Published on: February 8, 2012
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  • WigWag

    The subject of Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses” and whether it is blasphemous is endlessly fascinating. I have always found it remarkable that Milton could rewrite Christian Scripture as an epic in both “Paradise Lost” and “Paradise Regain’d” and suffer no consequences at all despite the fact that both works are obviously Protestant in sentiment and Milton supported the losing side in an English civil war. Yet Rushdie, who was essentially engaged in the same enterprise, rewriting scripture as a novel was subject to a Fatwa and had to go into hiding.

    While Christianity may have no equivalent of the verses that Islam ultimately rejected from the Quran, to the Catholic world the entire Reformation was heretical and Milton was an apostate. Surely, once the King was restored to the throne in Milton’s England, his radical Protestantism must have been viewed with great suspicion. Yet he wasn’t executed, his epics were not censored and he has come to be revered in the Christian world as the second greatest writer in English after Shakespeare. How extraordinarily different from the manner in which the Muslim world treated (and still treats) Rushdie.

    Anyone who reads both “Paradise Lost” and the “Satanic Verses” can’t help but realize that Milton’s book is, if anything, far more blasphemous than Rushdie’s. In fact, by all rights, Milton’s epic should be considered the original satanic verses because it is unambiguously Satan’s poem. In Milton’s telling Satan is imbued with pathos and is every bit the tragic hero of the poem that Milton’s God, the Father and Christ his son are not. From the British Romantics on down, all clever readers of “Paradise Lost” immediately pick up on the fact that they are strangely drawn to Satan while they are repulsed by Milton’s God who is arrogant and intolerant and by his Christ who is little more than an officious oaf.

    But Milton’s blasphemy doesn’t stop there. His Eve is a sexual vixen who engages in intimate liaisons with Adam before the fall and who is so luscious and irresistible that virtually every sentient being who visits the Garden of Eden from Adam, to God the Father, to Christ, to the Archangel to Satan is overcome with lust for her. As icing on the cake, Milton strongly implies that Satan tempts Eve with more than the forbidden fruit; when she succumbs, it is far more than fruit that she samples.

    William Blake’s famous aphorism that “the reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it” could apply equally to Rushdie. The difference is that 300 years ago the Christian world was already sophisticated and tolerant enough to deal with Milton while the contemporary Islamic world is still too unsophisticated and intolerant to deal with Rushdie. By the way, Milton wasn’t the only example of this. In his Divine Comedy, Dante felt free to assign dead popes to various circles of hell and to glorify his deceased love interest, Beatrice, above the Virgin Mary. As far as I know, unlike Rushdie, Dante didn’t have to hire body guards or live in safe houses.

    Professor Berger highlights four interesting issues pertinent to blasphemy; he cites the legal issues, the foreign policy implications, interfaith etiquette and the appropriateness of satire. It seems to me that there is a fifth issue, not mentioned by Professor Berger that is worth commenting on; the manner in which Western intellectuals react to blasphemy.

    As anyone older than 30 will remember, when Ayatollah Khomeini issued his Fatwa against Rushdie, the entire Western world reacted with horror and rallied to his defense. In particular, the intellectual classes, especially journalists and fellow authors gave Rushdie awards, invited him to speak at conferences, offered him moral support and even provided him with financial support. Western intellectuals found the hatred for Rushdie in the Muslim world repellant.

    It is remarkable how quickly things have changed. It’s not just innocent Muslim victims who are killed for blasphemy by Muslim extremists; there are Western victims as well. It was just ten years ago last month that Daniel Pearl was beheaded; his blasphemous act was being Jewish. The intellectual left, which now worships at the altar of politically correct multiculturalism barely noticed or was too ashamed to make too big a deal of the whole thing for fear of riling the sentiments of the Muslim world.

