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The professor of contemporary thought at Brunel University London told an audience at Soas, University of London, that he had been concerned by the response to the events in Paris, where millions of people took to the streets chanting the slogan “Je Suis Charlie” in solidarity with the journalists who were killed last week.
Noting that a march on 11 January was led by political leaders who had themselves been responsible for curtailing press freedom and human rights abuses, Professor Self said: “I think freedom of speech has become a fetish and a sexual fetish, at that. It is analogous to an unrestrained and libidinous Western imagination.”
The novelist and journalist was speaking at the launch of Islam and Controversy, a new book by fellow Brunel scholar Anshuman Mondal. His work uses case studies to explore a number of Muslim-related free speech issues from recent decades, from death threats received by Salman Rushdie over his book The Satanic Verses to the publication of the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.
The book aims to put forward a “sustained critique of liberal arguments for freedom of speech”, according to its publisher Palgrave MacMillan.
Coming less than a week after the massacre of journalists and cartoonists at the Charlie Hebdo magazine in France, the book launch, which was also attended by Tariq Modood, professor of sociology, politics and public policy at the University of Bristol, was dominated by questions about press freedom in relation to Islam.
Professor Self suggested that the current situation was unprecedented, and that the past was of little use in helping us understand it.
“We now face a situation in which a free speech act is rather like the butterfly effect,” he argued.
“I can say something rude about your prophet in a broom cupboard on the other side of the world and there’s the potential for it to ignite some sort of controversy or some sort of difficulty on the other side of the world.”
The novelist caused controversy when he appeared on Channel 4 News last week and criticised Charlie Hebdo for accepting a donation from the French government to subsidise its latest print run.
Speaking at the book launch, Dr Mondal suggested that “clarity of thought” had been one of the casualties of the French massacre.
“The first casualty of what happens in these situations is the victims themselves. The second victim is clarity of thought. We need clarity of thought in these situations to resist slogans, to resist the easy platitudes and to constantly ask the hard questions,” he said.
“The hard question is not ‘do I have the right to freedom of speech?’ The hard question is ‘when is it right to exercise it in the way that I do?’”