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Lessons from The Satanic Verses
Lessons from The Satanic Verses
Despite threats from the late Ayatollah Khomeini and a $6 million price tag on the head of its author Salman Rushdie, the book The Satanic Verses remained on the New York Times list until the fall of 1989. It is well into its fourteenth hardback printing which is an impressive feat for any modern fiction novel. Salman Rushdie to date remains unrepentant, insisting that his contemporary allegory of good versus evil was not designed to offend Moslem fundamentalists. The book, with its attractive red, black and silver cover, is now openly sold in most chain bookstores, and the threats of violence by groups such as the Islamic Revolutionary Army are, perhaps quite deliberately, forgotten.
The ayatollah moved on to discover and create new excuses for raising the fervor of his Islamic fundamentalist counterrevolution. The head of the Iranian parliament has called for the murder of Britons and Americans, presumably because it would aid the uprising on the West Bank of the Gaza. It is difficult to comprehend how (a) Iranian "hit squads" leaving Tehran and flying to, say, (b) London or (c) Boise, Idaho, can substantially affect the well-being of persons on (d) the West Bank in Gaza by murdering other persons in (b) or in (c). Fundamentalists had long believed that the earth, besides being "young" (i.e., less than 10,000 years of age) could also be somewhat flat. Islamic geography apparently employs a different notion of space-time. In fact, Rushdie's novel speaks of freezing time and history; "all that matters" are events and persons after the time of The Prophet. All else is profane, or does not matter. The same may be said of geography, and all those infidel persons inhabiting infidel and strange lands, and having infidel and strange ideas. Indeed, Khomeini was attempting to freeze history, to interpret all events in space-time through the narrow focus of the Koran.
Perhaps in a few years, people will discover Rushdie's once-controversial tome on the shelves of used bookstores and remember a senile, sclerotic religious bigot demanding the death of its author. Typical of Khomeini, they will mumble. Few people might recall the plot or its characters like Gibreel Farishta, or Saladin Chamcha; they will instead see in their mind's eye television images of mobs storming an embassy in Pakistan, or a rag effigy of Rushdie being burned in Tehran.
Forgotten, too, will be some of the other outrages against The Satanic Verses, perpetrated not by fanatics in the Middle East, but by social, political, and economic figures in the West. An Islamic fundamentalist 7,000 miles from our shores can do little to threaten our Bill of Rights; a corporate executive ensconced in New York — well, that's a different story.
Of fear and loathing
One would expect that in the face of such threats by a religious hoodlum like Khomeini, the entire political and literary establishment of the Western world would defiantly resist, and embrace Rushdie's book as a symbol of principle (regardless of its literary merit). After all, here is a theocrat — and not even a good Christian one at that! — telling people thousands of miles from the border of his Islamic dictatorship what they may or may not read, publish, believe — all based upon what happens to offend Moslem dogma and sensibilities. Indeed! One would expect outrage, defiance, resistance. In the United States (after all!), a nation which explicitly supports freedom of expression, one would expect to see Moslem religious propaganda outlets to be, literally, under siege by picketers. One would expect the publishing and bookstore industry to stand behind Viking Press, eagerly awaiting shipments of The Satanic Verses proudly and defiantly displaying them in front windows and advertising them in newspapers.
One would expect major political figures to unconditionally support the right of people to read this book, regardless of their own religious or social biases, and regardless of any religious or social message Mr. Rushdie might be conveying in the pages of his novel.
One would expect the bevy of "new age" political celebrities, so eager to often embrace bizarre philosophies or fads, to at least issue a statement of support in favor of freedom of expression.
One would expect a declaration from the Congress of the United States, indeed a blizzard of resolutions from unions, trade associations, educational groups, civic organizations, lodges, clubs, assemblies, anywhere people congregated for just about any purpose.
And from the British — who stood up to Adolf Hitler, who in a moment of jingoistic fury would send their aging fleet halfway around the world to recapture an island of sheep claimed by generals from Argentina — one would expect even more outrage.
Or from France, Germany, Italy, all of those European countries we consider to be part of the enlightened "democratic" West for whom we fought against the Nazi horde so they could be "free" — could we not expect at least a trifle of support for Mr. Rushdie?
We could expect . . .
What we have discovered instead is a deeply ingrained timidity when the issue of fundamental civil liberties is raised. One is not talking about figures so loathed in our history; we are not talking about communists, pornographers, or the targets of "tabloid television." We are not dealing with a fringe political idea or so unpopular a concept as, say, our own Atheism. We are instead dealing with a novelist, somebody most people would never hear of in the course of their daily lives were they not part of that insular group which consumes "modern fiction" with the appetite of a glutton. After all, Viking printed only 50,000 copies of The Satanic Verses in first edition hardback, knowing that a goodly portion of them might be sold to remainder houses, or sent to the "bargain table" of chain bookstores. Rushdie had already written other novels like Grimus, Midnight's Children (winner of the 1981 Booker Prize), Shame (winner of the French Prix du Meilleur Livre Étanger), and a book about Nicaragua, The Jaguar Smile. Rushdie was a very bright light in a relatively small social and intellectual world. It took Ayatollah Khomeini to push The Satanic Verses into the second and third printings and beyond — into the news and onto the best-seller list.
“At the end of his wrestling match with the Archangel Gibreel, the Prophet Mahound falls into his customary, exhausted, post-revelatory sleep. . . . When he comes to his senses in that high wilderness there is nobody to be seen, no winged creatures crouch on rocks, and he jumps to his feet, filled with the urgency of his news. ‘It was the Devil,’ he says aloud to the empty air, making it true by giving it voice. ‘The last time, it was Shaitan.’ That is what he has heard in his listening, that he has been tricked, that the Devil came to him in the guise of the archangel, so that the verses he memorized, . . . were not the real thing but its diabolic opposite, not godly, but satanic. He returns to the city as quickly as he can, to expunge the foul verses that reck of brimstone and sulphur. . . .
“After the repudiation of the Satanic verses, the Prophet Mahound returns home. ...”
The Satanic Verses
When Khomeini did throw down his gauntlet to the world, the world hesitated, stumbled, and hid. There was a thin veneer of disapproval, even a mild curiosity. Who was Salman Rushdie? What does this book say? Why does it "offend" Moslems? Deeper, more profound questions about civil liberties were ignored.
