Salil Tripathi

If Rushdie deserves free speech, why not Harry?

Salil Tripathi says that the Prince’s remarks were ill chosen and regrettable but the deeper principle concerns freedom of expression and ever greater encroachments upon it

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Salil Tripathi says that the Prince’s remarks were ill chosen and regrettable but the deeper principle concerns freedom of expression and ever greater encroachments upon it

First Prince Harry, and then his father, Prince Charles, discovered that last week was their septimana horribilis and that they had both made the kind of gaffes for which the Duke of Edinburgh has gained notoriety. First, a three-year-old home video surfaced in which Harry called a Pakistani cadet ‘our little Paki friend’. And then it was discovered that the heir to the throne routinely calls a polo-playing Asian friend ‘Sooty’.

In the multiculturally appropriate times we live in, nothing else matters: not the fact that Ahmed Raza Khan, the Pakistani cadet, or Kolin Dhillon, Charles’s polo-playing friend, may not have minded the remarks; or, that Harry’s was a private video that was shot three years ago; nor, indeed, that Harry says he did not mean it as a racist or religious slur and has apologised. None of that matters. (Given that Pakistani is a nationality and not a faith, and not all Muslims are Pakistanis — nor all Pakistanis Muslims, for that matter — if anything, ‘Paki’ is a slur on a nationality, not a faith or race, but this is not the time to be pedantic.)

Dutifully, inglorious escapades from the Prince’s past were trotted out, such as Harry dressing up as a Nazi officer. Harry has had a lot of growing up to do, of course. If he were the child of any other broken home, whose mother died tragically in an accident in a distant city and who was coming to grips with responsibilities, the reaction may have been different, and we’d be asked to understand his context. But being the third in the line to the throne, his responsibilities are supposed to be different. At 20, he couldn’t act like any other foolish 20-year-old.

This is not to excuse Harry’s ill-chosen words. Given the family he was born into, he should know that intense media scrutiny is part of his life. In the age of YouTube and the ease with which email accounts can be compromised and mobile phone messages intercepted — something his father knows a bit about — there is no such thing as privacy. All emperors are without clothes.

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 yet, in the land of ‘ancient liberties’ and the Speakers’ Corner at Hyde Park, we take offence too easily, too quickly, sometimes over imagined slights, perceived slurs and assumed insults, ignoring the intent and context.

How did we get here? It is perhaps entirely coincidental, but it is exactly 20 years since The Satanic Verses crisis, when angry Muslims in Bradford burned copies of Salman Rushdie’s novel. In February 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini issued the fatwa. That was a seminal moment; many, to their great credit, upheld the principle and supported the novelist’s right to imagine, and even to cause offence. Many others acquiesced, and expressed solidarity with those who felt offended. The result is that almost anything that’s said in the public discourse that might offend is now considered off-limits. Jeremy Paxman’s comments about the Scots upset those who live beyond the Border; Anne Robinson can’t say what she feels about the Welsh; Boris Johnson can’t make contentious remarks about British cities (Liverpool and Portsmouth); an irate theatre producer decapitates a statue of Margaret Thatcher with a cricket bat; Sikhs in Birmingham stop a play from being performed; Hindus in London ransack a gallery that shows an Indian painter’s art; and residents at Brick Lane in London prevent the filming of the eponymous novel in its natural habitat. Tolerance of such behaviour emboldens others that they, too, can take offence — and seek disproportionate repentance.

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.

So it has come to this. Every interest group that can organise itself and make aggressive demands to limit speech appears to succeed in some form. This is in spite of the government not caving in to demands to proceed against The Satanic Verses. The moment we accept that those who claim offence have the right to seek removal of offending words and images from the public domain, we give authority over our public discourse to those who were not elected by anybody to perform such duties.

This is wrong at so many levels. 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. It won’t take Harry 20 years to realise what he can — and cannot — say.

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?