Salman Rushdie and the sacred right to irreverence

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Is nothing sacred? Yes, the right to irreverence. The health of a free, democratic society can be measured by its protection of disrespect, so long as the right to offensiveness does not extend to the threat, much less the enactment, of physical harm.

My friend Salman Rushdie has long been one of the modern world’s freest writers: his imaginative expression supercharged; the weighty things his books invite us to ponder defying gravity by the tumbling acrobatics of his wordplay. You read Salman and, as you think, you laugh. But then mockery, sometimes gentle, sometimes not, was the oxygen of creativity in the culture in which many of us came to be writers. As indeed it was in the time of Swift and Sterne, our long-lost Age of Reason. As well as other things, Byron was an ironist; Dickens a comic turn even when he was most polemical about grievous social wrong; Twain a stinging stalker of pompous lies and empty vanities.

Disrespect for the sheer pleasure of it was never the main thing; but the right to it, we naively supposed, could be taken for granted when despotism was elsewhere. The irony is that the grim theocrats who made Rushdie a marked man, who incited the murder of his Japanese translator and the assault on his Norwegian publisher, and are now rejoicing at his atrocious wounding while blaming the victim and his supporters for his mutilation, have been outraged by a book driven not by blasphemous mission but which had a purely fictional character commit theological mischief.

Security men in suits stand around a lectern where Salman Rushdie is speaking
Salman Rushdie, surrounded by security guards, speaks at Columbia University in 1991 — his first public appearance outside the UK following the 1989 fatwa © Mark Lennihan/AP

Authoritarian repression is, of course, a backhanded compliment to the power of unchained writing. For all their suffocating triumphalism, the enemies of the liberated word rightly fear that however many they incarcerate, torture or kill, none of those brutalities can permanently entomb critical thought. Almost always, the achievement of artists outlives the squalid cruelty of tyrants.

But state terror is not a trivial oppression. It buys time for itself by muffling public utterance, criminalising scepticism and making writing hazardous, and when it rewards malevolent informers it can turn even private reading into a perilous risk. So even the most monstrous cases of judicial overkill for acts judged sacrilegious could take a long time to reverse.

It took 30-odd years and the French Revolution to exonerate François-Jean Lefebvre de la Barre, who in 1766 had been sentenced to having his tongue cut out and the rest of him beheaded and burnt for acts of sacrilege allegedly committed in the Picardy town of Abbeville, including singing “impious, execrable and blasphemous songs . . . profaning the sign of the cross”, refusing to show “signs of respect” to a religious procession and profaning “the mystery of the consecration of wine”.

An engraving of a young man climbing a ladder to a platform in a town square, with guards standing nearby
François-Jean Lefebvre de la Barre facing execution for sacrilege in 1766, his alleged crimes including owning a copy of Voltaire’s ‘Dictionnaire philosophique’ © Bridgeman Images

The uproar in Abbeville had begun the previous year, when a crucifix was discovered to have been vandalised, the only sacrilegious offence for which, for want of any evidence whatsoever, the 19-year-old de la Barre was not charged. In view of his youth, the Bishop of Amiens pleaded for leniency, but as it turned out the teenager’s most unforgivable offence was to have had a copy of Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique in his lodgings, along with three pornographic books, including one inevitably featuring naughty nuns.

Though Voltaire’s book, which included attacks on the Church, the cult of miracles and sundry “superstitions” at the heart of Christian theology, had been published anonymously in 1764, its authorship was an open secret. In the Parlement of Paris (a judicial not legislative body), a counsellor, Denis-Louis Pasquier, argued that de la Barre was a cautionary example of how anticlerical writers were viciously corrupting youth, and that burning books was all very well but God would be better satisfied by the immolation of their authors and readers. On July 1 1766, de la Barre was subjected to torture, the tongue-cutting represented by symbolic gesture, a gratuitous concession to mercy since it was immediately followed by decapitation and burning at the stake. Incinerated with de la Barre, as per the sentence, was Voltaire’s Dictionnaire, the ashy remains of the boy and the book then scattered to the winds.

