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The dark mirror of Islam

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Liberalism's holy war

Reconsidering the Rushdie affair

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History and hatred

Imaginary homelands

A brief history of blasphemy


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This version of Chapter 1 of  A Brief History of Blasphemy: Liberalism, Censorship and the Satanic Verses, follows the revised text prepared for the German translation, Erben des Hasses, Die Rushdie-Affäre und ihre Folgen, Knesebeck, 1992.

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ON FEBRUARY 14th 1989 the Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced his fatwa, which was in effect a death threat against Salman Rushdie and his publishers. Since then The Satanic Verses has probably occasioned more comment in newspapers and journals than any book ever published. During the year which immediately followed Khomeini’s intervention the reaction to the novel was the subject of at least five conferences and five books in the United Kingdom alone.[1] In view of this it might well seem that everything that can be said about the Satanic Verses affair has been said. I believe, however, that some of the underlying issues have scarcely been dealt with at all, and that there are a number of fundamental questions which still need to be both asked and answered.

In seeking to unravel the various strands in one of the most complex of all cultural tragedies I am not arguing that we should ignore, or in any way deny the reality of harsh rigidity which is sometimes shown by Islam. The Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie and his publishers was cruel, murderous and tyrannical – all the more so in that it would appear that one of its main purposes was to shore up the narrow and repressive regime which he had established in Iran. For the sake of Salman Rushdie himself and for the sake of his publishers no effort should be spared to bring about the lifting of the death threat. To this end the fatwa should, I believe, be opposed passionately and continuously. But the terms in which this is done should be chosen carefully. We gain little from describing it as ‘cruel, murderous and tyrannical’, as I have done here, if we contrive at the same time to forget that our own religious tradition has very frequently been cruel, murderous and tyrannical, and that our own forms of justice have, until relatively recently, reflected this fact.


In saying this I am offering an implicit and deliberate criticism of some of the opinions which have been expressed by those who, with every justification, have offered Salman Rushdie their support. Indeed I am bound to confess that ever since the Rushdie affair started there is one thing I have feared more than the bombs of Islamic fundamentalists. It is the harm that can be done by the machine-gun bullets of liberal self-righteousness. The ricochet of those bullets can be heard all to clearly in the chauvinistic tones of Fay Weldon’s Counterblast pamphlet, Sacred Cows and in the hard rhetoric of some of Rushdie’s other supporters. If we allow ourselves to be swayed by such rhetoric we are in danger, I believe, of seeing with disproportionate clarity the cruelty and repressiveness of Islam, while failing to register at all the rigidity and authoritarianism of some of our own most revered cultural traditions.


What we need is a little less pressure on the trigger of cultural patriotism, and a little more historical perspective. For only then is it likely that we can take a more balanced and considered view of one of the most disturbing cultural clashes there has ever been and of a dilemma which is going to face Western writers and intellectuals for many years to come, whether they like it or not.


Of all the issues which are raised by the Satanic Verses affair, and which clamour for discussion, blasphemy is both one of the most important and one of the most difficult. It is difficult partly because in our own society the law against blasphemy is widely regarded as an archaic one – a kind of legal appendix, which still survives in the body politic, but which seems to have no real function. The last time a case of blasphemy was brought before the British courts was in 1977, when Mary Whitehouse instituted a private prosecution against Gay News for publishing a poem by James Kirkup which seemingly portrayed Jesus as the object of love. Although this prosecution was successful, one of the effects of Mary Whitehouse's action was to bring the British laws of blasphemy, which had not been invoked for more than half a century , into active disrepute, particularly among writers and poets.


In the same year that the prosecution was brought against Gay News, a number of humanist organisations founded the Committee Against Blasphemy Law and carried forward a vigorous campaign to abolish the offence. Although this campaign attracted considerable support, it bore no immediate fruit in spite of the fact that the abolition of the offence of blasphemy was also advocated in 1979 by the Bernard Williams Committee in its Report on Obscenity and Film Censorship.


The cause of the abolitionists attracted even more support in 1985 when the Law Commission published its report, Criminal Law: Offences against Religion and Public Worship, which, broadly speaking, endorsed the humanist view. It described the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel as ‘unsatisfactory and archaic’. It noted that the law offered protection against blasphemy only to Christianity and went on to argue that in the multi-cultural United Kingdom of the late twentieth century this ‘could not be justified’. The Law Commissioners were not, as we will eventually see, unanimous in their conclusion. But it is clearly significant that their main report concluded by recommending abolition of the common law offence ‘without replacement’.


In 1989, when Muslims in Britain sought unsuccessfully to ; invoke the blasphemy laws against Penguin Books for publishing The Satanic Verses, the humanist and libertarian campaigns against the blasphemy laws were revived. In particular, Article 19, a free speech pressure- group based in London, took the initiative in forming an International Committee for the Defence of Salman Rushdie and his Publishers. As well as organising support for the threatened author, this committee began to campaign against the blasphemy laws. Meanwhile, in Parliament on 12th April 1989, Tony Benn presented a bill to the House of Commons to abolish the offence of blasphemy. He was supported by MPs from all parties including David Steel and Sir Ian Gilmour.


Soon after this the International Committee published its pamphlet The Crime of Blasphemy – Why it Should be Abolished.[2] This pamphlet is, in some respects, a valuable one not least because it is informed, like most humanist or secularist arguments, by a strong sense of history. One of the ideas which has grown up around the blasphemy laws is that their main purpose is to protect the tender sensitivities of Christians. It is certainly true that the laws against blasphemy have often served to do just this. But the International Committee puts forward a much more robust view of their traditional function. This view is perhaps most forcefully expressed in a passage it quotes from an earlier pamphlet, Chapman Cohen’s Blasphemy – a Plea for Religious Equality, which was published in 1922:


Blasphemy laws are a heritage from a wicked and deplorable past. In their essence they belong to a period when laws were far more ferocious than they are today, and when it was held the duty of the State to enforce and openly coerce opinion. They are also part of the general belief that the right discharge of the duties of citizenship depends, in some more or less obscure way, on the holding of right religious beliefs. In such circumstances, unbelief, heresy and blasphemy partake of the nature of treason. The heretic is one who is a threat to the welfare of the tribe or nation, and, in the interests of the whole group, he must be suppressed …  The blasphemy laws are aimed at opinion and opinion alone. It is to the spirit of persecution they owe their existence; it is the spirit of intolerance and persecution they always serve.[3]


This passage could scarcely be described as embodying a dispassionate approach to history. But it is precisely because of this that it manages to convey a much more accurate picture of the role played in European history by religious repression than will be found in the work of many academic historians. That Cohen’s robust view applies not only to Britain but also to other European countries – and indeed to the United States – is amply confirmed if we pause for a moment to consider the historical origins of the crime of blasphemy.


The laws against blasphemy which have, in one form or another, existed in most Western countries in the last three centuries, grew out of the much older law of heresy, which was designed to protect the Christian church against all forms of dissidence. The origins of this law can in turn be traced back to the New Testament.


Because the early Christians saw themselves as possessors of the One Truth, they were constantly wary of those who, by teaching false doctrines, or by insulting God or Christ, threatened to defile this truth. Few upheld their own version of the truth more zealously than Paul. In his second letter to the Corinthians he lashed out at those Christians who opposed him, calling them ‘false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.’ ‘And no wonder,’ he went on to say, ‘for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is not strange if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds’ (2 Corinthians, 13-15).


In consigning those who did not share his doctrine to the fires of hell Paul was in no sense a theological revolutionary. For, according to the New Testament, a similar idea had been propounded by Jesus. In the parable of the tares, to take but one example, Jesus looks forward to the time when all unbelievers will be burnt in hell. Speaking of the wheat and the tares which have been sown in one field, Jesus says: ‘Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn.(Matthew 13: 30; see also John 15: 6; Matthew 7:19).

The bundles of weeds to whose burning Jesus looks forward in this parable of the Last Judgment are, of course, symbols; they stand for the living bodies of those men, women and children who have not accepted the Christian gospel and who are therefore destined to burn in the fires of hell. The wheat stands for those believers who have submitted to Christ’s rule and who will therefore find their place in heaven. In Jesus’s essentially euphemistic parable the massive destruction of human life through which the Kingdom of Heaven is to be brought into being is portrayed as a stage in the gathering-in of an abundant harvest.


