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Blasphemy and power

Fred Halliday
13 February 2006

The eve of 14 February, St. Valentine's Day, is a reminder of what is at stake in disputes involving the west and authorities in the Muslim world on matters of "blasphemy". For it was seventeen years ago, 14 February 1989, that on grounds of "blasphemy" the then Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced his notorious fatwa (religious condemnation) of the author Salman Rushdie for his book The Satanic Verses, an event that forced the writer to go into hiding for several years and led to the murder of two people involved in the book's translation and circulation.

The widespread protests against Rushdie's book in the middle east and south Asia are echoed in those following publication of the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. The reaction of at least one Islamist leader, Sheikh Fadlallah of Hizbullah in Lebanon, has been to say that had Rushdie been killed, such issues would not have recurred. This is a significant remark that points to the fact that at the core of disputes over what is termed "blasphemy" lie questions of power and authority as well as those of emotion. It is not for nothing that some of the most famous trials in western history – Socrates, Galileo, Spinoza, Jesus himself – have revolved around this charge. Who talks of blasphemy talks of power.

A transnational event

The Salman Rushdie and Danish cartoons controversy is the third modern incident of blasphemy sparking pan-Islamic outrage; they were preceded by the protest movement that erupted in 1969 following an attempted attack on the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem by an Australian arsonist.

All three incidents were, in the first instance, dramatic examples of a "transnational" process, a linking of events in many different countries as a result of one, initially small-scale, local event that then becomes a global news event with a kaleidoscope of meanings, narratives and currents of feeling clustering around it. There can be no more dramatic example of the power and reach both of the international media and of political and religious groupings with a transnational agenda. At the same time, they also show – even the Danish cartoon affair, which is occurring in the age of the internet – two of the limits as well as the potency of what has come to be seen as the "transnational" or "global".

Also in openDemocracy on the Danish cartoon crisis:

Neal Ascherson, "A carnival of stupidity" (February 2006)

"Muslims and Europe: a cartoon confrontation" (February 2006) – a compendium of writers' views, including Fauzia Ahmad, Zaid Al-Ali, KA Dilday, Max Farrar, Sajjad Khan, Patrice de Beer, Roger Scruton, Adam Szostkiewicz, and Sami Zubaida

Ehsan Masood, "A post-Satanic journey"
(February 2006)

Doug Ireland, "The right to caricature God…and his prophets"
(February 2006)

Tariq Modood, "The liberal dilemma: integration or vilification? "
(February 2006)

First, the emphasis of much of the literature on "global civil society" that has emerged in the last decade is infused with a kind of liberal optimism that heralds the decline of barriers between peoples, the enhanced interaction of communities and non-governmental groups across the world, and a retreat in the power of states to invade the spaces of civil society.

All this may have considerable evidence to draw on, but the spread of liberal ideas and NGOs – in relation to (for example) the environment, women's rights, or migration – is offset by the worldwide spread of illiberal ideas and bodies, aided often by the involvement of organisations in diaspora communities: conservative religious groups (Opus Dei, chauvinist Hindus and Orthodox Jews, conservative Islamists), anti-feminist activists, or bodies tied to militaristic nationalist currents.

Thus, "global civil society" is no guarantee of progress, freedom or the defence of rights: as much as any specific domestic society, it may be the site of conflict over values, power, lies and manipulation, even as the illiberal take advantage of their freedom to access the news media and the internet.

Second, the "transnational" is limited by a factor common to the al-Aqsa, Rushdie, and cartoon incidents: even if such movements of protest and outrage begin as those of independent, non-state groups, this does not last. States are not stupid, or idle: they adjust, react, seek to control.

Thus, within a short time the more-or-less autonomous, transnational Muslim protest against the cartoons gathered pace (partly, it is true, through active cultivation of states at the Organisation of the Islamic Conference [OIC] in December 2005). Middle-eastern and other states joined the fray – denouncing Denmark, the European Union, the "west" and all else they could encompass; withdrawing ambassadors, threatening official boycotts.

On the western side, and amidst much disarray and confusion, European governments and the United States sought to limit the damage and contain the crisis. This was, equally, the case in 1969 and 1989: indeed, the formation of OIC was partly an attempt to meet the challenge of the al-Aqsa outrage by seeking to channel the protests in a way that would legitimate the constituent states' power.

The same effort at appropriation is apparent in the case of Rushdie, where Khomeini's intervention came only after a vigorous campaign by Muslims in Britain (including the burning of a copy of the book in the northern English city of Bradford), and the deaths of demonstrators in Islamabad and Kashmir. The fatwa against Rushdie was in no proper sense a legal judgement of the kind implied in Islamic law by that term – since, among other things, it never listed the pages in the book that were supposed to have offended; but this did not prevent it from becoming an international, inter-state, policy that affected relations between Iran and Europe for many years to come.

The real divide

If these disputes over blasphemy reveal the limits as well as the power of the transnational, they also highlight the view that polarises two systems of value: the Islamic prohibition of portrayals of the Prophet Mohammed, and western traditions of free speech, satire and critique of religion. Insofar as they damage relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims in some European societies, and add fuel to claims of western hostility to Islam, the view clearly has some purchase on reality. But on closer examination, the reality is more complex.

