The Fundamental Right to Blaspheme
Arnold Wesker, whose own plays have trespassed into regions of blasphemy, argues the case for freedom to offend.
In the dark days surrounding the Muslim hysteria over Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses the very intelligent Roy Hattersley got his knickers in a twist writing in the Independent (July 1989). "A free society" he wrote, "does not ban books. Nor does it allow writers and publishers to be blackmailed and intimidated." However, he went on to say that The Satanic Verses should not go into paperback because he considered a real offence had been caused to Muslims and that for Rushdie to hold on the paperback would signify his regret for the offence, and assuage Muslim anger. Had I been a Muslim at the time I'd have considered that insulting. An offence is an offence whether in hard or paperback. The real question is: can offence be avoided in this life? I had to give a lot of thought to this question when writing three of my plays. There is a speech in my play Shylock, in which Shylock (the one of my imagination as opposed to Shakespeare's), a Renaissance Jew, considers the reasons why Abraham needed to invent God. Does the concept of 'inventing God' offend monotheist religions? Caritas is about a 14th-century anchoress who after three years of immurement waiting for divine revelation which did not come, declares, as many have done, "there is no God". Who will take offence? The very title of the third play, When God Wanted a Son, might be considered irreverent; it's also a play that explores the question of what and who can and cannot be ridiculed by humour, and concludes:
... all of them are game for ridicule if they can be seen to be in love with or intoxicated by: the martyr her sacrifice, the freedom fighter his anger, the missionary his zeal, the educator her cleverness, and those in pain their suffering. ...I'm a puritan. I believe everything has to be earned, and all those who engage in altruism and agony should do so with reluctance. Anyone caught enjoying it should be punished with ridicule ....
Offence can be divided into three categories: gratuitous, calculated, and unavoidable. Gratuitous offence is mindless, rooted in ignorance or insensitivity; it is linked with mindless violence. Calculated offence describes itself, the intention is clear and deliberate and aims to achieve a defined result – hurt: spitting at someone's feet to show contempt for them; daubing a swastika on a Jewish grave; shredding a nation's flag as an expression of disapproval for their internal or foreign actions. Those two categories – as all categories – overlap, and are comparatively easy to deal with. The third, which concerns the Rushdie affair, is less so.
Dealing with offence
Inherent in the normal conduct of human affairs is an unavoidable risk that what we legitimately do, say and write may cause offence to others. It is an inescapable hazard of living and must be considered a sign of intellectual and emotional maturity when accepted. Accepting that other people's views and actions are an inescapable hazard doesn't mean we must not argue with or attempt to change them within the law, but it does mean we cannot leap up with outrage every time such an offence occurs and call for the perpetrator to die or for what is perpetrated to be erased.
Consider all that can offend. Fashion designers may be offended by those they consider badly or indifferently dressed; lovers of certain music may find the music of others an offence to their ears; I know those who were offended by what they considered the melodramatic and patronising manner of Margaret Thatcher's vocal delivery; much of what is on television offends a certain kind of intelligence and sensibility; some unbelievers find the notion of God an offence to their intellect; Prince Charles is offended by the architecture he sees around him; someone has expressed offence at what they consider the puerile vision of paradise described in the Koran; and personally I was deeply offended by the dispatch of thirteen-year-old Iranian children to their death in the name of a holy war. I share the novelist Fay Weldon's view that the Koran could be construed offensive to Jews, Christians and women. (As a Jew I'm not at ease with certain Christian writings, and as a humanist I'm not entirely comfortable with some of the utterances in the Bible!) But we do not call for the death of the badly dressed or for the burning of the Koran or the Bible.
The knottiest of the problems is blasphemy. The question is not: 'what is blasphemy?' but 'is blasphemy a right?' Like 'offence' blasphemy falls into the same three categories: gratuitous (and most of us are guilty of that each time we cry 'Jesus Christ' or 'God Almighty'); calculated, and unavoidable. I share that view expressed by Shylock in my play that Abraham invented God. That view is my right. Unavoidably my right blasphemes because it denies what is claimed to be divinely inspired texts and teachings of the Bible, Gospel and Koran. I can be argued with, ignored, shunned as a friend; a devout artistic director of a theatre can decline to put on my play, but I cannot be sentenced to death nor held a prisoner in my own land. This was the position in which Salman Rushdie was placed. Worse, as Fay Weldon described it – he was a prisoner of Iran in his own land. That was a new frontier of political madness that I fear was never fully comprehended.
Let me not be misunderstood. Ask me, along with Voltaire, to stand at the door of the church, the synagogue, or the mosque to defend them against marauders and I will be there. But it is the year 2002. The Age of Reason has profoundly shaped me. The loveliest men and women have thought and died for my right to live and breath the free air of reason. And yet my colleague hid in fear of his life because, as of old, bigoted priests stirred up the religious mud used long ago to build simple spiritual comforts for simple minds. It was not merely a writer who was threatened but the entire secular world.
We are here not dealing with 'a Muslim' but with 'a type' identified throughout history as 'a zealot'. Dr Hesham el Essawy, head of the Islamic Society for The Promotion of Religious Tolerance, is what I hope and believe is the real Muslim mind. Writing in the Independent's 'Faith and Reason' column (9 July 1989) all those years ago, he stated (echoing Rabbi Leib – "A man should see to it that all his actions are a Torah and that he himself becomes so entirely a Torah that one can learn from his life."):
The manner in which we conduct such dialogue is also important. And how should this be? In goodness, gentleness and tolerance, the Koran says. Each must present his evidence, and each must respect the right of the others not to accept it. "Your job is to pass the message along. Whether they believe or not is none of your concern" God said to His Messenger in the Koran.... What is important, and least emphasised, is the social function of belief, the all important earthly purpose of religion. It is what you do with your belief that should concern one, not the belief itself.... The test of your beliefs, whatever they may be, is in how you treat me....
Such thinking is foreign to the zealot's mind. The zealot helped carve up many a dissenting saint, placed the faggots on the fire that burned poor Joan, stood by knitting as the guillotine lopped off the heads of the innocent as well as the guilty; slaughtered the Russian peasant who stood in the way of commune-ism; lynched blacks in the Southern States of America; marched the Jews to the gas chambers; murdered the intellectuals of Bangladesh; mocked and mowed down the Chinese scholars who were sent to till the fields in the name of a cultural revolution; burned a book in Bradford; offered £3 million for the head of its author; flew planes into the Twin Towers. We are here dealing with a special mentality that cannot bear deviation from its own perceptions and beliefs, a mentality which has existed like the weed since Adam. It has named itself many different names at different times, and, like the weed, it is rooted forever in the way of a world that will always need weeding.