In the New Testament itself there is never any suggestion that this wrathful judgment should be enforced by mere humans. The words of Jesus in this regard are clear: ‘Judge not, and you will not be judged’ (Luke 6:37). But these words were premised on the assumption which informs the whole of the New Testament – that the apocalyptic moment when God himself would come to judge the world was imminent and should be expected almost daily. When that moment failed to come the temptation for those consumed by a burning faith in a religion which was itself zealous for judgment was to assume for themselves the role of the divine judge. Gradually the words of Jesus and Paul which I have quoted above, taken together with many other passages from the New Testament, came to be construed as a licence for the persecution of all who were deemed heretics.


The persecution of pagans, Jews, Muslims and dissident Christians began in the early middle ages. But it did not emerge on a large scale until the creation, in the first part of the thirteenth century, of the Inquisition. This organisation was set up by the Pope and handed over in 1232 to the Dominican order, who soon became known as ‘Domini canes’ or ‘the hounds of the Lord’. From small beginnings the Inquisition rapidly grew to become one of the mightiest and most powerful institutions in Europe. It took the form of a travelling ecclesiastical court which warned towns of its impending visits and encouraged individual Catholics to denounce all ‘heretical’ Christians or unbelievers. Parents were encouraged to betray their children and children their parents; anonymous denunciations were received with enthusiasm. Suspected ‘heretics’ were arrested and their guilt was assumed. If the victim confessed to holding heretical views then he or she was spared much suffering. If the victims made no confession they were tortured:


The heretic was dragged into the torture chamber and shown all the terrible instruments of torture. If this dreadful display did not make him confess to his errors, then the instruments were applied to his body, one by one, in a process of slowly increasing pain … Tortures lasting three or four hours were not unusual. While the victim was being tortured, the rack or other instrument was frequently sprinkled with holy water. Countless frightful means were used in the procedure, all with the sole purpose of crushing the victim’s resistance and making him confess … A cloth was usually pushed into the victim’s mouth to prevent the torturers from being distracted or irritated by his wild screams. A heretic might be tortured in this way for hours, until his body had become a flayed, bruised, broken and bleeding mass of . om time to time he would be asked whether he was at last ready to confess. Overwhelmed by pain and half out of his mind with anguish, he would usually, after a few hours of this torment, give all the Information that the Inquisitors wanted to hear … [4]


So extreme, and so cruel were the measures adopted by the Inquisition to enforce the supremacy of the Church and the suppression of dissent, that we sometimes tend to regard it as belonging to the history of some barbarous ‘pre-culture’ which bears little relation to our own. Yet it is probably true to say that the Inquisition was the greatest engine of ideological conformity ever devised by the West and that its influence lasted long after the institution itself was dissolved. Indeed, to a degree which is scarcely ever acknowledged in our history books, the very Protestants who had rebelled against its authority tended to make new constitutions and new laws in the moulds which had been cast by their persecutors. Instead of transcending the Inquisition they reproduced some of its most repressive features.


For, contrary to a widespread modern historical myth, it is not the case that the Reformation replaced a state of religious tyranny by a state of religious freedom. It may well be that Martin Luther is sometimes celebrated as a champion of such freedom, but this view of his achievement rests upon a misconception. His famous pronouncement at the Diet of Worms of 1521, ‘Here I stand. I can do nothing else. God help me. Amen’, was certainly not a declaration of untrammelled liberty. For, as Joachim Kahl has written: ‘Luther was simply fighting against the authority of the pope in the name of an authority which was even higher than that of the pope – the word of God. Submission to this objectively present authority was freedom of conscience as he understood it.’[5] Almost exactly the same point can be made about the Puritan poet John Milton who tends to be regarded both in Britain and in the United States as the father of modern intellectual liberty.[6]


Contrary to most modern assumptions Milton did not support freedom of the press except in those areas where he felt his own liberty was constrained. In 1651 he accepted an appointment as one of Cromwell’s censors. The freedom of expression which Milton sought to seize for himself, in other words, was of a kind which meant that a form of tyranny should be imposed on others.


More than a century earlier, in 1531, Martin Luther gave evidence of his own conception of religious freedom by assenting to Melanchthon’s suggestion that Anabaptists should be punished by death. Although Anabaptism would once have been regarded as a heresy, the term Luther preferred was blasphemy. At various times, particularly, in the later stages of his career, he condemned not only Anabaptism, but also Arianism, Judaism and Islam as blasphemies. Sin was blasphemy, the political opinions of the peasantry were blasphemy, even missing church was blasphemy. At times Luther’s anti-Catholicism was even more violent than his anti-Judaism. All Catholics were blasphemers. Their Mass was blasphemous and their popes blasphemers and Antichrists. They should be compelled to worship in Lutheran churches on pain of excommunication and exile. In 1536, after some hesitation, Luther finally endorsed imprisonment and death for Catholic blasphemies, in order to ensure that their contagion did not spread. Luther, as the American historian Leonard Levy has written, may have abused the word ‘blasphemy’, but he also ‘revived and popularised it. It became part of the Protestant currency.’[7]


In Geneva Calvin, after some initial signs of leniency, harshly opposed both blasphemy and heresy as soon as he had the power to do so, calling heretics and blasphemers ‘traitors to God’. In the case of Servetus he himself was directly responsible for having a blasphemer killed. Servetus was a gifted theologian and a scholar of genius. He had, however, opposed the doctrine of the Trinity and he had imprudently compounded this crime by openly opposing Calvin as well. Having unsuccessfully denounced Servetus to the Catholic Inquisition, Calvin eventually had him arrested in Geneva where he was tried for heresy and blasphemy and sentenced to death. In this instance Calvin opposed death by burning as being too cruel and endorsed Servetus’s request that he should be beheaded. He was overruled by the court and Servetus was burnt the next day along with a copy of his heretical book. The executioner used green wood which burnt slowly. Servetus screamed continuously as the lower half of his body burnt. After half an hour he passed out and died. His last words reportedly were, ‘O Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have pity on me.’ This was taken to be proof of his guilt, since he had not referred to the ‘Eternal Son of God.’[8]


Both Luther and Calvin were, in this regard, following the example of the Inquisition in seeking to suppress opinions because they were deemed subversive of religious authority. But one of the effects of the Reformation was actually to extend the scope of such measures. For when the Reformation made the monarch head of the established church, as happened in England, religious and political questions became intertwined. The habits of suppression which the Inquisition had created in the sphere of religion were now extended to the sphere of politics. The sacredness and supremacy of church and state were maintained by prosecuting dissidents for two related crimes – on the one hand for heresy and on the other for treason and sedition.


In England the crime of speaking against God was punished as heresy until the early years of the seventeenth century. The penalty was death. Gradually, however, the old laws of heresy fell into disuse. This happened in most Protestant countries, where, having been repeatedly accused of heresy themselves, Protestants came to dislike the term.


Both in England and in colonial America the concept which gradually took the place of heresy was that of blasphemy or blasphemous libel. Throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the courts frequently invoked the blasphemy law with a quite vicious repressiveness against those who made disrespectful references to God or Jesus or the Church. In particular ribaldry or obscenity directed against Christianity was rigorously outlawed. Even those who rebelled on doctrinal matters or who questioned the doctrine of the eternal punishment of the wicked might find themselves arraigned on a charge of blasphemy and they could by no means be certain of acquittal. In 1729, for example, the Cambridge academic and deist, Thomas Woolston, was successfully prosecuted for writing a series of pamphlets in which he denied the literal truth of the miracles of the New Testament and argued that they should be construed allegorically. These pamphlets were held to have struck ‘at the very root of Christianity’ and Woolston was detained until he died in 1733.[9]


Woolston’s fate was relatively mild. For originally, at least, the punishment of blasphemers sometimes involved not only imprisonment but also torture. In 1656, for example, James Nayler, a Quaker from Bristol, was charged with claiming equality with God. He was tried before the High Court of Parliament, and it was decreed ‘that he be repeatedly set in the pillory and scourged; that he be branded on the forehead with the letter ‘B’; that he have his tongue bored with a iron and be confined afterwards in prison and set to hard labour’.[10]


