A couple weeks back I read in the Guardian Unlimited that some residents of London's predominantly Bangladeshi Brick Lane neighborhood had organized protests to halt the filming of a movie based on British novelist Monica Ali's critically acclaimed novel Brick Lane. Led by local business leader Abdus Salique, the Campaign Against Monica Ali's Film Brick Lane, which included a threat to burn Ali's book at a rally this past Sunday, forced the film's producer, Ruby Films, to end plans to film on site. Salique and others claimed that the book's depiction of Sylhet Bangladeshis was "racist and insulting," and impugned the "community's dignity and respect," reproducing stereotypes. A subsequent Guardian article mentions that protesters have cited a few excerpted derogatory lines and phrases to buttress their arguments, yet also notes that rumors about the film and the production company's hiring policies also stoked the response. Nevertheless, other Brick Lane residents did not agree with the protests and even some of the campaigners were urging restraint.
Reporter Alan Cowell broadens the view on the protests in the New York Times, relating it to larger discussions in Europe (and elsewhere) about the negotiation between free speech and particular groups' sensitivities to certain kinds of rhetoric and discourse; I would add that the effects of such rhetoric and discourse also are key. (I also thought of the furor surrounding the LIFEbeat concert.) He asks specifically, "Should old Western societies, in other words, rewrite their definitions of liberty to accommodate the sensitivities of others?" The issue goes beyond "old Western societies," though, and involves certain kinds of speech and rhetoric by anyone and any group about or against another. (I am also recalling that another young female British author of South Asian descent's play was shut down after violent protests, but I can't recall either her name or the name of the play.) The stakes are quite high: Cowell cites the murder by an enraged Muslim of filmmaker Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands (which accompanied death threats against Dutch parliamentarian and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who'd made the controversial critique of female subjugation in Islam with him) and the worldwide riots that the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Post's cartoons of Mohammad provoked (and, he notes, the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, q. v.). These are only a few of the more extreme outcomes, and concern religion, but as I said above, one could include other kinds of speech and rhetorical acts, like Beenie Man's, TOK's and DMX's lyrics that extolled murder of LGBTs, or even more generally homophobic lyrics of the sort that appeared on Eminem's and Common's early CDs.
Writers and activists have since come out against the protesters and in favor of the filming. Some, like English PEN's Jonathan Heawood, have even suggested that the anti-film protesters might not have read the book (and were this to be true, they would following a longstanding trend). Critic Germaine Greer took the opposite point of view, however, suggesting in a letter that "writers are treacherous," that Ali might not have taken into account the harm her fictional narrative might have had on residents of Brick Lane, that the British had no sense or concern about the Bangladeshis in their midst anyways, and that the residents had every right to stop the filming. Salman Rushdie riposted by calling Greer's piece "pro-censorship twaddle" that contained "ad-feminam sneers about Monica Ali herself," and he argued that protesters did not the right to decide in advance to halt the production. (The Guardian in a separate article delved more deeply into this exchange.)
Cowell provided the following anecdote to close his piece, but the essential questions remain:
[Rushdie's and Greer's] argument recalled a less public debate in Copenhagen last month when Flemming Rose, the Danish editor who commissioned the contentious cartoons of Muhammad, appeared unexpectedly at a conference of American and European Muslims.
Invited to consider the proposition that freedom of speech did not mean freedom to give gratuitous offense, he said: “In a democratic society, no one can have the right not to be ridiculed.”
Rashawn Brazell Memorial Fundraiser This Sunday @ Chocolate Bar (Bkyn)
I received the following email from Larry Lyons:
Please be our guest at our second annual "Brighter Days" party, benefitting the Rashawn Brazell Memorial Scholarship. Last year's event was a blast, and your presence will ensure that this one is even bigger, better and BRIGHTER!
Larry Lyons and Mervyn Marcano, RBMF Founders
DJing2nd Annual "Brighter Days" Party
Hosted by The Chocolate Bar
This year's event is an official Pride in the City party, co-promoted through People of Color in Crisis and featuring DJ Hard Hittin Harry and C2, so there's bound to be a lively crowd on the dancefloor. Translation: You'll fit right in!
The music? Classics.
The cover? $10
The cause? Our fight against racism, sexism & homophobia.
What other pride party can say that?!?
100% of the donations collected at the door will go toward supporting the work of the RBMF, particularly the $1500 scholarship awarded annually to a college- bound NYC high school student committed to the fight against injustice.
Available to work a 1 hour shift collecting donations at the door? Email email@example.com today to help us make this event a great one! We'd love to have you.
The Chocolate Bar
45 Waverly Ave
Between Park & Flushing
Fort Greene, Brooklyn
August 06, 2006
Busy? Click here to send your donation!
Rashawn Brazell Memorial Fund
Post Office Box 211
New York, New York 10037-9998
About our "Brighter Days" events:
By identifying queer-friendly spaces as viable sites to raise consciousness and build community, Brighter Days events confront and repudiate the stigmas attached to our safe spaces. Further, by providing quality parties with a distinctly celebratory tone, the events also distinguish the vibrant legacy of Rashawn Brazell's life from the bleak shadow cast by his death. Read more about this and other RBMF initiatives by clicking here.
Met patron behind Van Gogh's Self Portrait with Straw Hat (1887-88)