B. Dalton and Waldenbooks, the nation's two largest chain bookstores, quickly announced that they were withdrawing The Satanic Verses from their shelves. The atmosphere at Viking Press, though, was one of open defiance to Khomeini — extra security was hired and Viking's British division announced that it was going through with plans for the British edition. Yes, the book would be printed; it soon fell upon independent booksellers, many of them members of the American Booksellers' Association, to distribute The Satanic Verses.
Timid in Tucson
My own experience with The Satanic Verses may be somewhat typical of what independent booksellers throughout the country encountered. As the controversy over the book grew, I decided to carry the novel (most of my inventory is used and rare books; the new books are in specialized areas of interest such as art, photography and Americana). I contacted my new book distributor, the Ingram Co.
Ingram: Ingram, this is Shirley, may I help you?
Me: Hello, Shirley, I'm calling from GOODBOOKS in Tucson, Arizona, and I wanted to see about ordering some copies of The Satanic Verses. I don't have an ISBN or a catalogue number for ordering though . . .
Ingram: (interrupting): We have no information on this book. What is your control number?
Me: Last name Goeringer, G-O-E-R-I-N-G-E-R, first name Conrad.
Ingram: What is your zip code?
Me: 85705. (By now I realize that this is not the usual procedure when I order books. Are they verifying who I am?)
Ingram: What is your address?
Me: 431 N. Fourth Avenue.
Ingram: We do not have this book in stock anywhere, or in any of our warehouses.
Me: (frustrated) Yes, I know, you said that ...
Ingram: Would you like to place an order?
Me: (sighing relief, then whooping for joy!) YES! (I love you, Shirley!)
I never did meet Shirley, but I sure did receive shipments of The Satanic Verses.
My next task was advertising. Copies were nowhere to be found in Tucson except at two independent bookstores. Like my own supplies, theirs seemed to be intermittent, depending on the printed availability of the book. Inside most new books is a numbering system on the verso page which indicates which printing the volume is. I watched that number rise steadily with each shipment, and I knew that Viking was working furiously to meet the public demand. Waldenbooks and B. Dalton and George Bush may have been silent about The Verses, but somebody in America at least was curious enough to buy a book!
Keeping my trusty Smith and Wesson 9mm behind my counter in easy reach, I arranged for advertising. The Tucson Weekly is our only "independent" paper in Tucson, and often dares to go where no "establishment" paper has gone before. The Arizona Daily Star and the Tucson Citizen are both staid, community rags which gnaw at their consciences about naked breasts in the movie advertisements. No, go with the Weekly.
I ended up running two advertisements. The first had a snarling picture of Khomeini with the caption "DON'T LET THIS GUY TELL YOU WHAT YOU CAN'T READ," followed by a plug for the book, informing people that it was available at cost. I copied the ad and mailed it to the local media along with a press release elaborating on why my store was openly selling Rushdie's book, even displaying multiple copies in the front window. (No, I don't carry plate glass insurance!)
I followed that ad with another which included an "open letter" about censorship, pointing out similarities between the religiosity of Ayatollah Khomeini and our own "home grown" ayatollahs who have a censorship agenda of their own.
Both ads managed to attract public and media attention, good reaction from customers (many of whom purchased the novel) — and now even the chain bookstores carry Salman Rushdie's book. Sales remain brisk: it is now "safe" to sell The Satanic Verses, and Khomeini's fanatics appear to have gone in search of new targets.
It was an outrage that Waldenbooks and B. Dalton, in effect, gave in to the threats of a religious bigot thousands of miles from their corporate offices. Waldenbooks claimed it was withdrawing Rushdie's novel "for the protection of employees" in the light of threats. Indeed, a publishing company and newspaper in New York was bombed after denouncing Khomeini, and Cody's bookstore in Berkeley was dynamited, presumably for openly selling the book. To my knowledge, no surveys were ever made within the B. Dalton or Waldenbooks organizations about what exactly the employees thought about this issue; some television coverage included interviews with workers who wanted to sell the novel!
There was a curious and somewhat chilling silence from the White House and other governmental quarters about the Rushdie affair. Of course, with so many governmentalists busy defending censorship of books, magazines, videos, and other material (to "fight drugs" or "combat pornography," the two often linked in the public imagination), it was difficult to defend Satanic Verses on the basis of so libertarian a notion as freedom of expression. With religionists on both the "left" and the "right" picketing convenience stores and movie theaters, protesting their own peculiar notion of "obscenity," we are not exactly in a social climate which embraces freedom and tolerance.
Instead, we were implored by so many to "understand" the outrage of Moslems and "look deeper" into the issue of why Khomeini ordered somebody murdered for merely writing words onto paper. We were told that "many" found the book "offensive" and "blasphemous," that it "insulted their religious beliefs."
"How would we feel if our religious values were mocked?"
Mobs in Tehran, death threats from the ayatollah, the banning of Rushdie's book in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bangladesh, India, other Islamic countries, even in South Africa, all of this was because religionists were "offended."
We should "empathize" and "respect their sentiments."
The Vatican newspaper agreed with Islamic mullahs that The Satanic Verses was offensive and blasphemous and should not be read. New York's John Cardinal O'Connor chimed in that the book was "offensive" and "blasphemous," and he would not waste time reading it.
In Britain, the Thatcher government — so loathe to have government interfere in the business of business — was fresh from a round of prosecutions with the Official Secrets Act and the whole incident from Peter Wright's memoir, Spycatcher. Mr. Wright dug up the corpse of the Kim Philby affair, suggesting that Sir Hollis, once head spook, may have instead been in the service of Soviet Intelligence. The government went to court in order to ban Spycatcher — undoubtedly, some crafty KGB sleuth deduced that — yes! — the Kremlin could learn what it already probably knew by, perhaps, buying the book outside of the United Kingdom.
Thatcher declared that the Rushdie book, however, would be available "subject to the rule of law and the Blasphemy Acts."
If MI-5 doesn't get you, the High Church of England will.
