Defend the right to be offended

About the author
Salman Rushdie is a Booker Prize winner, a leading post-colonial literary figure and a prominent activist for freedom of speech.

I was in Washington just before the Iraq war began in March 2003 and was invited to speak to groups of senators from both parties. The most obvious distinction between the Democrats and the Republicans was that the Republicans used exclusively religious language. They discussed why they hadn’t seen each other at a certain prayer meeting. One senator said to me, in tones of genuine horror, that what he disliked most about Osama bin Laden was that he called America a Godless country. He said: “How can he call us Godless? We’re incredibly God-fearing!”

I said: “Well, senator, I suppose he doesn’t think so.” But his outrage at being presented as un-Godly was undeniably sincere. He meant business. And the increasing power of God-fearing America – of the Christian coalition, Mel Gibson, The Passion of the Christ variety – subsequently determined the result of the November 2004 presidential election.

Now here in Britain I discover another kind of Anschluss of liberal values in the face of resurgent religious demands. One of its results is the proposal by Tony Blair’s government – under the auspices of its Serious and Organised Crime and Police Bill – to introduce a ban on the “incitement to hatred on religious grounds”.

The pressure of members of English PEN has wrested a late concession from the government, which has renamed the proposed offence “hatred against persons on racial or religious grounds”. But the danger the legislation carries for freedom of speech, while diminished, remain. It seems we need to fight the battle for the Enlightenment all over again in Europe as well as in the United States.

As Britain’s government prepares to ban “incitement to hatred against persons on racial or religious grounds”, openDemocracy writers forcefully disagree on the merits and consequences of the proposal:

  • Nick Cohen & Julian Baggini, “Should ‘religious hatred’ be illegal?” (August 2004)
  • Geoffrey Bindman, “From race to religion: the next deterrent law?” (August 2004)

These articles provoked lively debate in our Faith & Ideas discussion forum.

If you find these contributions valuable, please consider subscribing to openDemocracy for just £25 / $40 / €40. You’ll gain access to easy-to-read PDFs of all our material.

That battle was about the church’s desire to place limits on thought. The Enlightenment wasn’t a battle against the state but against the church. Diderot’s novel La Religieuse (1760), with its portrayal of nuns and their behaviour, was deliberately blasphemous: it challenged religious authority, with its indexes and inquisitions, on what it was possible to say. Most of our contemporary ideas about freedom of speech and imagination come from the Enlightenment. We may have thought the battle won. If we aren’t careful, it is about to be “un-won”.

Offence and insult are part of everyday life for people in Britain. All you have to do is open a daily paper and there’s plenty to offend. Or you can walk into the religious books section of a bookshop and discover you’re damned to various kinds of eternal hellfire, which is certainly insulting, not to say overheated.

The idea that any kind of free society can be constructed in which people will never be offended or insulted is absurd. So too is the notion that people should have the right to call on the law to defend them against being offended or insulted. 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 University 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 religious 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.

Now, with its proposed law “to prevent hatred being stirred up against people targeted because of their religious beliefs”, the current British government has set out to create that impossibility. Privately its architects will 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, at a theatre in England’s second-largest city Birmingham, rioting Sikhs have forced the closure of a play set in a Sikh temple by a young woman writer of Sikh origin, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti – and the government has said nothing to criticise what was effectively criminal action. The novelist Hanif Kureishi made one of the best comments about the affair, when he noted that the theatre where Bezhti (“Dishonour”) had been performed was a temple, too. Evangelical Christians caught on quickly and protested against the BBC’s screening of Jerry Springer – The Opera.

The response of many British writers on this issue has revealed striking failures of perception. I took issue with Ian Jack, editor of the respected literary magazine Granta, when he said that he was happy to support the British police when they defended Rupert Murdoch’s printing plant in Wapping, London, from striking print-workers in 1986, but did not think that the Birmingham theatre and its play should be protected from the threatening Sikhs. Forgive me for not seeing the logic of the principle of “self-restraint”. It seems to me to be a liberal failure to say that even though we don’t understand what is upsetting those who say they are 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.”

This article is adapted from Salman Rushdie’s speech to English PEN at the launch of its “Free Expression is No Offence” campaign in January 2005.

For more on the Bezhti affair, click here

What this kind of attitude ultimately does, and what the government’s law will do – even with the late amendment conceded thanks to the persuasive advocacy of English PEN – is to undermine a principle of free expression which affects everyone in Britain, religious or not. If we cannot have open discourse about the ideas by which we live, then we are straitjacketing ourselves. This is the starting-point of the Enlightenment.

It does matter. People have the fundamental right to take an argument to the point where somebody is offended by what they say. It’s no trick to support the free speech of somebody you agree with or to whose opinion you are indifferent. The defence of free speech begins at the point when people say something you can’t stand. If you can’t defend their right to say it, then you don’t believe in free speech. You only believe in free speech as long as it doesn’t get up your nose. But free speech does get up people’s noses. Friedrich Nietzsche called Christianity “the one great curse” and “the one immortal blemish on mankind”. Would he now be prosecuted?

There is a long tradition of irreverent, raw, and critical remarks about religion in Britain. From eminent thinkers to the country’s favourite comedians like Rowan Atkinson in the BBC comedy 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 state’s senior legal officer, the attorney-general, will be enough to bring down the curtains of self- and corporate censorship.

It will be a sad day if what remains a bad law comes into effect in Britain. If it does, it will be important to disobey it and have it tested in the courts, which one hopes will recognise its manifest absurdity.

The way things are done in Britain often makes them seem local, even technical, rather than a matter of principle. Government spokesmen in London justify their actions in terms of the need to “close (an) unacceptable loophole” rather than on the need to be God-fearing, or by claiming that this is a God-fearing country. But the example set by the United Kingdom parliament on this issue is a signal to the world. It should not be that freedom of thought and speech and of the imagination can be closed down by bigots.