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Socialism Today 111 - July-August 2007

Blasphemy: a burning issue?

THE KNIGHTING of Salman Rushdie, now ‘Sir Salman’, by the queen has re-ignited the furore that followed the publication of his novel, The Satanic Verses, in 1988. The Ayatollah Khomeini, supreme leader of the Iranian Islamic Republic, issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death, on the grounds that his novel was an insult to Islam. The threat was undoubtedly serious: Rushdie had to go into hiding under police protection, his Japanese translator was assassinated, while his Italian translator was seriously injured.

At that time, we published a comment by LYNN WALSH on the Rushdie affair in our predecessor, Militant International Review No.40, summer 1989. This anticipated many of the issues that have become even more inflammatory in the post 9/11 world, and we therefore consider it worth reprinting today.

Ironically, Rushdie, who was formerly seen as a left-wing critic of the establishment, has meanwhile become a wealthy member of the transatlantic media elite. He supported the US-British military occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, and declared himself "humbled to receive this great honour", his ‘sir’, from the queen. Nevertheless, defence of Rushdie’s right to publish without fear of deadly reprisals, is part and parcel of our defence of fundamental democratic rights.

SALMAN RUSHDIE is in hiding. But he is in good company. Some of the most illustrious authors in world literature have been condemned by religious hierarchs. The philosophers of the French enlightenment, Voltaire, Rousseau and Diderot, who subjected religion to rational criticism, all suffered censorship and persecution.

Charges of blasphemy were often linked with allegations of lewdness, as with The Satanic Verses. Appearance on any list of prohibited books is no guarantee of literary merit, nor of correctness. But that is not the issue. Freedom of speech, including freedom of literary publication, is a fundamental democratic right. Voltaire’s aphorism is justly famous: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’.

In the 18th and 19th centuries the radical representatives of the bourgeoisie fought the absolute monarchs, the church, and feudal oligarchies for freedom of expression. In reality, however, bourgeois-democratic rights – freedom of speech and assembly, the right to vote – were secured only by the struggle of the working class, along with the crucial right to strike and form political organisations. Today, these rights are threatened by the power of capital and the bourgeois state. Their defence rests on the labour movement.

Yet in response to the denunciations of Islamic leaders and Khomeini’s death threat, some Labour MPs like Max Madden have called on Rushdie and his publishers to withdraw The Satanic Verses. Others like Jack Straw have even called for the broadening of Britain’s archaic blasphemy laws to make it an offence to outrage Islamic as well as Christian dogmas. This smacks of the panicky counting of votes. How on earth could a ‘voluntary’ ban (in the face of death threats) or tougher blasphemy laws protect the rights or interests of British Asians?

Under the headline, ‘Labour must repay the loyalty which the Muslim community has shown’ (Tribune, 7 April 1989), Max Madden [then left Labour MP for Bradford West] tried to make a case. "Why", he asks, "is the Labour Party so hooked on Rushdie’s freedom of speech to insult Muslims but so uncaring of Muslim distress?" This echoes the general secretary of the Bradford Council of Mosques: "Equality of justice is our right. We are told that one man has the right to write a book, but no one talks about the rights and sentiments of thousands of Muslims in Britain".

But this equation is false. The right to follow a religion, which the labour movement must defend, is not the same thing at all as the right to censor literature on religious grounds. It is not just ‘Rushdie’s freedom of speech’ which we are ‘hooked on’, but freedom of speech in general. Blasphemy laws are incompatible with democracy. In reality, they are incompatible with religious freedom, as a little thought will show.

Presumably, a ‘multi-racial’ blasphemy law would have to protect Christian doctrine, Islamic faith, Jewish beliefs, and Hinduism. And why should Buddhists, Jehova’s Witnesses, Shintoists, and other minority cults be denied protection? But there’s the rub. One congregation’s divine truth is another’s satanic falsehood. How could they all be protected against heresy or theological denigration – simultaneously?

But "their [British Muslims’] taxes were spent in suppressing Spycatcher", says Max Madden, raising another of the Muslim leaders’ arguments. [During 1987-88 the British government took legal action, ultimately unsuccessful, in Australia and Britain to prevent the publication of the revelations of a former senior secret service officer, Peter Wright, who revealed, among other things, a MI5-CIA plot to bring down the Labour government of Harold Wilson.] Unconsciously, he stumbles onto a vital point. Censorship on religious grounds has always been linked to political censorship. In the eyes of the rich and powerful, blasphemy has always been associated with subversion. No doubt Max Madden opposed the suppression of Spycatcher. But Muslim leaders who use this argument do not challenge the Tories’ exercise of state prerogative to suppress the book.

