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Noble Blasphemy
Part VI.

– Feb. 18, 2013

Return to Part 5




"Well you say that it's gospel
But I know that it's only church."
– Tom Waits, "That Feel"(1)


What has happened.

First, there occurs a blasphemous act. In this instance, the publication of a book which is perceived as blasphemous. (All blasphemous acts are perceived as blasphemous - that is the nature of the offense/response situation. There is only perception, but a perception that carries with it the whole of metaphysical presence.) The act is of sufficient potency as to generate a response from the challenged nomos.

That response serves as the measure of whether the act is legalistically blasphemous (i.e., the act creates no actual offense outside of that by legal definition the words degrade the nature of the deity), or whether the act is blasphemous in the sense of an actual felt offense (the society, through the person of its membership, undergoes an actual psychological response to the questioning of its socio-moral underpinnings). Recognizing this, the question of the possibility of a bare knowledge offense (the question whether blasphemy can be actionable on the mere knowledge of the act's occurrence, without the offended persons actually witnessing or otherwise encountering the act) reveals a curious answer. A blasphemous offense does not need observation to exist: bare knowledge is sufficient to cross the threshold of blasphemy-as-injurious-act because the actual injury, and the actual injured - the surety of the nomos - operates psychologically, not materially. If blasphemy is believed to exist, then it does in fact exist - irrespective of any actual material event. The nomos must then act to eliminate the perceived threat. Thus the energies readily available to witch hunts and the like: the injury can exist without an offender. What is called "bare knowledge" of the event of blasphemy is thus actually its inverse: blasphemy in its purest form, as a purely psychological, self-maintaining function of the nomos.(2)

Where there is a threat to the nature of a societal construct, that society must respond, verbally or violently, within societal systems or in disobedience thereto. Here, the initial response culminates, within the British societal framework, with legal action. Notice that by acting within English societal norms multiple ideological axes are functioning simultaneously. The offended class is self-identified (or is in the process of self-identification) both as Muslim and as English. In that they are not just legally but ideologically integrated to some degree within the English nomos, they can legitimately attempt to assuage the pressure on the Muslim nomos through the systems that operate as part of the English. In that the Muslims are striving to enter English society, they are in negotiation with the English nomos (just as England is in negotiation with the Muslim nomos brought with them when they immigrated). Because the English nomos is the dominant, it has, by far, the higher inertia, which puts psychological pressures on the minority group: they must change the most in the negotiation; and, in that the religious legitimation of the Muslim ideology is so heavily embedded in material society, the gradient of change is all the more radical. In that there is negotiation between the two constructs, the individual is caught in between realities, simultaneously finding identity in each against the other while they try to meld the two into a single grand narrative. In ironic consequent, when the Muslims lose because of the role of Christianity-as-legitimation within the dominant nomos, both axes end up under attack.

Firstly, as Muslims they are identified as holding a secondary rank within the English legal system. The construct they are trying to enter is rejecting them as not-welcome, fully, within the fold. Their yet-incomplete identification as 'English persons' is, in essence, disqualified: they are not part of the English nomos, no matter how much they may be permitted to participate in the material systems thereof. The dominant nomos is, in fact, undergoing its own reaction to blasphemy. Insofar as"England" has not yet fully adapted its own narrative to permit full integration of Muslim persons within that nomos, the idea of "British Muslim" is still a blasphemous idea. As such, the dominant nomos must react to protect the purity of its own identity. Thus the comment of the Secretary of State for the Home Department, above.

Secondly, Rushdie's blasphemous act against the Muslim axis is legitimated by the dominant nomos. The legitimacy of their own Muslim reality has been flatly, officially, and publicly denied. Which is to say, they have flatly, officially, and publically been called out as believing in falsehoods. The original blasphemous attack as such is not eliminated but exacerbated. Indeed, I would argue that the transitional position of the Muslim British exacerbates the situation even further in that the British Muslims can not avoid being subjected to ongoing blasphemy: in identifying their Muslim character as blasphemous to England, England has become blasphemous to the Muslim British, who, in the same breath, are in the psychological limbo of forced negotiation between their native culture and the culture of the society in which they now live. The Court's decision not only defended Rushdie's blasphemy, it committed new, grander blasphemies on top of it.

Because of the cultures involved, there are even more logs for the fire. (3) For one, Islamic society has not undergone the cultural shift described above. The religion of Islam functions within Islamic society in way Christianity did in the Middle ages. Established religion in the West has diminished in its legitimating function and no longer exists for the most part as an overtly defining section of material society. Yet, in Muslim society, the religion of Islam still performs its legitimating function as part and parcel of material society. It cannot be said that the West has yet emerged on the other side of this transformation. Nonetheless, the it is farther along than not. This systemic conflict creates a serious problem of translation between the West and Islamic societies in that the conflict of the two nomoi is not only substantive but also to a great degree functional. It's not only the factual nature of reality that is in conflict between the two societies, it is the very formation of society, and the degree of authority by which religion legitimates the reality construct.

Also, there is the brute fact that Christianity has in a very real way been at war with Islam since the Crusades. There has never been a period of reconciliation or negotiation between the two grand societies. To explain by analogy, where two languages are forced into negotiation with each other - for example, consider a place on the Gulf Coast early in the age of exploration, where the desire to trade creates the necessity of language-learning - there will develop a pidgin: that is, each side will learn and adapt enough fragments of the other language as is necessary to facilitate the practical aspects of the business of trade. If the energies of interaction grow and expand, that pidgin can develop into a creole, a kind of hybrid language that is recognizable of both parent languages yet also developing its own independence. Over time it may mature into a true language of its own, derived from both parents but wholly independent of each. After a thousand years of interaction between the Islamic and Christian societies, there exists today between the two cultures at best only a rudimentary pidgin.

