Paul Trewhela: The Disinvitation of Flemming Rose is a Disgraceful Act of Effective Censorship
PEN South Africa,
17 Aug 2016
This is one in a series of articles responding to UCT’s decision to rescind an invitation to Danish journalist and writer, Flemming Rose, to give the TB Davie lecture on Academic Freedom. PEN SA President Margie Orford spoke about the matter here and called for responses, all of which can be found here.
By Paul Trewhela
As a former banned writer in South Africa, I’m boiling at the blithe, casual repetition by the authorities at UCT of what I regarded as a disgraceful act of effective censorship carried out by COSAW against Salman Rushdie in the last years of the apartheid regime, most eminently by Nadine Gordimer, as Nobel Prize-winner.
My response to this was my essay “Islam, South Africa and The Satanic Verses”, published in July 1989 in the third issue of a banned exile magazine, Searchlight South Africa, which was founded and co-edited in London by my former prison colleague, Dr Baruch Hirson, and myself. I am very grateful that having been scanned and placed online by Digital Imaging South Africa (DISA), based at UKZN, the essay is now on the website South Africa History Online, based at Wits. http://www.sahistory.org.za/sites/default/files/sljul89.4_0.pdf
I defended here Salman Rushdie’s right to make the decision for himself as to whether he wished to continue to speak in South Africa on censorship as the guest of Cosaw, as he had agreed, in opposition to the unilateral act of Cosaw in deciding to disinvite him, following the fatwa against him issued by Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. Since that time, it would appear, nothing has changed in issues relating to censorship. If anything, conditions are more threatening.
As a former journalist on The Star, the Rand Daily Mail and the fortnightly news-magazineNews/Check, as the colleague of Ruth First in underground journalism in Johannesburg in 1962/63 and as the editor of the underground newssheet of Umkhonto we Sizwe, Freedom Fighter – under direction of Hilda Bernstein – during the Rivonia Trial in 1963/64, I am equally appalled at the sacking of Alide Dasnois by the management of the Sekunjalo/Independent group, funded in part by the Chinese state and by the South African government in its administration of the public employees’ pension fund. Not even the National Party government dared intrude so deeply against the freedom of the press in South Africa, whether in its Infogate scandal or in its many other ways.
In his autobiography, Joseph Anton, (2013), Salman Rushdie acknowledged my defence of
The Satanic Verses in my essay, “Islam, South Africa and The Satanic Verses“, in the following passage:
“…. As the demonstrations of the faithful grew in number, size and clamour, the South African writer Paul Trewhela, in a bold essay that defended him [Rushdie] and his novel from a position on the left, and in uncompromisingly secularist terms, described the Islamic campaign as a ‘bursting forth of mass popular irrationalism’, a formulation that implied an interesting question, a tough one for the left to deal with: how should one react when the masses were being irrational? Could ‘the people’ ever be, quite simply, wrong? Trewhela argues that it was ‘the novel’s secularising tendency that was at issue…its intention (says Rushdie) to “discuss Muhammad as if he were human”‘, and he compared this project to that of the Young Hegelians in Germany in the 1830s and 1840s, and their critique of Christianity, their belief that – in Marx’s words – ‘man makes religion, religion does not make man.’ Trewhela defended The Satanic Verses as belonging to the anti-religious tradition of Boccaccio, Chaucer, Rabelais, Aretino and Balzac, and argued for a robust secularist response to the religious attack. ‘The book will not be silenced,’ he wrote. ‘We are at the birth, painful, bloody and difficult, of a new period of revolutionary enlightenment.’
“There were many on the left – Germaine Greer, John Berger, John le Carré – for whom the idea that the masses could be wrong was unpalatable. And while liberal opinion dithered and equivocated, the movement of mass popular irrationalism grew daily in its irrationality, and in its popularity, too.”
(Salman Rushdie, Joseph Anton, Vintage, London, 2013. pp.124-25)
If I were writing that essay today I would not do so in exactly the same way – I was completely wrong-headed about the past quarter century going to produce a “new period of revolutionary enlightenment” – but I defend its spirit.
In order to prepare myself to write the article, I read the Qur’an for myself, cover to cover, making annotations and an index for myself on the front inside pages of the Penguin translation by NJ Dawood.