The Official Secrets Act empowers the British state to ban anything deemed to be a matter of national security; this includes musty documents from the Boer War, the First and Second World Wars, up through newspaper interviews with (suspected) IRA activists. The Blasphemy Act prohibits the utterance or publication of anything offensive and demeaning to Jesus or the Church of England.
For years in Britain, religious bodies other than the "official Anglicans" have been agitating to be included under the umbrella of blasphemy statutes. Jewish and Moslem organizations want official protection for their own peculiar creeds, but thus far have not been successful.
Usually, the blasphemy laws go hand-in-hand with countless national and regional anti-obscenity laws which are ammunition for militant fundamentalist sects and censorship groups like Mary Whitehouse's National Viewers and Listeners Association. If there is something obscene, blasphemous, even vaguely offensive, there is a law somewhere which someone can try and use.
There were suggestions that The Satanic Verses be banned simply because of the large number of Moslems residing in the country who constituted a potential "fifth column." Many of these persons, though, especially of Iranian extraction, left their respective homelands to escape precisely the kind of censorship and religious meddling which was being proposed.
Many large British corporations, of course, had lucrative contracts with Iran and in other countries throughout the Middle East. Was the pound sterling more valuable than human rights?
On the European continent, West Germany, Italy, and France quickly announced that they would prohibit importation of Rushdie's book. One had to settle for excerpts published in the Communist party daily paper in Yugoslavia. Which side of the Iron Curtain was the free world on, anyway?
In Canada, a Moslem group filed a court action which delayed entry of shipments of The Satanic Verses for up to two weeks. A recently enacted law there prohibits the publication or distribution of so-called hate literature; it was used in the prosecution of a man who wrote a book questioning the existence of the Holocaust during World War II. The Canadian government decided that the Verses did not constitute racially motivated hate propaganda and decided to allow entry of book shipments; censorship is indeed a two-edged sword.
Meanwhile, back in the USA . . .
Undeterred by the Vatican and Cardinal O'Connor, a group of New York- based writers, led by Norman Mailer, organized a public reading of The Satanic Verses. By this time, it was getting "safe" to publicly admit that, yes, you did support Salman Rushdie and freedom of expression. The Nation was one of the few periodicals to denounce the hesitation on the part of many to defend the Bill of Rights and so basic a notion as freedom to read. There was still a strange alliance between fundamentalist Christians busy "empathizing" with their Moslem counterparts, and Khomeini's regime in Iran. Perhaps much of the hesitation stems from our growing lack of concern with our own civil liberties. In our hysteria about "problems" such as drugs or "pornography," there is a disturbing willingness to suspend, even eliminate basic freedoms to "stop crime" or bring the nation "back to God." Politicians employ an almost military terminology — there is a "war" against crime, a "crackdown" against pushers, a "battle" to "smash smut" — and of course in a "war," civil liberties can easily be forgotten.
Much of the silence in the face of Khomeini's threats comes from our own "caving in" to the antics and demands of religious fundamentalists here. "Freedom of expression" seems to apply only to what is deemed "responsible" expression, not that which happens to offend, insult, blaspheme, or provoke. We have more and more come to embrace an anemic, insubstantial notion of freedom, a safe freedom, a conditional freedom. "There is no freedom to insult god..."
"There is no freedom of speech for smut peddlers!"
"There shouldn't be freedom of expression for racists!"
'There shouldn't be freedom to publish material which offends me!"
Freedom of expression, the right to explore and promote and to extend all boundaries of the written or spoken word, thus becomes a "licensed" privilege granted by the State, to defend the political or ideological or religious establishments.
I'm still bogged down in The Satanic Verses, not being much of a fan of "modern fiction," Rushdie is very much the wordsmith, though; he has crafted an interesting tale about good versus evil. Do we know one from the other based upon mere appearance, or on content and deed?
For that matter, is there anything real left in our notion of being free?
Copyright © 2008 American Atheists, Inc. All rights reserved.
0 2012-02-28 20:16:18 91 9 0 Moslem Violence in Britain
Moslem Violence in Britain
President of the National
Secular Society in London
Fundamentalist Moslems in Britain are carrying out acts of violence and inciting one another to murder in pursuit of their demands for â€œblasphemyâ€ protection, for the banning of a work of fiction that refers disrespectfully to Moslem history, for the public funding of separate Moslem schools, and for the legal recognition of the Islamic personal law.
Whereas the American immigration ideal has historically been the metaphorical "melting-pot" â€” immigrant families to the United States being only too anxious that their children should learn the English language and integrate with their neighbours â€” the immigration ideal in Britain is that of "pluralism," multi-culture, and multi-lingualism. It is this misguided, mythic ideal that, in response to the most vociferous of the immigration community leaders, is the one generally promulgated by many "progressive" British people, including politicians of every party. Most of them fail to realize that what they are advocating is appeasement of the patriarchal fundamentalists of these communities, leaving those under their thumbs to their oppression â€” the effect being to deny to their young people brought up in Britain the chance to become truly British and to deny to their women the normal civil rights enjoyed by British women.Â
Britain, with a total population of some 56 million, now has over a million Moslems, mostly from immigration within the last quarter of a century. Some were refugee families from former British colonies in East Africa in the 1960s, more came from the Middle East, and many more from the Indian subcontinent. Their British homes are largely concentrated in a few localities, including the Brick Lane area of London's East End and Southall in Middlesex, to the west of London â€” these two names being telescoped in Salman Rushdie's fictional Brickhall. There are also large pockets of Moslem concentration in the industrial cities of the Midlands (especially Birmingham and Leicester) and the North (especially Bradford).
