Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Rushdie on England's "Incitement to Religious Hatred" Law

Thanks to a pointer from C8H10N4HO2O2:
The idea that any kind of free society can be constructed in which people will never be offended or insulted, have the right to call on the law to defend them against being offended or insulted, is absurd. In the end a fundamental decision needs to be made: do we want to live in a free society or not? Democracy is not a tea party where people sit around making polite conversation. In democracies people get extremely upset with each other. They argue vehemently against each other's positions. (But they don't shoot.)

At Cambridge I was taught a laudable method of argument: you never personalise, but you have absolutely no respect for people's opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks. That seems to me a crucial distinction: people must be protected from discrimination by virtue of their race, but you cannot ring-fence their ideas. The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it's a belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.

With their "incitement to religious hatred law", this government has set out to create that impossibility. Privately they'll tell you the law is designed to please "the Muslims". But which Muslims, when and on what day?

The ability of this law to protect "the Muslims" seems to me arguable. It is entirely possible that instead it will be used against Muslims before it's used against anyone else. There are identifiable racist and right-wing groups in this country who would argue that Muslims are the ones inciting religious hatred, and these groups will use, or try to use, this law.

There is no question that there also are Muslim leaders who are anxious to prosecute - for example - The Satanic Verses, and will try to do so if this law is passed. So this law will unleash some major expressions of intolerance.

Already rioting Sikhs have forced the closure of Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's play, Behzti, in Birmingham and the government has said nothing to criticise what was effectively criminal action. Hanif Kureishi made one of the best comments about all this, when he noted that the theatre was a temple, too - just as much as the fictional temple in the play. Evangelical Christians caught on quickly and protested against the BBC's screening of Jerry Springer. The Opera.

I took issue with the Granta editor Ian Jack when he declared that he was perfectly happy for the British police to defend Wapping when print workers were striking, but not the Birmingham theatre from the offended Sikhs. Forgive me for not seeing the logic of the principle of "restraint" he invoked. It seems to me to be a liberal failure to say that even though we don't understand what is upsetting the offended, we shouldn't upset them. That's condescension. That's saying "you can have your little religion over there in the corner and we won't fool with you."
Apologies for the long quote, in explanation for it I so love Rushdie's authorial voice that I can't help myself. Now there is just one more critical quote:
There is a long tradition of irreverent, raw, and critical remarks about religion in this country, some by very eminent thinkers, some by our favourite comedians - like Rowan Atkinson in Blackadder muttering "Bad weather is God's way of telling us we should burn more Catholics." Even if the Government doesn't think that such remarks will find their way into court prosecutions, the very possibility that they might, at the discretion of the Attorney General, will be enough to bring down the curtains of self- and corporate censorship.
Let us hope that Parliament does not allow this law to come to pass. Political Correctness is bad enough in the USA, with only harrassment laws available to be shoehorned into a form that allows criminal prosecutions for the error of being the object of someone else's offended sensibilities. Imagine how bad PC could be if it had the full force of law behind it!

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