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Respecting Beliefs and Rebuking Rushdie

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 January 2009


The furore that followed the publication of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses has provided a graphic illustration of the conflicts that may still arise in societies characterized by diverse religious beliefs. This article examines how far the rules governing a plural society should require its members to defer to beliefs that they themselves do not share. In particular, it examines whether a principle of ‘respect for beliefs’ can provide adequate reason for limiting freedom of expression. A strong version of the principle, which would limit substantive criticism of beliefs, is found untenable. A weaker version of the principle, which would concern itself not with the matter but with the manner in which others' beliefs are treated, has greater plausibility and moral appeal. That also, however, proves too hazardous and indeterminate a basis for setting legal limits to freedom of expression.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1990

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1 Rushdie, Salman, The Satanic Verses (London: Viking, 1988).Google Scholar For a useful collection of documents on the Rushdie affair, see Appignanesi, Lisa and Maitland, Sara, eds, The Rushdie File (London: Fourth Estate, 1989).Google ScholarBrennan, Timothy, Salman Rushdie and the Third World (London: Macmillan, 1989)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, examines The Satanic Verses in the context of Rushdie's other writings. Two general accounts of the Rushdie affair and its background, one written from a Muslim and the other from a non-Muslim stance, are Akhtar, Shabbir, Be Careful with Muhammad! The Salman Rushdie Affair (London: Bellew, 1989)Google Scholar, and Ruthven, Malise, A Satanic Affair: Salman Rushdie and the Rage of Islam (London: Chatto and Windus, 1990).Google Scholar To date Rushdie has given two main defences of his position: ‘In good faith’, published in The Independent on Sunday, 4 02 1990, pp. 1820Google Scholar, and ‘Is nothing sacred?’, The Herbert Read Memorial Lecture, 6 February 1990 (London: Cranta, 1990).Google Scholar

2 On ‘overlapping consensus’, see Rawls, John, ‘The Idea of an Overlapping Consensus’, Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, 7 (1987), 125.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

3 Cf. ‘Many writers often condescendingly imply that Muslims should become as tolerant as modern Christians. After all, the Christian faith has not been undermined. But the truth is, of course, too obviously the other way. The continual blasphemies against the Christian faith have totally undermined it. Any faith which compromises its internal temper of militant wrath is destined for the dustbin of history, for it can no longer preserve its faithful heritage in the face of the corrosive in fluences.

The fact that post-Enlightenment Christians tolerate blasphemy is a matter for shame, not for pride…

Those Muslims who find it intolerable to live in a United Kingdom contaminated with the Rushdie virus need to seriously consider the Islamic alternatives of emigration (hijrah) to the House of Islam or a declaration of holy war (jehad) on the House of Rejection. The latter may well seem a kind of hasty militancy that is out of the question, though, with God on one's side, one is never in the minority. And England, like all else, belongs to God.’ Akhtar, Shabbir, The Guardian, 27 02 1989Google Scholar (Appignanesi, and Maitland, , eds, The Rushdie File, pp. 240–1).Google Scholar

4 Whether the truth or falsity of beliefs is really of no consequence here is a nice question. It is arguable that, if my offence is misplaced because it stems from false beliefs, it cannot provide adequate reason for limiting your freedom. However, even if we take that view in principle, we may still regard it as of little consequence in practice, since, in religious matters, there is such radical and unresolvable disagreement about which beliefs are true.

5 Cf. ‘The Rushdie affair is, in the last analysis, admittedly about fanaticism on behalf of God.’ ‘It is true of course that God is above human insult in one sense; but there is another equally valid sense in which the believer is morally obliged to vindicate the reputation of God and his spokesman against the militant calumnies of evil. Only then can he or she truly confess the faith. For faith is as faith does.’ Akhtar, , Be Careful with Muhammad!, pp. 61, 103.Google Scholar In taking action against Gay News for blasphemous libel in 1977, Mrs Mary Whitehouse explained, ‘I simply had to protect Our Lord’; New Statesman, 15 07 1977, p. 74.Google Scholar

6 For the history of the English law of blasphemy, see Nokes, G. D., A History of the Crime of Blasphemy (London: Sweet and Maxwell, 1928).Google Scholar

7 The British Government's considered position on the issues raised by the Rushdie affair was set out in a letter sent by John Patten, Minister of State at the Home Office, to a number of leading British Muslims, 4 July 1989. The full text of the letter was published in The Times, 5 07 1989, p. 13Google Scholar, and is reprinted in Parekh, Bhikhu, ed., Law, Blasphemy and the Multi-Faith Society (London: Commission for Racial Equality, 1990), pp. 84–7.Google Scholar