In Iran it is not possible to publish books or newspapers which oppose the government. Tens of thousands who opposed Khomeini have been tortured and executed. Nor is there unrestricted freedom to publish in Pakistan. In India, there is a long list of books banned on religious, political and ‘security’ grounds.

Perhaps different considerations should apply in Britain? British Muslims "feel under communal siege", writes Max Madden. "They look back with anger over the Thatcher years. They are scarred by unemployment, poverty, and discrimination of all types. They see the rubble of their discarded and eroded civil rights".

True. Workers generally have suffered eroded living standards and a loss of rights under Thatcher. Black and Asian workers, among the most exploited workers of all, have especially suffered. But how will the suppression of a ‘blasphemous’ novel help them?

British Muslims "are entitled to political representation" from the Labour Party, says Max Madden. "If such representation is not forthcoming, it could be very damaging for the Party". Again, true. But what kind of ‘representation’?

The labour movement must organise the defence of the black and Asian community against racist attacks. It must fight discrimination. That means fighting for jobs, a living wage, and decent homes for black workers. Above all, it means fighting for socialist policies to root out the atrocious conditions in which racism breeds. Labour’s failure to ‘represent’ them on these basic issues has led to a bitter disillusionment among many black and Asian workers. Various community organisations, run by the highly-paid professionals of the race relations ‘industry’, have also failed them.

Unable to see a way forward, some Asian workers and youth have turned back to Islam to search for answers. In contrast to the shifty double-talk of politicians, Islamic fundamentalism may appear to offer reassuring certainties. Instead of passive suffering, it may seem to promise radical action.

Radical currents in Christianity (and other religions too) have often played a similar role among oppressed peoples and classes. But from the stand-point of socialism, what have the mullahs and the imams to offer? On social issues, such as the position of women, education, and the exploitation of Asian workers, the leaders of the mosques in Britain can only be described as reactionary.

As in other European countries, the Islamic leaders in Britain welcome the growth of fundamentalism. New additions to the Islamic community had been reduced to a trickle by diminished opportunities and racist immigration laws (to which Labour governments contributed). The second generation, born in Britain, had begun to adapt to a different society.

The reassertion of fundamentalism allows the Islamic leaders to reassert their control, to combat the growing loss of belief and submissiveness within their communities. When The Satanic Verses appeared, they seized the opportunity to step up their campaign for separate schools, single-sex teaching, the avoidance of mixed bathing and sex-education, and so on.

The labour movement must defend the interests of Asian workers. But it is not for Labour "to express their anger and resentment at their anguish over The Satanic Verses". Blasphemy is an issue for religious people, not the labour movement. The labour movement must uphold the rights of all sections of society. This includes the right of people to practise the religion of their choice. But religion is a private matter. The intervention of the state inevitably favours some religious groups and infringes the freedom of others.

Religious freedom also means the right to reject religion altogether. Whether in an Islamic or a Christian community, children must have access to an education unfettered by religious dogma, the right to question and criticise traditional beliefs, and to adopt ideas of their own. "The Labour Party must come off its secular fence", says Max Madden. But since when has it been the task of socialists to uphold the authority of ayatollahs and imams, any more than the authority of priests and bishops?

Max Madden does not support book burning. But his call for the publishers to "stop printing further new editions of the book" is far from being ‘a sensible compromise’. It would not stop there. The imams would demand the censorship of other ‘blasphemous’ books, films, television programmes, and so on. Already, the book-burning has provoked a reaction. "Our religion is not written on our faces", commented one black leader in Bradford. "I’m not blaming the Muslims but unfortunately the entire episode will be used by right-wing racists to have a go at black people – Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs... anybody". Only hours after a demonstration in Bradford against Rushdie, the premises of the Council of Mosques was vandalised. Later, an arsonist was arrested trying to attack London’s Regent Park mosque with a petrol bomb. Needless to say, those responsible were not acting out of concern for Rushdie’s freedom of speech.

The path of the Islamic leaders leads to a dead end, to a beleaguered ghetto. Perhaps the imams imagine that, under a state of Islamic siege, they will have more power within their community. But for their disciples, it will not produce jobs and decent houses, proper health services and education.

Whatever the religious inspiration, in the material world it offers no hope. Worst of all, a turn towards an Islamic ghetto would divide Islamic from non-Islamic Asians, black workers from white workers.

Max Madden wants to return to the "urgent task of electing a Labour government, enjoying the full support of all Britain’s ethnic minorities and fully committed to the removal of all discrimination". We all agree. But this aim will not be achieved by short-sighted concessions to the Ayatollah Khomeini or the Bradford imams. No, we must fight to unite all workers, regardless of their religion, around socialist ideas.


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