Taylor and Dummett on the Rushdie Affair

By Paul Cliteur | Volume 18 (2016)
Journal of Religion & Society

Salman Rushdie (L), Charles Taylor (C), Michael Dummett (R). Both Taylor and Dummett seem to be heavily influenced by a Catholic worldview.

Abstract

The famous twentieth-century philosophers Charles Taylor and Michael Dummett have both commented on the Rushdie Affair. This article analyzes their criticism of the British author Salman Rushdie and tries to demonstrate the relevance of this criticism against the backdrop of the recent massacre in the editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris on January 7, 2015. Unfortunately, two great philosophers of our time do not give us guidance here. The world is confused, our political leaders are confused, and great political philosophers are confused. This is important, because if freedom of expression, freedom of thought, and freedom of religion are to survive in this world, it is necessary to defend these freedoms.

When on January 7, 2015, the cartoonists of the French satirical Magazine Charlie Hebdo were killed, forty heads of state protested in the streets of Paris to demonstrate their solidarity with the French. As philosopher Bernard Henri-Lévy observed, that is one fourth of the UN.[1] But although a momentous upsurge in favor of free speech and the importance of religious criticism arose a few days after the attack, the debate soon continued along the lines we have become accustomed to in similar cases. In the Rushdie Affair (1989), the Danish Cartoon Affair (2005), the debate on the film Innocence of Muslims (2012),[2] and similar incidents, commentators who disparaged or relativized the advocacy of free speech and other liberal values quickly came to the fore.[3] These values were considered to be typically “Western,” some commentators said; others claimed people like Rushdie were “provocative”; and yet others claimed that Rushdie or Charlie Hebdo were dishonestly motivated in their actions, or arrogantly disrespectful to what is holy to defenseless religious minorities.[4]

The aim of this article is to engage in an analysis of what two of the most distinguished philosophers of the twentieth century had to say about the Rushdie Affair: Charles Taylor and Michael Dummett. The claim of this essay is that Taylor and Dummett were not very supportive of Rushdie’s position in a controversy that would have far-reaching consequences for the position of free speech and religious criticism in particular in our times.

These two philosophers are well-known, and so their arguments are worth serious consideration. What are those arguments? And do they hold water? Is there some deeper “philosophy” that bolsters their criticism of Rushdie’s stance? And what is there to say after twenty-five years of experience with the Rushdie Affair (and similar controversies, like the Charlie Hebdo affair)? Do we still struggle with the same questions or have we come closer to consensus about what is to be done with these controversies?

The central claim of this article is that the critics of Rushdie and of others who incurred the wrath of what can be called “theoterrorists” are motivated by a worldview that may be (in a sense that I hope to explain in this article) characterized as “multiculturalist” and “cultural relativist.” History has not corroborated the views of Taylor or Dummett, I will argue in this article. On the contrary, subsequent events in the Cartoon Affairs, in both Denmark and France (culminating in the massacre of the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo), have proved that the theoterrorist assault on free speech has to be stopped. And it will not be stopped by giving in to the demands of the terrorists.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor (b. 1931) is an important figure in the discussion over the Rushdie Affair for several reasons, but two in particular.

First, his seminal essay “The politics of recognition” (1994) makes him, in a sense, the founding father of multiculturalism, although he is not uncritical of some varieties of this way of thinking.[5] Taylor was not the first to write from a multiculturalist perspective, but he was certainly the most impressive representative among the great philosophers to do so, and he gave the concept a philosophical underpinning and prestige it did not have before.

Second, Taylor is interesting because he wrote about the Rushdie Affair in its early stages (in 1989), but he also wrote on the matter in 1994 and in 2011 (he even commented in the same vein on the murder of the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo in 2015).[6] In between, many other incidents occurred (or a pattern developed) and it is interesting to see whether we can discern any development of his ideas on this great controversy.

Admittedly, Taylor does not support the fatwa of Khomeini. In 1994 he wrote, “There will be variations when it comes to applying the schedule of rights, but not where incitement to assassination is concerned.”[7] But, as I hope to demonstrate in this essay, his defense of the universal value of free speech is so lukewarm and partly contradictory that his opposition to theoterrorism, and that of those who share his approach, is very weak indeed.

In his early essay on the Rushdie Affair, “The Rushdie Controversy” (1989), Taylor writes that “In the West we have developed explorations on the meaning of the life, of the ultimate questions, which involve rejecting religion.”[8] Rushdie’s book seems a potent example of this type of religious criticism, he says.[9]

Taylor discerns three features in The Satanic Verses that make it offensive for people with a firm religious conviction. These features are:

One, defiant unbelief, affirming the dignity of humans alone in the universe; two, courage before a universe which is in itself meaningless; and three, an acceptance of human limitation, of the irremediable unspirituality of human beings, or of the weakness, sensuality, self-referentiality of everything they call “spiritual”, not seeing this as “fallenness” anymore.[10]

All three critiques appear in Rushdie’s work, Taylor says, and that upsets many people outside the Western world.

As a description of the situation, this may not strike us as particularly controversial perhaps. The only problem seems to be that Taylor makes some sweeping generalizations about “people outside the Western world” that will upset a considerable number of liberals, supporters of human rights, and advocates of Enlightenment outside the Western world.[11] But then Taylor shifts from the descriptive to the normative or to the evaluative dimension of the matter, which is where his argument takes an interesting turn. Taylor makes a plea for “some degree of understanding.”[12] Not for Rushdie, but for Rushdie’s critics. Taylor indicts The Satanic Verses for being “an anti-paradigm of what we need.”[13] He says: “The problem with this literature, as it has developed in a relatively self-satisfied Western world, is that it has lost touch altogether with the possibility that religious symbols, stories, dogmas, might mean something very different to those who espouse them than they do to the rejecters.”[14]

In the final sentences of his essay on the Rushdie Affair, Taylor even makes a comparison between Rushdie’s book, which he characterizes as “comforting to the Western liberal mind,” and Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa, on which Taylor has remarkably little to say. What they both have in common is “that there is nothing outside their world-view which needs deeper understanding, just a perverse reflection of the obviously right.”[15]

This comparison between a murderer and his victim is clearly insinuative with regard to Rushdie (one could also call it insulting, were it not that this word is a little overused nowadays). The brunt of Taylor’s criticism in this essay[16] seems directed not at the religious fanatic, but at the secular writer who shows insufficient concern for the sensibilities of the cleric. To Taylor, apparently, the fatwa is not a “bribed assassination scheme,”[17] or “arrogant state-sponsored homicide,”[18] as Christopher Hitchens (1949–2011) famously characterized Khomeini’s actions, but he thinks we have to understand this against the background of what he sees as derisive speech towards religious groups.[19] Multiculturalists tend to show great understanding of the “harm” they think religious criticism inflicts on religious groups. The Western liberal mind, as Taylor calls it, will have to learn to “reach out more” and to be less “self-satisfied.”[20]

Now, if Taylor takes this position with regard to The Satanic Verses, one does not have to ask what his position would be with regard to Theo van Gogh’s and Hirsi Ali’s film Submission[21] or Terence McNally’s (b. 1938) play Corpus Christi,[22] which caused havoc first among Catholics and later among Muslims, or the Danish cartoons republished in Charlie Hebdo.[23] Are these not all manifestations of an unwillingness “to reach out more”?

Taylor’s first article was written in the year of the fatwa, so in the early days of the controversy. At that moment in time, not many people were very successful in presenting the right diagnosis. But Taylor also commented on the matter in the later stages of the debate (1994 and 2011). What were his later views on the controversy? Did he change his position?