It should not be thought that these measures had a merely religious significance. For to interpret them in this way would be to introduce a distinction between religion and politics which was foreign to seventeenth-century Europe. This was made abundantly clear in England in 1676, after the prosecution of an apparently deranged man, who claimed that Jesus Christ was a and a whore-master and that religion was a cheat. During the trial the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Matthew Hale, articulated clearly the principle which had always been implicit in the English concept of blasphemous libel – namely that Christianity was part of the law of England, and that a threat to the Church was, by its very nature, a threat to the State. He said: ‘That such kind of wicked and blasphemous words were not only an offence against God and religion but a crime against the laws, States and Government … and therefore punishable in this court, that to say religion is a cheat, is to dissolve all those obligations whereby civil societies are preserved; and Christianity being parcel of the laws of England, therefore to reproach Christian religion is to speak in subversion of the law.’[11]


Hale’s judgment succinctly expressed an attitude towards blasphemy which could be found throughout seventeenth century Europe and which was particularly strong in Protestant countries. The laws against blasphemy were not simply restraints on religious freedom. They were a crucial part of an entire body of legislation whose other major instrument of suppression was the law against sedition. This in effect transferred the aura of sacredness and holy dread which had been developed around Christianity to the laws of the state and the government which upheld them; speaking critically or disrespectfully about the government or its officers was construed as a kind of political blasphemy and was punished no less severely than its religious counterpart.


With some variations between different countries, these legacies of the Inquisition were preserved throughout most of Europe. Contrary to the received view they were not even abolished in the United States. For although those who framed the First Amendment to the American Constitution believed passionately in ‘freedom of speech’, their ultimate commitment, like that of Luther and Milton before them, was to the authority of God. Only those who bowed to this authority were deemed worthy to enjoy the liberty which the First Amendment guaranteed. In theory at least those who opposed either God or the revolution which had been brought about in his name could claim no such freedom, for both the law of blasphemous libel and the law of seditious libel remained in force. ‘Liberty of speech,’ as the historian Arthur Schlesinger put it, ‘belonged solely to those who spoke the speech of liberty.’[12] In this respect as in others, America preserved the legal and constitutional inheritance of what might be called the Protestant Inquisition.


In Britain and America and in many European countries the continued support for tyrannical laws, and for the legacy of suppression which derived from the Inquisition, sprang from what might be termed ‘the floodgate theory’ of morality. This theory almost always operates in nascent or immature democracies. In such democracies laws against freedom of expression are invoked frequently and censorship is often pervasive and violently enforced. The underlying fear is that, if freedom of expression were to be permitted even in the smallest degree it could eventually lead to a flood of conspiracies, revolutions and internal disorders which would rock all stable government and eventually submerge the state itself.


Parallel fears can be seen clearly in the history of attitudes towards obscenity. For in most European countries the responsibility and restraint which were considered a precondition of the ‘freedom of expression’ which we now enjoy were inculcated into successive generations through a long series of purity campaigns. The organisers of these campaigns never hesitated to use the most violent sanctions provided by the law in order to restrain the imagination and outlaw any form of art which might be deemed immoral.


Again and again campaigners for purity have invoked the ‘floodgate theory’; they have warned that to relax the rigour of the law in the smallest way, to allow even a trickle of transgression, will ultimately lead to a flood of immorality which it will be beyond the power of governments to control.


Those who have campaigned with the most vigilance against blasphemy have frequently done so for similar reasons, often invoking the ‘floodgate theory’ directly by arguing that, if blasphemy were to be tolerated in a single instance, impiety might rapidly spread throughout the land. Indeed, there has always been a close relationship between obscenity laws and blasphemy laws, with obscene or scurrilous language tending to be construed as one of the characteristics of blasphemy.


Blasphemy laws survived in Britain, America, and many European countries including Germany throughout the nineteenth century. But in our own century these laws have gradually fallen into disuse. In Germany the law against blasphemy has been abolished. In Britain laws against blasphemy remain in force and, in theory at least, they are still the main means whereby Christianity is protected against obscene or extreme abuse. In practice, however, they have scarcely played any role for many years. Indeed in 1949 the distinguished British judge Lord Denning declared the British law obsolete and at the same time consigned the floodgate-theory to the history books:


The reason for this law was because it was thought that a denial of Christianity was liable to shake the fabric of society, which was itself founded upon Christian religion. There is no such danger to society now and the offence of blasphemy is a dead letter.[13]


As has already been noted, in 1977 the offence of blasphemy was fleetingly revived in Britain. This was when the modern purity campaigner, Mary Whitehouse, instituted a private prosecution against the magazine Gay News for publishing an erotic  poem about Jesus. Although this prosecution was successful, one of the effects of Mary Whitehouse’s action was to bring the blasphemy laws into active disrepute, particularly among writers and poets. The result was a vigorous campaign to abolish the laws, a campaign which has been renewed in the wake of the Rushdie affair.




Although the account of the blasphemy laws which I have given here diverges significantly from the orthodox libertarian view, the path I have followed so far is at least within shouting distance of that well-beaten track. Where I find myself parting company with the received view completely is when it is suggested that ‘true’ intellectual freedom and religious liberty can somehow be established by the simple expedient of abolishing tyrannical laws. The basis of my disagreement is very simple. For what students of religious and social history have almost always failed to observe is that the seeming obsolescence of blasphemy laws does not indicate simply that we have grown out of them. Both in cultural and in psychological terms, it might be a great deal more accurate to suggest that we have grown into them, and that, behind the change in legal attitudes towards blasphemy, there lies a profound process of cultural and psychological internalisation.


Such a process of internalisation is unlikely ever to be complete. But, to a certain degree at least, it seems reasonable to argue that respect for the figure of Jesus, and for Christianity in general, has been inculcated so widely, even among non-believers, that the restraints of ‘good taste’ have gradually made the restraints of the law all but redundant. In any ordinary social relationship it would be considered an unpardonable breach of good taste for a sceptic or a non-believer to engage in obscene blasphemies against Jesus or against the Christian faith in the presence of a devout Christian. So profoundly do we seem to have accepted the sacredness of the Christian religion that such blasphemies would probably be considered distasteful even if they were uttered only in the company of fellow sceptics or unbelievers. Indeed, it is probably true to say that the majority of people who live in societies which were once deemed ‘Christian’, whether or not they have had a religious upbringing, would find it psychologically difficult to engage in extreme or obscene blasphemy even in the privacy of their own imaginations.


To say this is not to endorse the standards of ‘good taste’ which now prevail. For we should never forget that these standards are, in part at least, the historical precipitate of torture and terror. It is simply to point out that when repressive laws are enforced by terror, they tend to engender repressive frames of mind, which are then passed down ‘invisibly’ to future generations through the disciplines of child-rearing and schooling. In highly disciplined industrialised societies such as our own, it is quite possible to abolish old laws while leaving intact the habits of repression which they originally helped to engender.


It is perhaps partly because of this internalised repression that the role of artists, poets, novelists and film-makers as ‘agents’ of blasphemy has become so important in the twentieth century. Imaginative artists have, in effect, been licensed to engage in blasphemy on behalf of those who, because of their own relative imaginative rigidity, find it difficult to do so. But even the licence we give to artists to blaspheme is itself severely limited. Occasional blasphemies can be tolerated in the confidence that their example is unlikely to be followed; there is no longer a danger of the floodgates of impiety springing open. Extreme or obscene blasphemy, however, is still effectively either outlawed or restricted to special contexts. It is quite true that this kind of restriction is not normally regulated by invoking the law. But here once again we encounter the results of a process of cultural internalisation. Because of this process individuals or organisations can, to a large extent, be relied upon to impose the kind of censorship which was once enforced by the state.


Very often it is imposed by publishers themselves, and it is surprising how rapidly some publishers have managed to forget their own recent history in this respect. It is common knowledge that The Satanic Verses was published in Britain by Viking, the hardback division of Penguin Books. But it is not generally known that Rushdie’s novel is not the only Penguin book which has been burnt in Britain in recent years. Not many years ago almost the entire print-run of a Penguin book was burnt on the grounds that its contents were blasphemous and would be deeply offensive to many Christians.


