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Reflections on Wole Soyinka and the Cesspit of Free Speech
by Dr. Gerry Coulter
2010-02-21 10:18:08
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It is not every month that a Nobel laureate in literature comes out against freedom of speech so perhaps we should give Wole Soyinka his due. In an interview with Tunku Varadarajan at the Jaipur Literature Festival last month, Soyinka said “England is a cesspit. England is the breeding ground of fundamentalist Muslims. Its social logic is to allow all religions to preach openly. But this is illogic, because none of the other religions preach apocalyptic violence. And yet England allows it”. Mr. Soyinka went on to generously point out that England was also responsible for Karl Marx “who did all his work in libraries there” (Varadarajan, 2010). Mr. Soyinka has a number of burrs irremovably (it appears) deeply lodged in his posterior fault line. Among them is the fact that his homeland of Nigeria is, once again, going to hell – and this time it appears fundamentalism is the culprit. He is also disturbed about his country being added to the watch-list of countries currently serving as breeding grounds for terrorists. And he is especially upset that it was the activities of the Nigerian “undie bomber” on an American flight on Christmas day that saw Nigeria added to the list – especially since it is widely accepted that the young man (and perhaps his shorts), became radicalized in England.

Underwriting Mr. Soyinka’s uncomplicated philosophy is the assumption that the existence of free speech is ‘fundamental’ to the radicalization of Muslim youth. I wonder what those concerned about the rise of fundamentalism and terrorist activities in Yemen, a country where freedom of speech does not exist even in name, think of Soyinka’s assertions? One also wonders about all those Arab lands where free speech struggles to exist and yet Muslim fundamentalism has found a secure home and is adding recruits with each passing month. And how is Muslim extremism doing in the former Soviet Republics where free speech really has never caught on among the masses? I also seem to recall a chap named Khomeini and his followers doing rather well in the Shaw’s Iran which I do not recall to have been any more than a US-sponsored dictatorship. In many countries where freedom of speech is denied, state police agencies and counter terrorism outfits, to varying degrees, seek to uncover the names of those Imam’s and Al-Qaeda operatives who are radicalizing young Muslims.

What Mr. Soyinka, like those other opponents of free speech whom he has hurriedly climbed into bed with, fails to understand, is that the guarantee of free speech in the West is a remarkably effective assurance of constant surveillance by the police. England does not need to go looking for its radicalizers, it simply waits for them to open their mouth and subjects them to the ever watchful eye of the state before locking them up and/or deporting them far away from the freest of all lands. Note how (almost perfectly) post 9/11 restrictions on liberty dovetail with popular assumptions in the West concerning the right of the state to surveil its citizens. We await the mass protests against, for example, the Patriot Act in the United States. Sadly for Soyinka there has long existed an ironic relationship between stupidity and free speech as many Presidents and Prime Ministers have learned along the hard road Mr. Soyinka now travels.

Soyinka even proposes a joint solution to the dual problem humanity faces from the presence of both an excess number of rockets and radical fundamentalists. He said: “We should assemble all those who are pure and cannot abide other faiths, put them on rockets, and fire them into space” (Varadarajan, 2010). Interestingly, Varadarajan points out that this solution, when shared with an audience at the festival the day before, during his public lecture entitled “The Road”, earned Soyinka “a burst of applause”. I can only wonder what Soyinka would do with Presidents and Prime Ministers who start unilateral wars in the name of oil? Or what is to be done with Israel’s leaders for largely ignoring the terrorist activities of “settlers” against Arab farmers? It is a good thing we have many rockets. Of course, in our current era of intolerance, it will not be long before someone packs up all the Nobel laureates who are against freedom of speech and rockets them into space as well. If it comes to that I’ll stand against seeing Mr. Soyinka being subjected to such a lonely rocket ride.

Perhaps an Imam somewhere in the Islamic world [or maybe even in England] will proclaim a fatwa against Soyinka as Khomeini did against Rushdie. I wonder what such a gesture might do for Soyinka’s views on freedom of speech? But we know very well that today irony calls the tune and that the net result of Soyinka’s inane mutterings will be to see his name quietly added to British (and perhaps even American), police watch-lists of those who have spoken out publicly against the UK.


Dr. Gerry Coulter teaches at Bishop’s University in Canada


Tunku Varadarajan (2010). “Wole Soyinka’s British Problem”. The Daily Beast (USA, 31 January). http://www.thedailybeast.com

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Emanuel Paparella2010-02-21 15:45:22
Indeed, perhaps the issue of free speech does in fact deserve a second hard look. And by that I do not mean re-reading John Stuart Mill but rather a more recent and relevant treatment of the issue by Stanley Fish, a philosopher of law explored in his 1994 book provocatively titled "There is No Such Thing as Free Speech."

Wait a minute, did I not already write on this topic? Neverthless, after the above posting, it may deserve a re-posting and an attempt at enlightened and progressive dialogue.

I leave it to the editors of Ovi whom I know to value free speech in the expression of opinions and disapprove of boorishness and bias and arguments ad hominem when they raises their ugly head in the name of free speech.

Thanos2010-02-21 16:48:18
It is scheduled for tomorrow, I thought your article ties well to follow this article :)

Paula2010-02-22 14:18:19
Your lack of irony is showing

I dont beleive the pope has issued a bull against it - its okay to be catholic and love irony -- indeed, how could one be catholic and not?

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