Taylor’s views did not change much over time.[24] In 2011, Taylor also claimed that the relationship “between religious and nonreligious people is often characterized by incomprehension, distrust, and sometimes intolerance.”[25] On the normative level, Taylor and his co-author Maclure write: “Atheists and agnostics have difficulty conceiving why, in the twenty-first century, individuals adhere to religious beliefs whose truth cannot be established through the scientific approach.”[26]

The question is whether this is the problem. It would be more accurate to say that atheists like Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, and also Rushdie, know perfectly well why some people adhere to a religious worldview, but that they simply do not agree. And expressing that disagreement, in the case of Rushdie, puts him into a situation in which he can be killed. Under those circumstances, it is strange to recommend “an ethics of dialogue” that is “respectful of different metaphysical and moral perspectives,” as Taylor does.[27] This is not about metaphysical perspectives, but about life and death. This is about a dictator who wants to kill a novelist for no other reason than that the novelist has published a book. Occasionally Taylor intersperses his argument with what seem to be concessions to Rushdie’s point of view. He writes that there is no incompatibility between promoting “an ethics of dialogue” and affirming the value of free speech and the evil of violence. As Taylor and Maclure write: “Just as freedom of religion does not include the right not to be exposed to religious symbols, the price to be paid for living in a society that protects that exercise of freedom of conscience and expression is the understanding we will be exposed to beliefs and practices we judge false, ridiculous, or hurtful.”[28]

Now that sounds very promising, as does Taylor’s and Maclure’s statement that they would not like to live “in a society where Salman Rushdie and Richard Dawkins would be censored.”[29] But immediately after this passage comes a “with that said”[30] and the authors again appeal to responsibility and understanding. And again, not understanding from the side of the religious fanatics who issue death threats, but from the side of the critics of religion, the satirists, and the proponents of free speech. Taylor does not seem to understand that the most effective weapon against censorship is defending the right to free speech in the face of the imminent danger that religious fanatics reintroduce by a sort of informal inquisition and vigilante justice. As the British author Douglas Murray reacted to the call for dialogue: “And might that dialogue start with a cartoon, maybe? Or a film? Or a bit of satire?” It’s difficult to have a true dialogue when the other side threatens to kill you if they don’t like what you say.[31]

What Multiculturalism Has to Do With It

In 2011, like in 1989 and 1994, Taylor seems to develop his views under the guidance of a certain ideology or philosophy, viz. multiculturalism. The mistake of multiculturalism (or Taylor’s interpretation of it)[32] seems to be this: both in 1989 and in 2011, Taylor seems to think that his position expresses “respect for Muslims.” But that interpretation of events may be challenged. If you uphold freedom of speech to criticize religion or religious icons, or even to make satirical comments about holy figures,[33] that is certainly not identical with disrespect for Muslims. On the contrary, by not making an exception for Islam when it comes to criticism you express the greatest respect for Muslims as persons.[34] You treat them as equals. Nevertheless, conflating religion with religious believers is a fatal misunderstanding that haunts this whole discussion. Arguably, what Taylor missed both in 1989 and in 2011, is that this is not about pro or contra “Muslims” or pro or contra “minorities,” but about pro or contra religious fanaticism, religious fundamentalism, and religiously motivated terrorism.[35]

Now, as I have shown before, Taylor also claims that he is against religious fanaticism, religious fundamentalism, and religiously motivated terrorism, but the problem is that he only says this, and then when a novelist is hit by the most effective attempt to silence him,[36] Taylor responds with elaborate comments on what is wrong with the novelist’s tone, with religious satire, and with what he calls the “liberal mind.”

The dilemma seems to be this. If religious satire is confronted with the daunting challenge it now faces, there are only two possible options: (i) you defend religious satire, (ii) or you do not.

And the problem is, Taylor does not.

The tragedy is that he does this based on a misguided diagnosis of the situation that he thinks is in the interest of Muslims as a group. But that claim may be challenged. This is basically consigning Islam (and Muslims) to the most radical and fanatic interpretation of that religion. All good intentions notwithstanding, this attempt to safeguard Islam or Islamic holy symbols and icons from satire is a dangerous strategy.

The West and the Rest

Despite all indications to the contrary, Taylor starts from a false antithesis between the West (in favor of liberal principles such as free speech and the separation of church and state[37]) and Islam, which lacks all this, in his opinion. This is problematic, to say the least. There are many liberal voices within Islamic culture that support the idea that Islam can be criticized like every other religion.[38]

There is one thing, though, that hampers our attempt to understand what Taylor means. A considerable problem in interpreting Taylor’s stance is that he does not seem to take one consistent position either way, but constantly vacillates from one position to another. The general tenor, though, is dismissive of Rushdie, dismissive of “the Western liberal mind” (whatever that may be), and dismissive of those who advocate the primacy of individual human rights.[39] And the problem is; this is something we simply cannot afford when freedom of speech is so effectively attacked by the theoterrorists.

That Taylor is fully aware of the context of the discussion in 2011 appears from the passage in which he refers to offensive artistic creations like Rushdie’s book, the caricatures of Mohammed, and the films about Christ by Martin Scorsese[40] and Mel Gibson.[41] Taylor states that he does not believe that we have to limit the freedom of expression “in the name of respect.”[42] But having said that, he goes on: “except in flagrant cases of defamation or incitement to hatred.”[43]

What strikes the eye is that Taylor leaves out “incitement to violence” as a possible limitation of free speech, although this is the most obvious limitation.[44] Instead of referring to incitement to physical violence, Taylor refers to “defamation,” one of the terms used recently by members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to suffocate free speech within the Human Rights Council of the United Nations.[45] Should we conclude from this that Taylor wants to advocate that religious symbols should not be “defamed”? But what is wrong with defaming symbols?

The problem with Taylor’s views is that it is quite difficult to establish what his position really comprises. Once he has stated his views, this is usually followed by statements that seem to take back what he defended in previous sentences.  This is probably considered by some to be a manifestation of his sophistication, but others may less generously view it as vagueness or imprecision. For instance, having made the remarks about “defamation,” Taylor also says he would not like to live in a society “where Salman Rushdie or Richard Dawkins would be censored.”[46] Now the tragedy is that Taylor is totally sincere. He does not like censorship. But by advocating an ethics of dialogue in a situation where the violent forces gain the upper hand, he accomplishes the exact opposite of what he wishes. So the word “tragedy” seems entirely appropriate here. Why does Taylor not present a more straightforward rejection of the fatwa?[47] Is not issuing a fatwa to kill critics the introduction of the most efficient system of censorship imaginable? What is the meaning of rejecting censorship if you condone violence towards authors who are targeted by criminals and terrorists? Nota bene: not condoning by saying “I think violence is justified” (which Taylor never does, of course), but “condoning” by repeatedly addressing the wrong issues, viz. “respect,” or “harm done to religious groups,” when the real issue is that terrorists are becoming pretty successful in stifling free speech.

The Exceptio Artis

Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses causes problems for many readers because it is literature. Hard core Islamists tend to portray Rushdie’s book as some sort of pornography or insignificant propaganda,[48] but for Western multiculturalist critics this was more difficult. Whether you like it or not, Rushdie is a qualified literary writer.

At the end of their book, Taylor and Maclure appear to make a distinction between the Danish and French caricatures on the one hand and Rushdie’s book on the other. Rushdie’s mockery, says Taylor, “was situated within a work that offers a compelling portrait of the human condition in the era of globalization.”[49] This is no small compliment. But this cannot be said of the caricatures, he adds.

Here, again, we may ask whether the two things are comparable. Of course, a cartoon does not create a “compelling portrait of the human condition in the era of globalization or anything complex of that sort.” How could a cartoon or caricature ever do that? That would be an impossible task for a cartoon. What those who commissioned the cartoons in 2005 tried to establish, is whether free speech was still guaranteed in the Western world after the murder of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh on November 2, 2004.[50] What they devised was some sort of experiment.[51] They invited cartoonists to draw Mohammed “as they see him.”[52] The rest is history.

In the meantime (between 1989 and 2011, when Taylor is writing) one could say that much new material has been produced that proved that the commissioner of the cartoons (Flemming Rose, the editor in chief of the culture section of the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten)[53] was not entirely mistaken about his concern in 2005, but what does Taylor say about that? He makes the same controversial contentions he made in his earlier contributions to the discussion on the Rushdie fatwa, i.e. he totally misinterprets the intentions of those who publish and republish cartoons that are deemed so offensive to those prepared to use gross violence. In this case it is about the reprinting of those cartoons in the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo. This republication, Taylor asserts, “served only to fan the conflict and to shore up the newspaper staff’s sense of self-importance.”[54]

Taylor simply undervalues the moral and political justification of satire as being a literary genre. Characteristic of satire is not just irony, but sarcasm too. The Oxford dictionary defines “satire” as “The use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.” And Wordweb delineates satire as “Witty language used to convey insults or scorn, esp. saying one thing but implying the opposite.” Two things stand our here. (i) Satire can convey scorn and insults (Wordweb). (ii) Satire is not only meant for amusement, but it has a political and moral function: people’s stupidity and vices are subjected to criticism (Oxford dictionary).

