This week, the Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, signalled that he intended to crackdown on allegedly blasphemous content on the internet, calling it an “unpardonable offence.”
We have been here several times before, of course, most notably during the Satanic Verses affair in 1989 and the Dutch cartoons in 2006. It is understandable, though gravely misguided, to seek to protect the holding of one’s cherished beliefs from insult or ridicule.
Looking back on the controversy over Salman Rushdie’s book I have previously said that it simply did not occur to many of us who were marching against the book just how preposterous our position really was. Not only were we protesting against the book, we also wanted the Satanic Verses to be pulped/banned – thereby seeking to prevent others from reading it too. It was an incredibly damaging episode for Muslims and left an indelible impression on how Islam is viewed around the world by non-Muslims. Regrettably, the issue of blasphemy still remains today a clear example of how so many Muslims are having problems adapting their understanding of faith to the modern world.
If we don’t like what someone is saying then there is no obligation to listen to them. In a world with many faiths and very different beliefs it is the only way we can peacefully live together without constantly treading on each others toes. I regard the Christian belief in the Trinity as a relic of paganism and I am horrified at the disgusting racism and genocide preached in parts of the Jewish Old Testament. And I am immensely grateful to be living in a society where the state will not punish me for holding these views and stating them publicly.
This is not to say that many Muslims alone are thin skinned when it comes to attempting to try and protect their beliefs or opinions from ridicule and/or scrutiny. However, for a community that seeks to aspire to the Qur’an’s description (3:10) of being the “best community” raised for humankind, we should be willing to be more critical of ourselves and seek continuous improvement.
Over twenty-five years ago, after being forced into hiding due to the very real – and deeply shameful – threats against his life, Salman Rushdie remarked “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”
Rushdie -who sadly remains widely reviled amongst Muslims – was actually way ahead of many of us in recognising the real value of a secular state and the repressive dangers posed by any kind of religious state.
So, I will end this little blog with a quote from the man himself who has been much misunderstood. Maybe it will encourage more people to purchase his books and to perhaps reconsider some of their views:
“Literature is the one place in any society where, within the secrecy of our own heads, we can hear voices talking about everything in every possible way. The reason for ensuring that that privileged arena is preserved is not that writers want the absolute freedom to say and do whatever they please. It is that we, all of us, readers and writers and citizens and generals and godmen, need that little, unimportant-looking room. We do not need to call it sacred, but we do need to remember that it is necessary.
‘Everybody knows,’ wrote Saul Bellow in The Adventures of Augie March, ‘there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression. If you hold down one thing, you hold down the adjoining.’
Wherever in the world the little room of literature has been closed, sooner or later the walls have come tumbling down.”
Salman Rushdie, Is Nothing Sacred, 1990, (Essay contained in Imaginary Homelands)