Resistance to change
Upwards of a thousand years ago, Islam was far less objectionable and more civilized than Christianity; but whereas Christianity has, on the whole, gradually become more humane, Islam has tended to stand still, and has thus been left behind. This is partly because Mohammed (570-632) laid it down that, to avoid the sort of corruption that had beset Judaism and Christianity, his new religion must never accept any change of any kind. And to this day, the true Moslem continues to obey this injunction and resist anything new in social mores.Â
This intransigent attitude has, according to the Indian writer K. K. Joshi (in an article reprinted by the International Humanist and Ethical Union in their Humanist Outlook, February 1989), been reinforced in India during the past two centuries:Â
Unfortunately, the Moslem community kept itself aloof from the main currents of the nineteenth-century Indian renaissance. From the very beginning they were distrustful of the "new learning" that came to India in the wake of British conquest. Instead of opting for western liberal education, which the Hindus accepted with enthusiasm, the Moslems preferred to stick to their old traditional learning that was imparted in "madarsas" and "makhtabs." The result was an all-round stagnation of the Moslem community.Â
Today the situation has become even worse. Moslem India has built a cordon sanitaire of Islamic fundamentalism which has made it difficult even for the educated Moslem middle class, what to say of Moslem masses, to imbibe modern ideas of liberalism, secularism, socialism and science, which incidentally form the basis of Indian polity.Â
There are many extreme fundamentalists among the Moslems now living in Britain. Of those who were already fundamentalist Moslems when they left their homelands, many have responded to this upheaval by clinging even more tenaciously to their religious traditions than the people they have left behind. Then, of the thousands who are now in their late teens and early twenties â€” most of whom have been brought up in Britain, often as moderate Moslems â€” many have espoused increasingly fanatical Islamic fundamentalism as a means of asserting their ancestral identity. There is also a surprising number of fundamentalist Moslem converts.Â
Imbued with all the fervour of fundamentalist religion, this extremism is a component of a sort of tribalism â€” rather like the gang loyalty of football hooligans to their particular football club â€” its function being that of a cohesive tribal force against the wider community. So it appeals particularly to those who feel marginalized by society at large and psychologically alienated from it.
Â Death threats
They were therefore ready to respond fervently to the call of the late Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran for the assassination of the secularist author, Salman Rushdie â€” a British citizen of Indian Moslem origin living in Britain â€” for daring to write a novel, The Satanic Verses, based partly on a critical view of Islam. The author and his American wife (novelist Marianne Wiggins) had to go into hiding as a result of Khomeini's transcontinental death sentence in February. Six months later, his wife emerged to say that after moving with him from place to place every few days (fifty-six moves in five months), she had now left Salman, and no longer knew where he was hiding. He himself may never dare to be seen again in public.Â
On August 3, a young Arab who had booked into a London hotel was apparently handling a bomb in his room when the bomb exploded, killing him and doing extensive damage to the hotel. Claims were made, simultaneously on Iran radio and by a Lebanese Moslem group to a Beirut newspaper, that the bomb had been intended for Salman Rushdie; but it seems unlikely that Rushdie's whereabouts are known to would-be assassins or, if so, that a bomb would be the method of assassination chosen. Investigators regard these claims as disinformation, and enquiries suggest that the man was working for a radical faction with the intention of frustrating international moves towards a negotiated settlement of the Lebanese hostage crisis.Â
It was one thing for the English newspapers to report on Rushdie riots in faraway lands, but then the headlines moved closer to home.
The publisher of The Satanic Verses, Penguin Books â€” which, ironically enough, is also the main publisher in Britain of the Koran â€” has also received death threats, the book has been publicly burned by Moslem mobs in Britain, many booksellers and libraries have responded to threats of arson and personal attack by withdrawing the book, and some of these threats have now been put into practice.Â
Thus, several bookshops have been seriously damaged by Moslem fire-raisers â€” including one shop in central London, Collet's, that was burnt out in spite of the fact that it had already, under pressure from its intimidated staff, withdrawn the book.Â
At the beginning of September, a bomb was thrown from a car at the famous West End store Liberty's, and four passers-by were injured. At that moment, a telephone message claiming responsibility for the incident was received by the police from an obscure Moslem group calling itself "Islamic Concern for Banning the Satanic Verses." Moslem leaders, while expressing regret that people have been injured, say it is the fault not of the Moslems but of Rushdie and his publishers and booksellers and the British government â€” though Liberty's book department does not even stock the book!Â
The publisher, Penguin Books, owns nine retail bookshops in city centers around the country, and time bombs were planted outside four of these shops during the evening of September 13. A passerby, seeing a man lurking suspiciously in the dark doorway of the shop in York, alerted the local police, who were just in time to clear people from the vicinity, so that when the bomb exploded, causing damage to the building, there were no casualties. Meanwhile, the York police warned their colleagues in the localities of the other eight Penguin bookshops, thus enabling the other three bombs (in Nottingham, Peterborough, and Guildford) to be defused before they exploded.Â
The National Secular Society's bookshop in north London has â€” despite threats, broken windows, police warnings, and (just before the Liberty's incident) industrial oil poured through the letter-box and over the shopfront â€” continued to display the dust jacket in its window; though, having residents above the shop, it has compromised by removing the display at night to safeguard life.Â
Imagine: getting it on with J.C.