Both elements seem to have little significance for Taylor. He fails to see that the publication of the caricatures in 2005 and their republication in Charlie Hebdo had the motive to defend free speech,[55] which is something entirely different from shoring up your self-importance. According to the editors of Charlie Hebdo (and they have good arguments here) it makes no sense to say “I am in favor of free speech, but under the circumstances I consider it wise not to republish the cartoons the terrorists want to force us not to publish.” Under the circumstances indicated, the only credible way to uphold free speech is not to give in to the terrorists. It is like saying “I very much like satire; I just don’t like sarcasm, irony, insults, and scorn.” If you really do not like those things, you’d better say you do not like satire.

In Taylor’s remarks about the Rushdie Affair, and its offshoots in the cartoon affairs, there does not seem to be any understanding of the high-minded motivations of both Rushdie and the cartoonists. They took great risks, and some of them even died for their convictions, like Stéphane Charbonnier (1967–2015), the editor in chief of Charlie Hebdo who declared that he’d rather die standing upright than continue to live on his knees: “Je préfère mourir debout que vivre à genoux.”[56]

Since January 7, 2015, we know that the security measures for the French cartoonists were taken in vain, because nearly the entire editorial board was gunned down by the Kouachi brothers.[57] So far the Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard has survived all murder attempts, but the way Taylor and Maclure slur the cartoonist by accusing them of shoring up their sense of self-importance is manifestly in contradiction with what the people who defended the right to satire themselves have explained about their motives. Perhaps Taylor does not believe them. But in that case, it would do more justice to them to explain why they, Taylor and Maclure, think they have more reliable information about the motives of those who took the decision to publish and republish the caricatures than the persons themselves.

Subsequently, Taylor praises Western media outlets that refused to republish the caricatures. He claims this attested to “wise judgment,” but he fails to explain why he thinks this is the case; in particular, he does not explain why this was not the same as capitulating in the face of terror. If a mobster puts a gun to your head and commands you to give him your money, it may also be “wise” to comply, but this wisdom has a sinister undertone, does it not? And every loving father of a cartoonist would argue with his son if he were considering trying his artistic talent on the prophet of Islam. But that does not imply this has anything to do with “dialogue,” and it only testifies to “wise judgment” in a very specific sense.

At the end of his analysis Taylor also confuses the matter discussed (i.e. what to do with religiously motivated violence?) with the question of whether religion can be a basis for morals. This is, of course, an entirely different subject. He praises Rawls and Habermas (“who once defended more restrictive views”[58]) and arrives at the conclusion “that religious perspectives are important sources of ethics that can contribute significantly toward furthering democratic culture.”[59]

The problem is: this is a totally different subject. That religion is a source of ethics is something nobody can deny.[60] Khomeini’s fatwa was undoubtedly connected with his religious views. But this example also makes it abundantly clear that religious perspectives do not always put us on the track of responsible moral judgment. Mixing up the subject of the supposed religious basis of morals with the subject of the limitations of free speech is not very helpful.

A demonstration in Tehran, 1989. (Photo: Kaveh Kazemi / Corbis)

Daniel Dennett once coined the concept “believer in belief” [61] and Kitcher speaks of a “fan of faith.”[62] Some people, even people without clear religious beliefs of their own, are convinced that somehow religion serves a useful purpose, or even that it is necessary to uphold morals. Now what the new atheists do[63] (a current that Rushdie is closely connected to) and what other atheists have done,[64] as far as that was possible without losing their lives,[65] is raise consciousness and critically discuss religious belief.[66] The problem is that Taylor and many commentators who think along the same lines reiterate that they have a problem with “mockery” and “satire.” But that would imply that, together with The Satanic Verses, they have to reject a whole corpus of great literature, including Aristophanes, Horace, Juvenal to Rabelais, Molière, Voltaire, Jonathan Swift and countless others. What is unclear is whether those critics are against (i) every form of satire (so also satire with regard to e.g. liberalism, socialism, the monarchy, and freethought), (ii) satire of religion in general (so making “religion” something special, because people suffer great harm when their most holy convictions are involved), (iii) or satire when it comes to violent religious radicals (considering it “wise judgment” not to poke the bear).

Michael Dummett and the Cause of Anti-Racism

That brings me to the second great philosopher I want to focus on as representative for the multiculturalist response to the Rushdie Affair, i.e. Michael Dummett.

Dummett’s criticism is similar to that of Taylor. He is not primarily concerned with the exertion of violence from the side of the theoterrorists, but the “pain” Rushdie caused by publishing his book, pain that was inflicted on what Dummett calls “immigrant communities.”

Dummett introduces a new notion to the discussion, viz. the notion of race. Dummett, apparently, thinks that criticizing someone’s religious beliefs makes that critic, wittingly or unwittingly, a “racist.”

This is a serious affair, because once you start to stigmatize criticism of religion as some form of “racism,” every reasonable discussion becomes virtually impossible. Nevertheless, this is the fateful turn this whole discussion had taken.[67]

But before I venture to criticize Dummett’s ideas, let me start with a short introduction. Michael Dummett (1925-2011), like Charles Taylor, is a very prominent philosopher of our time. He was Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford. He is noted for his great contributions to the philosophy of language, logic, and mathematics.[68] Dummett held teaching posts at Birmingham University, the University of Berkeley (California), Stanford University, Princeton University, and Harvard University. He is the winner of many prizes for excellent philosophical work. He is known particularly for his clear exposition of the work of the logician Gottlob Frege (1848-1925).

After Dummett died in 2011, The New York Times invited colleagues and pupils of the great philosopher to testify about the extent of his knowledge and his influence on contemporary philosophy. This shows us a great personality, beloved by all, and also universally admired. “Michael was exemplary, not just as a thinker, but as a human being,” his colleague Hilary Putnam (b. 1926) writes.[69] He was lavishly praised for his generosity and tolerance. “Not once did Dummett attempt to proselytize,” one of his former students remarks.[70]

But apart from sophisticated philosophical analyses in the field of logic and the philosophy of language, there are two other dimensions to his work, and they require our attention for a proper understanding of his stance in the Rushdie Affair.

First, his commitment to Roman Catholicism. He was received in the Catholic Church in 1944 and he remained a practicing Catholic his entire life. He also engaged in heated debates about theological matters, such as the Eucharist.

Important was a contribution he wrote in 1987 that sparked considerable controversy among Catholics.[71] He castigated those who diverged from orthodox Catholicism. After the philosopher had died, one of his Italian pupils wrote in 2011 that on Good Friday, “when there was the traditional ‘veneration’ (kissing) of the cross, Dummett would take off his shoes before joining the procession.”[72] Another former pupil of his wrote: “Sir Michael was a profoundly religious person and found it hard to understand the preconceived hostility of many Italian intellectuals towards the Catholic Church.”[73]

Second, we have to mention Dummett’s commitment to anti-racism. Dummett tried to influence civil rights movements in what he took to be the interest of minorities. This resulted in his book On Immigration and Refugees (2001) in which he defended the position that opposition to immigration was founded on racism.[74] One of his former students writes about the book: “It is a stunning account of the historic failures of the British government to address questions of racism and protect refugees and an elegant philosophical argument for an immigration policy broadly based on natural law that would not respect national frontiers.”[75]

One may consider “not respecting national frontiers” to be a bit unrealistic, especially in these times of mass migration. One may also think that developing an immigration policy based on natural law is wildly utopian. But, having said all this, one might still be impressed by many aspects of Dummett’s book—a book that is, ironically, similar to many of Rushdie’s ideas, as expressed in his essays.[76]

Dummett on Rushdie

I think these two elements are helpful to understand Dummett’s stance in the Rushdie Affair, although, as I hope to make clear, in the end Dummett does not prove to be a better guide on the matter than Taylor is.

British Muslims in Birmingham display a photograph of Ayatollah Khomeini at a demonstration against The Satanic Verses. (Photo: Abbas / Magnum)

A good start is to highlight Dummett’s great political commitment. According to many of his pupils, Dummett had a great sensitivity for injustice. He separated himself from the other giants of the philosophical profession “through his enduring commitment to eradicating injustices wherever he found them,” one of his pupils writes in his testimony on the great philosopher.[77] “He was also hugely generous to people whose lives were threatened by racism,” another testimonial indicates.[78] But if someone’s life was threatened by the dictates of a violent theocrat (Khomeini), this was not one of the causes Dummett would take interest in.

