Saturday 13 August 2022

The triumph of the book burners


I don’t generally read modern literary fiction. The sort of books that win the Booker Prize I usually leave alone. So, I have never read Salman Rushdie and had barely thought of him in years before yesterday. But Rushdie is an important writer whether I care to read him or not and his being stabbed for what he wrote is an important moment for the West. Either we really stand up for freedom of speech now or we forever lose it.

I was quite young when the Life of Brian came out, but I remember watching some of the controversy. A few Christians objected to Monty Python mocking the Gospels, but the film was never banned. John Cleese, Graham Chapman and the others were not threatened. They did not have to go into hiding. For this reason, other films, documentaries and books have come out since that are critical of Christianity or which mock it.  

In academic writing theologians can investigate Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism and pretty much any religion (except one) they care to study with no thought whatsoever for being stabbed. I can argue that there was no historical figure called Moses and that the New Testament was a medieval forgery and know that nothing bad will happen.

This was not always the case. People in Britain were murdered for believing in the wrong sort of Christianity or not believing at all. But gradually we developed the idea of freedom of conscience, we defended people’s right to believe what they pleased and we defended the right to offend.

The success of Western society in the past centuries is founded on freedom of thought and freedom of speech. The development of science depended in part on people being able to challenge orthodoxy and the Christian viewpoint without being personally threatened.

It was this that allowed both Darwin to investigate evolution and theologians to look critically at the texts of the Bible without fear of being censored and without fear of being killed.

We now have much greater insights into both science and the process by which the New Testament was written. It is perfectly possible for a reasonable person to believe in the essential truth of the Gospels and to accept the scientific method.  

Christianity has not been damaged by freedom of thought. The Life of Brian is an insightful commentary. Christians who choose to follow the theological debates may find their faith weakened or strengthened. But at least they will find it tested. If the story of the Gospels is true it matters not one little bit if Jesus is mocked or insulted, after all that is what we are told happened on the road to Calvary.

It is not accidental that freedom of speech as a concept developed in places that were Christian. We came to realise that compelling people to believe this or that about Christianity was a misinterpretation of the Gospels, where the decision to follow Christ is voluntary. It was because Christianity was not a religion of laws, that the law eventually ceased to compel us to believe in it.

Salman Rushdie was stabbed because he believed mistakenly that he could write freely about Islam in the way that people for some centuries in Britain have been able to write freely about Christianity. The process that began in the nineteenth century of critically examining the Bible texts without worrying if it might offend someone has only partially happened with Islam. The sort of things that are routinely written about Christianity or Judaism in academic journals are treated at least with more care if the topic is about Islam.

What we learned in 1989 was that writing a novel with Islamic themes could get you the death penalty. Academics, novelists and the makers of films and television programmes took note. We self-censored.  It is simply unimaginable that anyone would dare make a film called The Life of Bashir based on the Islamic prophet. You couldn’t get funding for it, no cinema would show it and no actors or directors would dare make it.

It wasn’t always like this. In the nineteenth century it was possible for academics in Britain to write freely about Islam. These books are well worth looking at because they are much more honest than anything that could be written today. There was no one to threaten them, no one to stab them.

Freedom of speech before 1989 was almost universal. With the obvious exceptions like shouting fire in a cinema, it didn’t occur to anyone to limit what they said. I don’t think anyone was even frightened to say what they thought about Islam. Perhaps it is for this reason that Rushdie wrote the Satanic Verses. It did not occur to him that in Britain this would be a problem.

But whether it is a coincidence or a cause from 1989 onwards we have gradually been losing the ability to speak freely not merely about Islam, but about everything else.

We self-censor all the time now. About issues such as race, homosexuality, transgender and others. There are things that we might say in private that we would not dare to say at work.

In Scotland there are a set of characteristics “age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation”, about which I might get in trouble if I make a joke which offends someone else.  If I say or write something that is contrary to the orthodoxy now about any of these characteristics I might in theory be convicted of hate speech, so there is a tendency to refrain from doing so.

The Fatwa that was issued in Scotland punishing anyone who say or writes the wrong thing about these characteristics will not get me stabbed, but it might mean I lose my job. If I disagree with the assessment of a teacher that my boy has become a girl, it might mean that I lose my child.

The problem since 1989 is that we have caved in not merely to Muslims who were offended by the Satanic Verses, but to everyone else. Our society that was founded on free speech has not repudiated the viewpoint of Ayatollah Khomeini that we should not offend Muslims, it has emulated it.

Has our appeasement of those who would limit our freedom of speech worked? Well Salman Rushdie is reported to be on a ventilator and may lose an eye.  The threat from extremists is greater now than in 1989.

On each occasion when someone has been offended, we have sided with the offended. We should have required every school child in Britain to read the Satanic Verses. When Danish cartoonists were threatened, we should have published the cartoons in every newspaper in the West. When staff at Charlie Hebdo were murdered, we should have translated the cartoons and made an animated version for transmission on the BBC.

Freedom of speech is not an accidental characteristic of the West. It is the characteristic that made the West what it is.  It is tragic that Rushdie has been attacked, but it is still more tragic that his attacker’s ideology has triumphed. No one today would dare write the Satanic Verses today, not even Rushdie.