The book in question was Siné’s Massacre. Siné is one of France’s most acclaimed cartoonists and Massacre contained a number of mordantly funny scatological, anti-clerical or blasphemous cartoons, some of them with a sexual theme. The Penguin edition of Massacre was introduced by Malcolm Muggeridge and published in 1967 at the time that Penguin was under the direction of the young publisher Tony Godwin. Many booksellers, however, found the book deeply offensive because of its blasphemous content and some conveyed their feelings to the founder of Penguin, Allen Lane, who had by this time almost retired from the firm. His response was swift and effective. One night, soon after the book had been published, he went into Penguin’s main warehouse with four accomplices, filled a trailer with all the remaining copies of the book, drove away and burnt them. The next day the Penguin trade department reported the book ‘out of print’. Allen Lane took this action not because he was a practising Christian himself, but because many of his friends and bookselling colleagues were, and had conveyed to him their strong distaste for the book.[14]


Of course it may be argued that Allen Lane was wrong to act in the way that he did. But given that he did it would be hypocritical not to recall his actions now. For they place the controversy over The Satanic Verses in a much needed perspective. They remind us above all that in Britain, as in most other Western countries, the Christian religion and the sensitivities of individual Christians are protected not so much by the force of law but – far more significantly – by the manner in which ancient and seemingly obsolete public blasphemy laws have been adopted as private standards. In order to adhere to these standards almost all broadcasting organisations in Europe and the United States routinely vet their programmes for blasphemy. At the same time both publishing editors and proprietors like Allen Lane frequently intervene in the publishing process in order to moderate, edit, or indeed suppress works which might be considered blasphemous.[15]


In 1976, nearly ten years after Allen Lane’s dramatic intervention in the case of Massacre, a significant controversy developed in Britain around the Danish film-maker Jens Jorgen Thorsen, who was planning a film about the sex-life of Jesus, The Many Faces of Jesus, involving both homsexual and heterosexual sex. His proposal to make the film in Britain met with intense opposition which was eventually successful. This opposition came not only from pressure groups but also from the Queen, the Prime Minister, James Callaghan, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Donald Coggan.[16]


In 1979 a similar kind of censorship played a significant role in the handling of the British film The Life of Brian. This film, made by the team responsible for the successful satirical series Monty Python’s Flying Circus, was a satire on religion set in the time of Jesus. As blasphemy it was, even in its original version, extremely mild. Yet the film was surrounded from its inception by intense anxiety, in some quarters of the British Establishment, about the offence it might cause. As a result it gained a certificate for general release only after some cuts had been made. Perhaps more importantly still, the film was shunned by British television companies, who declined to show it for fear of offending Christians in this country. Once again a blasphemy was restrained – or its circulation effectively curtailed – not by the force of law but by the fears, anxieties and sensitivities of individuals.




The action which Allen Lane took in 1967, the successful campaign against The Many Faces of Jesus, and the partial suppression of The Life of Brian tell part of the story of the way in which attitudes towards blasphemy have evolved. But it is not the whole story. A far more telling perspective on the status of blasphemy is offered if we consider the manner in which, in our once Christian state, the authority of the individual conscience has gradually been accorded the same position, and been veiled with the same sanctity, as the authority of the scriptures in earlier centuries.


The elevation of the individual conscience and the manner in which we now defer to its authority is one of the most important parts of the Protestant inheritance. Whereas the medieval Roman Catholic Church had developed a vast apparatus of external authority, and a complex ecclesiastical hierarchy by which all individual believers were bound, Protestants in general – and Puritans in particular – regarded external authority with distaste, and placed great emphasis instead on inner discipline. One of the great ideals of the Puritan movement, deriving from St Paul – who had in turn derived it from Old Testament prophets like Ezekiel – was that the laws of God should be written not upon tablets of stone, but upon the individual heart of every true believer. The believer’s lawful heart would then become his Christian conscience, and this conscience would become the ultimate religious authority. The Pope would, as it were, be humbly enthroned in the palace of every individual soul and would there become the infallible arbiter of God’s will, which would be performed not because of some external discipline but because of an inner compulsion.


The emergence of this trend can be discerned in Lutheran Protestantism, but it developed in its strongest form in countries where the Calvinist influence prevailed, particularly in Britain and America. The radical implications of the new conscience-centred attitude towards Christian doctrine were spelt out by John Milton. He was one of many seventeenth-century Puritans who, basing his arguments in part on the corrupt and distorted nature of the text of the Bible, rejected it as an infallible guide to the will of God. According to this view, the authority of the Bible was to be subordinated to what Puritans were wont to call ‘the Christ within’. For Milton, the ultimate court of appeal always remained that of reason or the inner conscience. If a particular passage of the scriptures could not be reconciled with the cause of human or moral good, then it was to be rejected: ‘No ordinance,’ said Milton, ‘human or from heaven, can bind against the good of man.’ ‘Milton’, writes the historian Christopher Hill, ‘was glad to find that ideas which he arrived at by searching his own conscience could be found in the Bible; but they had greater authority for him because they were in his conscience than because they were in the Bible.’ The same principle was widely upheld by other radical Puritans. Jacob Bauthumely did not ‘expect to be taught by Bibles or books but by God’. ‘The Bible without,’ he wrote ‘is but a shadow of the Bible which is within.’[17]


The implications of this conscience-centred revolution for the crime of blasphemy were far-reaching indeed, and continue to make themselves felt today. As long as the Bible continued to be regarded as the ultimate authority in matters of faith, any attempt to quarrel with the sacred word or with the traditional biblical images of God was anathema and was vigorously condemned. But gradually, as the conscience-centred revolution deepened during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a conflict began to grow between the old scriptural images of God and the new demands of the internalised conscience.


Although, as we have seen, the state continued rigorously to enforce the law against blasphemy, it frequently found itself in conflict not with scoffers, unbelievers or atheists but with devout Puritans whose main crime was not that they rejected Christ, but that they rejected the Christ of the scriptures in order to follow the ‘Christ-within’. Indeed blasphemy, or attitudes which verged on blasphemy, even began to have a certain theological attraction for some of the most rigorous and conscientious Puritans. According to Gerrard Winstanley, any traditional Christian, ‘who thinks God is in the heavens above the skies, and so prays to that god which he imagines to be there and everywhere  … .worships his own imagination, which is the devil’. Elsewhere Winstanley refers almost contemptuously to ‘the outward Christ and the outward God’ and goes on to speak of ‘the God Devil’. In 1646 another British Puritan, John Boggis of Great Yarmouth, asked, ‘Where is your God, in Heaven or in earth, aloft or below, or where doth he sit with his arse?’[18]


The trial of James Nayler in 1656, which has already been referred to, is a perfect example of this trend. For Nayler’s alleged claim of equality with God was precisely the kind of claim which proceeded logically out of the Puritan enthronement of the conscience. The blasphemous Nayler, and the Quaker sect to which he belonged, were among the chief pioneers of the ‘internalised Christianity’ which would increasingly be adopted as an orthodoxy not only in England and America but in Protestant countries throughout Europe. In one sense, indeed, it would seem that blasphemy provided some of the most rigid Protestants with a necessary psychological path away from a traditional scriptural Christianity towards a new religion of the conscience; it was only by pelting the traditional scriptural image of God – the ‘Christ without’ – with the stones of irreverence and blasphemy, that they were able to ‘kill off’ the old form of religious authority and make room for a new form.


This religious appropriation of blasphemy is by no means only a feature of our Protestant past, for in some significant respects it continues today. Theologically speaking, the heirs to Gerrard Winstanley and John Boggis are men like Rudolph Bultmann and Herbert Braun in Germany and Bishop John Robinson and Bishop David Jenkins in England. The books which they, and the other new theologians of Protestantism have written, are earnest and utterly sincere attempts to make private doubts public and, by doing so, to be ‘honest to God’. But their books are at the same time coldly rational attacks on the traditional scriptural image of God which many ordinary Christians continue to worship and from which they continue to draw immense psychological comfort. In terms of any traditional Christian view, the vision of these new theologians is not simply radical or revolutionary. It verges on blasphemy and is profoundly threatening. It is little wonder that so many Christians have found these writings so hurtful.


In liberal intellectual circles, however, there is scant sympathy for such Christians and a great deal of fellow-feeling for the radical theologians who have so scandalised them. In view of this, and in view of the way in which we have virtually enthroned blasphemy as an orthodox part of modern Christian theology, it is scarcely surprising that we find it so difficult to understand the feelings of the countless thousands of ordinary Muslims who were outraged by the publication of The Satanic Verses.