In September 1989, another artistic work was caught in a blasphemous edict â€” this time Britainâ€™s blasphemy law. A film, â€œVisions of Ecstasyâ€ produced by the independent British film company, Axel Ltd., was refused a certificate for broadcasting by the British Board of Film Classification because it depicts â€œthe erotic imaginingsâ€ of Saint Theresa of Avila.Â
Theresa, a sixteenth-century Spanish Carmelite nun, at age thirty-nine began to have visions of J.C. and to enjoy vivid experiences of â€œmystical marriageâ€ with him and experiences of â€œHis presence within her.â€ The eighteen-minute film depicts St. Theresa caressing and kissing J.C. A female character depicting her psyche erotically touches her. The film has no dialogue, and the music score was written by a punk band, Siouxsie and the Banshees.Â
The case came up for a two-day hearing during the first week of December 1989. The hearing was apparently stormy. Comparing it to â€œThe Last Temptation of Christâ€ and â€œMonty Pythonâ€™s Life of Brian,â€ the Board of Film Classification found that those two films presented â€œalternative realities of Christ,â€ whereas â€œVision of Ecstasyâ€ was â€œan object of overt sexual passion to which He respondsâ€ and thus was a â€œcontemptuous treatment of the divinity of Christ.â€ The British Board of Film Classification, accordingly, banned it from the airways. In its initial ruling before the trial, it had held:Â
. . . the wounded body of a crucified Christ is presented solely as the focus of, and at certain moments a participant in, the erotic desire of St. Theresa, with no attempt to explore the meaning of imagery beyond engaging the viewer in an erotic experience.Â
One excuse made for Islamic violence on the streets of England is the fact that, whereas Christianity is protected in England and Wales by the blasphemy law (which is a common-law offence â€” i.e., a criminal offence based on centuries-old case law, made by judges, not on statute law, made by Parliament), Moslems have no such recourse to the law courts when their religious susceptibilities are hurt; and a number of British public figures, including religious leaders and members of Parliament, have therefore been calling for an extension of the blasphemy law to every "major" religion.Â
The British government was for extraneous reasons (including such good ones as negotiating for the release of hostages in Lebanon), slow and halfhearted in its condemnation of the notorious Iranian death sentence on Salman Rushdie. Many members of the major political parties, together with spokesmen of all the major religions and the usual "race-relationites," grovelled with apologies for the hurt feelings of Moslems in this country. Foremost among the religious spokesmen was the archbishop of Canterbury (head of the international Anglican communion) whose proposed solution to the crisis was the extension of the criminal law of blasphemy to protect Islam (and other religions) against verbal offence, rather than renounce this special protection for his own creed.Â
The legal justification for the existing blasphemy law is to prevent possible "breaches of the peace" caused by the abuse or ridicule of people's strongly-held beliefs. Needless to say, we Atheists have always had to put up with abuse and ridicule from Christians, but have not breached the peace on that account, nor demanded protection from such abuse and ridicule. On the contrary, we have always favoured the robust exchange of ideas. British public figures who are now calling for an extension of the blasphemy law to Islam (and other religions) include some of the most liberal-minded churchmen and politicians. This is in line with a pervading idea that seems to have sprung up among many liberalminded people in Britain, that to be "progressive" it is necessary to make any special privileges â€” such as the protection of the blasphemy law â€” universal. The secular humanist movement, on the other hand, together with a handful of enlightened politicians, is opposing this â€” on the principle, as the old adage puts it, that "two wrongs cannot make a right" â€” and is pressing instead for the archaic criminal offence of blasphemy to be abolished altogether.Â
The general survey of blasphemy law, written by Jon G. Murray, which appeared in the March 1989 issue of American Atheist, did not bring it quite up to date for Britain. The last successful blasphemy prosecution here occurred as recently as 1977, when a homosexual paper, Gay News, and its editor, Denis Lemon, were both convicted of blasphemy for publishing a poem about the crucifixion, and had to pay heavy fines and even heavier costs. The editor was also given a suspended prison sentence, forcing him to give up his editorial job. The legal costs would have bankrupted the paper â€” which was, presumably, the intention â€” had not donations poured in to reimburse it. These convictions and sentences, apart from the prison sentence, were upheld in the Appeal Court (1978) and the House of Lords (1979). Later the European Court of Justice ruled that it could not overturn this decision since the blasphemy law is outside its jurisdiction.Â
The argument of the misguided "progressives" in favor of according blasphemy protection to Islam on the ground of a right to parity with the Church of England is closely paralleled by their support for campaigns for the public funding of Moslem (and other non-Christian) denominational schools on a par with existing denominational schools (mostly Christian, plus a handful of Jewish schools).Â
Because some religions are, under the existing education laws in Britain, allowed public subsidies amounting to 85 percent of the capital cost and 100 percent of the running costs of their own denominational schools (whether or not that in itself is morally justified), it is argued that all religions (or, at least, all "major" religions) must be given the same privilege. Needless to say, the secular humanist movement would prefer to have the public subsidies of all denominational schools phased out â€” and, indeed, has consistently campaigned for this. But even if it is politically impossible to remove the subsidies on all church schools in the foreseeable future â€” as both justice and sound educational principles really demand â€” the resulting inequity does not represent a valid argument for extending the same privilege to schools run by other religious groups. Again, "two wrongs cannot make a right."Â
Parity between one cultural group and another is certainly an important principle, but it cannot be an overriding principle when it means sacrificing even more important things â€” in the case of sectarian schools, sacrificing one of the basic rights of children. For surely it is a basic right of every child to come into contact with a wide range of people and with a wide range of views. A denial of any experience beyond a school that merely reinforces the prejudices of the home background is a denial of that right.Â
The stifling effect of their own single-sex denominational schools on Moslem (and orthodox Jewish) girls â€” especially those from fundamentalist families â€” is greater than for girls attending, say, the average single-sex Roman Catholic school of the present day, who are unlikely to be totally segregated socially from boys and men, both in and out of school, to be totally deprived of any exposure to ideas at variance with those of the home background, or to be narrowly educated only for the roles of submissive wife and mother.Â
Moslem girls attending traditional single-sex religious schools may miss many of the educational opportunities which are taken for granted by other young English-women
The public funding of ghetto schools â€” and therefore their proliferation â€” would, however, be harmful not only to the girls and women of the ghetto but to the whole fabric of our society, as is made clear in a letter from the National Secular Society, which, bearing the signatures of twenty-three public figures in Britain, appeared in a national newspaper, the Guardian, on July 9, 1986:Â
We the under-signed are very concerned about a dangerously divisive factor in our educational system â€” that is, the large number of voluntary-aided denominational schools that segregate children according to their religious background. The social divisiveness this causes is seen at its worst in Northern Ireland.Â
Voluntary-aided denominational schools have so far been confined almost entirely to Anglican, Roman Catholic, and a few Jewish schools, but we are now seeing the beginning of a proliferation to include other religions.Â
In April this year, a recommendation from a local authority (Brent) that a fundamentalist Islamic primary school in its area be allowed public funding, in line with denominational schools in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, was sent to the Minister of State for Education. Whatever the decision in this particular case, it cannot be long, in the name of racial and credal equality, before a separate Moslem (or Sikh or Hindu or other religious) school is granted voluntary-aided status, thereby encouraging a general upsurge of immigrant denominational schools.Â
