Free speech: V.S. Naipaul, Hari Kunzru and WikiLeaks


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After protests from some Turkish authors, Nobel Prize-winning author V.S. Naipaul decided against giving the opening speech at the inaugural European Writers’ Parliament last week. The European Writers’ Parliament was conceived by two other Nobel laureates -- Jose Saramago and Orhan Pamuk -- and was held in Pamuk’s home city, Istanbul.

The protests came from some authors who were uneasy about comments Naipaul has made about Islam. ‘The disgust he feels for Muslims in his books is appalling. I cannot attend the event given all of this,’ Cihan Aktas told the media. Naipaul has both a history of being critical of religion, particularly Islam, and of speaking his mind.


Turkey has an uneasy relationship with free speech; in 2005, it implemented a new penal code making it illegal to insult Turkey and its institutions. For telling a Swiss magazine that Armenians and Kurds had been killed in Turkey, Pamuk himself faced trial. After much international attention, the charges against him were dismissed.

Was it frustrating for Pamuk that his effort to bring authors together for an open discussion wound up with a kind of self-censorship? If it did, the author who stepped in for Naipaul may have been the best alternative.

While our Turkey Day was dawning in the United States, British writer Hari Kunzru gave the opening speech in Istanbul. ‘I feel we would be stronger and more credible if we were to deal with divergent views within this meeting rather than a priori excluding someone because of fear that offence might be given,’ he said. Kunzru has posted his speech on his website:

You have accepted this invitation, presumably because like me, and you have a particular sense of the role of the writer. I don’t believe the writer is merely an entertainer, though we certainly shouldn’t be above entertainment, above giving pleasure. Nor are we just journalists, recorders of the doings of the world, or apolitical bohemians, dedicated to aesthetic shock. We may be any of these things, but this is not all we are. As lovers of language, as people who are dedicated to it and who value it very highly, we are -– whether we like it or not –- always already engaged in the political struggles of our day, many of which take place on the terrain of language -- its use to produce social and national identity, its use to frame laws and norms, its use to define what it means to be a human, to lead a good or just or valuable life. There’s a saying that culture is something that is done to us, but art is something we do to culture. ... I believe that the right to freedom of speech trumps any right to protection from offense, and that it underlies all the other issues I’ve been speaking about. Without freedom of speech, we, as writers, can have very little impact on culture. In saying this, I’m aware that this is a prime example of a concept which has been degraded by the war on terror -– that many European Muslims misidentify it as a tool of Anglo-Saxon interests, a license to insult them, rather than the sole guarantee of their right to be heard.

‘Our kind Turkish hosts have invited us here, as an international group, to air our views, and so it is my belief that we must not shy away from recognizing the situation here, where we are speaking,’ Kunzru continued. ‘I know by doing so, as a guest, I risk giving offense, but it would be absurd to assert freedom of speech in the abstract without exercising it in concrete terms.’

Free speech in the abstract is easy to embrace; exercising it in concrete terms can be uncomfortable. Take WikiLeaks, whose Sunday releases of U.S. embassy cables have sent the State Department and contractors scrambling. The Los Angeles Times reports that the cables ‘show that diplomats have been asked to gather counterparts’ credit card and frequent flier numbers, iris scans, as well as information on their Internet identities and the telecommunications networks they use.’ Wayne E. White, a former senior official with the State Department’s intelligence arm, told The Times that the news that diplomats were gathering such information ‘could upset a number of foreign governments.’

Are these documents enlightening? Should they be seen? U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder says that the Justice Department will prosecute if violations of U.S. law are uncovered, condemning the disclosures as having put the nation’s security at risk.

-- Carolyn Kellogg