This is remarkable, because Dummett was a socially committed author. And when Dummett took up a political cause, he did it with total commitment. This was also the case when he jumped into the discussion on the Khomeini fatwa. He wrote an article in The Independent on February 11, 1990, in the form of an open letter to Salman Rushdie.[79]

The author begins with the statement that he was extremely glad that the first Muslim responses, published in the newspaper in reaction to Rushdie’s “In good faith,”[80] had been so generous. And then he continues with: “My own reaction, I am sorry to say, is less generous. After a year in which to reflect upon it, is that all that you could manage to say?”

The first thing that is remarkable in this statement, is that one would think: if the first Muslim reactions were so generous, why not be very happy indeed? Do not stir the pot, one would be inclined to say. And do not try to continue a conflict that everyone would be more than happy to leave behind. If the first Muslims reacted in such a positive way, why not Dummett?

But that is not Dummett’s reaction. He wants to provide us with reasons to be “less generous.”

What is also remarkable is that the year Rushdie had to spend in captivity to escape from his potential murderers is characterized by Dummett as a year in which he could “reflect” upon the matter. As if he were some sort of naughty boy who might be brought to repentance by thinking over his immoral deeds: (“you sit there for a while, young man, and think on what you’ve done!)

Dummett starts by informing his readers of the “untold damage” the Rushdie Affair did in his view. Not to Rushdie himself, it soon turns out. That becomes clear when Dummett refers to the “intensified alienation of Muslims here and in other Western countries from the society around them.” Dummett speaks of “racist hostility.” He also mentions the “wretched hostages” who experienced a “far more severe imprisonment” than that of Rushdie.[81] Rushdie is also castigated for not having mentioned an imam in Belgium who spoke out against Khomeini and who was assassinated.

One would have thought that this was all ample evidence of the fact that it was the fatwa by Khomeini that was at the bottom of all this, but that is, apparently, not the way Dummett sees it. No book, no fatwa, seems to be the elementary “logic” of Dummett.

Now, what leaves the reader puzzled is that we are not talking about a person totally inexperienced in abstract thought, someone who engages in metaphysical speculations and, understandably, makes some elementary mistakes, but about one of the best trained philosophers in the twentieth century, respected and revered by all. Dummett is a logician. But would it not be crystal clear to every reader of The Independent, in which Dummett published his diatribe, that in Dummett’s particular establishment of causal relations, one ought to reproach the victim of the robbery that he was walking in the street (had he not been there, he would not have been robbed, would he?). Or one should reproach the man whose car was stolen for having had a car in his possession in the first place. The reason that cars are stolen is not that there are thieves, but that there are cars.

Now the problem is that the notion of causality is very complicated. And not many analytical philosophers can claim to be in a better position to shed light on the issue than Michael Dummett, who is rightly famous for untangling the most difficult of philosophical knots.

What is the cause of all the trouble? Is the “cause” that Rushdie published the book? That Khomeini issued the fatwa? That many people are so sensitive when their religion is criticized? That Rushdie lost his faith? That his parents had sent him to a school in England (instead of India)? The list of “causes” is endless, of course. And the trouble with Taylor and Dummett is: they only focus on the publication of the book and not on the fatwa.

The Tragedy of Being an Honorary White

Another curious preoccupation of Dummett’s is his concern about Rushdie’s reputation among ethnic communities. During a television broadcast, Rushdie had denounced “British racism,” Dummett tells us. And precisely that status as a hero within ethnic communities made Rushdie’s book “appear so great a betrayal,” according to Dummett. The tragedy for Rushdie, according to Dummett, was this: “Much as you might want to, you can never again play that role: you can never again credibly assume the stance of denouncer of white prejudice.”

But how is it possible that Dummett is concerned about these things while Rushdie’s life was at stake? Rushdie’s primary concern was to stay alive, to reach the next day unharmed, every sensible reader of The Independent must have thought after reading these lines. It is nothing short of hilarious that Dummett thinks Rushdie’s greatest concern should be: Oh gosh, unfortunately the fatwa precludes me from acting as a denouncer of white prejudice. What a tragedy! Is not this very silly? Dummett reproaches Rushdie: “Now you are one of us. You have become an honorary white: merely an honorary white intellectual, it is true, but an honorary white all the same.”

But Rushdie thought that, at that moment in time, addressing Islamic fundamentalism was more important than talking about white racism. In fact, maybe he even thought that talking about Islam was so important that it was worth giving up the credit he had to talk about racism. Apparently Dummett is so concerned about racism that that it doesn’t even occur to him that white racism might not always be the biggest problem in the room.

According to Dummett, being a white intellectual seems to be one of the most terrible things that can happen to a person. And the greatest status a person can aspire to is to develop into a “denouncer of white prejudice”. “If you really did not grasp the offense you would give to believing Muslims, you were not qualified to write upon the subject you choose,” he writes. Like Taylor, Dummett seems to think there are no, or hardly any, Muslims who support free speech, freedom of religion, freedom of thought, and other universal human rights.[82] In fact, such a claim is much more offensive to Muslims than to treat them as ordinary human beings who, like other believers, are perfectly able to accept some criticism of their religion.

This is somewhat surprising for a philosopher to maintain. Is not the history of philosophy full of “offensive ideas”? That is precisely the point of being a philosopher: thinking something most people do not think. And to express these thoughts, despite the unintended consequence that other people will complain of being offended.[83] One may think that the cartoonists deliberately made the cartoons to “shock, offend or disturb,”[84] but the answer is: they did not. What they wanted, is make a point about the precarious position of free speech nowadays, a position that is only further jeopardized by the creeping concessions being made to the violent theocrats.

Having foreseen the consequences

Dummett also reproaches Rushdie for not having foreseen the consequences. But is that reasonable? No one could have predicted the Rushdie Affair.[85] Likewise, relatively few scholars predicted the fall of the Berlin wall, or the outbreak of the French Revolution. If history teaches us anything, it is that the most important social revolutions were unforeseen. If failing to predict such occurrences deprived someone of his qualifications to write about these subjects, there would not be many people left at the universities. But apart from that: is it relevant that Rushdie should have known the consequences? Suppose he had, what does that imply? Suppose Galileo could have predicted the trouble he would get into with the Inquisition? Or that Giordano Bruno had known that he could end up at the stake? Does that make them in any way culpable or responsible for what happened? Perhaps they simply thought it was their duty to come forward with the information that was so unwelcome to the Vatican.

And then Dummett takes an equally debatable step by saying: “No one escapes responsibility for the consequences of a bad action by having failed to foresee them.” But what does that mean exactly? Would it not be more reasonable to proclaim that one cannot bear responsibility for what one cannot foresee?

How can Dummett deny this? Only God could have foreseen the fatwa. And further: publishing a novel was not a bad action (whatever Khomeini’s ideas may have been). The action was completely legitimate according to the legal system of the country in which Rushdie was living at that time. Does Dummett want to suggest that there is an “official legal system,” the British system, and a kind of “informal legal order” that Rushdie was supposed to have known, because of his special knowledge of Islam? But that would mean a kind of sharia law[86] with international legal validity, also when it contrasts with national legal systems. The acceptance of this would gravely undermine the ideal of legal certainty in the national legal order. And would it not mean that we are all now in complete ignorance about what disasters are lying in wait, although we assume we have faithfully respected the law of the country in which we are living?[87]

What would the principles of the new, till that moment unknown, legal order be? One candidate seems to be that we all have to know that, in Dummett’s words, “it is a disgusting thing to defile what other men regard as holy.” But men regard many things as holy. Usually philosophers are not intimidated by that. Socrates was not impressed by that, nor was Spinoza or Descartes, or Kant or Nietzsche. Is not the mark of a great philosopher precisely that he does not respect those taboos? Dummett holds things sacred which Rushdie does not and vice versa.