This may seem superficially, a progressive step ... ; but in fact it would mean for many children (especially the girls) of immigrant families almost total isolation from the host community and from ideas at variance with those of the home background. This would not only be a disaster for these youngsters personally, it would also inevitably build up for future generations a greater degree of animosity and violence than we have seen even in Northern Ireland. There, children are segregated on grounds of religious background only; in this case there would be the additional divisive factors of race, skin colour and sex. And besides driving a wedge between immigrant families and the host community, separate religious schools would import to Britain some of the religion-based bitterness and strife that exist on the Indian subcontinent.Â
In the name of equity, however, it is manifestly impossible for the state to refuse Moslems and Sikhs the same right as Christians and Jews to state-subsidised schools of their own.Â
How, then, can this looming social tragedy be averted, without blatant discrimination? Only by Parliament legislating without delay for steps to be taken gradually to phase out subsidies to denominational schools of every kind. ...Â
We cannot deny, however, that a parliamentary decision to phase out subsidies to denominational schools will need considerable political courage, since it will inevitably lose votes. It therefore demands an all-party determination to grasp the nettle.Â
Principle of tolerance
What the British race-relationites are, in effect, blindly proposing, is to hand over the moderates in each ethnic community to the tyranny of its fundamentalists. And limits must surely be placed on the tolerance of intolerance.Â
Though I am as concerned as anybody about the right of minority groups to pursue their own chosen life-style â€” and, indeed, see this as a positive contribution to the varied general culture â€” I am also concerned about the rights of minorities within those minority groups, and of the smallest minority of all: the individual. Moreover, the individual is not only the smallest, but also often the most oppressed, of all minorities â€” especially, in patriarchal groups, the women and girls.Â
If families settle permanently in Britain, surely they should be willing for their children to grow up as part of it? The demand of their religious leaders for their own religious schools to be subsidized out of the public purse and for education to be conducted in their home languages is designed to prevent their children from integrating with the wider community.Â
Fundamentalist Moslems are fond of quoting the principle of tolerance in their own favor â€” but in countries where they themselves are in power, Moslems do not accept that principle. Nor, though vociferous in its demands for parity with Christianity in Britain, does fundamentalist Islam accord parity of rights to non-Moslems in Moslem countries. Even foreigners visiting those countries may be judicially flogged if caught with a glass of wine. Indeed, Moslems declare that any compromise is impossible for them, since the Islamic laws were laid down by Allah himself, not by men.
They also declare that Islam is not merely a religion; like communism, it pervades the whole of life. This means that their political and economic, as well as their religious, demands must share the sanction of religious liberty as they see it â€” and this bestows on them the god-given right to demand that the English law should assimilate the Islamic personal law (on legal polygamy, easy divorce for men but not women, inheritance, and so on), and uphold it in English law courts for Moslem citizens. In India, where this Moslem personal law prevails, the law courts have to administer a special code of justice for Moslems and even have to take account of differences in law between one Islamic sect and another. The result is not only chaos in the courts; more importantly, the civil rights of individuals are handed over to fundamentalist religious leaders and social compartmentalization is crystallized. This means a permanent denial of common citizenship and leads to inter-group strife.Â
Apart from the courageous Muslim Truthseekers Group (supported by the Indian Secular Society in western India), moderate Moslems on the Indian subcontinent have rarely put up any fight against their fundamentalists, so most of the Moslems who are now settled in Britain have no tradition of standing up to them and simply allow the fundamentalists to speak on their behalf.Â
One of the leading fundamentalist Moslem spokesmen in Britain has said that it is inconsistent to allow people to follow different religions whilst forcing them to accept British values enshrined in the laws of the country. But the laws of a country, while designed to facilitate as far as possible the peaceful coexistence of different cultures within that country, must surely, in the name of justice, apply to all â€” even if some groups would prefer them to be otherwise.Â
For that very reason, it is important that the National Secular Society is seen to be campaigning constantly against the Christian blasphemy law and Christian voluntary-aided schools at the same time as campaigning against the extention of these privileges to non-Christians.Â
It is heartening that the ruling Conservative Party has begun to warn the Moselems against extremist demands â€” for instance, on July 4, Mr. John Patten (the minister of state at the Home Office responsible for race relations) stated that the government felt it would be unwise to extend the blasphemy law to Islam ("to rule otherwise would be to chip away at the fundamental freedom on which our democracy is built").Â
A few Conservative back-benchers have gone against the Party line and backed the Moslem demands â€” but as they themselves tend to expound Christian fundamentalism, maintaining that everyone who disagrees with their theology is in error, their motive in wishing to sponsor the perpetuation of such error through their taxes is obviously more like that of the South African National Party's aim of ethnic "separate development" than genuine fellow feeling with the Moslem community or respect for their creed.Â
The Labour Party, though generally the more progressive of the two major parties in Britain, is split right down the middle on the issue of separate Moslem schools. On the one hand are those to whom sound educational principles and equal opportunities for girls are the most important factors in this debate; on the other hand are those (unfortunately including the Party's national spokesmen on education â€” who could well be in office in another two years) to whom the overriding factor is "race relations" â€” which, in practice, inevitably means good relations with the most vociferous extremists in an ethnic group.Â
The Moslem vote has hitherto been almost entirely Labour and, in several marginal constituencies, Labour MPs would have lost their seats in the last general election without the Moslem vote. But one or two of those most likely to lose their seats in that eventuality have nevertheless been brave enough to come out in favour of principle rather than expediency. The remainder, however, have taken the opposite view â€” and have unfortunately secured the support of the national Labour Party.Â
Even so, it does not satisfy the Moslem fundamentalists. Early this year, Moslem leaders announced that steps would be taken to set up a separate Moslem political party. This threat was implemented in mid-September, when the Islamic Party of Britain was founded â€” its agenda to include state-funded Moslem schools and extension of the blasphemy law, with the legalisation of Moslem personal law a longer-term aim. Some Moslems, however, are opposed to having their own separate political party, since it cannot possibly gain parliamentary power in the foreseeable future and, by diverting Moslem votes from the Labour Party, will only weaken Moslem influence within that party.Â
Giving in to fundamentalist demands is like giving in to blackmail or terrorism: the next demand is even bolder. So the more legal concessions that fundamentalist Moslems obtain, the more they demand.Â
Thus, Moslem demands in Britain at the present time â€” the demand for blasphemy protection, for publicly funded separate Moslem schools, for the banning of a work of fiction that refers disrespectfully to Moslem history, and for the assimilation of Moslem personal law into the law of the country â€” would most likely have been less extreme and persistent had not their fundamentalist religious leaders got away with demands, in the past two decades, for exemption from various laws. For instance, the animal slaughter laws, which demand the pre-stunning of animals killed for meat, are not only waived in favor of both orthodox Jewish and Moslem religious methods of slaughter, both of which forbid pre-stunning (each of these religions denying that their particular slaughter method is cruel, but agreeing that the other one is!), but our legislators and civil servants have acceded to the demand to have halal meat served daily in all state schools that have a substantial number of Moslem children â€” as though there were no acceptable alternatives, such as vegetarian dishes, packed lunches, and meat meals at home.
