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Blasphemy and the Rushdie Affair

Brendan Larvor has some thoughts on the fifth anniversary of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie.

The Rushdie affair reminded us that there are laws against blasphemy in Britain. These laws are usually criticised on two grounds. First, they are unfair, because they only protect the established Church. What about the other denominations and indeed other faiths? Second, they offend libertarians because they restrict our freedom of speech. For a libertarian, almost any legal restriction on action or speech is immoral. I hope to show that there is something right about both of these objections. To begin with, it is not only libertarians who should worry about the consequences of the blasphemy laws for liberty. In democratic societies, we start from the position that people should enjoy as much freedom of expression as is reasonably possible. The onus of argument lies on those who would restrict the liberty of citizens to say and write what they like.

In the case of blasphemy, there is an argument available. It is that words can hurt. People can be deeply wounded by mockery of that which they hold to be sacred. Michael Dummett makes the point with a telling analogy: suppose that the only memento you had of your parents was a set of photographs. Suppose that someone broke into your house and scribbled on them, adding lewd or scatological details. The harm would be real, even though you had not been physically injured, and would persist even if you managed to clean off the damage. Blasphemy inflicts the same sort of hurt. It is the defilement of something so cherished as to be sacred in the eyes of the believer.

Dummett’s argument shifts the burden of proof back onto those who would abolish the blasphemy laws. If blasphemy causes profound harm to religious believers, then perhaps it should be illegal. After all, one of the functions of the law is to prevent people from harming each other. There are established laws which aim to stop people from hurting each other with words (such as the laws against libel and slander). These other laws show that it will not do to claim a catch-all right to free speech. So the question now becomes: is there a reason for not using the law to prevent blasphemers from harming their religious neighbours?

There is such a reason. It lies in the fact that there are certain conversations which must be possible in a free society. Of particular importance is the question of identity. It must be possible to ask “Who are we?” Individuals must be able to ask “Who am I?” and more important still “Who shall I become?” The major religions all have a contribution to make to these conversations. They typically have as much to say about humanity as they have to say about God. The clergy expend a great deal of effort to explain what it means to be a good follower of the faith. Converts are urged not merely to believe the religion but to live it and to identify themselves with it. In other words, a religion typically provides for its followers a vocabulary with which to describe and to understand themselves and their lives. Apostasy is shocking to the believer because the apostate deliberately substitutes an identity of his own making for that bestowed upon him by the faith into which he was born. He says, in effect, that the identity-describing vocabulary offered by his parents’ religion is not good enough for him.

The rejection, by the apostate, of the ethical vocabulary of his native community may appear arrogant and hurtful to those who remain within the faith. Arrogant, because the understanding of personal identity supplied by the religion in question was good enough for the apostate’s parents, and their parents. What makes him so special that he needs to cast it aside? Hurtful, because to reject another’s values is to criticise that person’s life. Nevertheless, the citizens of a free society must be at liberty to invent new identitydescribing vocabularies for themselves. What is more, they must be free to discuss the question in public.

This connection between religion and identity presents a disanalogy with Dummett’s cherished photographs. Family photographs may be kept in a drawer and looked at in private. They need not have any consequences for civil society. Their political significance is normally nil. Religions, by contrast, advance particular concepts and doctrines regarding personal identity. Now, personal identity is partly a political issue. For example, it may not be possible to identify oneself as a Quaker and also as a British citizen, because British citizens pay taxes some of which go to buy guns. Religion is therefore present in political life even if religious bodies are not active in party politics. For that reason, religious doctrines, institutions and leaders must be open to criticism. An effective law preventing the criticism of religion would make it difficult to pursue one of the debates which a free society must be able to have with itself. No one has an untrammelled right to free speech, but everyone must be able to question those authorities who aspire to tell us who we are and how we ought to live.

Most religious believers would say that they have no objection to temperate criticism. What they object to is the mockery of their faith. Certainly, the freedom to criticise religion and religious leaders does not include a licence to hurl indiscriminate abuse. However, it should include satire and parody because these are legitimate critical devices. Often the best way to show the flaws in a view is to throw it into sharp relief. This is as true in philosophy as in politics. Voltaire’s Candide witnesses every kind of human misery in his travels. By the end of his adventures, all the ingenious theological manoeuvres to explain how God could permit such suffering are revealed as sophistries. This effect could not have been achieved by dry argument. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra enjoys a ‘last supper’ with his followers during which he explains the sickness of Christian values. The language of The Anti-Christ may seem intemperate, but Nietzsche’s charge is precisely that Christianity is disgusting. He would have been hard pressed to convey his sense of nausea in detached, scientific prose. Monty Python’s Life of Brian addresses the moral arrogance of Christianity by rewriting the story of its origins. The Satanic Verses performs a similar service for Islam. These books and films are not vindictive attacks on that which others hold sacred. They are part of humanity’s attempt to understand itself. The Satanic Verses is (amongst other things) a meditation on the condition of having one foot in Britain and the other in India. It asks an Anglo-Indian version of the identity question. Any exploration of that theme has to address Islam, and critically at that, because Islam is part of the question.

The price to pay for the freedom to talk about who we are is that some of our talk may be hurtful. However, this point applies to everyone. Many atheists and agnostics have convictions as deep as any religious faith, and may be hurt by satirical attack. In order to defend the blasphemy laws by pointing to the harm that cruel words can do, one would have to extend their protection to everyone’s deeply held beliefs and beloved objects. Fairness demands nothing less. Now, it might be objected that the blasphemy laws should only protect religious beliefs, institutions and symbols because no atheist values anything as highly as a religious believer values his faith. Defenders of the status quo are at liberty to make that argument, but they should understand how offensive it is to atheist ears. To an atheist, the suggestion that atheists lack spiritual or moral feeling is just the sort of hurtful misrepresentation that the blasphemy laws are supposed to prevent. In general, if the law protects what is sacred for Smith, then Jones will want to know the reason why there is no protection for whatever is sacred for him. This fairness argument works regardless of what it is that Jones takes to be sacred.

So we all run the risk of being hurt by satirical or parodic attacks on our cherished convictions and symbols. We should not try to prevent such attacks by law, for two reasons. First, out of fairness the law would have to be so comprehensive as to be stifling. It would have to extend beyond the major organised religions to cover everyone’s sacred cows. Second, critical debate over questions of identity is an essential part of freedom, even when that debate offends against someone’s conception of the sacred. The best we can do is to conduct these debates in such a way that the harm they cause is neither gratuitous nor vindictive.

© Dr B. Larvor 1996

Brendan Larvor is a philosophy lecturer at Liverpool University

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