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'PRE-EMPTIVE OBEDIENCE' AT WORK
by Amir Taheri
Gulf News
October 12, 2006

In Communist-ruled East Germany, they had a term for it: pre-emptive obedience. This meant guessing the future orders of the politburo and obeying them before they were issued. East Germany was thrown into the dustbin of history a long time ago. However, "pre-emptive obedience" is making a comeback in re-unified Germany and several other European countries.

It was based on "pre-emptive obedience" that the German Opera in Berlin decided to cancel its production of Mozart's Idomeneo after the managers decided that it might anger Muslims. The opera had already been shown in 2003 without incident and no Muslim group had called for it to be withdrawn. Thus, the managers were obeying orders that had not been issued.

A few days after the Idomeneo scandal it was the turn of French philosopher Robert Redecker to do a bit of "pre-emptive obedience" by going into hiding after publishing a newspaper column that some of his friends feared might anger Muslims. The fact is that quite a few Muslim writers have published essays more daring than Redecker's without going into hiding under police protection, thus resisting "pre-emptive obedience" of orders that might come from "Islamofascist" groups.

"Pre-emptive obedience" was also at work when the Whitechapel Art Gallery, one of London's major art exhibition venues, decided to withdraw a number of paintings by the surrealist Hans Bellmer. The reason? The management decided that the erotic paintings might "hurt the sensibilities of the Muslim community" which is strongly present in London's East End of which Whitechapel is a part. Again, no Muslim had seen the paintings or would have been able to interpret them as "an erotic assault on the Quran", let alone demand that they be withdrawn.

Thanks to "pre-emptive obedience", a wave of self-censorship has also hit the traditionally bawdy world of German carnivals. The Düsseldorf carnival, for example, has banned any gear that might appear "Islamic" and thus designed to "hurt Muslim sensibilities". A work by the Swiss sculptor Fleur Boecklin was also withdrawn from public view in Düsseldorf after it was branded "a misrepresentation of Islam as an aggressive faith".

Self-censorship for alleged fear of Islamic revenge has hit other areas of life in Europe.

In Spain, folkloric ceremonies and carnivals marking the expulsion of the Moors from Andalusia have been cancelled in all but a handful of villages, ending a 400-year old tradition.

In Germany, France and Britain numerous illuminated manuscripts of Persian poetry and prose have been withdrawn because they contained images of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) and other historic figures of Islam.

In most European countries, an official black of list of books has emerged, containing works deemed to be "hurtful to Muslim sentiments". The list includes the names not only of such major European authors as Voltaire and Thomas Carlyle but also of Muslim writers whose work has been translated into European languages. For example, the novel Haji Agha by Sadeq Hedayat, translated into French and published in the 1940s, is no longer available. The novel Four Pains by Cyrus Farzaneh has also disappeared from French bookshops and libraries along with The Master by Darvish.

Last month a British publisher, acting on "pre-emptive obedience", cancelled plans to publish the translation of Twenty Three Years, a controversial biography of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) by the late Iranian author Ali Dashti. Literary agents and book publishers have no qualms about admitting that they would not touch any manuscript that "smells like stirring the Muslims into a rage". One editor tells me that he has rejected at least 10 manuscripts in the past year alone because he did not wish to "risk controversy or worse" with Muslims. "I don't want to live under police escort," he says.

The American author and feminist Phyllis Chesler is still trying to find a British publisher, while her colleague Nancy Korbin has just lost her American publisher. In both cases, fear of angering Muslims is cited as the excuse for what is, in fact, "pre-emptive obedience".

The practitioners of "pre-emptive obedience" often claim they are acting in accordance with the best principles of multiculturalism.

"We wish to show respect for our Muslim neighbours," says a spokesperson for the Whitechapel Art Gallery.

While museums in Germany and Britain are hiding works that show images of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), Turkish and Iranian museums continue to display their tableaux containing his images.

Sometimes the imagined threat of "Islamic anger" is used for settling of scores that have nothing to do with Islam. In the Russian city of Volgograd (former Stalingrad), for example, there are no more than a few hundred Muslims. And yet the Russian government has just closed down the local newspaper based on the claim that it had hurt "Muslim sensibilities" by publishing a cartoon that shows Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) along with Moses and Jesus, watching some people fighting on television. The truth is that the local branch of the United Russia Party, the political mouth piece of President Vladimir Putin, had been trying to shut the newspaper for years. The supposed feeling of "Muslim sensibilities" is nothing but an excuse for an attack on media freedom.

Ugliest evils

The truth, however, is that blaming Muslims for censorship, one of the ugliest evils in any civilised society, is an insult to a majority of Muslims. The adepts of "pre-emptive obedience" see Muslims as childish, irrational and incapable of responding to works of literature and art in terms other than passion and violence.

The party of "pre-emptive obedience" violates one of the basic principles of the western societies, that is to say freedom of expression. And, that makes it harder for Muslim democrats to persuade their co-religionists that, rather than fear freedom, they should learn to benefit from it.

The party of "pre-emptive obedience" hurts Muslim interests in another way. By presenting Muslims as agents of censorship and intolerance, it incites the non-Muslim majority against them while presenting the most reactionary fundamentalists as the sole legitimate representatives of Islam.

Self-censorship in Europe also provides the despotic regimes in Muslim countries with an excuse for their systematic violation of the right to free expression. While Muslim writers and artists are fighting and, in some cases, even dying to defend their freedom of creation it would be a sad irony to see that same freedom undermined by the party of "pre-emptive obedience" in the West.

Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.

 

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