Paul Anderson, review of Blasphemy Ancient and Modern by Nicolas Walter (Rationalist Press Association, £3.95), Tribune, 2 March 1990
Last February, after a campaign by fundamentalist Muslims in Britain and on the Indian subcontinent to have Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, supressed on grounds of blasphemy, Ayatollah Khomeini judged that Salman Rushdie should be killed for his crime. More than a year later, Rushdie remains in hiding, and the death threat remains in force.
Among British left-wingers and liberals, almost everyone has condemned the Ayatollah’s fatwa; but that’s as easy as agreeing with Michael Flanders and Donald Swann that “eating people is wrong”. On the more difficult question of what to do about Muslim fundamentalist claims that Rushdie has blasphemed, British left and liberal opinion has been deeply divided.
At one extreme, there are those – including some Labour MPs with large numbers of Muslim constituents – who argue that Britain’s blasphemy laws should be extended to cover religions other than Christianity. Britain is a multi-cultural society, they argue, and non-Christian religious believers should enjoy the same legal protection from detractors that Christians have.
This appears fair, but what about non-believers, and what about freedom of expression? As Nicholas Walter makes clear in this excellent critical history of blasphemy, extending the blasphemy laws would give all religious beliefs and ideas a privileged status that no other beliefs and ideas enjoy, protected from the normal cut and thrust of free intellectual debate.
Many of those who don’t go as far as supporting extension of the blasphemy laws nevertheless argue from the same premise as those who do – that religious sensibilities are somehow deserving of greater respect than non-religious ones. How else is it possible to justify arguments that Rushdie should “apologise” to Muslims for the offence his book has caused, that a preface should be attached to future editions of The Satanic Verses “putting the other point of view” or that a paperback should not be published?
Only radical secularists, who are small in number, have taken up the argument put forward by Walter that nobody has the right never to have his or her beliefs ridiculed, scorned, offended or abused – that, in other words, the laws of blasphemy should be abolished and the Muslim fundamentalists (and every other would-be religious censor) politely invited to take a running jump.
“If there is a need to regulate offensive material about religion to prevent either public disorder or private damage,” he writes, “this should be covered by the general law covering such areas, so that religious feelings or organisations have the same status as political feelings or organisations. … In a more or less free society, everyone and everything must be open to question and criticism, however unpleasant or unfair, so that we may hear every side of the case and make up our minds in the light of both reason and emotion.”
Quite so – and would that all members of the Parliamentary Labour Party had the backbone to proclaim it.