    Of course, Pearl wasn’t the only victim; a crazed Islamist assassinated Theo Van Gogh in the Netherlands for producing a “blasphemous” film and too much of the Islamic world has mobilized to call for the assassination of Van Gogh’s friend, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Widely viewed as an apostate, Hirsi Ali also travels with police protection and is under constant threat for the crime of blasphemy. Anyone who has read Hirsi Ali’s two books “Infidel” and “Nomad” will not be surprised that many Muslims consider her books blasphemous. What is surprising is that the intellectual left that once rallied to Rushdie’s defense was indifferent to Van Gogh’s murder and has little or no sympathy for Hirsi Ali’s plight. Two particularly well-known leftist intellectuals who have commented on the Van Gogh-Hirsi Ali story, Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton-Ash, have belittled Van Gogh and Hirsi Ali and made excuses for those who consider the “blasphemy” of these two inexcusable. Anyone interested in a remarkable book detailing how the left makes excuses for those who believe death is an appropriate punishment for blasphemy should read Paul Berman’s “The Flight of the Intellectuals.”

    One last small point that Professor Berger did not mention; what outraged Rushdie about being excluded from the conference in India is that, unless I am mistaken, the police lied when they claimed that threats against his life had been made. They simply did not want to deal with the security issues entailed by his presence so they pretended that they had heard threats. Rushdie also believes that threats subsequently made by Indian Islamic groups were made at the behest of the police who were looking post-hoc to justify their original lies.

    Whether it’s about Indian police lying to discourage Rushdie from attending a conference, Western intellectuals defaming Ayaan Hirsi Ali who many Muslims consider to be an apostate or the New York Times not having the guts to print the Danish cartoons of the Prophet that so many Islamists considered insulting, what we are witnessing is hardly a profile in courage. Should we really believe that appeasing the Muslim world’s outrage at language it considers to be blasphemous will ultimately result in a more peaceful and tolerant world?

    It seems to me that John Milton had more courage than all of our currently pontificating western intellectuals put together.

  • Andrea Ostrov Letania

    “In common usage blasphemy means words and actions which constitute an insult to God or other sacred entities. To the modern mind the term may seem obsolete, a leftover from primitive superstition. It is anything but obsolete to many people in the contemporary world.”

    Peter Berger is using the term BLASPHEMY too narrowly. Western democracies have merely updated blasphemies into something called Political Correctness.
    In Europe, one must worship the Holocaust. It is to be remembered as something more than a horrible tragic historical event. It is a religion to worship, and if you say insensitive things or question certain aspects of the event, you are not only ostracized and blacklisted but even fined and imprisoned.
    While most Holocaust revisionsts are Denialist scum, why should a democracy committed to freedom of speech treat people who say wrong things like witches and heretics to be burnt at the stake?

    ‘Diversity’ is also a religion that the West must worship. If anyone in Europe questions the benefits of immigration and large-scale presence of Muslims and black Africans, he is condemned and reviled as a ‘racist’ or ‘Islamophobe’. Even if critics of massive immigration are not killed or hacked to pieces, their careers are effectively ruined and treated like pariah by powers-that-be. And some are fined for ‘hate speech’ and/or sent to prison.

    In America, we must worship Martin L. King. It’s not enough to see him as an important historical figure who did some good. We must see him as bigger than the Founding Fathers, bigger than Jesus, up there with God. We mustn’t merely admire him but worship him and pretend he was the most perfect man without flaws.
    Indeed, you get in less trouble by making fun of Jesus or God in America than making fun of MLK. If a public figure dares to show anything less than complete devotion/respect for King, his or her career is finished in America.

    Also, ‘racial equality’ is another religion we must all worship in America. If a certain group dares to say that different races exist and racial differences may exist, it isn’t allowed not allowed to organize and speak in many places. Just ask Jared Taylor of the American Renaissance. Whatever one thinks of Taylor–I personally don’t like him–, the way he’s been banned from conference halls because of his views isn’t much different from what happened to Rushdie.

    Another holy matter in the US is Jews/Israel. When Netanhayu gave a speech to Congress, it was like a Hallelujah Evangelical church meeting. When it comes to Israel, every American politician is a True Believer enraptured with the light; this religion says Jews are always powerless(even when they are powerful), Jews are always right, and we must always do everything to show complete devotion to Jewish power, influence, and interests. If a politician is critical of Israel, he is condemned as a ‘Nazi’ and ‘anti-Semite’ by both bigshots in the Republican and Democratic parties.
    Though Israel has over 100 nukes and is by far the most powerful nation in the Middle East, we must worship the fiction that Jews are facing another Holocaust from the all-powerful Arabs.

