If religion were a part of life, based upon the life and thought of to-day, people could afford to laugh about it, to joke about it, to caricature it, to use the language of uneducated and coarse men and women about it, as they do about marriage, parentage, and a score of other things, the value of which no one questions. We do not need laws to enforce respectful language towards any of these things; we would rather they were spoken about in good rather than bad language, that is all.
Dream other dreams, and better. Strange, indeed, that you should not have suspected that your universe and its contents were only dreams, visions, fictions! Strange because they are so frankly and inherently insane.
It was only last month that a young Pakistani girl called Rimsha Masih was arrested on charges of blasphemy, triggering international condemnation. Rimsha was said by her accusers to be in possession of burnt pages of the Koran. In Pakistan, as elsewhere in the Muslim world, the ‘crime’ of blasphemy carries with it the risk of the death-penalty, though in arresting Rimsha, the police most probably saved her from being lynched by the mob that surrounded her home in Islamabad, and which has since forced her family, and many of their Christian neighbours, to flee. A few days later the Imam who initially accused her was himself arrested and accused of planting the burnt pages on the girl, allegedly as part of a plot to rid his neighbourhood of Christians. This development may eventually free her, but it only redoubles the outrage. A prison awaits her either way. She and her family can never go home, innocent or not. Her life will remain in constant danger, the outcome of a non-existent crime she most likely didn’t even commit. The threat to poor Rimsha’s life could hardly be exaggerated given the context: this year two prominent Pakistani politicians were slain in separate instances, not for blaspheming, but for daring to suggest that the country’s blasphemy laws needed debating and possibly reforming. This makes Pakistan, as Nick Cohen has noted, a country where you can be murdered for blaspheming against blasphemy.
The murder and mayhem accompanying Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are the inevitable outcome of having superstitious cultural prohibitions enshrined in law. As Rimsha’s case tragically illustrates, vendettas are routinely settled by the invocation of this most lingering and toxic of slanders, providing the fundamentalists of 21st century Pakistan the same social function that denunciations of witchcraft provided the 17th century Puritans of Salem, Massachusetts.
In much of the coverage a great deal was made of the fact that Rimsha was said to have learning difficulties, the suggestion presumably being that mental impairment meant her incapable of comprehending her actions. Talk about missing the essential point: had she burnt the Koran, deliberately and with intent, that would in no way have lessoned the outrage of her arrest, any more than it would have suddenly granted mobs moral licence to menace.
Rimsha’s case has been completely eclipsed by the dramatic events of the past weeks, as violence and murder rippled through the Middle East and north Africa in response to the world’s worst YouTube clip. The two events might appear to have little in common, but I submit they are part of the same war. If the violence of the past weeks has shown us anything, it is surely that Rimsha’s fight is, by extension, our fight too. The same logic used to justify the arrest and intimidation of a Pakistani teenager, is used to justify attacks on property and persons elsewhere. The same menacing rhetoric, couched in a demand for ‘respect’, is used both to keep the faithful in line, and to threaten the unbeliever.
Few could fail to be moved by Rimsha’s plight – what could be more obviously outrageous? – but when it came to Innocence of Muslims, a crass and amateurish film deliberately designed to offend, Western liberals suddenly became noticeably more gutless. Some, such as The Guardian’s Andrew Brown, went so far as to say we should “ban” the clip, because in his view it is “purely and simply an incitement to religious hatred” and therefore the moral and political equivalent of terrorist propaganda. “If jihadi videos are banned in this country, and their distributors prosecuted,” he quivers, “the same should be true of this film and for the same reasons.” Leaving aside the fact that banning the film would do little to stop its spread (the author clearly doesn’t understand how internet works), is Brown seriously suggesting we set a precedent in this country by trying to prosecute American citizens who happen to upset Muslims in foreign lands? And can he really be so simple as to be unable to detect a scintilla of distinction between terrorist propaganda pieced together from actual suicide bombings and beheadings, explicitly designed to sow blood-lust in the faithful and inspire further atrocities, and a fictional film (albeit a particularly nasty and hateful one) about a historical character?
The Independent’s Robert Fisk hardly fared any better. Though he stopped short of calling for the film to be banned, he too thought the blame lay squarely with Western provocation, rather than at the feet of violent men who choose to commit violent acts: “The provocateurs, of course, know that politics and religion don’t mix in the Middle East. They are the same. Christopher Stevens, his diplomat colleagues in Benghazi, priests in Turkey and Africa, UN personnel in Afghanistan; they have all paid the price for those ‘Christian priests’, ‘cartoonists’, ‘film-makers’ and ‘authors’ – the inverted commas are necessary to mark a thin line between illusionists and the real thing – who knowingly choose to provoke 1.6 billion Muslims.”
