one is the issue of freedom of speech and the other issue is about toleration - or more precisely the degree of consideration which ought to be given to others' sincerely held beliefs.  
Anne McElvoy: The Bradford book burners were a tiny minority within a minority, but for liberals it brought to a head some of the contradictions they'd long been struggling with.  
Professor David Feldman: The Rushdie Affair is extremely painful for people who identify as liberals, I think, because liberals had been more likely than anyone to oppose immigration restriction in the 1960s and early 1970s, they had promoted the Race Relations Act, they had opposed Powell and Powellism, and they had affiliated their opposition to racism with their support for a whole other set of liberal freedoms: abortion law reform, reform of the law on obscenity for example. The Rushdie Affair showed that matters were not so simple and was extremely divisive for liberals. Some secular liberals did indeed support those within the Muslim community who wanted to ban the book. Others did not. 
Anne McElvoy: Liberalism is interested in minorities just as much - or more than those who hold power but giving priority to group rights can end up intruding on the private sphere. And though it may encourage us to behave better it's a funny way for a declared liberal to go about it if it ends up coercing us to think or speak within certain parameters. 
Now, I certainly agree with Anne McElvoy's point that "it's a funny way for a declared liberal to go about it if it ends up coercing us to think or speak within certain parameters" and I think that makes it clear where she stands on the burning of Rushdie's book, but was Thoughtful correct nonetheless about the "appalling lies" being told here?

Well, whether they are really lies or merely inaccuracies, Anne's outlining of the Rushdie Affair doesn't seem especially accurate to me either.

For starters the first burnings of the book in the UK didn't take place in Bradford in frustration at previous protests' failure to have an impact; they took place in Bolton at the very first UK protest against The Satanic Verses.

And as for the book burners being "relatively powerless", a recent book - The Rushdie Fatwa and After: A Lesson to the Circumspect by Professor Brian Winston of Lincoln University - makes it plain that the people behind the protests were far from powerless. Leading, well-connected Muslim businessmen led the highly organised charge:

Anne McElvoy's 'liberal interpretation of the facts' does seem open to question here, doesn't it?


  1. Yes, well said. And talk about foreshadowing, right? Not only that, but Feldman seems to have a rather liberal interpretation of the word 'tolerance'. is the issue of freedom of speech and the other issue is about toleration - or more precisely the degree of consideration which ought to be given to others' sincerely held beliefs.

    He doesn't mean tolerance. He means how much ought to be banned if it offends someone. There is a huge difference, and of course the person the BBC presents as an expert authority is on the wrong side. Very Orwellian.

  2. The key issue was not even book banning, as she claims, it was implementation of Sharia law (not even referenced) - specifically punishment of those involved in producing the book (which meant, the death of not just Rushdie but also, translators, publishers and book sellers). If I recall correctly at least two people were killed as a result of this campaign.

    Not to mention the deaths, is indeed to lie by omission about what was at stake. It wasn't just about book burning and banning.

    McElvoy is also wrong to claim those who supported the book burning were a "tiny" minority with a minority (presumably she means Muslim in the UK) - I presume we are not meant to think she means the crowd of people who took part in the physical book burning (clearly they were numerically by definition a tiny minority). They were - and she must know this - at least a LARGE minority within that group, but much more likely a large MAJORITY within that community.

    Prof Winston is also wrong to suggest there was some cultural misunderstanding. The anti-Rushdie movement were quite clearly implementing Sharia law. There was no cultural misunderstanding - they always did (and continue to) implement Sharia law in this country because they believe Sharia law is superior to all other forms of law.

  3. Anne McElvoy is rewriting history. I am not altogether sure who the “secular liberals” were, who supported the Muslim community’s demand to ban Rushdie’s book. I can recall an almost overwhelming condemnation, indeed incomprehension, amongst liberals at the book burnings and subsequent fatwa. The painful experience for liberals at the time, she describes, is by and large a fiction.

    The confusion the left now has with free speech and its conflict with their favourite ‘isms and ‘phobia’s is putting a very present day spin on the whole affair and has no connection at all to how the affair was viewed in 1989.

    1. I've just been watching the first few minutes of an absolutely fascinating edition of 'Question Time' from 2007 that made me think about that very thing. If you have the time, Terry, I think you'd enjoy it:

      There was a question about whether giving a knighthood to Salman Rushdie was offensive to Muslims (a very 'QT' question) and Shirley Williams, representing the modern UK liberal/Liberal Democrat outlook, gave the first response.

      She said Rushdie shouldn't have been given the knighthood, that it was ill-timed, that taxpayers had been put seriously out of pocket to fund Rushdie's police protection, that many Muslims found the 'Satanic Verses' offensive, that we need to take their feelings into consideration, etc...

      ...and the BBC audience loudly applauded her (surprise, surprise!).

      It was exactly the kind of thing Anne McElvoy's half-baked piece was talking about, with Shirley Williams coming down firmly on the 'minority group rights' side of the liberal fence rather than the 'individual freedom' side of it.

      I wondered when she started thinking like that, and I can't find evidence of what she said at the time of the original Rushdie Affair in the late '80s (twenty years earlier). Like you, I don't recall there being any such liberal angst at the time.

      So has she changed her tune? Have liberals and the non-Christopher-Hitchens left sacrificed their belief in free speech and individual freedom to their devotion to minority rights and 'tolerance'?

      The fascinating thing about this edition of 'Question Time' is that Christopher Hitchens was on and he absolutely blasted Shirley Williams for saying what she said. And he then took on the audience for being, well, for being the usual 'QT' audience and listening in "sullen", "boring" silence to his every home truth. (Some audience members dared to applaud him in response.) He didn't stand for David Dimbleby's sly digs either and I was cheering him on all the way.

      Shirley Williams huffed and puffed in her own defence but stuck to her guns. Peter Hitchens had a rare meeting of minds with his brother. Boris Johnson played to the gallery, joking and being Boris and sitting on the fence. (He mocked Rushdie's output as incomprehensible rubbish and suggested Dick Francis was more deserving of a knighthood, for example). Labour's Tony McNulty defended his government's decision.

      I think what I take from this, like you, is that the Shirley Williamses of this world - of which they are many at the BBC - have gone down an absolute blind alley in the past few decades. However well-meaning they are, they seriously need challenging.

    2. Thank you for posting that clip. If only Christopher Hitchens was still with us.

      I don’t recall Shirley Williams views on the Rushdie affair in 1989, but if she was one of Anne McElvoys "secular liberals” (whatever that means), who agonised over banning the book, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least. As far back as I can remember she has consistently and vociferously blamed Israel for just about every single problem in the Middle East including the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. It’s not difficult to imagine with whom her allegiance might have been during that time.

      I’m rather disappointed with Anne McElvoy. In the past, although I have not always agreed with her, I have found her contributions to “The Moral Maze” interesting and thought provoking.


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