8 ‘Blasphemy, Offensiveness and Law’, British Journal of Political Science, 10 (1980), 129–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar A few years ago, the Law Commission recommended that the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel should be abolished: see Law Commission, Working Paper No. 79: Offences against Religion and Public Worship (London: HMSO, 1981)Google Scholar, and the Commission's subsequent Report to Parliament, Criminal Law: Offences against Religion and Public Worship (Law Com., No. 145) (London: HMSO, 1985).Google Scholar For other recent discussions of the English law of blasphemy, see Buxton, Richard, ‘The Case of Blasphemous Libel’, Criminal Law Review, 11 1978, 673–82Google Scholar;Spencer, J. R., ‘Blasphemy: the Law Commission's Working Paper’, Criminal Law Review, 12 1981, 810–20Google Scholar; StRobilliard, John A., Religion and the Law (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984), pp. 2545Google Scholar; Edwards, David, ‘Toleration and the English Blasphemy Law’, in Horton, John and Mendus, Susan, eds, Aspects of Toleration (London: Methuen, 1985), pp. 7598Google Scholar; Parekh, , ed., Law, Blasphemy and the Multi-Faith Society.Google Scholar

9 E.g., Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972)Google Scholar; ‘Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory’, Journal of Philosophy, 77 (1980), 515–72Google Scholar; Dworkin, Ronald, Taking Rights Seriously (London: Duckworth, 1978)Google Scholar; and A Matter of Principle (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986)Google Scholar, Part 3; Ackerman, Bruce A., Social Justice in the Liberal State (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1980).Google Scholar

10 The following statements, prompted by the Rushdie affair, provide examples of opinions which imply a commitment to something like the principle of respect for beliefs.

‘In our view, it [The Satanic Verses] is a mere collection of insults, sacrilege, blasphemy and obscenity against Islam. No individual with the slightest grain of self-respect can accept being insulted and it is a more serious matter when a whole world community is subject to outrageous abuse of its inviolable sanctities.’ (Dr Mughram Ali Al-Ghamdi, chairman of the UK Action Committee on Islamic Affairs; quoted in Appignanesi, and Maitland, , eds, The Rushdie File, p. 113.)Google Scholar

‘The right to freedom of thought, opinion and expression should not be practised at the expense of the rights of others. Islam should not be degraded under the banner of freedom of thought. Cursing any divine religion (Islam, Christianity and Judaism) could not be excused on the basis of freedom of thought, expression and opinion; it is a low act which deserves to be condemned by the whole world.’ (Declaration of the Islamic Conference Organization, The Times, 18 03 1989.)Google Scholar

‘The Labour Party is a secular political party in a secular state. Britain, however, is a multi-racial, multi-faith society. There must be respect and understanding for everybody from everybody. This must impose constraints and restraints on freedom of speech.’ (Max Madden, Tribune, 7 04 1989, p. 1.)Google Scholar

‘When a prophet is treated in a supercilious, dismissive or crude manner, what is at stake is not his honour – for he is dead and too big a person to be affected by insults. What is really at stake is the sense of self-respect and integrity of those living men and women who define their identity in terms of their allegiance to the prophet. Their pride, good opinion of themselves, dignity and self-esteem deserve to be protected and nurtured, especially when these are subjected to daily assaults by a hostile society.’ (Parekh, Bhikhu, New Statesman and Society, 24 03 1989, p. 33.)Google Scholar

‘The laws of this country [Britain] were made before the Muslim peoples arrived … Now they must adapt to us. Others must respect our faith.’ (Hussain, Pir Mahroof, quoted in New Statesman and Society, 2 06 1989, p. 14).Google Scholar

‘Faith is something to be respected and revered: not to be used as an opportunity to humiliate.’ (Vaz, Keith, The Independent, 29 07 1989, p. 11.)Google Scholar

‘One would think that, in a plural democracy, we should all generate respect rather than hatred for opposed yet conscientiously held convictions… It can never be right to defend, in the name of liberalism, works that demean and humiliate human nature and tradition in any of their established forms.’ (Akhtar, , Be Careful with Muhammad!, p. 7.)Google Scholar

11 However, note that my offended reaction may be caused not by the fact that what you say amounts to disrespect for my beliefs, but simply by my taking exception to the substance of your remarks; for example, if you make abusive remarks about Christ, I may be offended, not because that constitutes disrespect for me as a Christian, but simply because you are abusing the Son of God.

