Sunday, December 19, 2004

Blasphemy

SIAW reply by e-mail:  'Melanie Phillips: We really don’t want to waste any more time reading her drivel than we have already, if you don’t mind!' I would have thought that one of the things the Left should focus on is exposing the dishonesties of the Right (instead of attacking each other all the time).

Just one more comment then about the criticism of Holland possibly reviving their blasphemy law in order to control hate-material against Muslims. Wind back about 25 years though and you will find people like Mary Whitehouse trying to bring private prosecutions for blasphemy. I may be being unfair to Melanie Phillips and she may not have supported such prosecutions, but they were driven by the same sort of campaign for 'moral values' that she now champions.  (*)

Norm says of Polly Toynbee that she is 'often the target of mocking comment in the blogosphere'. Not from me: I greatly respect her, especially since she is one of the few to deal with the subject of, um, poverty. However, I cannot agree with much in this analysis. OK, maybe we should repeal the blasphemy laws that give a privileged protection to the Christian religion, but it is hardly a major problem. And then, how far do you think we should go in permitting anti-Jewish material (the blood libel, anyone)?  (**)

As for the situation in Australia 'driving the courts to despair as mad evangelical Christians and extreme Muslims sued and counter-sued, endlessly reporting one another's hate-speech', I understand that private prosecutions... will not be allowed under the proposed British law. This last point was also made in Seumas Milne's article. There are other points in this that I agree with: 'Modern Islamism has flourished on the back of the failures of the left and secular nationalists in the Muslim world and has increasingly drawn its support from the poor and marginalised. ...just as ethnicity isn't mainly an issue of genetics, religion isn't only a question of beliefs: both are also about culture and identity. In Britain, religion has increasingly become a proxy for race. ... Outright opposition to religion was important in its time. But to fetishise traditional secularism in our time is to fail to understand its changing social meaning. Like nationalism, religion can face either way, playing a progressive or reactionary role.' I shall also retain 'secular literalists'.

However, I do not of course agree with the argument about 'the new imperial world order' conflating Iraq and Afghanistan with Chechnya, central Asia and Saudi Arabia. As Walter commenting here put it: 'We should show solidarity with... Shi'ite Muslims and Kurdish Muslims facing Ba'athist oppression.'

Couching the argument in terms of 'Enlightenment values', however, is to have a rather limited view of history: this did not start 215 years ago. 

Some of the first ideas about freedom of expression, in modern times, came from England in the 1640's, for example John Milton's Areopagitica of 1643. For a time, all manner of opinions were expressed in pamphlets and so on. It did not last long though and the monarchy was restored; but some advances were irreversible. By the 18th century, the relative freedom of expression in Britain inspired people like Voltaire. They then had an influence on the independent American republic,  which filtered back into Europe with the French revolution and so on.

(*) Even now there are attempts to revive the blasphemy laws. See the BBC's No action on 'gay Jesus'.

(**) Britain's laws against anti-semitic material ... are rather weaker than France's, say. My memory of the David Irving case was somewhat vague, but I refreshed them by a Google search. See Irving's war, for example.

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The other day I watched a video of the ITV drama Belonging, which was shown in September. This was adapted from a novel "The web of belonging" by Stevie Davies. Update: if you want to buy the book, the link given on her website is not very useful, taking you to an offer from Amazon of some second-hand copies at extortionate prices, although Foyles, for one, have it available at £6.95. She has also written articles in critical journals about John Milton (in fact she was my tutor on the subject many years ago). Another coincidence: a more recent article of hers was about W.G.Sebald's Austerlitz; I read that a few months ago, the only novel of his that I have read.

In aid of the work of Medecins Sans Frontieres for the famine-victims of Darfur, on Christmas Day Stevie will have just a meal of fresh bread and pure water, donating the price of her dinner to relief work in the Sudan and is inviting sponsors for this.

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