The judicial atrocity did not extinguish the flames of anticlerical polemics; if anything it kindled them. Voltaire came out with an immediate (and in many respects fanciful) narrative of the case. His hatred of “superstition” grew ever more ardent, his contempt for biblical heroes more withering. Écrasez l’infâme — “crush infamy” — the phrase he had coined in 1759, became his war cry, used over and again, occasionally as his signature. On what possible grounds could the Church enforce obedience to a preposterous bundle of fables and manias — the Virgin Birth, the working of miracles, the sacrificial cult of penance and absolution? The state had no business enforcing reverence to fairy tales.

Voltaire died in 1778, more than a decade before the revolutionary disestablishment of the Church, but he was optimistically convinced that he was witnessing the beginning of the victory of reason. He would have been disagreeably surprised to discover that during the Restoration, in 1825, King Charles X (a younger brother of Louis XVI) restored sacrilege as a crime with a sentence of hard labour for life in the case of profaning holy vessels, and in some circumstances meriting the death penalty. Mercifully, it was never carried out before the Bourbon monarchy and with it the sacrilege laws were overthrown by the revolution of 1830.

The debate about the relationship between church and state never went away in France. In 1906, a year after separation was finally legislated, a statue of de la Barre martyred at the stake was erected close to the Montmartre church Sacré-Coeur, itself built in atonement for the sins of France that moralists said had brought about its defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. In 1926, the statue was moved to a more distant location and in 1941 melted down by Marshal Pétain’s Vichy government. Another statue of de la Barre returned to Montmartre in 2002, but with the sacrilegious martyr replaced by an innocuous sculpture of a generically breezy 18th-century youth. The monument to de la Barre, featuring a bronze relief plaque showing his torture, has been serially vandalised; the last time in 2015 when it was defaced by crosses and a heart, the emblems of Civitas, a far right Catholic traditionalist movement.

Modernity, it turns out, has been less hospitable to secular humanism than Voltaire might have hoped. If anything, the space for irreverence or even confessional pluralism has been shrinking and the punitive criminalisation of disrespect has become more draconian. Ashraf Fayadh, the Palestinian poet who was born in and lives in Saudi Arabia, was charged in 2014 with apostasy, “questioning religion” and “spreading atheist thought” for passages in his beautiful meditative poems, making use, as his translator Mona Kareem tells us, of Koranic language. He was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment and 800 lashes. The following year, the sentence was changed to death; in 2016 it was changed again to eight years in prison, along with the rain of lashes.

A Pew Research Center survey in 2019 found that 79 countries — or 40 per cent of the 198 studied, including 18 in the Middle East and north Africa alone — have blasphemy laws on their books prosecuting anything thought to slight religion. Sometimes those laws have had murderous consequences. In 2009 in Pakistan, a young Catholic woman called Aasiya Noreen (often known as Asia Bibi) was accused of blasphemy and in the following year sentenced to death by hanging for the alleged crime. It was said that her initial sin had been to offer a cup of water from which she had previously drunk to Muslim villagers, who took offence at her violation of caste and religious taboos. But it was her effrontery in arguing back in favour of Jesus rather than Mohammed that triggered the blasphemy accusation. In 2011, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, and Shahbaz Bhatti, the minister for minority affairs, were both assassinated for defending her; and the final overturning of the sentence by the Pakistan supreme court in 2018 was met with three days of violent rioting. Noreen now lives in relative safety in Canada but is never free from threat.

The populist discovery of the low boiling point of crowds, easy to stoke into verbal or actual violence by the demonisation of anyone thought to disrespect the homeland, has not helped the defence of scepticism. This started a long time ago: in 1817, at the Wartburg Festival in Thuringia, when the books of those thought by the students who organised it insufficiently patriotic were burnt, including those of Saul Ascher, the Jewish writer who had ridiculed “German-mania”. Four years later, Heinrich Heine, in a play set during the last year of Muslim Granada, 1492, with Christians burning the Koran, issued his famous warning that “those who burn books will end by burning people”. 