12 For a catalogue of offended conditions, see Feinberg, Joel, The Moral Limits of the Criminal Law; Vol. 2: Offense to Others (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), pp. 1013.Google Scholar

13 On ‘rights-based’ moralities, see Dworkin, , Taking Rights Seriously, pp. 169–73Google Scholar; Mackie, J. L., ‘Can There be a Rights-based Moral Theory?’, in Waldron, Jeremy, ed., Theories of Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), pp. 168–81.Google Scholar

14 Rawls, , ‘Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory’, p. 543.Google Scholar

15 Appignanesi, and Maitland, , eds, The Rushdie File, p. 28.Google Scholar

16 For example, ‘You are aggrieved that some of us have condemned you without a hearing and asked for the ban without reading the book. Yes, I have not read it, nor do I intend to. I do not have to wade through a filthy drain to know what filth is. My first inadvertent step would tell me what I have stepped into.’ (Shahabuddin, Syed, in Appignanesi, and Maitland, , eds, The Rushdie File, p. 47.)Google Scholar

17 In some measure this difficulty might be handled by subjecting offence to a test of reasonableness; see Jones, , ‘Blasphemy, Offensiveness and Law’, p. 147Google Scholar, and Report of the Committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship (the ‘Williams Report’), Cmnd 7772 (London: HMSO, 1979), pp. 122–5.Google Scholar However, not everyone would accept that ‘reasonableness’ is an appropriate test to apply to offence; see, for example, Feinberg, , Offense to Others, pp. 35–7.Google Scholar

18 The grounds for freedom of expression are examined in relation to the Rushdie affair in Waldron, Jeremy, ‘Too important for tact’, Times Literary Supplement, 10–16 03 1989, pp. 248, 260Google Scholar; and Weale, Albert, ‘Freedom of Speech vs Freedom of Religion?’, in Parekh, Bhikhu, ed., Free Speech (London: Commission for Racial Equality, 1990), pp. 4958.Google Scholar

19 For a contrary view, see Mendus, Susan, ‘The Tigers of Wrath and the Horses of Instruction’Google Scholar, in Parekh, , ed., Free Speech, pp. 317.Google Scholar

20 For an examination of the significance of revelation for the Rushdie affair, see King, Preston, ‘Rushdie and Revelation’Google Scholar, in Parekh, , ed., Free Speech, pp. 2848.Google Scholar

21 Williams, Bernard, Problems of the self (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), p. 136.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

22 I have examined some aspects of this relation in ‘Liberalism, Belief and Doubt’, in Bellamy, Richard, ed., Liberalism and Recent Legal and Social Philosophy (ARSP, Beiheft 36) (Stuttgart: Steiner, 1989), pp. 5169.Google Scholar

23 R. v. Lemon [1979] 2 WLR 281 at 315.Google Scholar See also Weale, , ‘Freedom of Speech vs Freedom of Religion?’, pp. 55–8.Google Scholar For criticism of Lord Scarman's view, see the Law Commission, Working Paper No. 79:Google ScholarOffences against Religion and Public Worship, pp. 7880.Google Scholar

24 This may also explain why liberalism tends to concern itself much more with some sorts of beliefs than with others, an unevenness of concern which would seem odd if what mattered were beliefs as such. Why all the Angst about moral and religious beliefs? Why not an equal concern with people's beliefs about the natural world or about art? Part of the answer would seem to be that moral and religious beliefs are ‘life-shaping’ and are therefore more directly relevant to the kind of rights that the deontological liberal wants to assert.

25 For example, ‘For Unesco, as a world-wide forum for dialogue and understanding, freedom of creation, of opinion and of expression, with respect for convictions, beliefs and religions, is essential … It is every person's duty to respect other people's religions; it is also every person's duty to respect other people's freedom of expression.’ (Frederico Mayor, Director-General of UNESCO, in Appignanesi, and Maitland, , eds, The Rushdie File, p. 125).Google Scholar ‘Western emphasis on freedom of speech and tolerance is essential to civilisation. But reverence towards the traditions and ideals which other peoples hold dear is also an essential part of a healthy and happy society.’ (Dehqani-Tafti, H. B., Bishop of Iran, Letter, The Times, 1 03 1989.)Google Scholar

26 For example, ‘censorship is wrong and any calls for censorship by any fundamentalist religious leaders should be resisted. Not because of any lack of respect for anyone's sincerely held personal faith. But because it cannot be right to have one set of views imposed on everyone else by force, punishment and the censor.’ (Abbott, Diane, Letter, The Guardian, 16 02 1989Google Scholar, in Appignanesi, and Maitland, , eds, The Rushdie File, p. 111.)Google Scholar ‘It is important that their [British Muslims'] spiritual values should be respected… They, in turn, however, must not seek to impose their values either on their fellow Britons of other faiths or on the majority who acknowledge no faith at all.’ (Editorial, The Independent, 16 01 1989.)Google Scholar

