BRIA 15 1 c Blasphemy! Salman Rushdie and Freedom of Expression

In 1534, King Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church and established his own Church of England. It became the official church in England and later in some American colonies, such as Virginia. Under English common law, blasphemy was a crime, but only with reference to Christianity. This common law prohibition against Christian blasphemy has continued to the present day in the United Kingdom.

In 1988, when Salman Rushdie first published The Satanic Verses in the United Kingdom, many Muslims living in that country accused the author of blasphemy against Islam. But English law did not recognize this as a crime. So religious leaders in Iran decided to take matters into their own hands.

The Rushdie Affair

Ahmed Salman Rushdie was born in Bombay, India, of Muslim parents. But he was educated mainly in England. After earning a degree in history from Cambridge University, Rushdie briefly worked as an actor and advertising copywriter in London. He published his first novel in 1975. A naturalized British citizen, Rushdie chose to write his novels in English rather than in his native Urdu, a language widely used by Muslims in India. At the time that he wrote The Satanic Verses, Rushdie was not a practicing Muslim.

The Satanic Verses is a fantasy about two actors from India traveling on an airplane. After a terrorist bomb blows up the airplane, they fall to Earth but survive. The controversial parts of the book center on two chapters.

One of the Indian actors apparently is losing his mind. He dreams about God revealing his will to the Prophet Muhammad, who passes on the sacred words to humanity through the Koran, the holy book of Islam. But the novel refers to Muhammad by an insulting name used by Christians in the Middle Ages. As part of the dream sequence, a scribe called “Salman” writes down God’s commands that are coming from the lips of Muhammad. The scribe, however, decides to play a trick by changing some of the divine words. Since Muslims hold the Koran as the revealed word of God, they deplored Rushdie for ridiculing it.

The title of the book refers to an old legend retold by Rushdie. According to the legend, some of the Koran’s original verses originated with Satan, and Muhammad later deleted them. By repeating this legend, Rushdie offended Muslims by associating the holy Koran with the work of Satan.

One part of the novel probably outraged Muslims the most. It describes people mocking and imitating Muhammad’s 12 wives. Muslims revere Muhammad’s wives as the “mothers of all believers.”

Most Muslims reacted with shock and anger at these passages from The Satanic Verses. They felt that they had been betrayed by one of their own. Rushdie had been born a Muslim. Muslims accused Rushdie of turning his back on his roots to embrace Western culture. In the minds of many, The Satanic Verses symbolized the hostility of the West against the Islamic world.

A month after its publication, India banned the book. Bannings soon followed in Pakistan, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, and other countries with large Muslim populations. Anti-Rushdie demonstrations and book burnings took place in Britain.

Rushdie attempted to defend himself. He pointed out that his book was, after all, a work of fiction and that the part of the book that offended Muslims consisted of one character’s deranged dreams. But this did not silence his critics. They demanded that the British government ban the book as blasphemous. The government refused on the grounds that English law protected only the Christian religion from acts of blasphemy.

On February 14, 1989, the day before Rushdie’s book was to be published in the United States, the spiritual and political leader of Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa against Rushdie. In Islamic law, a fatwa is a declaration issued by a legal authority. Khomeini’s fatwa shocked the world:

I would like to inform all the intrepid Muslims in the world. . . that the author of the book titled The Satanic Verses, which has been compiled, printed, and published in opposition to Islam, the Prophet, and the Koran, as well as those publishers who were aware of its contents, have been declared madhur el dam [“those whose blood must be shed”]. I call on all zealous Muslims to execute them quickly, wherever they find them, so that no one will dare to insult Islam again. . . .

In addition to the fatwa, Iran also offered a bounty of several million dollars for the assassination of Rushdie.

Khomeini’s fatwa offended many Islamic religious leaders. They condemned it as violating Islamic teachings of mercy. Sheik Muhammad Hossam el Din of Cairo’s Al Azhar Mosque said that it made “Islam seem brutal and bloodthirsty.” He argued that the book should simply be banned and the author given a chance to repent.

Rushdie went into hiding, protected by the British police. He issued a statement expressing his regret for the distress that his book may have caused Muslims. A little over a year later, Rushdie announced that he had returned to Islam. He went on to renounce anything in his novel that insulted Islam, the Prophet Muhammad, or the Koran. But Iranian leaders refused to cancel the fatwa.

In 1991, the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses was stabbed to death. Shortly afterward, the Italian translator was also stabbed, but survived. In 1993, the Norwegian publisher of the book was injured in a gun attack. Investigators suspect that all these incidents were tied to the Iranian fatwa.

In a 1997 interview, Rushdie expressed his feelings about the whole affair:

In my view, the best one can do is to show, by writing books, by continuing, that it didn’t work. That even this colossal threat did not work. The Satanic Verses was not suppressed, the author of The Satanic Verses went on writing. Life goes on.