So where is it all going to end? We could eventually have Moslem religious leaders in Britain demanding the freedom to follow the Koranic penal code within their own community. In the name of freedom of religion, they must surely be allowed to chop off the hands of any members of their community caught stealing, to flog those caught drinking alcohol, and publicly to stone to death any of their women caught in adultery?Â
Violence on the streets
A large Moslem demonstration took place in central London on May 27, mainly to demand the extension to Islam of such protection under the blasphemy law and to demand the withdrawal of The Satanic Verses.Â
Though disagreeing with these demands, secular humanists would naturally uphold the right of anyone to demonstrate peaceably in support of them: however, not only was the Moslem demonstration far from peaceful; the blasphemy issue was largely lost in violent incitement to murder. No attempt was made by the Moslem leaders themselves or by the agencies of law and order in this country to prevent the parade from setting off from Hyde Park with model gallows from which swung effigies of Salman Rushdie, with placards and banners calling (in obedience to the late Khomeini and other overseas religious leaders) for Rushdie's murder, with such homespun slogans as "DEVIL RUSHDIE WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE," "RUSHDIE MUST BE CHOPPED UP," "WE'RE GONNA GET YOU â€” THAT'S A PROMISE," and with thousands of demonstrators raising clenched fists and yelling "kill, kill, kill!"Â
Those guilty of this incitement to murder were apparently not told, either by the organizers or by the police, that this was prohibited on the demonstration, nor were any arrests made on a charge of incitement. Even the 101 demonstrators arrested later for physical violence against the police were released without charge â€” presumably on Home Office orders designed to prevent further violence. Nevertheless, having thus flouted with impunity British laws and customs and sensibilities, Moslem fanatics have proceeded to carry out further acts of violence (such as arson), and have continued their monstrous demands for the banning of The Satanic Verses and death to its author.Â
Many Moslems in this country are, of course, appalled and ashamed by all this, and realize that nothing is more likely to cause real racist hostility against their whole community; but their voices are hardly heard above those of the religious leaders and the rabble behind them. The race-relationites have therefore started saying that Salman Rushdie should have known better than to write such an "offensive" book and that the publishers ought to withdraw it. To be consistent, they would also have to decry the original publication of Paine's Age of Reason, Shelley's Queen Mab, Ibsen's Ghosts, and Darwin's Descent of Man, which were no less offensive to the fundamentalists of their day. (see sidebar on "Other Rushdies in other times")Â
The organizers of the demonstration later tried to disclaim responsibility for the violence, blaming it on a few hotheaded youngsters; but the organizers had done nothing to ensure that it would be a peaceful demonstration, and the "few" hotheads could be numbered by the thousand.Â
Since the Moslem leaders are apparently either unable or unwilling to control their fanatical supporters, they should surely be refused any public open-air demonstrations in the future; while archbishops and politicians should be willing to allow the same robustness of debate on religion as on any other controversy â€” that is, short of incitement to violence.Â
Women Against Fundamentalism picketed the Moselem demonstrations in London on May 27, 1989. In the background are the Houses of Parliament.Â
At secular humanist meetings during the few weeks before the demonstration, I had asked for volunteers to mount a counter-demonstration; but response was negligible. I therefore arranged to join in with a new protest group, set up mainly by some brave Asian women calling themselves Women Against Fundamentalism. In the event, I happened to miss them, but met by chance secularist friends Nicolas Walter and his wife Christine, standing on the route of the so-called march (which proved to be more of a stampede), opposite Hyde Park Corner.Â
Although there were only the three of us, we represented, in our memberships, the whole of the British Atheist movement â€” primarily, however, the National Secular Society, the Rationalist Press Association, the Free Speech Movement, and the Campaign against Blasphemy Law (set up jointly by the National Secular Society and the Rationalist Press Association at the time of the Gay News blasphemy trial in 1977). We had brought homemade banners â€” mine proclaiming "FREE SPEECH," and the Walters' "FREE SPEECH FOR ALL"Â
We had deliberately rejected the idea of more provocative slogans, such as "Religion Breeds Intolerance" â€” but our studied moderation made no difference. As soon as they caught sight of our banners, demonstrators rushed at us, grabbed and ripped up the banners, and proceeded to push, punch, and kick us. Nicolas was knocked to the ground, but by backing up the steps of the Wellington monument I managed to remain standing. Fortunately, a few people (including some middle-aged Moslems) came to our rescue. The press also helped, by coming up for statements â€” whereupon our attackers began grabbing and tearing the reporters' notebooks; and someone with a radio mike began interviewing me. One of the men still jostling me, having previously kicked me on the leg, now added insult to injury by pinching my buttock. I turned on him with a trenchant "Don't do that!" â€” which, I learnt later, was heard by thousands of listeners to the London Broadcasting Company's news report. The picket of the Women Against Fundamentalism had taken the precaution of obtaining special police protection and so avoided a similar physical assault.Â
Some humanists have since told me that counter-demonstrations are not the way to deal with the situation: they seem to think it is enough to preach to the converted in urbane humanist meetings. But if we can no longer go on the streets of our capital city to defend freedom of expression, Britain is back in the eighteenth century â€” the cross merely replaced by the equally bloody crescent.Â
Among the messages of support for the demonstration read out on a public-address system in Hyde Park while the faithful were gathering there was one that purported to come from Dr. Runcie, the archbishop of Canterbury. Afterwards I wrote to him, asking why he had said nothing since to dissociate himself from the violent nature of the demonstration, and his secretary for public affairs (John Lyttle) replied, denying that the archbishop had sent the organizers any such message. However, with this reply (which, incidentally, accused me of being "extraordinarily bigoted") was enclosed a copy of a statement made by the archbishop three months earlier, in which he had tried to appease the Moslem would-be murderers by saying,Â
Only the utterly insensitive can fail to see that the publication of Salman Rushdie's book has deeply offended Moslems both here and throughout the world.