Philosophers let every idea present its claims before the tribunal of reason and respect only reasonable constraints on free speech and free inquiry. A reasonable constraint seems to be that one may not incite to physical violence.[88] But trying to establish “sacredness” as a criterion for limiting free speech is highly questionable. For a Christian, claiming that Christ is the son of God is sacred, for a Jew or a Muslim this is the greatest abomination, a blasphemous claim. The consequence of all this is that “sacredness” is unsuited as a moral or legal criterion for limiting free speech. Demanding to reestablish “sacredness” in that role (which it had in premodern societies) violates the principles of modern tolerance (which basically means the acceptance that what is “sacred” to Jovi is not sacred to Bovi). “Sacredness” does not play a role in any modern constitution, nor in the European Human Rights Charter (1950) or The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) or in The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966).

In Conclusion

Both Taylor and Dummett seem to be heavily influenced by a Catholic worldview. Usually these things are not explicitly revealed as relevant in analytical philosophy that is dominant in the Anglo-Saxon world, but one may speculate that this is unsatisfying. And it is not the case in some French handbooks of philosophy. Évelyne Pisier (b. 1941) writes that in the 1980s, the Catholic philosophy of Thomas Aquinas gained a new topical interest in the United States. Thinkers such as Alasdair MacIntyre and the Canadian Charles Taylor “opposed the modern theories starting with Descartes and the philosophy of the Enlightenment” to defend the notion that rationality is not an abstract capacity but has to be construed as linked to tradition.[89] As MacIntyre claims in Whose Justice? Which Rationality (1988), it is impossible to uphold a morality based upon individualism.[90] He advocates a “back to Aristotle” movement in contrast to the “back to Kant” movement derived from the work of, among others, Jürgen Habermas, Pisier observes.[91]

Although an adherent of Anglo-Saxon analytical philosophy, and therefore departing from different philosophical assumptions than Taylor and MacIntyre, Michael Dummett seems to share some of their religious convictions. En passant Dummett formulates some other matters he would like to see criminalized: not only defiling holy things and incitement to hatred, but also incitement to “contempt” and pornography.[92]

The problem is that what Dummett will qualify as “contempt” is to other people a natural expression of their humanist convictions. From an orthodox perspective, Erasmus’s The Praise of Folly (1509)[93] is nothing other than disrespect, contempt, scorn or an insult, while from another perspective it is the expression of a humanist way of life. The same can be said about Voltaire’s Candide (1759).[94] And what Dummett will experience as “pornography,” for other people consists of stimulating and creative ideas about what you can do with your love partner to make life more pleasant.[95]

The impression one gets from Taylor’s and Dummett’s commentaries on the Rushdie Affair is that they project their own discontent with modernity onto the Muslim community.[96] But as has been said before, liberal Muslims like Bassam Tibi,[97] Maajid Nawaz[98] and Irshad Manji[99] have no difficulties with freedom of expression, freedom of religion (including the freedom to apostatize), and religious criticism.

Let me try to conclude. In this essay I have criticized the reactions of two of the most important philosophers of our time to an important event: the assault on free speech as a principle. It is significant that the two philosophers analyzed in this article have failed to identify the relevant issue as such. They have elaborated on an ethics of dialogue, offensive speech, religious minorities (in the case of Taylor) and on racism (in the case of Dummett). Unfortunately, these are not the relevant questions. And not only is the way Taylor and Dummett approach the issue irrelevant, it is harmful. It distracts our attention from the real issue that is at stake. The real issue is that freedom of speech is in decline under the influence of religious terrorism. This religious terrorism manifested itself for the first time in the Rushdie Affair (1989), but soon developed further in the Danish (2005) and French (2015) cartoon affairs. The tragic death of the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo on January 7, 2015, makes this clear.

Unfortunately, two great philosophers of our time do not give us guidance here. The world is confused, our political leaders are confused, and great political philosophers are confused. This is important, because if freedom of expression, freedom of thought, and freedom of religion are to survive in this world, it is necessary to defend these freedoms. Part of that defense is a clear exposition of the ideas behind the cartoons, Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, or similar works. But the hardest part is perhaps to contradict the many commentators who accuse the cartoonists of willfully offending others or trampling on others’ most sacred convictions.

Whether freedom of speech, including the freedom of religious criticism, is to survive in the modern world has become a serious question. We should not forget that the massacre in the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo on January 7, 2015, was, from a terrorist perspective, a huge success. The terrorists have succeeded in sending a clear signal to everyone who dares to defy their demands. We should never forget that Rushdie never wrote another book similar to The Satanic Verses. Kurt Westergaard never drew another cartoon like the one he made in 2005 (and for which he has to live the rest of his life inside a prison of security guards). Theo van Gogh was murdered in 2004, like Charbonnier and other cartoonists and editors of Charlie Hebdo in 2015. Many people who feel connected with their ideas simply do not want to tread in their footsteps.

The most haunting specter is not that people write religious satire (as has been done, against all odds, throughout European history), but that many people will stop doing so, because they feel unsupported by their government, which is unable to guarantee their safety, and because their intentions are mischaracterized by the greatest intellectuals of our time, who pontificate about “respect,” “dialogue,” and “wise judgment,” but in fact play into the hands of the terrorists. The real tragedy is that the Kouachi brothers really believe in the principles they fight for, and are prepared to die for those principles. And the real malaise of modernity[100] is that The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is there, on paper, but the finest thinkers of our time do not support its principles.


[1] Lévy, Bernard-Henri, “Ce qui restera du janvier”, in: Jacques Attali, e.a., Nous sommes Charlie: 60 Écrivains unis pour la liberté d’expression, Les Livre de Poche, Paris 2015, pp. 91-96.

[2] Innocence of Muslims is the title attributed to a controversial movie trailer produced and written by someone operating under many nicknames, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula being the most well known. The clip sparked an enormous reaction on the internet and the Obama administration blamed the film for the massacre in Benghazi, which cost the American Ambassador, Chris Stevens (1960-2012), his life. See on this: Herrenberg, Tom, “Denouncing Divinity: Blasphemy, Human Rights, and the Struggle of Political Leaders to defend Freedom of Speech in the Case of Innocence of Muslims”, in: Ancilla Iuris, 1, 2015, pp. 1-19; Spencer, Robert, The Complete Infidel’s Guide to ISIS, Regnery Publishing, Washington 2015, p. 260; Kuhnhenn, Jim, “Obama, Hillary Clinton Honor Ambassador Chris Stevens”, HuffPost Politics, 14 September 2012.

[3] A notorious example after the Charlie Hebdo massacre was: Todd, Emmanuel, Qui est Charlie? Sociologie d’une crise religieuse, Seuil, Paris 2015.

[4] See for an analysis of this sociological phenomenon: Bawer, Bruce, The Victim’s Revolution: The Rise of Identity Studies and the Closing of the Liberal Mind, Broadside Books, New York 2012.

[5] Taylor, Charles, “The Politics of Recognition”, in: Taylor, Charles, Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition, Edited and introduced by Amy Gutman, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey 1994, pp. 25-75. Other well-known proponents of multiculturalism are: Kymlicka, Will, Liberalism, Community and Culture, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1991 (1989); Walzer, Michael, Spheres of Justice, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford 1983. Forceful criticism was exerted by: Waldron, Jeremy, “Minority Cultures and the Cosmopolitan Alternative”, in: University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform, Vol. 25, 1992, pp. 751-793; Hasan, Rumy, Multiculturalism: Some Inconvenient Truths, Politico’s Publishing Ltd 2010; Barry, Brian, Culture & Equality: An Egalitarian Critique of Multiculturalism, Polity, Cambridge 2001; Gellner, Ernest, Postmodernism, Reason, and Religion, Routledge, London and New York 1992.

[6] Swan, Michael, “Charlie Hebdo ‘part of the situation’ that led to attack, says Charles Taylor”, in: The Catholic Register, 21 January 2015.

[7] Taylor, “The Politics of Recognition”, p. 62.

[8] Taylor, Charles, “The Rushdie Controversy”, in: Public Culture, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Fall 1989), pp. 118-122, p. 118.

[9] This is also contended by Bradley, Arthur, and Tate, Andrew, The New Atheist Novel: Fiction, Philosophy and Polemic after 9/11, Continuum, London/New York 2010, pp. 82-105, who picture McEwan, Amis, Pullman and Rushdie as the artistic spokesmen of the New Atheism. Schweizer does something similar for Pullman in: Schweizer, Bernard, Hating God: The Untold Story of Misotheism, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2011, pp. 193-213. See also: Freitas, Donna, & King, Jason, Killing the Imposter God: Philip Pullman’s Spiritual Imagination in His Dark Materials, John Wiley & Sons, San Francisco 2007.