Finally, in September 1998, Iran’s recently elected moderate government announced that it no longer had any intention of threatening the life of Salman Rushdie or of encouraging others to do so. But the government lacked the authority to repeal the religious fatwa of the Ayatollah Khomeini, who died in 1989.

Blasphemy in America

The idea of punishing someone for blasphemy disturbs most Americans today. It runs counter to freedom of religion and freedom of expression, both guaranteed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Most Americans believe people should have the right to believe or disbelieve in any religion and should have the right to express their beliefs or disbeliefs.

But prosecutions for blasphemy are not unknown in America history. Both the Virginia and Massachusetts Bay colonies passed laws providing the death penalty for blasphemy. But the few cases prosecuted rarely resulted in more than whipping or banishment. Even these cases had more to do with religious and political dissent than with blasphemy.

Probably the most noteworthy case during the colonial period occurred in 1643 at Plymouth, then part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It involved Samuel Gorton, an eccentric “Professor of the Mysteries of Christ.” When Gorton denounced “hireling ministers” as doing the work of the devil, he was accused of making blasphemous speeches. Banished, he ended up in Rhode Island where he wrote a long insulting letter to the governor of Massachusetts Bay, John Winthrop. Winthrop sent soldiers to arrest and bring Gorton to Boston where the colonial legislature tried and convicted him of “capital blasphemy.” Sentenced to hard labor, he caused so much trouble for his jailers that the authorities again banished him from the colony.

The only individuals actually executed for blasphemy in the American colonies were four Quakers. The government of Massachusetts had banished them for attacking the Puritan church. When they violated their banishment and returned to the colony, they were all hanged in 1659–60.

Following the ratification of the Constitution in 1788, the First Amendment and most state constitutions prohibited the establishment of an official religion. Nevertheless, states still occasionally prosecuted persons for blasphemy against Christianity.

In a typical 19th-century blasphemy case, a man called Ruggles made highly insulting remarks about Jesus Christ and his mother, Mary. The state of New York tried and convicted Ruggles and sentenced him to jail for three months plus a $500 fine. Appealing his case, Ruggles’ attorney argued that his client could not be prosecuted for blasphemy since there was no state law against it.

In 1811, New York’s highest appeals court unanimously rejected Ruggles’ arguments. The court said that New York did not need a blasphemy statute. Ruggles’ words violated the common law inherited from England, which made blasphemy against Christianity the law of the land. Based on this interpretation of the law, the New York court stated that reviling Jesus was a crime since it “tends to corrupt the morals of the people, and to destroy good order.”

The court seemingly ignored that New York’s state constitution prohibited the establishment of any government-sponsored religion. Nevertheless, most other states adopted this legal opinion. Although very few persons were prosecuted, blasphemy remained a crime in several states well into the 20th century.

The U.S. Supreme Court has never decided a blasphemy case, but in 1952 it ruled on a similar matter. In this case, the New York State Film Censorship Board banned the film The Miracle, which told of a girl who believed she was the Virgin Mary about to give birth to Jesus. The state court ruled that the film was “sacrilegious” since it treated Christianity with “contempt, mockery, scorn, and ridicule.” The Supreme Court, however, unanimously decided that sacrilege could not be used as a basis for film censorship. “It is not the business of government in our nation,” wrote Justice Tom Clark, “to suppress real or imagined attacks upon particular religious doctrine.” [Burstyn v. Wilson, 342 U.S. 495 (1952)]

Gradually, state courts found blasphemy laws and prosecutions unconstitutional or unenforceable. No prosecutions for blasphemy have taken place in the United States since 1971.

For Discussion and Writing

  1. What is blasphemy?
  2. Why do you think the Islamic world reacted so strongly against Salman Rushdie and his book?
  3. Do you agree or disagree with the opinion of Justice Tom Clark in Burstyn v. Wilson? Why?

For Further Reading

Levy, Leonard. Blasphemy. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.

Smith, William. “Hunted by an Angry Faith.” Time. 27 Feb. 1989:28+.

 ACTIVITY: Blasphemy vs. Freedom of Expression

Imagine that you are advisors to a U.S. senator. The following constitutional amendment has been proposed:

The First Amendment shall not be interpreted to protect blasphemous speech. States shall be free to enact anti-blasphemy laws as long as they prohibit offensive speech against all religions.

The senator has asked you to evaluate this proposed amendment.

1. Form small groups. Each group will role play advisors to a U.S. senator.

2. Each group should analyze the proposed amendment by answering these questions:

a. What is the goal of the amendment?
b. What are the amendment’s advantages? (What are its benefits? Will it achieve its goal? Will it achieve the goal efficiently? Is it inexpensive? Does it protect people from harm? Does it ensure their liberties?)

c. What are the amendment’s disadvantages? (What are its costs? Is it inefficient? Does it cause harm? Does it intrude on people’s liberties? Does it have any potential negative consequences?)

d. Weighing the amendment’s advantages and disadvantages, do you recommend that the senator support or oppose it? Why?



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