Fisk being Fisk, he then says this is all “familiar territory” because 15th century Spaniards used to draw cartoons of Muhammed doing “unspeakable” things. Pushing the moral equivalence further, he reminds us that a Parisian cinema was fire-bombed during the controversy surrounding The Last Temptation of Christ – “just so we don’t think we have clean claws today” – as if the sole death resulting from that fire twenty four years ago (hardly today) can seriously be compared to the string of outrages against free-expression perpetrated in the name of Islam in recent decades. To take only the most prominent examples, Salman Rushdie was hounded into hiding for a decade and several people involved with The Satanic Verses were attacked, its Japanese translator was murdered, and an arson attack on its Turkish translator left over thirty dead; Theo van Gogh was butchered like a dog on the streets of Amsterdam, a crime which left Ayaan Hirsi Ali needing round-the-clock protection; and more than a hundred needlessly died in protests following the Jyllands–Posten cartoon controversy. In all of these cases, Western liberals argued free speech was the problem, not those who partook of violence and intimidation. Fisk’s conclusion? “Some things are off limits, and rightly so.”
Even more astonishingly, he proceeds to argue that “there is room for a serious discussion among Muslims about, for example, a re-interpretation of the Koran,” but that “Western provocation – and western, alas, it is – closes down such a narrative.” (Non-Muslims should shut-up about Islam, says the non-Muslim Robert Fisk.) All the while, he sneers, “we beat our chests in favour of a ‘free press’.” Fisk should tell this to Irshad Manji, a young Muslim writer pushing exactly the sort of liberal, reformist Islam he asserts we are helping to censor. On a recent book tour in Amsterdam, she had to be protected by her audience after her launch was invaded by Islamists who were threatening to break her neck (she had a similar reception in Belgium and Indonesia, too). Fisk might also want to consider Fazil Say, the great Turkish pianist and composer who faces trial and possible imprisonment for “publicly insulting religious values” after Say retweeted some mildly sceptical comments. Maybe Fisk can also spare a thought for Hamza Kashgari, the young and talented Arab writer and poet who is currently languishing in a Saudi prison and staring down a possible execution for blasphemy and apostasy after he tweeted about an imaginary meeting with Muhammed. Or perhaps Fisk can pass his clever thoughts on to the relatives of Shahbaz Bhatti and Salman Taseer, the two aforementioned Pakistani politicians gunned down for just suggesting reform. There is a concerted effort to close down “serious discussion” in the Islamic world, in other words, but it comes from conservative and reactionary elements within Muslim societies, who are more than capable of operating independently of “Western provocation”.
For Fisk as for his co-thinkers, Western imperialism is the real enemy here – the ‘root cause’ of Muslim violence – not religious fanatics who stir credulous mobs to frothing point. Western ‘arrogance’ and Western ‘hypocrisy’ made those men burn buildings and kill ambassadors: Western wrongs (whether real or imagined) exculpate the perpetrators in a puff of rhetorical magic. Two different Guardian writers (here and here) make the thought explicit:
Islamists need to stop attacking the west, and issuing fatwas against those outside the Islamic belief system. Likewise, the west needs to solve its own problems, rather than insisting on interfering in the affairs of Muslims, while failing to admit that previous interference might have provoked much of the “Muslim rage” that westerners find so “medieval”.
Why are Muslims so sensitive on this question? Maybe the answer comes not just from one crude and racist film, but from long years of hurt caused by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, imprisonment without trial by western-backed dictators, extraordinary rendition and torture, the burning of the Qur’an by US troops in Afghanistan, and the air strikes, barely acknowledged in the west, which this weekend alone killed eight women and girls.
These voices are joined into a simple refrain: the mobs have a point. At no point is it acknowledged or even understood that those attacking property and person could have reacted differently to this stupid film. The response is seen as perfectly understandable, if not completely justified. They just can’t help themselves. The violence is also seen as representative of (in Fisk’s telling usage) 1.6 billion Muslims. Never mind that there were many more who had nothing to do with the violence than did, supposedly progressive writers like Fisk and Brown argue that we should let fundamentalist rent-a-mobs speak for the whole Muslim world, and dictate to Muslim and non-Muslim alike the boundaries of the thinkable and sayable.