Worse, the relationship is imbalanced. Muslims feel themselves to be in the lesser position, fighting for legitimacy on the world stage - a position the West is more than ready to affirm (and which it necessarily does affirm as a natural course of its own nomos). As such, writes Richard Webster, "what Muslims see in Rushdie's fictional adaptation of ancient stereotypes is not simply hatred, but the long, terrible, triumphalist hatred which the West has had for Islam almost since the beginning."(4)

It is no surprise then how readily the Satanic Verses controversy extends beyond the shores of England. While the Muslim British are a constituent of English society in the broad sense, they are none-the-lesser Muslim, an identity constituent with the sacrosanctity of Islam, which is but a sub-culture within England. The denial of the Muslim nomos in England is a denial of the same nomos in Iran. Granted, by the time of the fatwah, the controversy has become highly politicized. The fundamentalist elements of the societies involved became the dominant players. (Though, it may also be said that the players became more fundamentalist as they retreated into their respective ideological world-building.)

The three elements of nomos, fundamentalism and politicization are heavily intertwined. Though, they must also be recognized independently: not a terribly easy proposition. The difficulty is solved by refusing point definitions. Fundamentalism is, within the social event, a measure of the degree to which the individual's reality is defined by the nomos. Using classic psychoanalytic terminology, it is the a measure of the degree to which the cultural superego controls the individual's independent psyche. The term is generally used to mark an extreme belief. Though, being extreme in terms of its legalistic metaphysics does not parallel the number of its membership. Since the nomos functions through common societal norms, politicization and fundamentalism readily run hand in hand: especially in a society such as the Islamic, in which a legitimation (religion) and the psychical reality it legitimates is deeply mutually identified.

A societal or individual response to a threat to the nomos is fundamentalist to the degree that the response serves and is guided by the reiteration of the nomos. That is the part and parcel of fundamentalism: the person acts not as an individual but as part of the societal collective, the reality of the situation being defined by the nomos rather than by an individual, psychological engagement. The individual acts in continuity with that reality and, simultaneously, in affirmative performance of that reality.

It is not merely that the nomos defines reality for the fundamentalist: the fundamentalist is themselves defined by that reality. The reality being, in the end, a psychological construct, a fiction as it were, the fundamentalist must act always according to and in reiteration of what, to them, is capital-T Truth. And in that the reality is a shared reality, established within the cultural mass, the fundamentalist action is always a group action. It is out of this dynamic that fundamentalist Christianity as a whole can be able to publicly and actively condemn, say, The Last Temptation of Christ, without themselves as individuals (even to overwhelming percentages) having seen the film. What they know to be true is established within the collective mass as spoken to them by those persons who function in present day as their priestly class. And what the collective mass accepts as truth is Truth. Their own independent judgment is irrelevant to the reality defined by the societal norm. In fact, the more psychological energy is involved in maintaining the stability of the nomos, the more any independent thought is perceived as a threat, irrespective as well of whether the result of that thought sides with or against the nomos. The threat is not solely the content of the thought; the threat is also in its core the break from the societal mass - which is ultimately performative of the artificiality of the societal reality.

Politicization is not by necessity driven or governed by the nomos. When the situation becomes politicized, it is a simple thing for an individual, if they can assert their own identity as mouthpiece of the nomos, to be able to manipulate actions of the societal population to their own ends. Curiously, the populace will be oblivious to the manipulation so long as the machinations do not conflict with that which is most critical in the moment: the stability of their world-building as maintained against the perceived (and as such very real) threat to that world-building. Morally, this posits the interesting question of whether the populace can in fact be blamed for their actions when they are acting according to their most fundamental morality, which emanates from the most sacred core of the nomos.(5)

When, in Cox's schema, the apology does come it is working more for the conflict than in mediation of it. Through ideological bunkering and politicization the situation has fully elevated to the societal. That the apology comes from fear rather than regret or some other individual emotion is not itself a cause of the failure of the apology but rather symptomatic of the retreat into ideology. The apology merely marks the occurrence of the individual's irrelevancy (outside of their ability act within the political). There is no longer an issue of injury: there is only a power struggle.


Continute to Part VII.


Note numbers link back to text.


1. Bone Machine (Island, 1992).

2. Since ideology functions by demarking the other against the identity of the nomos, the agonism of blasphemy is a necessary function of the nomos: it must always to some degree be creating blasphemies (and other antagonisms against the other) in order to reiterate and affirm societal borders. The more fundamentalist the ideological construct (that is, the more rigid its narrative and the deeper its associated society is embedded within that narrative), the more the nomos needs such antagonisms to defend itself against negotiation with the other, for any such negotiation will carry with it a dissolving of the assuredness in the grand narrative, and with it the slow diminution in power of the nomos itself.

3. See Cox, 41ff.

4. Richard Webster, A Brief History of Blasphemy (Oxford: Orwell Press, 1990), 40, as quoted in Cox, 42.

5. This carries obvious implications into, e.g., post war settlements and war crimes trials, hinting at the idea that culpability for such crimes lies only in either the very nature of the society involved or in the leaders to move that nature to their will.