[10] Taylor, “The Rushdie Controversy,” p. 119.

[11] Who are definitely there, although not a vocal group, as one may understand, taking the great risks involved into account. See e.g. Whitaker, Brian, Arabs without God: Atheism and Freedom of belief in the Middle East, Charleston, USA 2014 and Badawi, Raif, 1000 Peitschenhiebe weil ich sage, was ich denke, Aus dem Arabischen von Sandra Hetzl, Herausgegeben, eingeleitet und kommentiert von Constantin Schreiber, Ullstein, Berlin 2015.

[12] Taylor, Ibid., p. 122.

[13] Taylor, Ibid., p. 122.

[14] Taylor, Ibid., p. 122.

[15] Taylor, Ibid., p. 122.

[16] That does not mean, of course, that Taylor has not commented on the phenomenon of religious violence. He does so in many of his writings. One may think of “Notes on the Sources of Violence: Perennial and Modern,” in: Taylor, Charles, Dilemmas and Connections: Selected Essays, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Mass.) 2011 and Taylor, Charles, A Secular Age, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England 2007, pp. 646–710.

[17] Hitchens, Christopher, God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Twelve, New York, Boston 2007, p. 28.

[18] Hitchens, Ibid.

[19] I formulate this the way I do because, from Rushdie’s perspective, derision of “religious groups” is not the purpose of his novel. His novel criticizes religious icons, religious dogmas, sacred history, but the purpose is not to criticize a “religious group.” But this crucial distinction is conflated throughout in Taylor’s writings on this subject.

[20] Taylor, Ibid., p. 122.

[21] Hirsi Ali, Ayaan, Submission. Broadcast on the Dutch TV program “Zomergasten” on 29 Augustus 2004; Hirsi Ali, Ayaan, De tekst, de reacties en de achtergronden, met een bijdrage van Betsy Udink, Uitgeverij Augustus, Amsterdam 2004.

[22] McNally, Terrence, Corpus Christi, Dramatists Play Service Inc., New York 1999.

[23] “Fatwa on Terence McNally for his gay Jesus play”, in: Agence France-Presse, 29 October 1999.

[24] Maclure, Jocelyn, and Taylor, Charles, Secularism and Freedom of Conscience, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 2011; this is a translation of a French book which was published a little earlier: Maclure, Jocelyn, Taylor, Charles, Laïcité et liberté de conscience, La Découverte, Paris 2010. In my view this is not so much a book on secularism as it is a book on multiculturalism. Taylor uses the word “secularism” but it is certainly not secularism in the usual sense of the word. One has the impression that Taylor and Maclure try to redefine secularism in such a way that it harmonizes with their multiculturalist convictions, something that does not clarify the issue but confuses us more, in my view. Multiculturalists also sometimes use the tendentious vocabulary of “open” and “closed” secularism, which is not very helpful either (although highly suggestive), because who wants to be a defender of a “closed” position? So-called “open” secularism is not some sort of higher Hegelian synthesis, but an attack on secularism tout court. It would be more “open” to state this clearly.

[25] Maclure and Taylor, Secularism and Freedom of Conscience, p. 106.

[26] Maclure and Taylor, Ibid., p. 106.

[27] Maclure and Taylor, Ibid., p. 107

[28] Maclure and Taylor, Ibid., p. 109.

[29] Maclure and Taylor, Ibid., p. 109.

[30] Maclure and Taylor, Ibid., p. 109.

[31] See: Murray, Douglas, Islamophilia, first edition 30 May 2013, Amazon Digital Services 2013.

[32] Needless to say, what is “multiculturalism” and what is not is always a semantic discussion. In the Canadian context “multiculturalism” is a hurrah word. “Multiculturalism” is something to “celebrate.” Every negative association connected to the word is experienced as not belonging to the core of the concept. See for a more critical analysis: Baber, H.E., The Multicultural Mistique: The Liberal Case against Diversity, Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York 2008; Bissoondath, Neil, Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada, Penguin Books, London 1994.

[33] See on this: Dworkin, Ronald, “The Right to Ridicule”, in: New York Review of Books, 12 March 2006.

[34] Using the word “persons” in the Kantian sense: Rachels, James, “Kant and Respect for Persons”, in: James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, Fifth edition by Stuart Rachels, McGraw Hill, Boston 2007, pp. 130-141.

[35] This has been described by—among others—the French author Gilles Kepel in: Kepel, Gilles, Fitna: Guerre au coeur de l’islam, Gallimard, Paris 2004, or, in English translation: Kepel, Gilles, The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Mass.), London 2004.

[36] Perhaps there is also a difference of opinion between the two camps in this discussion in the sense that the advocates of moderation and understanding do not think the theoterrorists are winning this controversy. They argue that Rushdie is still alive. That is true, but he would never consider writing The Satanic Verses, Part II. And the plight of the Danish cartoonists (all hidden, except one: Kurt Westergaard) and the French cartoonists (killed on January 7, 2015) proves that the amount of pressure exerted on those who uphold the principle of religious satire and religious criticism is enormous.

[37] See e.g. Taylor, “The Politics of Recognition”, p. 62: “For mainstream Islam, there is no question of separating politics and religion the way we have come to expect in Western liberal society.” Authors like Bassam Tibi would qualify this statement as a caricature of Islam. See: Tibi, Bassam, Political Islam, World Politics and Europe: Democratic Peace and Euro-Islam versus Global Jihad, Routledge, London and New York 2008; Tibi, Bassam, The Sharia State: Arab Spring and Democratization, Routledge, London and New York 2013.

[38] This is the case with all of Rushdie’s non-Western supporters: Abdallah, Anouar, e.a., Pour Rushdie: Cent intellectuels arabes et musulmans pour la liberté d’expression, La Decouverte, Carréfour des littératures, Colibri, Paris 1993.

[39] See also on this: O’Neill, Daniel I., “Multicultural Liberals and the Rushdie Affair: A Critique of Kymlicka, Taylor, and Walzer”, in: The Review of Politics, Volume 61, Issue 2, 1999, pp. 219-250.

[40] Scorsese, Martin, (director), “The Last Temptation of Christ”, Film based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ (1953). See: Kazantzakis, Nikos, The Last Temptation of Christ, Bantam Books, New York 1968 (1953).

[41] Gibson, Mel, (director), “The Passion of Christ”, Film based on a screenplay by Benedict Fitzgerald and Mel Gibson, 2004.

[42] Maclure and Taylor, Secularism and Freedom of Conscience, p. 108.

[43] Maclure and Taylor, Secularism and Freedom of Conscience, p. 108.

[44] Going back to: Mill, J.S., On Liberty, 1859, in: J.S. Mill, On Liberty and other writings, ed., Stefan Collini, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2004 (1989), pp. 5-115; Rabban, David M., “Clear and Present Danger Test”, in: Kermit L. Hall, ed., The Oxford Companion to The Supreme Court of The United States, Oxford University Press, New York, Oxford 1992, p. 158. See in general: Hume, Mick, Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of being offensive killing Free Speech?, Willam Collins, London 2015.

[45] See on this: Cherry, Matt, and Brown, Roy, Speaking Freely about Religion: Religious Freedom, Defamation and Blasphemy, International Humanist and Ethical Union Policy Paper, International Humanist and Ethical Union, London 2009; Ibn Warraq and Michael Weiss, “Inhuman Rights”, in: City Journal, Vol. 19, No. 2, Spring 2009, pp. 1-6.

[46] Maclure and Taylor, Secularism and Freedom of Conscience, p. 109.

[47] Taylor adds that, although he rejects censorship, one might say it is not “wise” or “desirable” to exert the type of criticism that Rushdie presented.

[48] See: Waldron, Jeremy, “Minority Cultures and the Cosmopolitan Alternative”, in: University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform, Vol. 25, 1992, pp. 751-793, p. 766: “Rushdie’s enemies claim that The Satanic Verses and similar writings fall into exactly the category of pornography, and they think that it is not a particularly serious matter (it may even be a good thing) if writing of this kind is chilled or deterred. This is the case that must be answered if the cosmopolitan vision is to be sustained”.

[49] Maclure and Taylor, Secularism and Freedom of Conscience, p. 110.