The effective banning of Flemming Rose by UCT informs me that this is an exemplary issue of today – as under apartheid in 1988/89 – which requires brave, principled defence of intellectual freedom, with the normal give and take of ideas, and not a craven capitulation to ideologically driven violence or the threat of violence, in the manner of Germany in the 1930s.
Paul Trewhela is an author, journalist, activist and historian.
Responses to UCT’S Disinvitation of Flemming Rose
PEN South Africa,
17 August 2016
The responses received by PEN SA are linked at the bottom of the page
The University of Cape Town’s annual TB Davie Lecture on Academic Freedom was scheduled for this month. The lecture is not taking place because the invitation extended by the Academic Freedom Committee to this year’s speaker, the Danish journalist and editor Flemming Rose, was retracted by the Vice Chancellor, Max Price. The Vice Chancellor claimed that this was necessary because threats of violence had been made that necessitated the cancellation.
This unusual and disturbing event caused heated public discussion, including a response from the Academic Freedom Committee and pieces by Index on Censorship, Kenan Malik,David Benatar, Justin McCarthy, Mohammed Jameel Abdullah, Nathan Geffen and Pierre de Vos. This debate – and the range of opinions expressed – were reflected in the deep and at times difficult conversations that the board of PEN South Africa had around our responses to the ‘disinivitation’ of a speaker whose views and whose actions are controversial and, to some people, deeply offensive.
This is a vital and highly complex conversation about free speech and academic freedom. It is a conversation that address its limits, its value, and its definitions in a world that is, both within the academy and without, grappling with how to hold the conversations that we need to have in order to shape a future that is inclusive, tolerant of diversity, and which addresses the great asymmetries of power and access that distort the world in which we live.
In order to honour this discussion, in order to hold that discursive space and to give the time needed to think through these issues that go to the heart of our identities, our freedoms, and our ways of being together, I invited PEN South Africa members to respond to this issue.
The essays published here are impassioned and thoughtful. The views are diverse and nuanced. Together they bring a vitality and an energy that will, I hope, inform the work that lies ahead of us as this part of an ongoing debate that needs principled thought each and every time such issues confront us.
My own view, as a writer and as a journalist, is that the principle of free speech – especially at a university, especially in South Africa’s developing and often fractious democracy, especially in this troubled world of ours that is so filled with conflict and intolerance – is vital and should be defended. I am convinced that free speech is a principle that has sufficient tensile strength and responsiveness to provide a protective frame for the many women and men who express views that go against the grain. I believe too that the principle of dialogue, of discussion, of listening is equally important. I am persuaded that how this is done – in this context and at this time – needs thought, consideration and flexibility. For this I am indebted to my colleagues and fellow writers. This discussion is held in that spirit. I thank all of you who have taken the time to think and to write.
With warm regards
President PEN South Africa
The responses are linked below:
The Freedom to Rescind: Universal Freedoms, Freedom of Expression and Academic Freedom – Reflecting on the events surrounding UCT’s 2016 TB Davie lecture by Gabeba Baderoon and Nadia Davids – Gabeba Baderoon is a poet, academic and journalist and is a member of the PEN SA Board. Nadia Davids is a writer, theatre-maker and scholar and is on the PEN SA Board.
Raymond Louw Comments on UCT’s Decision to Disinvite Flemming Rose – Raymond Louw is the Vice-President of PEN SA and is a veteran journalist and media freedom activist.
Albie Sachs: UCT Needs to be a Paragon of Tolerance – Albie Sachs is an author, activist, and former Constitutional Court justice.
Paul Trewhela: The Disinvitation of Flemming Rose is a Disgraceful Act of Effective Censorship – Paul Trewhela is an author, journalist, activist and historian.
Jacques Rousseau on UCT’s Disinvitation of Flemming Rose – Jacques Rousseau is an author, academic and activist, who was serving as the Chair of the Academic Freedom Committee during the time these events unfolded.
Flemming Rose and Academic Freedom by Elisa Galgut – Elisa Galgut is a poet and teaches in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Cape Town.
Today’s Lecture Has Been Cancelled by David Attwell – David Attwell is an author and Professor of English at the University of York.
Freedom of Speech by Gillian Godsell – Gillian Godsell is a senior lecture at the Wits School of Governance.
Please send any further responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.