The Independent and Evening Standard columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has decided not to press charges against Tory Birmingham Councillor Gareth Compton over his recent joke tweet calling for her stoning to death: she had questioned the UK's right to criticise the stoning of women under Sharia law. However, before the news of Alibhai-Brown's decision broke today, the writer Farrukh Dhondy wrote the following unpublished piece, reflecting on the controversy, the perils of cultural humour and Alibhai-Brown's own 'sense of historic vengeance'.
The old ones are, on occasion, the best:
“The difference between Iran and Britain? In Iran you commit adultery and get stoned, in Britain you get stoned and commit adultery, boo-boom!”
That one is descriptive and, looking at it all ways, harmless. Telling it, in Britain at any rate, shouldn't cause you to be arrested, prosecuted or persecuted. There is, as far as my lay knowledge stretches, no law against characterising Iran as a rather nasty place or against jesting about the loose morals of Brits. But as Milan Kundera made us aware in the masterpiece that brought him and his writing to the attention of the world, a joke, however harmless, can bring the horsemen of the Apocalypse in the shape of the secret police, the apparat of the Communist Party and the Stalinist abyss to your door. Kundera’s novel is set in Soviet Czechoslovakia. The story begins with its hero being sent off to hard labour in the mines for sending a postcard to his girlfriend denigrating the optimism of Party propaganda as ‘the opium of the people’ and wishing at the same time, the renegade Trotsky a long life.
British mines have been, for the most part, shut since the regime of Margaret Thatcher and today’s Party dissidents, as far as I know, can’t be punished by being sent down them. So at least the fate of Kundera’s hero doesn't await Counsellor Gareth Compton the Conservative who was arrested and suspended indefinitely from the Party for what he admits was a feeble attempt at a joke he posted on Twitter.
Mr. Compton’s Twitter account has been closed down and today he must feel much as Kundera’s joker felt. Mr Compton has been charged by the West Midland’s police for ‘sending an offensive or indecent message’, racially aggravated it is said -- and if he is brought to court and convicted, he faces being banned from his profession as a barrister.
Mr Compton was reacting to the broadcast opinion of the columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown who was invited onto Radio Five Live’s Breakfast Show to talk about David Cameron’s visit to China. There was a difference of opinion on whether he should condemn China’s record on human rights. Ms Alibhai Brown was of the opinion that no politician had any moral right to condemn human rights abuses, not even the stoning to death of women under Sharia law.
Mr Compton Twittered his reaction to this opinion, or perhaps passed an implicit verdict on all her opinions expressed over the years, mainly The Independent, saying “Can someone please stone Yasmin Alibhai- Brown to death? I shan’t tell Amnesty if you do. It would be a blessing really.”
Soon after, he posted another Tweet to say his previous Tweet was an ill conceived attempt at humour and he didn't mean any offence.
It is reasonable to conclude that this regretful retraction was the result of a little reflection (or of instant warnings from friends) about the possible consequences for himself of this impulsive burst of intended humour. It certainly wasn’t a hasty retraction rescinding an order to inflict fatal harm on Ms Alibhai Brown, because even a junior Conservative councillor from Erdington in Birmingham must realise that he is almost powerless to get the bins cleared on time, leave aside condemning anyone to death by stoning.
However unfunny the joke, the context, the culture, the country in which it was made, the concern that his leader David Cameron and Party have the moral duty to condemn the stoning to death of a woman in Iran, indicate that Mr Compton could have had no illusions or intention that his joke was any sort of ‘fatwa’. He has been a supporter of Muslims in his community. It wasn’t the word of an Ayatollah asking Muslims to murder Salman Rushdie. It wasn’t the word of some mad mullah from a mill-and-mosque town in the North telling his congregation that British soldiers were Kaffirs who should be sent to hell by any means necessary. It was a laddish, ironic joke by someone who obviously wants stoning to death condemned.
Ms. Alibhai is not herself without a sense of historic vengeance, though perhaps a little devoid of ironic appreciation. In one exchange some years ago, if |I remember correctly, Gavin Essler, a TV journalist responded to something she was saying by asking “ What's wrong with white guys, by the way?”
Ms A-B replied: “I don't like them. I want them to be the lost species in a hundred years.”
And so to a confession: The evening before the Radio Five Live broadcast and Compton’s folly, I was invited to the premiere of a play by a touring Mumbai theatre group at a West London venue. The audience was largely of South Asian origin. After the play there was a reception in the foyer and I spotted the same Yasmin Alibhai Brown speaking to some friends of mine. I am not well acquainted with Ms Alibhai-Brown but have met her on several occasions and exchanged anodyne pleasantries. I went up to the group, greeted my friends and said “Hello Yasmin.”
She turned and left the group saying “I am not speaking to you, you are dangerous.”
However flattering it may be to be deemed and dubbed ‘dangerous’, I was baffled as were my friends. They asked why I was dangerous. I said I was unaware of ever having given any offence, intentional or otherwise. I don’t do Twitter and I am not on any blog or website.
Then it occurred to me that the snub may have been the result of Ms Alibhai-Brown knowing that I am acquainted with a niece of hers, one Farah Damji, a writer and self-confessed fraudster and ex-convict and I have been told by both that they are not friends. But then a lot of people have come across and made the acquaintance of Farah Damji and surely Ms Alibhai-Brown doesn’t believe that it makes them all ‘dangerous’.
The snub remained mildly puzzling until I remembered that I once said to someone apropos of her columns that Yasmin Alibhai-Brown “had put the ‘aunty’ back in ‘dilettante’”. I am not conscious of having put such the remark out on Twitter but it obviously got back.
Now all I can do is put the chain on and wait for the knock at dawn.
© by Farrukh Dhondy 2010