We should have no doubt at all that in some cases this feeling of outrage was taken up by Muslim extremists and exploited for their own religious and political ends. But this exploitation was possible only because the original feeling of outrage was genuine and quite independent of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s death threat against Salman Rushdie. It was felt so strongly for the simple reason that much of the Islamic world has not passed through the kind of conscience-centred revolution which is such an important part of our own historical experience. Islam has not yet established the primacy and the sanctity of the ‘God-within’ and most ordinary Muslims have not developed any attitude which parallels the Puritan notion of ‘a Bible-within’. The Koran remains the essential and only sanctuary of God and of the Prophet Muhammad, and any attempt to tamper with that sanctuary or to abuse its holiness is seen as an attempt to destroy religion itself. As Amir Taheri has written: ‘Most Muslims are prepared to be broad-minded about most things but never about anything which even remotely touches upon their faith. “Better that I be dead than see Islam insulted,” said Ayatollah Majlisi in the last century. An Arab proverb says: “Kill me, but do not mock my faith.”’[19]


It is because the faith of ordinary Muslims relies so heavily on external authority and on the sacred tradition of the Koran, and because they identify this tradition with all that is precious and emotionally rich, that many Muslims are prepared to defend the sanctity of the Koran and of the figure of the Prophet with such passion and such apparent rigidity. It was this seeming rigidity which in its turn evoked the fury of many liberal intellectuals who believed that their own ‘sacred’ rights to free expression were being infringed or destroyed.




By placing this conflict in a historical context I hope I have made it clear that one argument which is commonly advanced about The Satanic Verses is unsound. For it is emphatically not true that most European Christians enjoy now, or have ever enjoyed, an unlimited liberty to blaspheme against the Christian faith. In some countries Christianity is still nominally protected by the law. But in all Western countries, including the bastion of free-speech, America, it is even more securely protected by a whole series of taboos which have become a part of our culture. Because of this, and because modern ‘death-of-God theology’ has tended to appropriate blasphemy for its own religious ends, abolition of those blasphemy laws which still exist, while it may well be advisable, would not have the effect of placing all religions on an equal footing. It would actually render the state of religious inequality which exists in all formerly ‘Christian’ countries more invisible. By banishing a palpable injustice in order to ratify an impalpable injustice, it would almost certainly leave the Muslim communities who live in these countries feeling more precarious and more threatened.


To say this, however, does not in itself resolve any of the most important questions which have been raised by the publication of The Satanic Verses and by the Muslim response to it. For the fact that Muslims – or for that matter any other group of people – might feel threatened, discomforted or offended by the publication of a novel is not in itself a reason for suppressing that novel or declining to publish it in a paperback edition. Truth itself is sometimes painful, disturbing and offensive. That being so, the question which remains unanswered is whether blasphemy can itself be a vehicle of truth, and whether the right to engage in blasphemy against a particular religion, or indeed against all religions, is therefore a precious right which should be defended at all costs. In order to answer that question, I believe that we need to locate it not in some hypothetical Utopia but in the real historical and political world.


There are a number of situations in which the right to blaspheme would indeed appear to be worth defending. In any society where a tyrannical state authority is kept in place by a policy of religious terror, then blasphemy might well be seen as an important political act; by keeping alive the possibility of dissent it subverts the state’s power and, perhaps, makes liberation more likely.


In Calvin’s Geneva – which John Knox once called ‘the most perfect school of Christ that ever was on earth since the days of the Apostles’ – even the lightest action was brought under a rigid spiritual rule. Drunkards, dancers and adulterers were excommunicated, torture was used systematically, a child was beheaded for striking its parents and, in sixty years, one hundred and fifty men and women who had transgressed against Calvin’s spiritual discipline were put to death by the city authorities. Calvin, in the words of R. H. Tawney, ‘made Geneva a city of glass, in which every household lived its life under the supervision of a spiritual police’.[20] In such a city it might indeed seem that blasphemy offered a road to liberation, and that any God who was invoked to justify such terror should be treated with open and systematic disrespect.


Much the same might be said of Russia during the time of Stalin. For although Stalin’s regime was not sustained by any orthodox form of religion, Stalin so managed the cult of his own personality that he himself effectively became the ‘God’ of a tyrannical state-religion, surrounding his own image with reverence, fear and the holy terror which would eventually claim the lives of at least thirty million Soviet citizens. Dissidence, in such circumstances, demanded a healthy disrespect for the god-like image Stalin sought to project and once again it might be argued that any form of ‘blasphemy’, however scurrilously it abused Stalin, could be justified politically as a step along the road to liberation.


I have introduced these two examples quite deliberately, however, in order to show that, although blasphemy may sometimes appear to be desirable, it is not always politically expedient. For tyrants who use religious terror in order to impose their own forms of political discipline do not make exceptions of blasphemers; they make examples of them. In Calvin’s Geneva Servetus was put to death. In Stalin’s Russia anyone so misguided as to show public disrespect for Stalin himself was likely to be arrested and either executed or tortured into submission.


We should not conclude from this that dissidents living within such regimes should always avoid blasphemy. For cursing God privately in Calvin’s Geneva or cursing Stalin during the time of the Great Purge might well have provided individual dissidents with necessary psychological relief; at times furtive blasphemies exchanged by dissidents might even have become the secret and necessary opium of dissent. But in such regimes any dissidents would be unwise to regard blasphemy as a permanent political duty. Rather it should be seen as an extremely difficult political art in which would-be blasphemers play a game of brinksmanship, balancing the disrespect they express for the regime under which they suffer against the chances of punishment.


Of those who played this deadly game in Stalin’s Russia – including Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak – not all were equally effective, and not all survived. But, almost by definition, ‘successful’ dissidents avoided unbridled public vilification of Stalin himself. Even Osip Mandelstam’s ‘mistake’ was not that he openly declaimed his poem attacking Stalin, but that he read it privately to ‘a tiny circle of his closest friends’, one of whom betrayed him.[21] What is certain is that to have engaged in open vilification of Stalin would not have been an act of political courage; it would have been an act of supreme political folly. At best it would have been to throw away valuable human resources by going to war with a strategically useless weapon. At worst it would be the equivalent of supplying arms to the enemy. For tyrants are almost always skilled at taking the scurrilous insults and obscenities which are associated with blasphemy and directing these back against the blasphemer. What happens, in effect, is that those who engage in blasphemy against repressive regimes provide the leaders of those regimes with the very kind of unclean Antichrist they need in order to unite followers behind them and sustain and redouble their repressive zeal.


Blasphemy, then, when it is exercised by the powerless against the powerful, may seem to be justifiable, but it is often politically naive and it may have the effect of strengthening the authoritarianism of the regime which is attacked. In this respect it is very like violence or terrorism. Terrorist attacks on extreme repressive regimes may sometimes seem morally right, but they are not always advisable. This is partly because of the danger of detection, and partly because political violence can all too easily give a propaganda-advantage to the enemy and allow a repressive state to fortify itself further against ‘the enemy within’.


In the particular case of The Satanic Verses, we should have no doubt at all that Salman Rushdie’s intention was to use blasphemy as a way of attacking unjustifiable forms of political and religious rigidity. In reality, however, it seems reasonably clear that his book has had precisely the opposite effect to that which he intended. For instead of leading to a significant weakening in the power structures of Islamic fundamentalism, the real and deeply felt offence caused by the book to many ordinary Muslims was actually seized upon by Khomeini to help shore up his own shaky political regime. At the same time many Muslims, above all in Britain, have been deflected from a path of religious moderation towards forms of extremism which had previously held no attraction for them. In this respect it would seem that Rushdie’s own sophisticated insensitivity to the language of faith and to religious politics in general has actually played into the hands of fundamentalists. By allowing himself to be cast as a rigid and intolerant Antichrist-figure, surrounded and supported by the seemingly militant liberal armies of the West, he has effectively redoubled the very rigid zeal he set out in his book to diminish.




What is perhaps even more serious and more dangerous in this whole affair, however, has been the insensitivity of almost the entire Western intellectual establishment to some of the deepest imaginative currents of Judaeo-Christian and Islamic history and in particular to the role which has been played by blasphemy in the relationship between the three ‘religions of Abraham’.


