Protecting Free Inquiry from Religious Bullies
In the perpetual war waged in order to enshrine in statute or enforce by intimidation religious exemptions from the universal principle of free speech, the events of last week should give the nation cause for further reflection.
After the previous week’s demonstration in front of London’s United States embassy, at which Israeli and American flags were burnt and calls made to impose sharia upon the world entire, copycat acts where held outside the French embassy in the wake of cartoons published by that country’s satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo. AFP reported that protestors shouted slogans against the French publication, waving placards which read “Sharia for France” and “Muslims will conquer France”. This, after 200 Muslims picketed the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, brandishing placards proclaiming “No religion is allowed to insult any other religion” and “We demand international law to stop religious hatred”.
The delicious paradox which envelopes and undermines their actions – remonstrations calling for the curtailment of free expression, permitted by laws protecting said right – is entirely lost on the demonstrators themselves. Hizb ut-Tahrir – the Islamic political organisation behind the London protests –published an open letter to non-Muslims which noted in the opening paragraph that Islamists are open to “debate, tolerate criticism and hear the critiques of others”, but that Charlie Hebdo’s doodles which do indeed pass judgment on their faith are “unacceptable provocations that cross a red line that no Muslim or decent human being would ever accept”.
This having been established, in a separate letter to imams and community leaders, they make their plan to end the propagation of such indecencies known: a state in which law would “protect the honour” of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad and “halt such abuses” against him and the Qur’an. The threat of non-compliance is made evident too in the previous communiqué, for although Hizb ut-Tahrir allegedly condones the violence witnessed in Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere, “the blood-stained track record of Western foreign policy means that all right to take the moral high ground has been forfeited when arguing that violence is an unacceptable response to this provocation”.
What Hizb ut-Tahrir seeks, therefore, is the right to censor, the right to decide for us what words and thoughts are acceptable or unacceptable. But when pressure groups seek to impose prior restraint, it is our duty to critique their censorious instinct. There goes a wonderful apocryphal tale in this regard concerning Dr. Samuel Johnson, compiler of the influential A Dictionary of the English Language. Following the publication of his lexicon, he was visited by a delegation of venerable ladies of London who wished to commend him for excluding all rude and obscene words from his work. “Ladies,” he informed them, “I congratulate you on being able to look them up.”
As to the root of Islamism’s censorious instinct, ‘the Rushdie case’ oft seen as a forewarning to today’s tumult proves instructive. His 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses, was greeted in the first instance by its burning in Bradford by a council of Muslims who had not read the novel, for they had to source it from a bookstore first in order to set it ablaze. Replicate demonstrations spread across the Islamic world, which led another individual who could not have read The Satanic Verses, Ayatollah Khomeini, to call for Rushdie’s execution. The assassination of the novel’s translators, the bullying and terrorisation of publishers, and the destruction of bookstores all followed.
What is usually forgotten is that the parts of the novel which so angered Muslims are based upon a significant episode in Islamic history, recorded by numerous early Qur’anic scholars and chroniclers of Islam including Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari. In his account, in the earliest days of Islam at the time of the Qur’an’s revelation, Muhammad “saw his people turning away from him” and the idea of the one god. He thus pondered the possibility of a compromise whereby the pagan deities al-Lat, al-‘Uzza, and Manat might in some fashion be accommodated into Islam to placate the people of Mecca. Tabari purports that during one revelation, named al-Najm, “Satan cast upon his tongue, because of what he had pondered in himself and longed to bring to his people” and permitted such conciliation.
Initially, this had the desired effect, but soon Gabriel would return to Muhammad and say, “O Muhammad, what have you done! You have recited to the people something which I have not brought you from God, and you have spoken what He did not say to you”. God then “abrogated what Satan had cast upon his tongue in referring to their gods,” issuing instead in al-Najm the proclamation (using M.A.S. Abdel Haleem’s translation now) that al-Lat, al-‘Uzza, and Manat “are nothing but names you have invented yourselves. God has sent no authority for them”. Whether this event ever occurred in this exact form is neither here nor there – the point is that within the wider Islamic tradition, there is room for doubt.
The Satanic Verses, while not having any aesthetic parallels with for example Tom Holland’s documentary Islam: The Untold Story or the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo and previously Jyllands-Posten, does at the very least share with these works a common scepticism, and a desire to question faith in itself, namely the acceptance of purported facts on face value without evidence or debate. The various demonstrations condemning them, most with violence and intimidation attached, thus amount to a crude effort to suppress disbelief and proscribe inquiry, lest the questions thrown up by these works undermine one’s first principles, and the accusations they level contain a grain a truth.
Free inquiry, which Hizb ut-Tahrir in effect condemns, is as essential as the freedoms of speech and assembly which they so regularly take advantage of. More importantly, the right to air heretical views – even if they harm one’s sensibilities – is a central tenet of English and later British liberty, from John Milton through to Thomas Paine and John Stuart Mill. Liberty means nothing, Mill proposed, unless it means liberty of conscience, thought, and feeling; the “absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological”.
The events of the week just past should indeed give the nation cause for reflection, leading hopefully to the necessary conclusion that these fundamental rights, including the rights to dissent and to question, are very much worth protecting.