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Noble Blasphemy
Part V.

– Feb. 18, 2013

Return to Part IV




"All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril."
– Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray


Cox recognizes this in finding a pattern in arguably the two most famous contemporary blasphemy incidents: Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, and the Jyllands-Posten Mohammad cartoons. In that The Satanic Verses serves a central position in Blasphemy and the Law in Ireland,(1) it will also be the primary focus here. Though, the controversy around the cartoons fits the pattern. The facts of both incidents are readily available, so I will limit myself to the most elemental narrative.(2) Briefly, the framework is as follows.(3)

The publication of the text: Rushdie's The Satanic Verses was published in September, 1988.

There is a hurt committed, which is not recognized by the West. There were both national and international protests to both the publication of The Satanic Verses. The most important to our purpose is the action brought by the British Muslim Action Front under British blasphemy law.(4) The case resolved in favor of the defendants, hinging on the fact that the case-law was clear: blasphemy in England was applicable only within the scope of Christianity, the established religion of England. While the court considered the result a "gross anomaly," and implied that its preferred result would be the abolition of blasphemy laws, they deferred taking any substantial action: the onus of change, whether to broader acceptance or abolition, belonged to Parliament and not the court.(5) To compound the issue, the Secretary of State for the Home Department refused a petition to expand the blasphemy laws. Like the court, he fell back upon the incapabilities of the legal system. Unlike the court, however, he used Christianity as a point of argumentative power, saying,"The Christian faith no longer relies on the law of blasphemy, preferring to recognize that the strength of their own belief is the best armor against mockers and blasphemers."(6)

Violence emerges from the void: In February, 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini issues his fatwah. Rushdie went into hiding. The fatwah did have its consequences, including the murders of the Italian and Japanese translators of The Satanic Verses.

Apologies are drafted, but drafted out of fear rather than any honest emotion: Rushdie's apology came the day after the fatwah was announced.(7) Previous to the fatwah, Rushdie had continued his life as though oblivious to what was going on.(8)

Yet, the apologies only serve to eliminate on the part of the offenders the need to deal with the original hurt: Even were it to be completely genuine, the apology fails because it is motivated by the violence rather than by the original harm. Indeed, once the violence has occurred, it would be difficult at best for any apology - whether ingenuous or honest is irrespective - to appear genuine. In that it no longer appears connected to the initial injury, the apology can no longer function within the core conflict. Only, by the time of the apology, the core conflict has changed: it is no longer about the single incident of blasphemy and offense, it is now a conflict of ideologies, whose natures operate to distinguish themselves each from the other.

I simplify because for the moment the Rushdie affair can be sufficiently described as a basic, cultural blasphemy: the grammatical blasphemy of the conflict of two already-established ideological constructs. Of the other two gross categories of blasphemy - that of the individual speaking grammatical blasphemies that are not part of an established societal nomos, and that of the creative blasphemy - the former is in essence the same situation, only there is only one ideological construct involved. In that such constructs are, to the degree they are not in negotiation with each other, actively operating to establish the other as a false reality and thus as an irrelevant (if not heretical, demoniacal, evil, or mad) realty, each thus functions irrespective of the other. The basic two-society grammatical blasphemy is very readily understood then as two one-society blasphemies. For if the moment of agonism is missed as an opportunity for negotiation between the two ideological constructs, then the energies point outward, and the controversy settles into two groups violently defending their own realities. With the apology coming late, within the context of violence, it is transformed from a true apology (which is an opening for communication between the parties) to at best a gesture of mollification, no longer functioning to resolve the conflict, rather functioning to minimize violence as each party bunkers within their own ideological point of strength: in the sureties of their own nomos, which they know is real. As such, the other is most obviously wrong, and need not be addressed.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

With the Satanic Verses controversy we see such a bunkering - that of retreating into Christian religion - in the comments of the Secretary above. An equally if not more primary ideological struggle, though, appears in the opposition of (Islamic) religious fundamentalism vs. freedom of expression fundamentalism. 'Freedom of expression' is itself one of the legitimations of the broader nomos of the West. In a nutshell, as Cox points out, Rushdie became "a martyr to the cause of freedom of expression."(9)


Continute to Part VI.


Note numbers link back to text.


1. Blasphemy was published five years before the Jyllands-Posten events.

2. Cox couples The Satanic Verses with the Gay News controversy of 1976 (23ff).

3. The five point structure is primarily from Cox's presentation, though the essential ideas are present in the book. The headings are primarily Cox's language.

4. R. v. Bow Street Magistrates Court ex parte Choudhury 1 All ER 306 (1991).

5. Bow Street, 317; Cox, 36.

6. G. Robertson and A. Nicol, Media Law (3d ed., Penguin, 1993), 163, as quoted in Cox, 37.

7. Cox, 43.

8. Ibid., 37.

9. Ibid., 44.