One of the reasons that this dimension of the problem has been ignored is that we tend to think of blasphemy as an essentially ‘irreligious’ act; indeed, until the Satanic Verses affair placed the whole subject in a wider context, blasphemy was often thought of as implying disrespect specifically for the Christian religion. It is this view which is reflected in almost all surving Western laws against blasphemy. It is sometimes assumed that these laws reflect a general antipathy to blasphemy of any kind, and that the specific and narrow application of the law is merely a historical accident. Such a view would certainly seem to correspond to the current position of the many Christian leaders in Europe and America who have shown great restraint, wisdom and sensitivity throughout the Rushdie affair. If, however, we look at the problem of blasphemy in the long perspectives of history, we will find that the Christian church as a whole has generally interpreted the law against blasphemy in a quite different way. For, while fiercely resisting and punishing blasphemies directed against God, Christ or against the Christian faith, the church has at times actively encouraged Christians to use both blasphemy and obscenity as weapons with which to insult and humiliate rival faiths.


Historically the main victims of such religiously motivated blasphemy have been Jews and Muslims.[22]  As Christian scholars have themselves now recognised, Western anti-semitism is a specifically Christian phenomenon which stems from the New Testament itself – and not only from the writings of Paul, but also from the gospels, whose anti-Jewish bias is clear and consistent.[23] In the twentieth century, anti-semitism has lost much of its religious colouring. In earlier centuries, however, the religious basis of anti-semitism was almost always clear and explicit. In his Of the Jews and their Lies, to take but one example, Martin Luther condemned all Jews as greedy and maggoty: ‘You are unworthy to look at the outside of the Bible, let alone read inside it. You should read only the Bible which is under the sow’s tail, and gobble and guzzle the letters which fall from it.’[24]


Luther went on to identify the sow with the Talmud and this idea was taken up by a fellow Christian, the Professor of Hebrew at Wittenberg University:


What shall we say of the deep obtuseness of the Jews! The Son of God came to save his people, but they would not recognise him … They had been called and elected to be God’s mouth, to fulfil God’s word; but they closed their mouths to the flow of all the good from God and opened their mouths and all their sense to the Devil who filled them with … lies, impiety, blasphemy … The Rabbis, enemies of God and blasphemers against the Messiah and his most holy Mother … do not understand anything divine. Instead of the flowing water of eternal life, they suck the milk of a sow … they eat nothing … but excrement and dung … They take all their mysteries from the piggish Talmud, they suck all the impurity from the teats of swine. Thus cut off through incredulity from the olive and vine of Christ, they eagerly pursue only the most impure filthiness. Having deserted Christ they adhere to a sow; having despised the doctrines of the messiah, they devour dung; having neglected the word of life, they suck in their muddy milk …[25]


The pronouncements of Martin Luther and his Christian colleague at the University of Wittenberg were, we should not doubt, motivated by a passionate devotion to the Christian faith and to the teachings of Jesus. Their purpose was to defend this faith against those who seemed to threaten it and to do so in terms which would be approved by Jesus, who had Himself, according to the gospel of John, anathematised all Jews as ‘children of the devil’. Yet it will be clear to almost all modern observers that these ‘holy’ words are also profoundly blasphemous, and that contemporary Jews would have found them deeply hurtful and offensive to their religious faith.


This particular kind of Christian anti-semitism uses one of the commonest of anti-semitic motifs – that of the Judensau. This form of anti-Jewish insult, in which Jews were portrayed sucking on the teats of a sow or greedily eating its excrement, was central to Christian anti-semitism in Germany for more than three centuries. The motif was eventually secularised by National Socialists, and made one of its last appearances in 1937 in the form of a cartoon in Julius Streicher’s anti-semitic newspaper Der Stürmer. More generally, scurrilous and obscene blasphemies directed against Jews and against Jewish forms of religious observance, or against Muslims and their faith, have formed one of the most significant elements in Christian apologetics for very many centuries.


Nor would it be fair to see this tendency to exploit or idealise sectarian blasphemy as an exclusively Christian phenomenon. For the systematic use of blasphemy lies close to the imaginative heart of the writings of the Old Testament prophets. Again and again the zeal which is shown by these prophets to serve the God of Israel goes hand in hand with their rage to denounce the gods of every other religion – especially the religion of the Canaanites – as inferior and evil. Specifically, prophets such as Amos, Ezekiel and Jeremiah introduced into Western religion the notion that any form of religious faith which set itself up against the pure cult of Yahweh was to be imagined in obscene terms as a prostitute, and its adherents reviled accordingly. It was this idea which was taken up in late Jewish and Christian apocalyptic and developed, through the figure of the Whore of Babylon, into one of the central motifs of all sectarian conflict within the Judaeo-Christian tradition.


Partly because Islam itself grew out of this tradition it too has frequently demonised rival faiths. Indeed this common tradition of blasphemous abuse helps to explain why the Christian West, Judaism and Islam have become, in Karen Armstrong’s phrase, ‘locked in a murderous triangle of hatred and intolerance’. Each of these three religious traditions has at times initiated abusive attacks on one or both of the others. In many cases the main object of these attacks has been the perceived bigotry of an opposing tradition, and the declared purpose of the attack has been to undermine or destroy this bigotry. Almost inevitably, however, such attacks succeed only in enlarging the legacy of hatred out of which they arise. For blasphemous assaults on other people’s faith, far from being subversive of authoritarianism, are themselves one of the main engines of religious bigotry. By rewarding believers according to the intensity of the insults which they hurl, and by enraging those whose faith is attacked, such strategies strengthen the hand of religious extremists on all sides and turn even moderates towards militancy.


It is because a tradition of blasphemous abuse lies so close to the heart of Judaeo-Christian orthodoxy – and to Judaeo-Christian authoritarianism – that those who play imaginative games with blasphemy in the name of liberty are in reality engaged in an extraordinarily dangerous ploy, whose ultimate effect is likely to be both destructive and repressive. This is particularly so when the artist in question writes from a position of cultural dominance – from within the all but impregnable political, economic and cultural fortress of a Christian or post-Christian country in the First World. The greatest danger of all is that his blasphemies will be construed as belonging to the strongest tradition of Western blasphemy – a tradition which is both profoundly authoritarian and full of racial and religious hatred.


It is exactly this which appears to have happened in the reception of The Satanic Verses. For Muslims do not perceive the Rushdie affair as an isolated skirmish in an otherwise harmonious relationship between Islam and the West. They see it as the latest battle in a long history of religious and cultural tension which goes back to the seventh century, when Islam first emerged as a religion with the power to challenge Christendom.


This tension was expressed in its most destructive form in the Crusades, during which hundreds of thousands of Muslims were killed by Western zealots. The Crusaders’ bitter legacy to the Christian West, for whose supremacy they fought, was a dramatic intensification of traditional Christian anti-semitism. This new, intensified anti-semitism was expressed both against Jews and against Muslims. Partly because it was older and had its roots deep in the New Testament, it was anti-Jewish hatred which became most strongly established in Western Europe. And for geographical and demographical reasons, as well as for historical reasons, it was anti-Jewish prejudice which became one of the most decisive forces in European history during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the early part of the twentieth century.


Throughout this period, however, the ancient hostility to Islam was kept alive. This hostility was so deep because it was based on a real power-struggle for control of Europe. The Arab invasion of Western Europe was stopped at the battle of Tours in 712. But the military and political threat which Islam posed to Christendom continued. The Turks were halted at Vienna as late as 1683 and even after this, some parts of what had once been Christendom remained under Turkish rule. Christian fears of Islam, then, were based in part on a real perception of its military, political and cultural strength. But the tendency of Christians to demonise their enemies meant that realistic fears of Islam were increasingly overlaid by demonological fantasies in which Muslims in general, and Muhammad in particular, were seen as satanic beings.


Throughout almost the whole of Christian Europe these fantasies about Muslims developed alongside much more powerful demonological fantasies about Jews. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries both fantasies were gradually rationalised in secular terms, on the one hand by theorists of race, and on the other hand by orientalists. When, in the face of the deeds of Hitler’s Germany, Christian and post-Christian Europe began to recoil in horror from its tradition of anti-Jewish prejudice, there was no parallel diminution in its ancient tradition of hatred for Islam. Indeed one of the changes which began to take place in the cultural imagination of the West was a gradual displacement of prejudice from Judaism to Islam – from Jews to Muslims and Arabs.


