Friday, January 16, 2009

On Free Speech

If Rushdie deserves free speech, why not Harry?

Salil Tripathi
The Spectator (UK)
Wednesday, 14th January 2009

Salil Tripathis’s article on Harry calling a Pakistani cadet ‘our little Paki friend’ has some wonderful quotes


And then it was discovered that the heir to the throne routinely calls a polo-playing Asian friend ‘Sooty’.

What’s dismayingly predictable, and yet remarkable, is the fallout. From Gordon Brown to Cabinet ministers (‘offensive’), David Cameron (‘completely unacceptable’), and Nick Clegg (‘considerably offensive’), politicians of all hues have stepped in, expressing righteous indignation. Clarence House apologised profusely, and the army added it ‘does not tolerate inappropriate behaviour in any shape or form’. Columnists have had a field day.

And then there is the Ramadhan Foundation, a spokesman for which called Harry ‘a thug’. Enjoying his 15 minutes of fame, the foundation’s director Mohammed Shafiq said: ‘I am deeply shocked and saddened at Prince Harry’s racism. It has no justification. Prince Harry as a public figure must ensure that he promotes equality and tolerance and this rant, whether today or three years ago, is sickening and he should be thoroughly ashamed of himself.’ That’s strong criticism, and disproportionate to the offence caused. So what should happen next? Maybe Harry should be given an Asbo. Or perhaps asked to express contrition by going to study at a madrasa in Pakistan. Or salute the Pakistani flag. (Ironically, ‘pak’, in Pakistan, means pure, and hence, in theory, the epithet — Paki — can be turned into a compliment. But this is not the time for such semantics, either.)

Of course, when spoken in anger, ‘Paki’ is a word spoken with hate, and meant as an insult. Many British Asians rightly feel insulted when they are abused. And none of this is to defend Harry’s words; rather, it is to underscore the principle of free speech. As Woody Allen famously said, everyone has the right to be a schmuck. [..]


And then there is the curious silence over how Asians refer to other communities. Ziauddin Sardar’s personal journey into our Asian communities, Balti Britain, reveals a term many Asians use for whites — gora. Like Paki, it can be seen as light-hearted banter, but is sometimes used derisively, for instance as a reference to simple-minded whites who can’t ‘get’ Asian complexities. And much else, often worse — although Balti Britain avoids going down those alleys. Furthermore, the terms used within Asian communities to describe blacks are offensive: kallu, for black, is perhaps the mildest one among them, and beyond the pale are epithets with which angry Hindus describe Muslims, and angry Muslims describe Hindus. Indeed, among certain Hindu communities, daughters are told they can date anybody ‘except a BMW’. That’s not the car; that’s short for Black, Muslim or White. These are the dark little secrets not widely known outside Asian communities.


Twenty years ago, Inayat Bunglawala, now media secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, rejoiced when the Ayatollah declared the fatwa. Now he knows better; now he says it was wrong to call for the novelist’s death. []

Harry’s silly remarks on a home video are hardly the same stuff as a literary novel. But the response to one follows from the climate fostered by the culture of acquiescence which has roots in the other. This can have only two consequences. To paraphrase the late Bernard Levin, those who live in glass houses will have to undress in the dark. And those of us who wish to speak will have to watch our words. But sunlight is a good disinfectant: why not let our schmucks be schmucks, so that our Voltaires can imagine, and express their views, without fear?

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