This laziness – this tendency to see the Islamic world as one big undifferentiated angry mob – is the real ‘orientalism’. Clothing their cowardice in a concern for poor and downtrodden Muslims, Western liberals argue that those same Muslims cannot possibly be held accountable for their actions like grown-ups with individual responsibilities. They cannot be held responsible, runs the logic, because the West was and/or is mean to them. Like children, they cannot be expected to control their feelings. We in the West must take this into consideration, and temper our thoughts accordingly. “We should respect the faiths and prophets of others,” argues Thomas Friedman. We must show deference to foreign gods, that is, even if we can no longer summon the effort to be quite so kind to our own domesticated variants. Should we fail to do so, should violence engulf us, we have only ourselves to blame.
It is no longer surprising to hear the children of English liberty talk in such craven tones. By a strange coincidence these days of rage also saw the publication of Salman Rushdie’s memoir of his years living under the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa. As if to bring history full-circle, Rushdie’s presence reminds us of the cowardly response of so many during those dark days, who instinctively blamed the author rather than those baying for blood. Instead of using the moment to reaffirm the West’s commitment to principles of free-expression, there were many, shocked by the ferocity of the response, who flinched. We’ve been living with their equivocations ever since. In Kenan Malik’s unforgettable coinage, the Western intelligentsia had “internalised” the fatwa. “There has developed over the past two decades a much stronger sense that it is morally unacceptable to give offence to other cultures or faiths,” Malik writes of Rushdie’s memoir.
The incredible result of all this murder and intimidation, then, has been the depressingly recurrent spectacle of Western liberals pained appeals for more respect for the religion that provides fig-leaf justifications for murder and intimidation. Can one imagine anything more back-to-front than this? If this tendency to fold at the first sign of trouble is a betrayal of the West’s hard-won freedoms, just think how chilling the effect must be on the secularists and free-thinkers who live in the Islamic world. “The weapons used against the dissidents of the Muslim world are always the same,” wrote Rushdie back in 1992, “The accusations are always of ‘blasphemy’, ‘apostasy’, ‘heresy’, ‘un-Islamic activities’. These ‘crimes’ are held to ‘insult Islamic sanctities’. The ‘people’s wrath’, thus aroused, becomes ‘impossible to resist’. The accused become persons whose ‘blood is unclean’ and therefore deserves to be spilled.” When these dissidents look to those who ought to be their natural allies in the West, they find only uncomfortable shuffling and sheepish looks from people who barely acknowledge their existence. Whatever solidarity liberals might once have possessed has already been spent hopelessly trying to appease those ranters and ravers who are, in a grotesque irony, the avowed enemies of liberalism.
Rushdie’s case remains important because it was the first time Islamic extremists had sought to export their prohibitions to non-Muslim societies. Since that time the West has lived with an explicit threat: offend the sensibilities of Muslims, and pay the price. “Many people say the Rushdie case is a one off, that it will never be repeated,” the author warned three years into his death-sentence, “This complacency, too, is an enemy to be defeated.” It is a test the Western intelligentsia has failed time and again.
To return to Pakistan, a government minister has openly offered $100,000 to anyone who kills the maker of Innocence of Muslims. He also promised the same amount if “someone else makes other similar blasphemous material in the future.” He had a message for us, too:
I call upon these countries and say: Yes, freedom of expression is there, but you should make laws regarding people insulting our Prophet. And if you don’t, then the future will be extremely dangerous.
There you have it: as direct and unambiguous a threat as one could imagine. An attempt to silence not just one terrible filmmaker, but all of us. I should hope anyone reading those chilling words would possess the self-respect to rebuke such incitements with every fibre of their being.
Even as a young man it seemed odd to me that those who most vigorously proclaimed God all-powerful also seemed to demand special protection for Him and His ideas. If anyone can look after himself, it must surely be the Supreme Being. As for prophets, it is enough to note that it is obviously impossible to insult or offend or denigrate someone who has been dead for 1400 years. Those who shout loudest about blasphemy may claim to be avenging God’s blushes from the infidel tongue, but I can’t help noticing the rather more material reality that powers sought over behaviour, thought and speech, tend to accrue at the feet of His self-appointed human and earthly representatives. The payoffs for religious obedience are (conveniently) said to reside in the next world, but those who do best out of this particular arrangement are quite noticeably cashing their chips in this one.