Young men throw books on to a bonfire
Students at the Wartburg Festival in Thuringia, Germany, in 1817 burn books they deem insufficiently patriotic © Alamy Stock Photo

Lately, the nation has become the church, the obligation of praise a new catechism, and anything resembling critical history, patriotic blasphemy. Article 301 of the Turkish penal code punishes anyone disrespecting or insulting “Turkishness”. Orhan Pamuk is still under investigation for offending in his recent novel Nights of Plague. In Russia, anyone daring to voice dissent at Putin’s holy war to recover what he believes is the Kievan cradle of Christian motherland gets quickly disappeared.

But it is in the US that the streams of piety and patriotism have flowed into each other with such populist force that Christianity and American history are taken on the Trumpian right of politics to be indistinguishable, and any vocal scepticism about one or the other becomes tantamount to treason. All six of the current justices of the Supreme Court that ended Roe vs Wade and permitted a high-school football coach to conduct public prayers after games had a Catholic education, and made decisions that were surely informed by the convictions of their faith.

The First Amendment to the Constitution enjoins Congress to “make no law respecting the establishment of religion” but it also forbids anything that could restrain its free exercise. Increasingly, that second clause has been taken as an invitation to erode the separation of church and state. Lauren Boebert, a gun-toting Trumpian Colorado congresswoman, has announced that she is “tired of this separation of church and state junk”, based, she says, “on one stinking letter”.

That reeking note was, however, one of the foundational documents of American democracy, written by president-elect Thomas Jefferson in 1802 to the Danbury Baptists. In it, he declared that “believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the exercise thereof’, thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”

He was not alone among the founding fathers in his aversion to state-sponsored religiosity. In 1825, his predecessor in the presidency, John Adams, wrote to Jefferson complaining about blasphemy laws still on the Massachusetts law books that could prosecute anyone daring to question the divinely revealed authority of the scriptures. Such anachronisms were, the indisputably Christian Adams wrote, a “great obstruction to the improvement of the human mind”. 

But then Jefferson was a deist, and the book he wrote on The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth was constructed by literally pasting sections from the New Testament with razor and glue. Anything Jefferson thought an affront to reason and a distraction from Jesus’s proper standing as ethical teacher was sliced away. Snip went the Virgin Birth, any mention of Jesus’s divinity, miracles, the resurrection and the doctrine of the Trinity. What was left was essentially Jesus as good egg, morally upstanding and righteously compassionate. Amazingly, a copy of what has been called “The Jefferson Bible” was presented to members of Congress from 1904 until well into the 1950s. These days, should anyone actually read it, the book would likely bring down on its author’s head a Christian fatwa from the holiest rollers of the Republican right.

All this is no light matter. At stake is the whole relationship of American citizenship to institutionalised religion. For the one side, national salvation depends on them being brought together; for the other, the integrity of democracy presupposes keeping them strictly apart.

A large group of people sit on white benches under an awning in an outdoor space
A vigil is held for Rushdie in Chautauqua, New York, following the attack on him there on August 12 © Joshua Goodman/AP

And then there is the writer in the Pennsylvania hospital, horribly wounded and maimed at the hands of an unhinged would-be murderer. Though no motive has been declared, the assailant must surely have been driven by fatwa fanaticism. When Rushdie is recovered, as he will be, it would be entirely understandable if he retreated into protective cover. But he may not so choose. When he returned to an almost normal literary life many years ago, it was not just to his own phenomenal work but eventually as president of Pen American Center: the upholder of the freedom of writing; the scourge of the jailers of free conscience.

Something tells me that even if he needs renewed security, as is certainly the case, Salman will neither be silent nor invisible. And if that is his choice, the least he can ask of us who owe much to his resolute bravery, not to mention the life-enhancing brilliance of his prose, is that we fight his corner, which, after all, as long as we cherish uninhibited expression, must surely be ours too.

Simon Schama is an FT contributing editor

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