    And with the help of powerful Jewish forces in the media/courts/academia/entertainment industry, gays have become another holy people. If one dares to look unfavorably upon gay behavior or oppose something as ridiculous as ‘gay marriage’, he or she is condemned as a ‘homophobe’. In other words, if you don’t think homosexuality is normal, healthy, or beautiful, you are mentally, emotionally, and spiritually sick.

    So, before Berger and Westerners point their fingers at religious orthodoxy, intolerance, and idiocy in other nations, they should look at the neo-religious lunacy that defines much of the so-called ‘secular west’.
    In some ways, Politically Correct laws on neo-blasphemy are more dangerous because they are pushed down our throats in the name of ‘equality’, ‘tolerance’, ‘diversity’, ‘freedom’, ‘reason’, and ‘justice’. In fact, they demand that everyone think alike and dare not harbor ideas that subvert the official dogma of the Western globalist elites.
    Just look what happened to James Watson for daring to say black Africans have lower IQs, which account for economic problems in the dark continent. One can agree or disagree with his views; one can argue with his views. But that’s not what happened. He was blacklisted, disgraced, and removed from public debate. He was effectively burned at the stake for his ‘blasphemy’.

  • jbay

    If you’re offended by “a” instead of “the” and silly enough not to notice the context of interfaith then you deserve more than to be insulted. There is a point at which stupid is egregious.

  • Thank you for that, a useful analysis.

    But there is another kind of “blasphemy law”; the ideology of state secularism, just as painful and excluding that uses all kinds of laws to enforce it’s views of what existence is and should be. There is much one could say on this subject but to illustrate from what I have read in the media in the UK.

    It has been reported that the Head of Research and Development at Tescos in the UK said this: “I’m also campaigning against evil Christians (that’s not all Christians, just bad ones) who think that gay people should not lead happy lives and get married to their same-sex partners.” He was asked I believe to remove the comment from the internet, which I understand he did. Tescos has told me that his views do not reflect their views. As a Christian I would for many reasons rather he had not said this but I am more than willing to accede the right to freedom of speech in the interests of us all and I regard that response from Tesco’s as a proportionate one and think that should be the end of it.

    Adrian Smith, a Christian, outside of working hours, wrote an article on the internet, only available to friends. It was a response to a news story on the Government’s plans to allow gay weddings in church. It questioned whether the plans were “an equality too far”. He has been found guilty of gross misconduct by the Trafford Housing Trust, a publicly funded housing association, and has been demoted from his £35,000 a year managerial post to a more junior £21,000 position. Proportionate?

    Freedom of speech v equality legislation; the highjacking of language by post modernism, desire desiring machines; the new secular totalitarianism.

    The definition of religion should be redefined as including state funded secularism and the definition of blasphemy seen as inclusive, too!

    To end with a quote from an article by Adam Shatz at LRB “Desire Was Everywhere” about the book “Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari: Intersecting Lives by François Dosse, translated by Deborah Glassman”. Columbia, 651 pp, £26.00, August 2010, ISBN 978 0 231 14560 2. Call their views what you will, but a good starting point would be underpinnings of a secular manifesto, which as we know “woe betide those who blaspheme it’s tenets”. You will appreciate that I do not hold to their view of reality.

    “Like Marx in The Communist Manifesto, Deleuze and Guattari portray capitalism as a turbulent system whose revolutionary effects threaten its own need to reproduce itself. On the one hand, it dissolves rigid structures of authority and hierarchy (‘decoding’, they called it), generates new and transgressive desires, and presides over radical forms of what they called ‘deterritorialisation’, which could mean everything from uprooting people from the land to overturning the systems of belief to which they have been anchored. At its most extreme, they suggest, capitalism encourages a kind of generalised schizophrenia, a shatteringly intense fracturing of subjectivity. On the other hand, to survive it has to contain these effects through oppressive fictions like the nuclear family and psychiatry, which attempt to ‘reterritorialise’ desire: to put it safely back inside the home and to keep it there. The project of ‘schizo-analysis’, therefore, would be to harness revolutionary desiring machines that liberate desire from the family and Freudian psychiatry.

