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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Twenty years since the infamous fatwa

Yesterday was the twentieth anniversary of the infamous fatwa issued by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini, calling for Salman Rushdie's death. To their eternal shame, many Western intellectuals chose to side with the evil ayatollah, rather than to support Rushdie's freedom of speech.

The anniversary is not exactly a cause for celebration, but it's worth marking it and reflecting on how our freedoms are still endangered by anti-liberal individuals, organisations, and institutions. We are under continual pressure to compromise precious rights such as freedom of speech and expression. Sometimes the proposals are sufficiently constrained that they might seem reasonable, and even I am not a free speech absolutist. When it comes to a battle between an individual and a huge media corporation that wants to rip away her privacy or destroy her career with lies, I'm going to side with the individual - so we need some limited kind of defamation and privacy law. But we have already gone too far in signing away our right to criticise ideas, organisations, and the performance of public figures in their public roles. It's time to push back, not time to make even more concessions.

As far as religious vilification or "defamation of religion" goes, there's plenty of evidence that the religionists - and the comfortable, well-meaning legal academics who tend to support them - will not rest until there are provisions with real teeth, provisions that will actually lead to restrictions on what can be said. The current debacle in India over Johann Hari's article is another datum in support of that inference.

With the fatwa still officially in force against Salman Rushdie, and this latest stuff-up involving Hari's article, it's a good time to reflect on what we can do to defend free speech and the rest of our Enlightenment legacy. It was hard fought-for over hundreds of years. If it's going to be taken taken from us, as I fear it will be, let's at least fight for it every millimetre of the way. Future generations should know that we tried our best.

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