Censorship, prison and free publicity

When Mohamed 2.0 was almost complete, Mohamed El-Fatatry looked for a Finnish politician to write the Foreword. I jokingly told him that if he wanted to help the book he should get a politician to try and ban it, not promote it. Alas, we didn’t get banned, but we did get a Foreword from the lovely and talented Eva Biaudet.

The reason I joked about getting it banned is that in today’s world attempts at censorship normally have precisely the opposite effect that authorities intend. It’s great publicity. When word gets out that civil servants are trying to silence someone, the public rushes to find out what had been said. This is not a secret, although, strangely, many public officials seem unaware of it.

Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina and Samutsevich of Pussy Riot sit in a cage. The photo is from the group's official website.

Some protest groups have been quite successful exploiting governments’ desires to silence views they don’t want expressed. Pussy Riot sang a song in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow in which they asked the Virgin Mary to expel Vladimir Putin. Now they are on trial, charged with ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred or hostility.’ Unsurprisingly, interest in Pussy Riot and their views has soared since the wide publicity generated by their arrest.

We in the developed West might like to sneer at some countries for their attacks on free speech and the naiveté of their prosecutors for falling into such traps, but we do it, too. In Finland, the politician Jussi Halla-aho posted a rather inflammatory article on his blog using some ‘if… then’ logical exercises about Western values and the religion of Islam.

Interest in Halla-aho soared after he was charged for his writings. From Google Insight for Search.

Personally, I didn’t think much of the article. It wasn’t particularly revolutionary, in that there are several thousand other things floating around the internet exactly like it. It wasn’t a particularly well-formulated argument, either. But here’s the thing: I never would have known about this article, nor cared about it if I had known, if the Finnish authorities had not decided to prosecute him for ethnic agitation and the breach of the sanctity of religion. Everyone, including me, went to see why his writings were so dangerous they needed to be censored.

I tried to interview Halla-aho about this when I wrote Mohamed 2.0, but unfortunately we couldn’t make it happen. It’s unfortunate because I would have loved to hear his thoughts. I think the chapter on Muslims in Finland could have been expanded to include more on the compatibility (or otherwise) of Muslim sensibilities and Finnish values, as well as the right to free speech. It could have been an addition to the public discourse about such issues, but in the end I had to write about it without him.

Halla-aho got massive publicity because he was prosecuted for his writing, and, as one would expect, he quickly released a book that sold out in three days. But sometimes heavy-handed officials will do more than increase book sales. They will push a piece of literature out of mediocrity and into classic status. I believe that D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a fine book, but I am certain it wouldn’t have near the reputation it has today if British authorities hadn’t attempted to forbid its publication.

That was a bungled operation from the start, with the out-of-touch prosecution asking the bemused jury if this book was something they would want their wives or servants to read, as if they were peers of the realm sitting around in monocles and stovepipe hats, and not a group of mixed-gender middle-class individuals as they actually were. Then prosecutors couldn’t figure out Lawrence’s subtle reference to anal sex, causing the literary world to giggle and point at them as if they were those weird kids on the playground that ate their own boogers and didn’t know how babies were made. It was such a farce that sometimes I wonder if the prosecutors were secretly working for Penguin Books.

I’m making it sound like these prosecutors are harmless buffoons. Sometimes they are. I’m making it sound as if being persecuted and prosecuted for saying something could be a good thing. Sometimes it is, if your aims are commercial. But the stakes are higher if politics are involved. Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevitch – yes, there are real names and real people behind the depersonalising balaclavas and deliciously naughty name of ‘Pussy Riot’ – have taken a huge risk. They have already spent months in prison away from their friends and family. They might have to stay there for years. In other places in the world you could get put against the wall for something like this. Then it’s not so funny to mock censorship when you stare down a firing squad for something you said.

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