  • Peter Berger asserts (without a shred of evidence):

    “By the way, the title of Rushdie’s novel refers to an obscure legend, not mentioned in either the canonical Koran or any reliable tradition…”

    Berger is manifestly incorrect. Alas, it no longer surprises to find intelligent people who should know better demonstrating ignorance of Islam in one form or another (and invariably, that ignorance happens to tilt in favor of Islam).

    Does Berger think al-Tabari is not part of “reliable tradition” in Islam? If so, Berger is required to present an argument in defense of such a position.

    In addition, does Berger think Ibn Abi Hatim, Ibn al-Mundhir, Ibn Mardauyah, Ibn Ishaq, Musa ibn ‘Uqba, and Abu Ma’shar do not represent “reliable tradition” in Islam?

    (The more likely consideration here is that Berger has never bothered to become familiar with these names and the Islamic tradition they represent — specifically, the tradition of one important part of Islamic texts, the Siyar (plural of “Sira”, or Biography; scil., of Mohammed.)

    Meanwhile, the Koran certainly lays the ground for Rushdie’s florid extrapolation, when in chapter 22, verse 52, it says:

    “We have sent no apostle, or prophet, before thee, but, when he read, Satan suggested [some error] in his reading. But God shall make void that which Satan hath suggested: Then shall God confirm his signs; for God [is] knowing [and] wise.”

    The immediately following verse, 53, suggest that Allah permits this to happen in order to tempt the wicked and thus confirm their (apparently) unalterable wickedness.

    Another part of Islamic tradition with which Berger seems blithely unfamiliar are the Tafasir (plural of “Tafsir” — “commentary” or “exegesis”; scil., of the Koran). One Islamic writer of Tafsir was Zamakhshari who, in commenting on the Koran verse we quoted above (22:52) wrote:

    “Some say that Gabriel drew his attention to it, or that Satan himself spoke those words and brought them to the people’s hearing.”

    Really, Berger should stick to his specialty and not dabble in things outside his expertise: namely, taking jabs at any Christianity that isn’t liberal or secular enough for his comfort zone.


    And an excellent source for the Koran, which provides 10 different translations into English — six of them by Muslims themselves — is here:

    P.S.: Notice, by the way, how when discussing Jay Leno’s purported blasphemy, Berger has no problem mentioning the religion and the followers by name “Sikhs”; but when it comes to Rushdie’s purported blasphemy, Berger suddenly can’t cough up the requisitely apt term “Muslim” and only indirectly mentions “Islam”. Notice too how he caricatures the alleged fierceness of the Sikh reaction to Leno —

    “This seemingly trivial event [Leno’s quip in his monologue about a Sikh temple] provoked a storm of fierce hostility by Sikhs in America and elsewhere, adding a presumably unwelcome dimension of religious hatred…”

    But, of course, Berger provides no evidence to back up that luridly hyperbolic characterization of the Sikh reaction. In fact, all we get, from Berger’s own account, are prima facie entirely reasonable and mature reactions from Sikhs:

    “A Dr. Randeep Dhillou,” Prof. Berger informs us, “…sought to sue Leno for hate speech against a religion.”

    Wow. He sought to sue Leno! Oh, the enormity, the horror! Can we be safe from Sikhs?

    And Berger continues his litany of the terrifying Sikh backlash to Leno:

    “Vayalar Ravi, the minister in the Indian government dealing with affairs of overseas (so-called “non-resident”) Indians, called the incident “quite unfortunate and quite objectionable”. ”

    Oh my God! What hatred drips and oozes from that language — “quite unfortunate and quite objectionable”…!!! I almost feel like I’m at a Nazi rally, or a KKK march, or… one of hundreds of mass demonstrations by Muslims all over the world over the decades (only increasing post-911) calling for the deaths of cartoonists and others who have “offended” Islam.

    Berger’s not done.

    “Another Indian minister chimed in by saying that “freedom does not mean hurting the sentiments of others”. ”

    With that kind of chiming in, I don’t know how we can tolerate Sikhism and Sikhs…

    Seriously, these are perfectly reasonable responses from Sikhs, and they have every right to voice them. We may disagree that a joke constitutes religious “insult”, but we should not lump Sikhs in with the followers of one religion in the world who are routinely, regularly, increasingly, actually killing people and issuing death threats over their religion — Islam.

