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Free Speech Is No Offense

“The only right you don’t have in a democracy is the right not to be offended.”

These words by New York law professor Ronald Dworkin come to mind when reading about the angry Muslim reactions after last week’s decision by Queen Elizabeth to knight Salman Rushdie.

Unfortunately, too many people do not understand the consequences of their misplaced respect for insulted religious feelings: this respect is being used by tyrants and fanatics around the world to justify suicide attacks and to silence criticism and to crush dissenting points of view.

Here’s what Mohammed ljaz ul-Haq, the religious affairs minister of Pakistan -our ally in the war on terror- had to say about Sir Salman’s knighthood: “If someone blows himself up he will consider himself justified. How can we fight terrorism when those who commit blasphemy are rewarded by the West?”

Mohammed ljaz ul-Haq is the son of former president Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, who was killed in a plane crash in 1988. One of the characters in Rushdie’s novel about Pakistan’s political turmoil, %%AMAZON=0099578611 Shame,%% is based on Zia ul-Haq. The late president’s son was later forced to soften his attack on Rushdie, but his line of “reasoning” exposes the problem in a nutshell: he is absolutely sure that blasphemy and terrorism are comparable crimes. And he can find many arguments for this perverted logic in the reactions among people in the West to the fatwa against Rushdie after the publication of “The Satanic Verses” in 1988, which was denounced blasphemous for its depiction of the prophet Mohammed.

Minister ul-Haq was joined by another cabinet member, Pakistan’s minister for parliamentarian affairs Sher Afgan Khan Niazi: “The ‘sir’ title from Britain for blasphemer Salman Rushdie has hurt the feelings of Muslims across the world. Every religion should be respected. I demand the British government immediately withdraw the title as it is creating religious hatred,” he said.

Again: insult, blasphemy, respect for religion, those words are being repeated over and over again as justification for violent attacks and death threats. By the Iranian government, by the chairman of the Muslim Council of Britain, and by leading politicians and opinion makers in the West.

And they have made their way into the United Nation’s Human Rights Council, the highest ranking international body with the mission of protecting human rights. On March 30 it passed a scandalous resolution condoning state punishment of speech that governments deems as insulting for religion.

“The resolution is based in the expectation that it will compel the international community to acknowledge and address the disturbing phenomenon of the defamation of religions, especially Islam,” said Pakistan, speaking on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

What does this mean? Well, it means that the UN is encouraging every dictatorship to pass laws that make criticism of Islam a crime. The UN Human Rights Council legitimizes the criminal persecution of sir Salman Rushdie for having insulted people’s religious sensibilities. Beautiful, isn’t it?

And the Labour Government in Britain was delivering ammunition to this kind of policy when back in 2006 it put a lot of effort into passing a law against religious hatred. It failed by one vote. Salman Rushdie fought this law. In an essay “Coming After Us” for the anthology “Free Expression Is No Offense” he wrote:

“I never thought of myself as a writer about religion until religion came after me… At that time it was often difficult to persuade people that the attack on The Satanic Verses was part of a broader, global assault on writers, artists, and fundamental freedoms. The aggressors in that matter, by which I mean the novel’s opponents, who threatened booksellers and publishers, falsified the contents of the text they disliked, and vilified its author, nevertheless presented themselves as the injured parties, and such was the desire to appease religious sentiment even then that in spite of the murder of a translator in Japan and the shooting of a publisher in Norway there was widespread acceptance of that topsy-turvy view.”

Fortunately, Salman Rushdie is doing well, celebrating his 60th birthday today and working on a new novel, “a fantasia or shaggy dog story which connects Renaissance Florence with 16th century India”, as he put it in a recent interview with the Daily Telegraph.

But the fact of the matter is that by adapting the resolution against “defamation of religion” the UN has tacitly endorsed the killing of Rushdie’s colleagues in parts of the world where no one can protect them.


Ibn Warraq reacts to Rushdie’s knighthood at Northern Light.

Flemming Rose is the culture editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten; he now blogs at PajamasXpress’ Northern Light.