A key point is that the debate is not between a (western) ideal of absolute freedom of expression and a (Muslim) denial of that freedom. Only a few libertarians in the west believe in complete freedom of expression. There are, rightly, laws against racial hatred, libel, and incitement to violence; and operating principles of respect that underlie the exercise of what are, strictly defined, legal rights: no one (for example) would open a McDonalds restaurant outside a Hindu temple, or a pork butcher's outside a mosque or a synagogue.

There are also considerations of prudence and indeed political judgment restraining what people say (the original version of my book 100 Myths About the Middle East – where I question many accepted ideas about the religions, history and politics of the region – contained several myths that, after consultation, I removed from the published version: they will have to wait for another time to see the light of day).

The debate is, therefore, not between two absolutes, but about degree: where, within a set of shared aspirations to truth, decency, respect and caution, lines should be drawn. Such a debate cuts within cultures and religions rather than between them.

When this is understood, it becomes possible to register a different cultural faultline where there is indeed a genuine absence of shared values: not between Islam and the west, but between claims of religious authority and exemption on one side, and a secular openness on the other.

Fred Halliday is Professor of International Relations at the LSE, and Visiting Professor at CIDOB, Barcelona. His books include Islam and the Myth of Confrontation and 100 Myths About the Middle East.

Fred Halliday's "global politics" column on openDemocracy surveys the national histories, geopolitical currents, and dominant ideas across the world. The articles include:

"America and Arabia after Saddam"
(May 2004)

"Terrorism and world politics: conditions and prospects"
(March 2005)

"An encounter with Mr X" (March 2005)

"Iran's revolutionary spasm" (July 2005)

"Political killing in the cold war" (August 2005)

"Maxime Rodinson: in praise of a 'marginal man'"
(September 2005)

"A transnational umma: myth or reality? " (October 2005)

"The 'Barcelona process': ten years on" (November 2005)

"The United Nations vs the United States" (January 2006)

In considering this religious dimension, two significant points arise. First, it is clear that the texts and traditions of all major religions are in violation of the modern, secular codes establishing the laws and norms of war – as embodied in modern times by the Geneva Conventions, United Nations international rights agreements and other documents. Moreover, to deny the claims of such religious doctrines is, from the perspective of the faith, blasphemous. Few choose to draw attention to the point, but if societies allow themselves to legitimate censorship on grounds of blasphemy, some very problematic consequences may follow.

Second, religious doctrine reveals an important difference in the very concept of "blasphemy". In the Greek New Testament, blaptein ("to harm") and pheme (saying) are combined to form the accusation against Jesus on the grounds that he claimed to the son of God. This western concept of blasphemy (both theological and legal) involves insult to a divine being: God the father, or Jesus, his son. The contrast here with the Muslim claim to be outraged by the cartoons of Mohammed on the grounds of blasphemy rests on a false cultural analogy: for in Islam, Mohammed is a human being alone, and it is forbidden – indeed blasphemous – to claim that he is (as Christians claim about Jesus) divine.

In this sense, Islam does not have a concept of "blasphemy". What it has – through its medium of expression in the Arabic language – is another set of terms which are indiscriminately translated as blasphemy.

Thus, Ayatollah Khomeini condemned Salman Rushdie for kofr – the generic term for unbelief, or denial of Islam, from which the word kafir derives.

Muslims accused of rejecting their religion are charged with ilhad (literally "digression", hence denying the existence of God); this is usually rendered as apostasy or heresy (although technically, there can be no "heresy" in a religion without a papacy or equivalent established theological orthodoxy).

Pre-Islamic polytheists are denounced for shirk (worshipping more than one God in denial of the Islamic emphasis on the oneness of God); this term is sometimes applied to Christians, for their belief in the holy trinity, and to Shi'a, who are charged with worshipping their saints Ali and Hussein. Its root in the word for "sharing" allows it by verbal slippage to be used by Islamists to refer to communists – a move that enabled the Taliban to claim that even in his day the Prophet Mohammed had killed "communists", and that their followers should inflict the same punishment on Shi'a as in the past on remnants of the pro-Soviet regime in Afghanistan.

These considerations suggest that the current wave of protest against the Danish cartoons is connected less to strict religious understandings than to politics, the control and direction of Muslim communities in the west, and the desire by states to retain the support of their own peoples.

This is not to underplay the need for rational common sense and respect in the face of the feelings of many among the billion Muslims on the planet, often the victims of insults and double standards, for whom the Jylland-Posten images – however they were drawn to Muslims' attention – have come as a transnational lightning-rod.

They, the living, and their fellow-humans who adhere to other belief-systems, are indeed the ones who count. It is not possible to insult or defame someone who has been dead for 1,374 years; and it is no service to faith, to the memory of the prophet, or to Muslims today to impose on Islamic tradition an alien concept of blasphemy. But that such an imposition can occur and be so quickly disseminated, in the context of a vibrant if contradictory "global civil society", shows how unified the contemporary world's politics and discourses are becoming.

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