Thursday, 7 August 2008

The taboo of blasphemy...

A post by Dr M Niblett

Those of us old enough to remember will recall that it will be twenty years next month since the publication of Sir Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, a novel which has achieved the rare distinction of being famed more for the reaction it provoked than its content. For the first time since the age of enlightenment, British booksellers were the subject of firebomb attacks for selling 'blasphemous' material, and citizens witnessed book burnings by angry mobs on public streets. On our television screens, we saw news stories in which translators of the book overseas were murdered and stabbed. This was the Britain into which the university students of today were born.

Astonishingly, following these activities, the largest booksellers in the UK withdrew the book from public view. Elsewhere, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, suggested that the blasphemy laws needed to be extended in order to limit criticism of Islam. For religious radicals, it was apparent that it was the rule of the mob, and not the rule of law, that was best placed to achieve their goal of censorship. At the same time, authorities in Britain demonstrated that they were quite prepared to abandon liberal democratic values for the false promise of the quiet life. It was the beginning of a brave new world.

Twenty years on, and we are an older, if not a wiser generation. Sir Salman has not yet been murdered by fanatics (though this owes much to living under 24-hour-a-day protection from armed guards), and The Satanic Verses can still be found on the shelves of most British bookshops. But the lesson learned by religious (and particularly Islamic) fanatics - that mob anger could induce self-censorship throughout large swathes of society - has gone unchecked.

Nowhere has this been illustrated more clearly in recent times than through the reaction in Western nations to the Danish cartoons of Mohammed, first published in September 2005. In Britain, veterans of the Rushdie affair, together with new recruits, marched on London carrying placards proclaiming 'Slay those who insult Islam'. Later, the present Archbishop of Canterbury offered proposals similar to those of Runcie in favour of amending the blasphemy laws to cover 'thoughtless or cruel speech' against all religions, including Islam. No mainstream British publication dared print the offending material (with the exception of the Spectator). But on this occasion we were able to witness how the cancer of religious censorship had spread to other Anglophone nations, a point I was reminded of today with Ezra Levant's acquittal in the Canadian cartoons case.

Levant, the first person to be prosecuted for blasphemy in Canada for more than 80 years, was accused of 'illegal' discrimination for reprinting the Danish Mohammed cartoons in his magazine, the Western Standard. His statement of defence can be watched here. Admittedly, his trial took place in a pseudo-court, a 'Human Rights' commission with special legal powers, and not in a criminal or civil court. But the road to such pseudo-courts has already been opened in Britain with the establishment of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights in 2007, an organisation which a number of human rights lawyers would like to see acquiring similar powers to its sister body in Canada.

In today's National Post, Levant remarks:

Some 900 days after I became the only person in the Western world charged with the “offence” of republishing the Danish cartoons of Muhammad, the government has finally acquitted me of illegal “discrimination.” Taxpayers are out more than $500,000 for an investigation that involved fifteen bureaucrats at the Alberta Human Rights Commission. The legal cost to me and the now-defunct Western Standard magazine is $100,000.

The case would have been thrown out long ago if I had been charged in a criminal court, instead of a human rights commission. That’s because accused criminals have the right to a speedy trial. Accused publishers at human rights commissions do not.

And if I had been a defendant in a civil court, the judge would now order the losing parties to pay my legal bills. Instead, the Edmonton Council of Muslim Communities won’t have to pay me a dime. Neither will Syed Soharwardy, the Calgary imam who abandoned his identical complaint against me this spring.

Both managed to hijack a secular government agency to prosecute their radical Islamic fatwa against me — the first blasphemy case in Canada in over 80 years. Their complaints were dismissed, but it is inaccurate to say that they lost: They got the government to rough me up for nearly three years, at no cost to them. The process I was put through was a punishment in itself — and a warning to any other journalists who would defy radical Islam.
As Levant points out, this is hardly a victory for freedom of the press, since the whole case rested on the whim of a certain Pardeep Gundara, a low-level bureaucrat who judged whether Levant had provided enough 'context' in order for the discrimination charge to be dropped. At stake was no criminal issue, but whether Levant's actions had offended a particular religious sect. He is unlikely to be the last Canadian journalist prosecuted in this way for insulting Islamic sensibilities, but the costs he has had to endure will be enough to dissuade most journalists from following in his path.

Unfortunately for residents in Britain, such self-censorship applies even without the shadowy presence of these quasi-legal institutions. In perhaps the most absurd instance, at Clare College, Cambridge, a student was investigated by the police and disciplined by University of Cambridge authorities for daring to print the cartoon in a student magazine. Since the Satanic Verses controversy erupted, it appears that our authorities have become more timid in the face of religious outrage, not less. Let us hope that there are, somewhere out there, plenty of British Ezra Levants waiting in the wings, willing to challenge the taboo of blasphemy.

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