When the Banksy mural in Clacton-on-Sea highlighting racism was scrubbed away on the orders of the local council because they thought it was racist, it sparked off some mild amusement at the irony of the local authority’s actions.
For Anshuman (known as Anshu) Mondal, Reader in English at Brunel University London, the incident—a comment on the defection of the local Tory MP, Douglas Carswell to the right-wing political party, UKIP (he then won the seat in the Clacton by-election earlier this month)— is one of many examples highlighting the politics of giving and taking offence.
The author of a new book, Islam and Controversy: The Politics of Free Speech After Rushdie, Mondal is clear that multicultural society has exposed confusions within liberal understandings of free speech.
“We should reassess the notion that there should be blanket freedom of speech,” says Mondal. Highlighting the ‘Rushdie affair,’ Mondal says that Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, for which the author was accused of blasphemy, was not a suppressed masterpiece although he vigorously condemns the order issued by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 for Moslems to kill Rushdie, and the subsequent stabbing to death of the novel’s translator, Hitoshi Igarashi).
“The Satanic Verses was morally culpable because of carelessness,” says Mondal. “Paradoxically, Rushdie wasn’t really as radical as he wanted to be. His critique of Islam trod a well-worn path. It rehashed old stereotypes, and it didn’t break new ground with its critique of Islam.”
He argues that on one hand some anti-racists are unable to distinguish between what is racism and the use of humour to highlight the politics of the far-Right and on the other hand, that they can be insensitive to ethnic groups by treating free speech in a somewhat crude and irresponsible manner.
Other case studies of what Mondal regards as irresponsible use of the freedom of speech include the cartoons of Muhammed, in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005, which resulted in the paper being accused of Islamophobia and violent demonstations in some Moslem countries, and the film, Submission, by Theo van Gogh, who was assassinated by a Moslem fundamentalist in public in 2004.
“Submission was deliberately provocative,” states Mondal. “Nothing justifies the assassination of Theo Van Gogh, but what I’m saying is that one can’t absolve oneself of responsibility for one’s words and actions when exercising one’s right to freedom of speech.”
Another case study is the Oriental historical romance, about one of Muhammad’s wives, Aisha, The Jewel of Medina by Sherry Jones. Its publishers halted publication of the book after early warnings that the novel could be seen as offensive by the Moslem readers.
Anshu is himself personally interested in the issue of ethnic identity and living within a multicultural society. Born in India, in West Bengal in 1972, he came to England with his parents, a Hindu and a Muslim, both doctors, at the age of four, settling in Rotherham, in Yorkshire. He attended an English boarding school in York, and became, he says, “very anglicised.”
After studying English at the University of Edinburgh, Anshuman did his masters and doctorate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. His previous books include Nationalism and Identity: Culture and Ideology in India and Egypt (Routledge) and Young British Muslim Voices (Greenwood).
He says he has “come to terms with all the influences that have formed me: my Muslim side, my Hindu side, my English side.” He adds, “The flip side is that I feel I don’t belong anywhere. I do understand why people feel the need to belong.”
Islam and Controversy: The Politics of Free Speech After Rushdie by Anshuman A. Mondal is published by Palgrave Macmillan (paperback, £18.99) on November 3, 2014. For details, visit www.palgrave.com/page/detail/islam-and-controversy-anshuman-a-mondal/?K=9781137471673.