    To pick one example of literally thousands one could adduce out of a turban, we have the most emergent case that apparently is utterly off Berger’s radar: that of Hamza Kashgari, a 23-year-old columnist from Saudi Arabia, who merely happened to issue three TWEETS from his Twitter account in which he expressed, poetically, his ambivalence about praying for Mohammed. For these tweets, he received over 30,000 death threats from fellow Muslims; the King of Saudi Arabia issued an order for his arrest; the Saudi Arabia’s Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Religious Edicts (IFTA) warned that his actions deserve “harsh punitive measures”; and the news service AFP reported that “[i]n one response, Abdullah, a lawyer, said that since Mr Kashgari was “an adult… we should accept nothing but implementing the ruling according to Islamic law” or sharia.”

    And AFP went on to report what everyone should know by now (except Professors of Religion in the West, apparently):

    “Insulting the prophet is considered blasphemous in Islam, and is a crime punishable by death.”

    They added:

    “Mr Kashgari [i.e., the Blasphemous Tweeter] quickly apologised for his remarks, but the calls for his execution only multiplied….”

    Meanwhile, Kashgari felt his life endangered sufficiently to flee his own country; the Saudis used Interpol to track him down in Malaysia, and the government of that supposedly “moderate” Islamic country of Malaysia cooperated with the Saudis to arrest him and compel him to return to Saudi Arabia, where he could well face EXECUTION.

    But Berger is too busy worrying about the mild objections of Sikhs to bother with such actual, and actually deadly, 21st-century fanaticism.

  • Sources for my last comment begin with this report:

    and continue with internal links successively, when the reader clicks on the phrase one sees “More on this story”.

    Jihad Watch is the direct source; but Jihad Watch is merely relaying the reportage from other unremarkably credible and mainstream sources, as anyone with half a brain (or one undeformed by ideology) could see within seconds.

  • Jim.

    How can anyone with any sort of analytical mind miss that hate speech laws are to Political Correctness (secular moralism) what blasphemy laws are to religion?

    The fact is that secular moralism in this country has the strength of the law behind it, and our courts attack religion on the basis of the very law (the 1st amendment) specifically designed to protect it.

    Berger should write an article on that, rather than rehashing paranoia about religious extremism. Anti-religious extremism (let’s call it what it is — bigotry) in this country is a far greater threat to liberty.

  • My comment which was approved makes little sense, since it is specifically referring to a previous comment I wrote earlier, but which I am told, when I visit this page, is in limbo of “awaiting moderation”. Since that latter comment was posted two days ago, and the comment I posted AFTER it was published, it is reasonable to assume that it is no longer “awaiting moderation” but has already received the death knell of censorship in the name of politically correct multiculturalist sensibilities.

    Meanwhile, we all are awaiting the “moderation” of Muslims.

  • Berger examines the case of Salman Rushdie and the fatwas demanding his assassination/execution for blasphemy, but goes beyond this to explore evidence that in the postmodern context, despite the protections of freedom of expression we enjoy, there is an ominous possibility that this medieval practice could be revived in the West.

    My gut reaction tells me that as Absolutes become more and more eroded in the West there will be no real barrier to such initiatives made by those who feel their “sentiments” have been insulted. Free speech will become an empty concept as, on the one hand postmodernism holds that individuals can all have their own “truths”, but when it comes to the ruling postmodern elites managing issues such as “blasphemy”, it then boils down to a toss-up whether they will protect one individual’s freedom to criticise a religion as opposed to a religious community’s “right” to suppress this freedom by various means. The little anecdote related by Berger at the end of his article about a session he attended at the 1993 conference on the Chicago World Parliament of Religions is VERY telling. As was the moderator of the session was confronted with a difficult situation, our postmodern elites are then confronted with two critical question:

    1) Who’s freedom will be protected
    2) WHY?

    Part of the equation here I suspect will then be that for political/ideological reasons some groups will be granted “victim” status by our postmodern elites and others not… And because postmodernism is both a reaction to modernism AND a pursuit of the modern rejection of the judeo-christian worldview, what may such factors entail?

    Paul Gosselin, Social Anthropologist and author of “Flight From the Absolute: Cynical Observations on the Postmodern West”.

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