With the notable exception of Karen Armstrong, whose profound study of the religious origins of the Middle East conflict, Holy War, deserves to be better known than it is, most Western commentators seem scarcely to have noted this disturbing historical process, still less analysed it. But it has been observed by some who are themselves more closely involved in the conflict. In 1973, at the time of the OPEC crisis, the Palestinian literary critic Edward Said noticed the appearance in America of cartoons depicting an Arab standing beside a petrol pump:


These Arabs, however, were clearly ‘Semitic’: their sharply-hooked noses, the evil, mustachioed leer on their faces, were obvious reminders (to a largely non-Semitic population) that ‘Semites’ were at the bottom of all ‘our’ troubles, which in this case was principally a gasoline shortage. The transference of a popular anti-Semitic animus from a Jewish to an Arab target was made smoothly, since the figure was essentially the same.[26]


Quoting Said’s words, Karen Armstrong comments that ‘this is a precisely observed example of the frightening fact that the hatred we used to allow ourselves to feel about the Jews has been transferred in toto to the “Arab”’. She goes on to observe that this new kind of racial stereotyping is particularly dangerous now that the Arabs are seen as the enemies of the Jews and the new anti-semites:


Much of our new prejudice is a transfer of unmanageable guilt. The Arab is being made to carry a double load of hatred in Europe: besides bearing the traditional Western hatred of the ‘Muslim’, he is now having to take on our load of guilt for our … anti-semitism.[27]


Recognition of this new and potent form of prejudice is necessary, I believe, if we are to understand the extraordinary violence of the Muslim reaction to the treatment of Islam in Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.


To the casual Western observer the Satanic Verses affair seemed, in its early stages at least, a more or less internal squabble in which a Muslim writer, who happened to live in a Western country, was being reviled for daring to attack, in a distinctively modern way, the religious faith in which he had been brought up. Since Islam was perceived by such observers as a uniquely cruel and repressive religion, it tended to be assumed automatically that Rushdie’s blasphemies were offered in the name of life, liberty and imaginative exuberance.


To most Muslims, however, Rushdie’s offence is quite different. For some of the passages from The Satanic Verses which they find most offensive draw on motifs and on characterisations of Muhammad which are not modern at all. They belong rather to the ancient tradition of religiously inspired contempt for Islam which was nurtured by the Christian Church in the West throughout countless centuries. It is from this tradition and its secular transformations that Rushdie draws the character of his Muhammad-figure, Mahound. As a result, the prophet emerges from Rushdie’s novel as an insincere businessman, ‘a calculating opportunist devoid of conscience, making and breaking rules as he pleases, confusing (or perhaps deliberately identifying) good with evil as the mood takes him’[28] The words are those of the Muslim writer Shabbir Akhtar. In his book, Be Careful With Muhammad!, Akhtar goes on to expound some of the more general Muslim complaints about Rushdie’s novel:


The Satanic Verses is written in a language that is at times gratuitously obscene and wounding. In the controversial sections about Mahound, the locales Rushdie selects are almost always sexually suggestive … and sometimes even degrade human nature. Much of the abuse, though, is straightforwardly explicit. Bilal, Khalid and Salman, who are three of Mahound’s most distinguished companions, emerge as drunkards, idlers and fools, ‘the trinity of scum’, ‘that bunch of riff raff’, ‘ ing clowns’. Mahound himself is portrayed as a debauched sensualist, a drunkard given to self-indulgence. He is depicted lying naked and unconscious in Hind’s tent with a hangover …


There is a sustained attack on values such as chastity and modesty too. In a , provocatively called The Veil, the prostitutes assume the names and roles of Mahound’s wives. The anti-Islamic poet Baal becomes the husband of the wives of the ‘businessman prophet’ …


The scene is of course purely imaginary; even Christian polemicists have drawn the line at this kind of insult. Unlike his Western supporters, Rushdie himself writes with an insider’s awareness of the outrage such a portrayal would cause. Muhammad’s spouses are instructed, by the Koran, to remain unmarried after their husband’s death, so that they can assume the honorific title, ‘the mothers of the believers’. Muslims have reacted to what they take to be a straightforward personal attack.[29]


Frequently Western intellectuals have attempted to dismiss such Muslim reactions as the product merely of prudishness or repression. This is scarcely fair since, though Islam clearly has its own forms of puritanism, it is no more anti-sexual than Judaism, and a good deal less so than Christianity. The Muslim objection is not, at root, an objection to the isation or the eroticisation of the Prophet. For that is not how the relevant passages of the novel are perceived. They are perceived as an attempt to use obscenity not to enrich but to smear. The objection is not to sex but to the use of sex as a form of vilification. Nor should it be assumed that this kind of reaction is peculiar to Muslims. For it was a very similar reaction which, some ten years ago, triggered the campaign against Jens Jorgen Thorsen’s film The Many Faces of Jesus. British Muslims, it would seem, have something in common with a former British Prime Minister, a former Archbishop of Canterbury and the Queen.


It must be said, however, that Muslims have very good reasons to be especially sensitive to such treatment of their own sacred figures. For both Christian polemicists and Western orientalists sought for centuries to denigrate Islam by attributing to it a fantastic, disreputable or demonic . And what almost all Muslims know, from their intuitive grasp of their own history, is that there is nothing remotely liberating in this kind of Western fantasy. For in the past such fantasies have always tended to belong to the propaganda which has preceded the sword, the bullet and the bomb. What Muslims see in Rushdie’s fictional adaptations of ancient stereotypes is not simply hatred, but the long, terrible, triumphalist hatred which the West has had for Islam almost since its beginnings.


To find such hateful stereotypes revived not by one of their traditional enemies, but by a writer who was himself born to a Muslim family in Bombay, and who has in the past sided with Muslims, was especially hurtful. When ordinary Muslims in Britain saw that writer richly repaid for his irreverence, feted and celebrated both by intellectuals and by the Western media, while they were rewarded for their faith with ill-disguised contempt, it is little wonder that some of them felt betrayed in the most intimate and cruel manner, and felt at the same time that their own future existence, security and safety in the West were threatened. Given all this, it should not be surprising that Muslims in Britain reacted to the publication of Rushdie’s book in the way that they did, and that a number of them wrote in passionate terms to Penguin Books pleading for the book’s withdrawal. It is not surprising either that, when these passionate pleas failed to produce any real response, these Muslims should have resorted to more dramatic methods, burning the book in public in an attempt to interest the media in their campaign.


Nor is it entirely surprising that, when they succeeded and Western intellectuals, journalists and writers rose in order to condemn them and to defend democracy and its freedoms, Muslims responded by redoubling their campaign. For, as at least one Muslim spokesman pointed out at the time, one of the most precious rights in any democracy is freedom of association. In availing themselves of that freedom and of their entirely legal right to demonstrate against a book by which they felt insulted, they were simply using the very democratic liberties their critics claimed to be defending. Moreover, possessing still the visceral sense of history which Western intellectuals have destroyed, most Muslims knew all too well what this Western passion for freedom had meant in terms of their own history. They knew that the cutting edge of the Western conscience was a sword, and that democracy usually appeared in the form of an invading army. It is the long history of humiliation at the hands of the West, particularly in Iran under the Shahs and in Palestine, which helps to explain the intensity of the rage with which Muslims responded to The Satanic Verses.


Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of the entire Rushdie affair was that this Muslim rage tended to be met not with the moderation which liberal intellectuals preached but with their own more sophisticated forms of rage. It is true that some individuals and organisations responded in a very different manner. In Britain, for example, both the Commission for Racial Equality and the Inter Faith Network, made immensely constructive efforts to bring about a real dialogue between the various participants in the debate. But in the immediate aftermath of the fatwa this represented a minority response. Indeed a number of intellectuals and writers made the situation a great deal worse by resorting to forms of anti-intellectualism, in which careful analysis was eschewed in favour of the reflex chanting of the slogans and shibboleths of liberalism. The British intellectual Christopher Hitchens, who is often a cogent and perceptive cultural critic, made the following speech during the course of a rally of American writers:


As writers and soi-disant intellectuals, it is most often our job to stress complexity, to point out with care and attention that ‘it’s not as simple as that’. But there are also times when it is irresponsible not to stress the essential clarity and simplicity of a question. The almost boastful threat to murder not just a book but an author is one such time. Moments of this sort have a galvanizing effect on our standby phrases and our most cherished cliches … [30]


Other writers have responded in a way which has both revived and intensified the relatively new form of religious and racial hatred which we have just examined.