It was apparently this statement that was read out in Hyde Park â€” but in the context of the demonstration it sounded like a new message written for the occasion. As far as I know, however, there has been no public retraction of the archbishop's seeming support for the demonstration.Â
In any case, the Moslem demand for the extension of blasphemy law to Islam, which was the chief aim of the demonstration, was really based on the archbishop of Canterbury's refusal to volunteer to give up the protection of this archaic law for his own church (the only church protected by it at present â€” the Sectarian tenets of other Christian denominations having been excluded in cases that predated Catholic emancipation). Rather than give it up, he urged its extension to other Christian sects and to Islam and other religions.Â
In this he was joined by a number of misguided members of Parliament, of both the major political parties. There are two reasons for this: first, the usual reluctance of British politicians to vote against the demands of any religious or ethnic group, particularly if that group has a substantial number of voters in their local constituencies; and secondly, the high-principled (but equally misguided) desire for good race relations based on multi-cultural and multi-lingual equality, at all costs.Â
True, the present situation, in which the Church of England alone is protected by the blasphemy law, is unjust; but the argument behind the proposal to extend it to other religions is, again, basically the argument that two (or more) wrongs somehow make a right. Other civilized countries manage without a criminal offence of blasphemy, so why not Britain? Public order needs protection; religious sentiment does not.Â
The obvious commonsense solution is to abolish the blasphemy law altogether (as, indeed, was recommended in 1985 by a majority of the Law Commission) â€” not to extend it. Anyway, to which religions would it be extended? If, as has been suggested, it were to apply to all monotheistic religions only, this classification would presumably exclude Hinduism but include the Mormons and Moonies!Â
Present attempts in Parliament to extend the blasphemy protection to Islam are backed up by the argument that the hurt feelings of Moslems could then be assuaged through the law courts instead of through violence on the streets. However, even if they were able to prosecute "blasphemers," any prosecution thrown out of court (and, inevitably, many such prosecutions must fail) would undoubtedly still lead to zealots taking the law into their own hands, in exactly the same hotheaded, violent way as they have done, in the absence of the blasphemy law, over Rushdie's Satanic Verses. At the same time, to present Moslem fundamentalists with this legal weapon, however weak in practical litigation, would result in unofficial censorship, since any writer who dared to mention Islam except in the most respectful terms would have difficulty in finding a publisher for fear of heavy legal costs â€” if nothing worse.Â
When a pro-Rushdie one-act play, Iranian Nights, was hastily put on for a short run at the Royal Court Theatre, one or two actors engaged for it withdrew out of fear; but a cast was found and the show went on, with heavy security precautions. Then, on July 2, a number of celebrities (of show business, literature and politics) participated in a public reading at Conway Hall Humanist Centre of selected excerpts from The Satanic Verses.Â
On July 31, the British Broadcasting Corporation presented a television verse-drama, The Blasphemers' Banquet, in which Omar Khayyam, Voltaire, Moliere, and Byron ("blasphemers" all) meet in an Indian tandoori restaurant in Bradford together with the play's author â€” a controversial poet, Tony Harrison â€” and toast an absent friend: Salman Rushdie. It also included real-life scenes from the Khomeini funeral, with hysterical mourners, including children, deliberately wounding themselves in an orgy of religious fervor.Â
Some days before the play was due to be shown, the archbishop of Canterbury's secretary for public affairs (he who had called me "extraordinarily bigoted") wrote to the director-general of the BBC, asking him to "postpone" its transmission, so as to avoid giving any offence to Moslems at a sensitive time. Behind this demand was the bishop of Bradford (whose diocese, one of the most Moslem in the country, has been the scene of the worst Moslem riots), who feared that the programme would make the Moslems in this country "feel that they are not welcome"! The more fanatically fundamentalist of them are certainly not, and it would only make matters worse for the general hostility against them to simmer underground and not be allowed public expression.Â
Full marks to the BBC, then, for going ahead with the transmission. And, as with the sales of Salman Rushdie's book, the attempt at censorship only multiplied the audience for it.Â
Women against FundamentalismÂ
I have become quite accustomed, over the past few years, to the charge of being "racist" whenever I have opposed the provision of halal and kosher meat, the waiving of conservation and planning regulations for the building of mosques, the demands for publicly-funded schools for Moslem and orthodox Jewish girls, and other such special provisions. The same charge was made when I was instrumental in allowing the anti-Zionist play Perdition to be put on last year at Conway Hall Humanist Centre after it had been denied access to theatres and halls all over the country. In vain have I protested that it can hardly be racist to take a stand against policies that are put forward by fundamentalist co-religionists of different races and are opposed by some other people of the same races.Â
However, I feel that I am vindicated by the very existence of the promising new organization mentioned above, Women Against Fundamentalism, especially as its activists are mainly Asian women. They too are castigating the British race-relations industry for its promotion of separate schools, of an extension of blasphemy law to cover all major religions, and of third-world fundamentalist demands in general.Â
From the perspective of their own third-world background, the Asian members of Women Against Fundamentalism see the demands of fundamentalist religious leaders (especially the Islamic leaders) as basically a denial of freethought, individuality, and sex equality; not as legitimate cultural aspirations. Their first draft leaflet explains: "At the heart of all fundamentalist agendas is the control of the minds and bodies of women, and the maintenance of 'the family'." And it calls for "A high standard of secular, state-funded comprehensive education which fulfils the needs and aspirations of all children from all communities," and for "The right of all women to make their own choices and make their own destinies not limited by static definitions of religion, culture and tradition."Â
It is true that many Moslem women cling to the symbolic veil and their traditional submissive role â€” but that is just what brain-washing does to people. In the days of slavery, many slaves were similarly opposed to the abolitionist campaign, fearful that they would never manage to support themselves. Does that mean that the abolitionists were wrong to liberate them?Â
Other Rushdies in other times
FranÃ§ois Rabelais (ca 1483-1553), French satirist. Was the repeated substitution of an n for an m in Ã¢me â€“ making "ass" out of "soul" â€“ a printer's error? Not hardly.