Paul Trewhela: The Disinvitation of Flemming Rose is a Disgraceful Act of Effective Censorship

17 Aug 2016
Paul Trewhela: The Disinvitation of Flemming Rose is a Disgraceful Act of Effective Censorship

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.

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-magazine News/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.