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You can talk: The Satanic Verses, free speech and Puritanism


………………………………………………. .…  
new statesman  

14 February 1993             

The following article appeared in the New Statesman on the fourth anniversary of Khomeini's fatwa against Salman Rushdie. It was posted on this website in February 2006 during the dispute over the satirical cartoons of the prophet Muhammad which were originally published in Denmark and subsequently reprinted by several European newspapers.

Richard Webster argues that free speech is not always a sign of a tolerant society.

THE NEWS THAT A paperback edition of The Satanic Verses will soon be published in Britain and America by a group of Salman Rushdie’s supporters has been greeted as a victory for free speech. If the plan goes ahead it will undoubtedly be exactly that. But whether this means it should be welcomed is a different matter. For, contrary to one of the most widely held of all modem historical misconceptions, our own tradition of free speech is not unequivocally blessed and has certainly not always been on the side of tolerance.

Those who revere as modern icons of free speech the image of John Mortimer in a wig defending Richard Neville at the Oz trial, or of Germaine Greer posing naked on the front cover of Suck magazine will understandably tend to draw the conclusion that free speech is always on the side of permissiveness or liberation. We will have a historically more faithful sense of our own tradition of free speech, however, only if these two icons are placed alongside another. This third image is of Ian Paisley at the Oxford Union debate of November 1967 taking out a communion wafer, holding it up to the cameras televising the debate, and openly mocking the Roman Catholic belief that the wafer was actually the flesh and blood of Christ.

When called upon to defend himself against the revulsion felt by Catholics and the offence caused to many moderate Protestants, Paisley took the traditional Puritan view that liberty brings with it a licence to offend the deeply held beliefs of others.

The militant faith of Ian Paisley and his willingness to offend the sensibilities of Roman Catholics may seem far removed from the battle that has taken place between Muslims and liberal intellectuals over TheSatanic Verses. Yet Paisley speaks from a cultural tradition that is directly relevant to the debate over Rushdie’s novel. For our modern ideal of free speech is rooted not simply in secular, but in religious history and, above all, in British and American Puritanism. Some aspects of the Puritan love of liberty are indeed valuable. But what modern libertarians tend to forget is that the liberty of speech which 17th-century Puritans claimed for themselves was something they happily denied to the Papists whom they hated. Indeed, one of the freedoms they valued most was the freedom to vilify other people’s religious beliefs, even though this might incite hatred and violence.

Although the most obvious marks of intolerance have all but disappeared from modern doctrines of free speech, their underlying Puritan character remains. As a result, our ideal of free speech is complex and many-sided. While we are in many respects justified in treating it as a treasury of some of our most tolerant values, it also accommodates some of our most intransigent and rigid cultural attitudes.

In view of the murderous cruelty with which the Ayatollah Khomeini responded to the perceived blasphemy of The Satanic Verses, it is perhaps not surprising that these rigid attitudes were prominent in the defence of Salman Rushdie’s freedom mounted by western intellectuals in the immediate aftermath of the fatwa. But the great danger throughout the affair has been the tendency to use Khomeini’s cruelty as a vindication of Rushdie’s judgment in writing as he did, and as an excuse for ignoring the deep offence caused to countless moderate Muslims by the obscenities that the novel forces into conjunction with some of the most sacred traditions of Islam. What we tend to forget is that there would have been a Rushdie affair even without Khomeini; by the time he intervened so cruelly, the Rushdie affair was already more than four months old and had already caused riots and numerous deaths.

The more closely we examine the terms and the rhetoric of the entire debate, the more difficult it is to escape the impression that, at the hard centre of the liberal defence of Salman Rushdie’s novel, lies a form of secularised Puritanism. The underlying conviction, it would seem, is that a novelist’s right to free expression must be upheld, however much hurt may be caused to the religious sensibilities of others, however much hatred may be stirred up as a result and however damaging the political consequences may be. This attitude has a great deal more in common with the intolerant libertarianism of our Puritan intellectual tradition than with the values of tolerance and imaginative freedom that the defenders of Rushdie’s novel claim to uphold.

It is the same kind of intolerant libertarianism that appears to be behind the recent move to bring out a paperback edition of The Satanic Verses in both Britain and America. It may well be true that to put the novel into paperback is merely to follow the normal patterns of publishing. But to use this as a guide would be to ignore the fact that The Satanic Verses presents a publishing dilemma which is extremely unusual. What we should recognise, above all, is that there is a huge moral difference between publishing a book in hardback that unexpectedly offends vast numbers of people, and quite deliberately issuing the same book later in paperback in the full knowledge of the added offence this would cause.

If some of Salman Rushdie’s most zealous supporters go ahead with their plan for a paperback, there will indeed be a victory for free speech. But, as is almost always the case when Puritanism triumphs, there will be a significant defeat for the values of tolerance and ordinary human sensitivity.

Richard Webster, 1993 / 2006