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15 Apr, 2012

German Poet Günter Grass’ warning to Israel

Originally Published:  15 April 2012

In 1988, the Booker Prize winning British-Indian novelist Salman Rushdie published a novel entitled “The Satanic Verses”. Many Muslim groups, highly offended by what they perceived to be its defamatory references to the Prophet Muhammad, organised global protests. The Iranian government also issued a fatwa against him, but later rescinded it.

In April 2012, the Nobel Prize winning German writer Günter Grass published a poem entitled “What Must be Said.” Many Jewish groups, highly offended by what they perceived to be its defamatory references to Israel, issued a number of denunciatory statements against Mr Grass, most of them involving the accusation of anti-Semitism. The Israeli government declared him persona non grata.

I was at pains to establish a) the artistic difference between what Mr Rushdie and Mr Grass wrote; b) the similarities of the reactions by the critics; c) the differences in the way both Messrs Rushdie/Grass as well as their critics are judged; d) who decides who can and cannot be criticised; and e) what criteria should be used either way.

According to many Western commentators in 1988, Salman Rushdie was only exercising his artistic right to freedom of expression and his critics were all Islamic fundamentalist, fanatic extremists. By the same token, Günter Grass should be allowed to exercise his artistic right to freedom of expression and his critics should also be similarly branded Jewish fundamentalist, fanatic extremists.

That’s not quite what happens, however. Mr Rushdie is hailed as a great writer and free thinker. Mr Grass is called an anti-Semite.

At its very core, the difference boils down to this: Islam and Muslims can be freely criticised as terrorists, fanatics, fundamentalists and extremists. Jews and Israel cannot.

So, following in the footsteps of Mr Grass, I too will say what must be said: Those days are over.

A careful reading of the translation of Mr Grass’ poem will indicate that he was telling Israel not to start another war, and telling the German government not to supply Israel with a submarine which it could very well use in such a war.

Effectively, he was accusing the Germans of forgetting the lessons of their own sordid wartime history, and the Israelis of double-standards and hypocrisy.

What’s wrong with that? Indeed, I encourage anyone to read Mr Grass’ poem (translations are widely available on the Internet) and decide for themselves.

If the Israelis have any sense, they will heed Mr. Grass’ warning. Should they, and their U.S. supporters, go ahead with an attack on Iran, there will be lots of things that need to be said that will get said.

That’s when the Pandora’s box that Mr. Grass is very wisely warning about will open big-time. The consequences of that, too, are clear in the poem.

All told, it’s a fine poem, aimed at doing what artists and writers usually try and do: Save the world from more violence and conflict.

The questions about freedom of expression and its critics, as raised above, are long overdue for good public debate.

Freedom of expression is a universal right. The key question is who decides who, how, when, where and why that right can and should be exercised.

I personally have no objection to anyone drawing cartoons about religious leaders, depicting caricatures of gods and goddesses, or poking a little good-natured fun at religious rituals, customs and traditions.

Religions take themselves much too seriously these days, and need to lighten up. Those which cannot provide rational reasons for their philosophies, guidance and dogmas will soon fade into oblivion anyway.

What I object to is double-standards at one side being censored and shouted down, while the other side gets free rein to do whatever it wants.

Until today, no-one in the Western world has been able to offer anyone in the Muslim world a clear cut definition of the terms and conditions under which this extremely offensive reference to “Islamic terrorism” is used.

When a bomb goes off in South Thailand, the reference to “suspected Islamic insurgents” is a given, a very clear reference to the religion.

When a bomb goes off in Nagaland, India, there is no reference to the religion of the attackers in media reports. In fact, the Indian government does not even refer to the attack as “terrorism.” The official nomenclature attributed to it is “extremism” or “militancy.”

The global effort to pursue Joseph Kony of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Africa rarely proscribes the religious affiliation to Christianity.

There are also plenty of Hindu, Sikh and Jewish terrorists. As I have noted in numerous previous columns, Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by a Sikh and Yitzhak Rabin by a Jew.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was the head of a terrorist group known as the Irgun, responsible for a number of attacks against British forces in Palestine at the time.

Anders Behring Brevik, the Norwegian terrorist, wrote a “manifesto” that oozed racism of the worst kind. Timothy McVeigh, the April 1995 Oklahoma bomber, was a blonde, blue-eyed, all-American type.

Sgt Robert Bales is on trial for shooting 17 innocent Afghan civilians in cold blood. He was sent to Afghanistan to protect them, not massacre them.

There was no reference to Sgt Bales having killed “Muslim” children. Yet, in Toulouse, France, last month, it was made quite clear that gunman Mohammad Merah had killed innocent Jewish children.

Clearly, terrorism and violence, war and conflict are not confined to any caste, colour, creed, ethnic or religious group, nationality or social status.

But there is no doubt that a global effort is under way to stigmatise Islam and Muslims, as well as related groups such as Arabs and Iranians, as being vicious and violent-prone.

In his poem, Gunter Grass was making clear that in attempting to start another war, Israel was overlooking its own history as a victim of violence. He reserved the right to criticise Israel and no longer felt it necessary to be cowed by useless accusations of “anti-Semitism.”

I applaud Gunter Grass, and his right to freedom of expression. If more such rights are exercised by more people, more often, many more deaths will be avoided.

As Mr. Grass wrote: No-one should be above reproach.