[50] See on this: Eyerman, Ron, The Assasination of Theo van Gogh: from Social Drama to Cultural Trauma, Duke University Press, Durham and London 2008; Eyerman, Ron, The Cultural Sociology of Political Assasination: From MLK and RFK to Fortuyn and van Gogh, Palgrave, Macmillan 2011; Llosa, Mario Vargas, “Schießen, schneiden, stoßen: Theo van Goghs schrecklicher Tod”, Die Welt, 4 november 2006.

[51] See: Caldwell, Christopher, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West, Allen Lane, Penguin Books, London 2009, pp. 167-171; Rose, Flemming, The Tyranny of Silence: How one Cartoon ignited a Global Debate on the Future of Free Speech, Cato Institute, Washington, D.C. 2014, p. 2; Klausen, Jytte, The Cartoons that Shook the World, Yale University Press, New Haven and London 2009, p. 4.

[52] Klausen, Ibid., p. 7.

[53] See for a defense of his position: Rose, Flemming, The Tyranny of Silence: How one Cartoon ignited a Global Debate on the Future of Free Speech, Cato Institute, Washington, D.C. 2014.

[54] Maclure and Taylor, Secularism and Freedom of Conscience, p. 110. See for a defense of the position of Charlie Hebdo: Val, Philippe, Malaise dans l’inculture, Bernard Grasset, Paris, 2015; Val, Philippe, Reviens Voltaire, Ils sont devenus fous, Bernard Grasset, Paris 2008; Fourest, Caroline, Éloge du blasphème, Bernard Grasset, Paris 2015; Bougrab, Jeanette, Maudites, Albin Michel, Paris 2015.

[55] “Charlie Hebdo Editor Threatened Over Mohammad Cartoon”, in: Huffpost Media, 26 September 2012; Swan, Michael, “Charlie Hebdo ‘part of the situation’ that led to attack, says Charles Taylor”, in: The Catholic Register, 21 January 2015; Fourest, Caroline, Éloge du blasphème, Bernard Grasset, Paris 2015; Val, Philippe, Malaise dans l’inculture, Bernard Grasset, Paris, 2015.

[56] Quoted in: Laes, Willy, Een jaar na Charlie Hebdo: een pamflet, Houtekiet, Antwerpen 2015, p. 15. See also the moving portrait of Charb by his former girlfriend Jeanette Bougrab: Bougrab, Jeanette, Maudites, Albin Michel, Paris 2015, p. 194 ff.

[57] See on this: Claudel, Philippe, “Je suis Charlie mais un peu tard”, in: Jacques Attali, e.a., Nous sommes Charlie: 60 Écrivains unis pour la liberté d’expression, Les Livre de Poche, Paris 2015, pp. 32-35; Laes, Willy, Een jaar na Charlie Hebdo: een pamflet, Houtekiet, Antwerpen 2015.

[58] The word “restrictive” is important to highlight here. Apparently, the view that morals are not necessarily based on religion is called “restrictive” by Taylor.

[59] Maclure and Taylor, Secularism and Freedom of Conscience, p. 110.

[60] This is clearly worked out by: Nowell-Smith, P.H., “Morality: Religious and Secular”, in: Ian Ramsey, ed., Christian Ethics and Contemporary Philosophy, SCM Press, London 1966; Nowell-Smith, P.H., “Religion and Morality”, in: Paul Edwards, ed., The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 7, Macmillan & The Free Press, New York, London 1967, pp. 150-158; and especially in: Nowell-Smith, Patrick, “Morality: Religious and Secular”, in: The Rationalist Annual, 1961, also in: Eleonore Stump and Michael J. Murray, eds., Philosophy of Religion: The Big Questions, Blackwell, Malden / Oxford 2001 (1999), pp. 403-412.

[61] Dennett, Daniel C., Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Allen Lane, Penguin Books, New York 2006, p. 200 ff. See also: Dawkins, Richard, The God Delusion, Paperback edition, Black Swan, Transworld Publishers, London 2006, p. 20: “These people may not be religious themselves, but they love the idea that other people are religious.”

[62] Kitcher, Philip, Life after Faith: the Case for Secular Humanism, Yale University Press, New Haven and London 2014.

[63] Stenger, Victor J., The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason, Prometheus Books, Amherst N.Y. 2009; Amarasingam, Amarnath, ed., Religion and the New Atheism: A Critical Appraisal, Brill, Leiden 2010.

[64] E.g. the atheist feminist group Femen. See: Femen, Femen by Femen, With Galia Ackerman, translated by Andrew Brown, Polity, Malden 2014.

[65] As happened to many people in the past. See: Bury, J.B., A History of the Freedom of Thought, Thornton Butterworth, London 1932 (1913); Robertson, J.M., A History of Freethought: Ancient and Modern to the Period of the French Revolution, Vol. 1, Watts & Co., London 1936; Robertson, J.M., A History of Freethought: Ancient and Modern to the Period of the French Revolution, Vol. 2, Fourth edition, revised and expanded, Watts & Co., London 1936.

[66] This is also missed by: Dalrymple, Theodore, “What the New Atheists Don’t See: To regret Religion is to regret Western Civilization”, in: City Journal, Autumn 2007, pp. 1-7.

[67] See for an analysis of this: Finkelkraut, Alain, L’identité malheureuse, Éditions Stock, Paris 2013; Finkelkraut, Alain, La seule exactitude, Éditions Stock, Paris 2015.

[68] See: Honderich, Ted, ed., The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Oxford University Press, Oxford New York 1995, pp. 208.

[69] Putnam, Hilary, “A Half Century”, in: The New York Times, 4 January 2012.

[70] Green, Mitchell, “Request Granted”, in: The New York Times, 4 January 2012.

[71] Dummett, Michael, “A Remarkable Consensus”, in: New Blackfriars, Volume 68, Issue 809, 1987, pp. 424-431.

[72] Crane, Tim, “Smoke and Milk”, in: The New York Times, 4 January 2012.

[73] Picardi, Eva, “A Guide Lost”, in: The New York Times, 4 January 2012.

[74] Dummett, Michael, On Immigration and Refugees, Routledge, Taylor & Francis group, London and New York 2001.

[75] Critchley, Simon, “Shouting Across the Gulf”, in: in: The New York Times, 4 January 2012.

[76] Rushdie, Salman, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991, Vintage Books, London 2010 (1981); Rushdie, Salman, Step Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992-2002, The Modern Library, New York 2003.

[77] Lepore, Ernie, “A Passion for Action”, in: The New York Times, 4 January 2012.

[78] Isaacson, Daniel, “Profound and Generous”, The New York Times, 4 January 2012.

[79] Dummett, Michael, “Open Letter to Rushdie”, in: The Independent, 11 February 1990. See also: Wheatcroft, Geoffrey, “5 Years on death row – Salman Rushdie”, in: The Guardian, 11 February 1994.

[80] This is an article in which Rushdie clarifies his position. It is an apology that is not an excuse. Like his great predecessor, Socrates, who was also accused of blasphemy, Rushdie cautiously and rationally explains his motives in writing the book and why he wrote it “in good faith.” See: Rushdie, Salman, “In Good Faith”, 1990, in: Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991, Vintage Books, London 2010 (1991), pp. 393-414. For Socrates: Plato, Apology, in: Plato, Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis 1997; Bury, J.B., “The Trial of Socrates”, 1926, in: J.B. Bury, Selected Essays, Edited by Harold Temperley, Adolf M. Hakkert, Amsterdam 1964, pp. 75-90.

[81] Dummett tacitly refers to Terry Waite (b. 1939), who was held hostage in Lebanon from 1987 to 1991, while trying to get other hostages free. Among the other hostages was John Patrick McCarthy (b. 1956), a British journalist and broadcaster. McCarthy was held in Lebanon for more than five years. Dummett’s remarks about the other hostages being in a far more serious predicament proved wrong. This cannot be held as an argument against him, because no one can predict the future, although some commentators (e.g. Jeremy Waldron) already foretold that Rushdie’s predicament would last his whole life (if he survived). See: Waldron, Jeremy, “Rushdie and Religion”, first published under the title “Too important for Tact” in: The Times Literary Supplement, 10 March 1989, pp. 248 and 260, and reprinted in: Jeremy Waldron, Liberal Rights: Collected Papers 1981-1991, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge/New York 1993, pp. 134-143.

