Thursday, July 19, 2007

Blasmphey is not a crime. Rushdie's Knighthood?

Human beings understand themselves and shape their futures by arguing and challenging and questioning and saying the un-sayable, not by bowing the knee whether to gods or to men.

-Salman Rushdie

There is an ongoing scuttlebutt about the most routine of events over in England. The government there awarded one of its most famous writers, Salman Rushdie, a knighthood.

The reaction in some part of the world should have been anticipated I suppose. The boorish and unlettered masses in some Muslim countries - people who probably have never read a single line of Rushdie's work - again were whipped up into a frenzy by their religious and political leaders. Again, they took to their streets calling for the death of the author because he wrote a book.

Unless you live under a rock, you know which book I am talking about. The Satanic Verses, inspired by part of the life of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad. In 1989 when the book was published, the then high Imam of Iran and general lunatic, the
Ayathollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, a religious order, that Rushdie be murdered. The book, said Khomeini, was blasphemous. And there is only one thing to do with an apostate like Rushdie.

Rushdie had to go into hiding and while he was never killed, one translator of his book was and two other survived assassination attempts.

In time, the effort to kill Rushdie for having the temerity of writing a book, died out. Although last year, amid surreal and hyper violent reactions in the Muslim world to Danish political cartoons some Muslims found blasphemous, the Iranian government issued a statement saying the death sentence for Rushdie still stands - fatwas as it turns out, cannot be withdrawn.

So it should come as no surprise when the protests erupted last month in some Muslim quarters, particularly in Pakistan, over Rushdie's knighthood. Apparently, those with influence in these countries have no conception of free speech, and claimed that knighting such a "hated apostate" was a direct attack on Islam and all Muslims worldwide.

We've come to expect this. People with little education, who have never read, and probably could not read, Rushdie's books are calling for his murder. But what was even more contemptible, was the reaction by some in the west. There were those who said the knighthood should not have been awarded because Muslims don't like the Satanic Verses. "We really ought not be doing or saying things that upset Muslims."

In other words, we should never say or do things that can be regarded by the faithful as blasphemous.

Well, the proper reaction to the storm of protests from believers who call for the murder of someone for writing a book should have been a short three words: "Too damn bad."

Saying that you cannot publish anything that someone might find blasphemous would essentially force free speech to bow to theology and that is simply not acceptable.

Some of the most important works of art, literature and science have been, and still are, considered blasphemous.

Should we ban Darwin because some Christians think his Origin of Species is an insult to the Almighty? Should The Last Temptation by Nikos Kazantzakis be pulled from bookshelves because it challenges conventional Christian belief?

Most would say no. Yet, because Muslims find political cartoons and fictional novels blasphemous the United Nations is under pressure to adopt a resolution abandoning a basic human freedom - free speech

Ironically, the calls for banning "blasphemous materials" are coming from the Middle East -- a region of the world which has, at best, only the most tenuous history with democratic freedoms. In nations like Iran, theology, not democracy, sets the rules.

That anyone in the west would argue that Rushdie should not be knighted so that the religious sensibilities of religious fanatics are protected is staggering. Those who make this argument should, I think, be ashamed of themselves for they reject one of the bedrock principles of a free society.

The fact is, freedom of expression means we have the right to blaspheme all we want. And it shouldn't be any other way.

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