27 For example, ‘It is not civilised to insult the religious sanctities of any people. We do not object to anyone writing critically about Islam – there are hundreds of such books in our libraries – but as you see these Satanic Verses belong to an entirely different genre.’ (Spokesman for the Islamic Council, in Appignanesi, and Maitland, , eds, The Rushdie File, p. 78.)Google Scholar ‘That Rushdie has insulted us is evident… Of course, the rights of the individual, notably to free expression, are inalienable. Those of the community, notably the respect of its beliefs, are no less so.’ (Marzouki, Moncef, in Appignanesi, and Maitland, , eds, The Rushdie File, p. 182.)Google Scholar ‘Islam and Muslims are not against freedom of expression but they are against freedom to insult and injure the religious beliefs and sentiments of any community.’ (DrsKhalil, S. M., Mojahid, I., and Khan, M. S., Letter, The Independent, 3 03 1989.)Google Scholar‘The Muslims did not object to anybody disagreeing with Islam but only to somebody insulting it. Whether this right to insult exists, is the issue.’ (Qureshi, Shoaib and Khan, Javed, The Politics of Satanic Verses (Leicester: Muslim Community Studies Institute, 1989), p. 27.)Google Scholar

28 ‘No freedom can be absolute and, in a democratic society, the individual, whether a writer, an artist or an ordinary man in the street, must voluntarily restrain his freedom to stay within the universally accepted bounds of civilised conduct. If he does not, then he is asking for restriction to be imposed upon him. Some argue that writers and artists are a special category and must enjoy unrestricted freedom of expression. This notion must be challenged. No one who has read the book candeny that Mr Rushdie has trangressed all boundaries of decency and propriety in The Satanic Verses and for that he must be condemned.’ (Ali, M. Akbar, Letter, Daily Telegraph, 9 03 1989Google Scholar, in Appignanesi, and Maitland, , eds, The Rushdie File, p. 217.)Google Scholar ‘This book is not a threat to Muslims. It is a threat to decency. One cannot and should not malign or publish libellous statements against leaders of any faith. Islam can withstand any controversy and criticism. No religion should tolerate blasphemy.’ (Mohommad, Shaikh, Letter, The Independent, 20 01 1989.)Google Scholar ‘Freedom to criticise one religion from the basis of another is not under threat… Muslims accept criticism but they will not tolerate vilification of the Prophet Mohamed. They in turn may criticise the beliefs of Christians but would never insult Jesus… Criticism will be met, as it has been in the past, by “the ink of the scholars”. But why should vilification be allowed? Surely it is not beyond the capability of intelligent people to distinguish between useful religious debate and deliberate distortion and insult.’ (Hossain, M., Letter, The Independent, 1 06 1989.)Google Scholar

29 In R. v. Ramsay and Foote [1883]Google Scholar, Lord Coleridge declared, ‘I now lay it down as law, that, if the decencies of controversy are observed, even the fundamentals of religion may be attacked without the writer being guilty of blasphemy’(15 Cox C. C. 231, at 238). However, he was not the first to interpret the law in that way.

30 Stephen's Digest of the Criminal Law, 9th edn (1950)Google Scholar, article 214. This formulation of the law was endorsed by Scarman, Lord in R. v. Lemon [1979], 2 WLR 281, at 315.Google Scholar

31 Cf. ‘Religion is a luxuriant growth. Alongside major historical traditions is a tangled mass of lesser and newer ones, not always easily identifiable, fiercely competitive, some of them much given to litigation, and with beliefs that range from the profoundly impressive to the suspiciously barmy. Where does one draw the line? Is Ron Hubbard, for instance, a candidate for posthumous inviolability? And if not, why not? And what might be the consequences of protecting the reputation of religious founders who, in any sane and tolerant society, would deserve to be ridiculed?’ (The Archbishop of York (commenting on a proposal to extend the law of libel to the founders of religious faiths), Letter, The Times, 1 03 1989.)Google Scholar

32 See further, Jones, , ‘Blasphemy, Offensiveness and Law’, pp. 141–4.Google Scholar

33 Letter, The Times, 9 03 1989Google Scholar (in Appignanesi, and Maitland, , eds, The Rushdie File, pp. 215–16).Google Scholar Similarly, though rather more opaquely, the Archbishop of York has suggested dealing with the issues raised by the Rushdie affair by developing ‘that aspect of the present law of blasphemy which focuses on the shaking of the fabric of society when widespread sensibilities are offended. Implicit in this is the belief that stable societies contain a sacral element, and that it is unwise to allow this sense of sacredness to be undermined by scurrilous attack.’ (Letter, The Times, 1 03 1989.)Google Scholar

34 Note that, even if we judge that the speaker was speaking improperly, that need not be sufficient to condone a violent or disorderly reaction.