[82] Muslims like Irshad Manji or Bassam Tibi are examples of believing Muslims who have no problem with free speech. See: Manji, Irshad, Allah, Liberty and Love: The Courage to Reconcile Faith and Freedom, Free Press, New York 2011; Manji, Irshad, The Trouble with Islam: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith, St. Martin’s Press, New York 2003; Tibi, Bassam, Political Islam, World Politics and Europe: Democratic Peace and Euro-Islam versus Global Jihad, Routledge, London and New York 2008; Tibi, Bassam, The Sharia State: Arab Spring and Democratization, Routledge, London and New York 2013.

[83] Therefore, the “history of philosophy” overlaps with the “history of freethought.” See on this: Bury, J.B., A History of the Freedom of Thought, Thornton Butterworth, London 1932 (1913); Robertson, J.M., A Short History of Freethought. Ancient and Modern, Russell & Russell, New York 1957.

[84] According to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, in the case Handyside v. United Kingdom of 1976, freedom of speech is also applicable to expressions that “shock, disturb and offend.” See: Cherry, Matt, and Brown, Roy, Speaking Freely about Religion: Religious Freedom, Defamation and Blasphemy, International Humanist and Ethical Union Policy Paper, International Humanist and Ethical Union, London 2009, p. 5.

[85] The scholar of Islam who comes closest to the status of a prophet (needless to say, I do not mean this in the religious sense) is perhaps Bernard Lewis, the 99 year-old doyen of Islam studies, with his prescient essay: Lewis, Bernard, “The Roots of Muslim Rage”, in: The Atlantic Monthly, September 1990, reprinted in: Lewis, Bernard, From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 2004, pp. 319-331.

[86] Zee, Machteld, “Five Options for the Relationship between the State and Sharia Councils”, in: Journal of Religion and Society, Volume 16 (2014), pp. 1-18; Zee, Machteld, Choosing Sharia: multiculturalism, Islamic fundamentalism & British Sharia Councils, Eleven, The Hague 2015; Johnson, Boris, “Sharia law is completely unacceptable in the UK”, in: Mirror, 24 March 2015.

[87] Legal scholars call this the principle of legality: nullum crimen sina lege. See: Krey, Vol­ker, Keine Strafe ohne Gesetz. Einführung in die Dogmenge­schichte des Satzes ‘nullum crimen, nulla poena sine lege’, Walter de Gruyter, Berlin New York 1983. Lon Fuller writes: “The desideratum of clarity represents one of the most essential ingredients of legality”. See: Fuller, Lon L., The Morality of Law, Revised edition, Yale University Press, New Haven and London 1978 (1964), p. 63.

[88] I want to emphasize “physical.” There is a tendency to interpret J.S. Mill’s norm that one may not “harm” someone in an extended sense. You also “harm” someone by attacking the ideas or symbols he or she considers sacred. From there it seems a small step to protect people from ideas, books and debates that might upset them. See on this: Hume, Mick, Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of being offensive killing Free Speech?, Willam Collins, London 2015 who warns us against a creeping culture of conformism and You-Can’t-Say-That that undermines critical thinking at university campuses in the USA nowadays.

[89] Pisier, Évelyne, (avec François Châtelet, Olivier Duhamel e.a.), Histoire des idées politiques, texte publié avec le concours du Centre National du Livre, Quadrige, PUF, Paris 1982, p. 13.

[90] MacIntyre, Alasdair, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, Duckworth, London 1988.

[91] Pisier, Ibid., p. 13.

[92] This is a not so liberal idea we also find with MacKinnon, Catherine, Only Words, Harvard University Press, Cambrid­ge, Massachusetts, London, England 1996 (1993), whose work apparently but surprisingly influenced: Waldron, Jeremy, “Dignity and Defamation: The Visibility of Hate”, 2009 Oliver Wendell Holmes Lectures, in: Harvard Law Review, Vol. 123, 2009-2010, pp. 1596-1657; Waldron, Jeremy, The Harm in Hate Speech, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Mass.), London 2012. See for a more realistic treatment of the subject: Monroe, Dave, Porn: Philosophy for Everyone, Wiley-Blackwell, Malden, Oxford, Chicester 2010.

[93] Erasmus, Desiderius, The Praise of Folly, translated by John Wilson, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, New York 1994 (1509).

[94] Voltaire, Candide ou l’Optimisme, Conte philosophique, Éditions Larousse, Paris 2007 (1759).

[95] See on pornography: Post, Robert C., “Cultural Heterogeinity and Law: Pornography, Blasphemy, and the First Amendment”, in: California Law Review, Vol. 76, 1988, pp. 297-335; Rushdie, Salman, “The East is Blue”, in: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and Gore Vidal, XXX: 30 Porn Star Photographs, Bulfinch, London 2004, pp. 98-106; Monroe, Dave, Porn: Philosophy for Everyone, Wiley-Blackwell, Malden, Oxford, Chicester 2010.

[96] Although Taylor will claim that he strikes some sort of balance between modernity and premodern ways of thinking. See: Taylor, Charles, The Malaise of Modernity, House of Anansi Press, Toronto 1991.

[97] See: Tibi, Bassam, Political Islam, World Politics and Europe: Democratic Peace and Euro-Islam versus Global Jihad, Routledge, London and New York 2008; Tibi, Bassam, The Sharia State: Arab Spring and Democratization, Routledge, London and New York 2013; Tibi, Bassam, Islamism and Islam, Yale University Press, New Haven and London 2012.

[98] Nawaz, Maajid, Radical, with Tom Bromley, WH Allen, London 2012; Harris, Sam, and Nawaz, Maajid, Islam and the Future of Tolerance, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., London 2015.

[99] Manji, Irshad, Allah, Liberty and Love: The Courage to Reconcile Faith and Freedom, Free Press, New York 2011; Manji, Irshad, The Trouble with Islam: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith, St. Martin’s Press, New York 2003.

[100] To be distinguished from what Taylor identifies in Taylor, Charles, The Malaise of Modernity, House of Anansi Press, Toronto 1991.

Paul Cliteur is professor of Jurisprudence at Leiden University, the Netherlands. He was also professor of Philosophy at the Delft University, the Netherlands (1995-2002), and visiting professor of Philosophical Anthropology, Ghent University, Belgium (2014). Prof. Cliteur’s research is in the field of ethics, the philosophical foundations of the law, more in particular moral dilemmas around multicultural society, fundamental rights and the relationship between law and worldviews. He is the author of The Secular Outlook (Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, 2010).

The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism
By Paul Cliteur
Wiley-Blackwell; 1 edition (13 August 2010)
ISBN-10: 1444335219
ISBN-13: 978-1444335217
£20.69

Paul Cliteur: Towards a Secular Europe

Salman Rushdie: Violent Mutations of Islam Are Still Islam

A Conversation with Christopher Hitchens and Salman Rushdie: Freedom to Write Lecture (2010)

Ayaan Hirsi Ali on “Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now”

Be sure to ‘like’ us on Facebook

1 COMMENT

  1. Thannnnnks! I am a Quebecer and this whole multiculturalism thing has been instrumentalised a lot against our national communauty just trying to survive culturaly. Taylor has been instrumental in this whole thing. As the pope of relativism, is total misunderstanding of Québec society and the arrogant paternalistic attitude he had toward it, is a huge joke! He opposed a law that would make french the official langage in a society where 85% of people were french speaking (was it ever a problem to have an official langage in countries, like say, Sweden, Dutchland, Bulgaria and so one. He was one of the key person that led to a total misunderstanding of Québec outside our borders and led people think,unfairly, that we were a bunch of racists. It is so ironic that this pope of «interculturalism» (let me laugh here) has never transcended it's strong colonial anglo heritage toward Québec. And as said in this article, this whole multiculturalism has been toxic in its confinment of ethnic groups in a folkore and political ghettos that would make Francis Galston dance of joy. The paternalism entengled in the notion that ethnic groups has lesser democratic capacities and are less entitled to understand secularism and freedom of expression is very toxic. Taylor now is fighting against the «Charte de la laïcité» in Québec that would be a softer version than in France but a different approach then the anglo-saxon communautarism. Once again, for a guy that is supposed to understand cultural differences, let me laugh out loud! Finally, as westerners, we have the right to defend our values and freedom of expression is one of them. In many years, people will understand that these advocate of multiculturalism were toxic and certainly didn't pave the way to better respect among different people. Thanks!

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here