Earlier this month, readers, writers and publishers commemorated the fight against censorship by using the #BannedBooksWeek hashtag on Twitter, part of the American Library Association’s 2011 Banned Books Week. By searching that tag, tweeters can find a list of readers’ favorite banned books, and links to homilies on banned books by The New York Review of Books and the Huffington Post.
Most of their ire is focused on the small-minded librarians and teachers who have tried to ban books in America, or on the travesties of an epoch of censorship that has passed in this country. Love of the principle of free speech makes Americans especially tenacious warriors against censorship. Censorship has been thwarted over and over again in America because America’s free speech protections ensure that those who object to the banning of books can make their voices heard.
However, in places controlled by radical Islamic regimes, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, and areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority, books are banned and people living under the regimes have little or no power to object. Banned Books Week coincided with the convening of the UN General Assembly. Here’s a look at some of the books banned by the governments whose leaders gathered there:
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- Edward Said books were seized by Palestinian Authority police in Ramallah in 1996. This may come as a surprise to those who know Said as a cheerleader for a Palestinian state. In 1996, however, Yasir Arafat became unhappy with some critical writings by Said on Arafat’s conduct and took his books off the shelves.
- In 2007, Hamas banned a collection of Palestinian folk tales titled Speak Bird, Speak Again, “reportedly over mild sexual innuendo.” Though the ban was eventually lifted, it stoked fears that Hamas represented the rise to power of radical, hard-line Islam in the areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority.
- In January of this year, Hamas banned two more novels for blasphemy and depictions of sex: A Banquet for Seaweed by Haidar Haidar, and Chicago by Alaa al-Aswany.
- While details of Saudi Arabia’s Bible ban are disputed, it is undeniable that possession of the Christian Bible is strictly controlled in that country. The British Foreign & Commonwealth Office advises travelers to Saudi Arabia that “you may bring a Bible into the country as long as it is for your personal use. However, importing larger quantities than this can carry severe penalties, as it will be viewed that it is your intention to convert others.” It goes without saying that visitors traveling with a Jewish siddur (prayerbook) or tanach (Bible) would be frowned upon, as Saudi Arabia effectively bans Jews from traveling in that country.
- Iran has banned the books of novelist Paulo Coelho (author of The Alchemist), Dan Brown’s bestselling The Da Vinci Code, Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ, bestselling novel Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier, William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and dozens of other books by Western and Middle Eastern authors.
George Bernard Shaw famously quipped, “Assassination is the most extreme form of censorship.” In 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini, then spiritual leader of Iran, issued a fatwa, or religious edict, directing the faithful to murder author Salman Rushdie for the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses.
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Musician Cat Stevens, now known as Yusuf Islam, said of Rushdie, “that rather than go to a demonstration to burn an effigy of the author Salman Rushdie, ‘I would have hoped that it’d be the real thing.’” He also boasted that if Rushdie ever came to him for help, he’d call Khomeini himself to let him know where he was. He said he “stood by his comments” after previewing the British television show in which he described the pleasure he would take in aiding Rushdie’s murder. Years later, an unapologetic Stevens was invited to sing at Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity. He was met with cheering crowds, not condemnation, on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., despite Rushdie’s attempts to dissuade Stewart from including him in the event.
Censorship and its supporters have had a warm welcome in the United Kingdom, as well. This May, the council of the Scottish West Dunbartonshire municipality issued a ban on any books by Israeli authors printed in Israel. Reportedly, “10 other councils had agreed to join the boycott.” In 2009, West Dunbartonshire had issued a boycott on Israeli goods, but it was only in 2011 that books printed in Israel were added as an item subject to the ban. Ron Prosor, Israel’s ambassador to the UK, responded, “A place that boycotts books is not far from a place that burns them.” The council then released a bafflingly stupid statement in which it claimed the boycott “does not in any way seek to censor or silence authors and commentators from Israel.” The council’s statement clarifies: “Only books that were printed in Israel and transported to the UK for distribution would be potentially boycotted.”
The council further defended its actions by claiming, “In the two and a half years the boycott [on Israeli goods] has been in place there has never been a case when the library service has been unable to purchase a book it wished to as a result of this boycott.” In other words, the council is trying to defend the ban by claiming it’s never had occasion to enforce it.
Next: What Society Does The Handmaid’s Tale Remind You Of?
On Twitter, fans of free speech clasp copies of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as a parable of what could happen to America if censorship prevails. It is true that censorship must be guarded against in every society: freedom requires constant vigilance. But those who have read The Handmaid’s Tale should understand which society it most closely resembles, with its shrouded women, rigid caste system, and dictatorial control of the exchange of information. The erasure of the entire female half of the population from public sight in Saudi Arabia is perhaps one of the most sweeping acts of censorship in the name of Islam. Writer Qanta Ahmed calls it “the land of invisible women.”
Many authoritarian regimes all over the world ban books and control speech as a way to bolster their power. Radical Islam is a religious ideology that preaches violent intolerance of anything that contradicts, questions, or derides it. The practice of banning books that insult this religion is not subject to the collapse of any single, charismatic leader; it is self-sustaining and pervasive as long as the radical ideology that urges it persists. And through passivity or complicity, the influence of radical Islam’s addiction to censorship can and has crept into Western nations. Participants of Banned Books Week should not shrink from condemning an ideology that enshrines censorship.