“A broader danger of unverifiable beliefs is the temptation to defend them by violent means,” Steven Pinker noted in his magisterial survey of violence, “People become wedded to their beliefs, because the validity of those beliefs reflects on their competence, commends them as authorities, and rationalizes their mandate to lead. Challenge a person’s beliefs, and you challenge his dignity, standing, and power. And when those beliefs are based on nothing but faith, they are chronically fragile.” The very notion of blasphemy is a reflection of this fragility, for what is an idea actually worth if it cannot stand on its own strengths? Religious ideas are said by the faithful to be the most important ideas of all, but an idea that cannot withstand competition, interrogation, criticism, ridicule or mockery, is not in the least bit serious. By demanding special protections for his beliefs, the fundamentalist is all but conceding their relative lack of worth. To put the point another way: do those who attacked property and person in this latest outburst expect the infidel to be awed by this collective show of ‘faith’? Likewise, do the Imams of Pakistan expect any rational person to be impressed by their desire to make a human sacrifice of young Rimsha?
Those who demand I ‘respect’ all this are therefore asking of me an impossible request, because I don’t, as a matter of fact, respect it. Nor can I be compelled to pretend otherwise. By the same token, I cannot be told to restrain from ridiculing religion, for the very simple reason that I, like many, find religious beliefs inherently ridiculous. Contra Fisk and those who think like Fisk, the beliefs of Muslims are not “off limits”. A religion that resorts to violence on the flimsy basis as a few cartoons or a YouTube video doesn’t just deserve opprobrium: it demands it. Because of the multi-cultural confusions of our own culture, liberals do a terrible job of distinguishing between attacks on ideas and attacks on people. They conflate religion and ethnicity, belief and race, and declare any criticism of Islam the work of imperialist bigots. They would never make the same mistake in reverse by confusing ‘Christianity’ with ‘white people’.
I say all this, of course, knowing I am one lucky beneficiary of all those antecedents who fought the battle for free-thought unknowingly on my behalf, leaving me to air these thoughts into the warm light and clean air of safe disbelief. Europe, it should not be forgotten, had its own centuries of religious wars and persecutions, where the borders of the thinkable and the sayable were routinely policed with mob and with sword. The Enlightenment was in part a reaction to those long decades of reformation and counter-reformation, which according to Pinker saw rates of per-capita death in Europe almost comparable to the wars of the 20th century. The challenges to religious orthodoxy posed by thinkers such as Hobbes, Locke, Hume and Spinoza, lay precisely in the gathering recognition that individuals have rights that need protecting, while ideas and beliefs – including and especially religious ideas and beliefs – can and should be left to battle it out in the marketplace of reason. It was, as Pinker puts it, “an intellectual and moral change: a shift from valuing souls to valuing lives.”
The framers of the American constitution understood perfectly well that religious pluralism was the only true guarantee of religious freedom. “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg,” wrote Jefferson in his Notes on The State of Virginia. The incorrigible plurality of belief means religions have a natural tendency toward schism even when they are not already incompatible. Without the right to dissent from at least some religious ideas, the freedom to follow one’s conscience in matters of faith is inconceivable for believer and non-believer alike.
One of my smartest friends has a stock response for difficult cases like Innocence of Muslims: there are no rights, he tells me, without responsibilities. In fairness to my friend, I have often heard this phrase, and always in connection with controversies like our current one. While it sounds reasonable enough in its cunningly alliterative way, it has always struck me as little more than sophistry. What, after all, is it really saying? That we have the right to free speech but the responsibility not to exercise that right if there remains a chance our words may cause deep offence? That we who live in free societies should trade our liberties off against any reaction those liberties may or may not provoke elsewhere in the world? That a writer or speaker should be held directly responsible for the reaction to his words, even if those words are seized on by demagogues intent on sowing chaos for their own reasons?
Thomas Jefferson might be baffled to hear, even in the land of the 1st Amendment, intellectuals urging the suppression of material deemed offensive to Muslims. Freedom of speech is not something we in the West need apologise for: it is a right that can only be upheld by a continued fight. That Innocence of Muslims is a particularly ignorant and gross example of speech is no more to the point than the observation that some people are more stupid and ill-mannered than others. If you find yourself unwilling to defend the right of people to express thoughts you personally find disagreeable – even profoundly and painfully disagreeable – then you don’t really believe in free speech. Readers who do in fact believe in free speech would therefore do well to take seriously the disturbingly numerous voices amongst us arguing we have a moral duty to accommodate and appease elements for whom free speech is naturally a heresy, especially so during these these heightened times, when there exists a concerted effort among Muslim nations to push a worldwide blasphemy prohibition through the UN.
Far from “beat[ing] our chests in favour of a ‘free press’” as Robert Fisk sarcastically has it, too often Western liberals would have us do the fanatics’ work for them by declaring certain ideas and beliefs “off-limits”. Liberals who take their liberties for granted in this way are like the cartoon character blissfully sawing away at the branch he is sitting on. It is only the fact that we all rely on this branch that stops the image from being a purely comical one.