For confirmation of this we only have to look at some of the responses which the Rushdie affair has evoked from those who might once have been regarded as ‘liberals’. In her essay on the Rushdie affair, Sacred Cows, we find the British feminist novelist Fay Weldon, who was not previously known for her Christian zeal, endorsing the Bible as a sound basis for a society while, in the same breath, she condemns the Koran:


The Koran is food for no-thought. It is not a poem on which society can be safely or sensibly based. It gives weapons and strength to the thought-police – and the thought-police are easily set marching and they frighten … You can build a decent society around the Bible … but the Koran? No.[31]


This passage is quoted by Rana Kabbani in her own contribution to the Rushdie debate, Letter to Christendom. Understandably enough Kabbani reproves Fay Weldon both for her ‘cultural arrogance’ and her ‘rash judgments’. She then quotes the even more remarkable words of the Irish journalist and former United Nations diplomat Conor Cruise O’Brien, in a review published in the the Times in May 1989:


Muslim society looks profoundly repulsive … It looks repulsive because it is repulsive … A Westerner who claims to admire Muslim society, while still adhering to Western values, is either a hypocrite or an ignoramus, or a bit of both. At the heart of the matter is the Muslim family, an abominable institution … .Arab and Muslim society is sick, and has been sick for a long time. In the last century the Arab thinker Jamal al-Afghani wrote: ‘Every Muslim is sick and his only remedy is in the Koran.’ Unfortunately the sickness gets worse the more the remedy is taken.[32]


Having quoted these contemptuous and racist words, which were written by a former Editor-in-Chief of the Observer, but which could not conceivably have been published in a British newspaper before the Rushdie affair, Kabbani goes on to discuss the sense of grievance felt by Muslims because of their experience over the centuries of being colonised, manipulated and despised. ‘In today’s scale of values,’ she writes, ‘a Muslim life seems to weigh a good deal less than a Christian or a Jewish life.’ These words are chilling, I suspect, precisely because they express a truth which it is taboo to utter. Kabbani herself eventually comes to a conclusion very similar to that which I have already suggested:


I have come to think that anti-semitism, endemic in western culture, has more or less been forced underground. Thankfully, and for good historical reasons it is no longer easy to attack Jews publicly or depict them in fiction as unpleasant caricatures. But these salutary taboos do not extend to Muslims. I would even be so bold as to argue that there has been a transfer of contempt from Jews to Muslims in secular Western culture today. Many Muslims share this fear: indeed, one has written that ‘the next time there are gas chambers in Europe, there is no doubt concerning who’ll be inside them’.[33]


The words which Kabbani quotes are those of the young Muslim philosopher Shabbir Akhtar. These words may seem to exaggerate the predicament of European Muslims. But, whether or not this is the case, I am quite sure that they reflect, as accurately as any of the words which were spilt during the recent controversy, how it sometimes feels to be a Muslim in the middle of secular Europe in the latter part of the twentieth century. Nor should we rule out the possibility that Akhtar, far from exaggerating, is actually showing a terrible prescience.




This version of Chapter 1 of  A Brief History of Blasphemy: Liberalism, Censorship and the Satanic Verses, follows the revised text prepared for the German translation, Erben des Hasses, Die Rushdie-Affäre und ihre Folgen, Knesebeck, 1992.





[1] Shabbir Akhtar, Be Careful with Muhammad! The Salman Rushdie Affair, Bellew, 1989;  Lisa Appignanesi and Sara Maitland, The Rushdie File, Fourth Estate, 1989;  Rana Kabbani, Letter to Christendom, Virago, 1989;  Shoaib Qureshi and Javed Khan, The Politics of Satanic Verses, Muslim Community Studies Institute, 1989;  Malise Ruthven, A Satanic Affair: Salman Rushdie and the Rage of Islam, (1990) Revised Edition, Hogarth, 1991; For a good bibliography of the UK literature, including later items, see the comprehensive anthology edited by M.M.Ahsan and A.R.Kidawi, Sacrilege versus Civility; Muslim Perspectives on the Satanic Verses Affair, The Islamic Foundation, Leicester, 1991.

[2] The Crime of Blasphemy - Why It Should be Abolished, 1989, published by the International Committee for the Defence of Salman Rushdie, Article 19, London.

[3] ibid

[4] Walter Nigg, Das Buch der Ketzer, p 210, quoted by Joachim Kahl, The Misery of Christianity, Penguin, 1971, p.66.

[5] Kahl, p.69

[6] See, for example, Leonard W. Levy, Freedom of Speech and Press in Early American History: Legacy of Suppression, New York, 1963, pp 95-6.

[7] Leonard W. Levy, Treason Against God: A History of the Offense of Blasphemy, Schocken Books, New York, 1981, p 130

[8] ibid, pp 135-143

[9] Nicolas Walter, Blasphemy Ancient and Modern, Rationalist Press Association, 1990, p34

[10] Levy, Treason, pp 265-294

[11] ibid, pp 313-314

[12] Arthur Schlesinger, quoted in Levy, Freedom, p 189.  It should be noted that Schlesinger applied these words to the period of the Revolution itself.

[13] Denning, cited in The Crime of Blasphemy - Why It Should be Abolished, op cit

[14] see Fifty Penguin Years, Penguin, London, 1985, p 75

[15] [Note added June 2002] One of the most interesting examples of the operation of the kind of internalised taboo which I describe here was afforded on what is reputedly the freest of all media – the world wide web ­– in the very country which is most committed to extreme versions of the ideology of free speech – the United States. The example in question was a posting made by the British Darwinian and evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins on the Edge website . In the immediate aftermath of the events of September 11, Dawkins expressed (not for the first time) his fierce rationalist opposition to all forms of religion. He wrote as follows: ‘A world without Islam, indeed a world from which all three Abrahamic religions had been lost, would not be an obviously worse world in which to live. You may take that as British understatement if you choose. But a world which had lost enlightened scientific reason (which is at its best in America, and not only because more resources are spent on it) would be impoverished beyond all telling.’ This portion of his posting remains (in June 2002 at least) visible on the site. However another, evidently more extreme portion has been removed by Dawkins himself. He writes: ‘I have withdrawn most of the rest of my contribution, in deference to what seems to be an American taboo against offending religious opinion. I remain baffled by the fact that liberal arbiters freely allow us to offend against political, economic, musical, artistic and literary opinion, but religious opinion is almost universally regarded as off limits, even by atheists.’

[16] Nicolas Walter, op cit, p 69

[17] Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, Penguin, 1975, p 264

[18] ibid, p 176

[19] Appignanesi and Maitland, op cit, p 93

[20] R.H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, Penguin, 1938, p 125

[21] Alex de Jonge, Stalin and the Shaping of the Soviet Union, Collins, 1986, pp 312-312

[22] For an example of Christian faith-baiting directed against Muslims, see Reconsidering the Rushdie affair

[23] see, for example, John G. Gager, The Origins of Anti-Semitism, Oxford University Press, New York, 1983; Robert S. Wistrich, Antisemitism: The Longest Hatred, Thames Methuen, 1991

[24] Luther, quoted in Isaiah Shachar, The 'Judensau': A medieval Anti-Jewish Motif and its History, The Warburg Institute, University of London, 1974, p. 43

[25] ibid pp 122-122

[26] Edward W. Said, Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient, Penguin, 1985, pp 285-6

[27] Karen Armstrong, Holy War: The Crusades and their Impact on Today's World, Macmillan, 1988. p 376

[28] Akhtar, op cit p 24

[29] ibid pp 25-28

[30] Appignanesi and Maitland, op cit, p 171

[31] Fay Weldon, Sacred Cows, Chatto, 1989, pp 6, 12

[32] Conor Cruise O'Brien, The Times, 11 May 1989

[33] Rana Kabbani, op cit, p. 11



© Richard Webster, 2002