Freedom of Speech and Philosophers on the Index

Excerpt from The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism, by Paul Cliteur (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). Reprinted with permission from the author.

From Chapter 3: Freethought II: Freedom of Expression

Freedom of Speech and Philosophers on the Index

Although freedom of speech is the real motor behind all change and all cultural, political and scientific improvement, we always have to remind ourselves that freedom of speech was once a highly contested principle (and still is in many parts of the world). Countless books now considered as classic and indispensable works of the Western tradition[91] were for a long time (1559–1966) suppressed by the Catholic Church and placed on the Index auctorum et librorum probihitorum. This list was instigated by Pope Paul IV (1476–1559) in 1559.[92] On the Index we find works by Calvin, Erasmus, Boccaccio, Dante, and many others.

Much more well-known, of course, are the scientific works that were included on the list of papal censure. Galileo’s Dialogues on the Two World Systems (1632) was notoriously struck with a papal condemnation by Pope Urbanus VIII (1568–1644) in 1633.

On the list of prohibited books we also find a considerable part of the philosophical canon of the Western tradition. The Méditations Metaphysiques by Descartes (1673), the Essais by Montaigne (1676), the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus by Spinoza (1670), the Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke (1734), the French Encylopédie by Diderot and D’Alembert (1753), the Pensées of Pascal (1789), the Rights of Man by Paine (1792), the Italian translation of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1827). And to these examples several more could be added.

It is important to exemplify what kind of prohibition is at work here. It is a prohibition issued by a spiritual organization with great political power. The secular power of the Catholic Church in the twenty-first century is a mere shadow of what it was in 1600 or 1633, of course, when scholars like Giordano Bruno were burned or scientists like Galileo Galilei had to fear for their lives.[93]

Would that imply that freethought only has historical significance? Unfortunately not. Religious intolerance is still a major factor in contemporary society and one can even say that an upsurge of it has manifested itself in recent years.[94] Criticizing the Islamic God or his Prophet entails serious security risks nowadays, as we know from the verdict of Ayatollah Khomeini referred to above. But there are other examples. In 1959 the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz (1911–2006), who received the Nobel Prize for his book The Children of Gebelawi, had to deal with a fatwa for apostasy, issued by Omar Abdul Rahman (1938– ).[95] Ever since that happened, Mahfouz’ works have been banned in the Middle East. In 1994 he was stabbed in the neck by extremists.

The most well-known case of religious extremism among the general public is, of course, the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa on Salman Rushdie. At the moment Rushdie seems to be able to move about a little bit more freely, but if we consider that Mahfouz was attacked thirty five years after his fatwa, this relative freedom of movement for Rushdie can hardly be seen as reassuring.

More or less the same happened to the female Bengali writer and human rights activist Taslima Nasreen (1962– ), who got a fatwa in 1993 for her novel Shame. She fled to Sweden, and has since lived in exile. The latest news is that the mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë (1950– ), has given her sanctuary. “You have been chased from your house because you dared to raise your voice against inhuman fanaticism,” the mayor said. “Feel at home in Paris, a city where people are born free, live as equals and nobody is denounced for his opinion.”[96]

These examples are derived from the Muslim world because there the cases are rampant. We could add the Danish cartoons affair, the row over Pope Benedict XVI’s (1927– ) lecture in Regensburg on 12 September 2006,[97] and many other examples. But they are not restricted to Islam and Middle Eastern culture. Barely one month after the brutal killing of Theo van Gogh (1957–2004) by a home-grown Dutch Islamist terrorist, on November 2, 2004, in England all performances of the play “Behzti” were cancelled. On December 19, 2004, after the theatre in Birmingham was assaulted by an angry mob of Sikhs, the playwright, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, a Sikh herself, went into hiding.[98] The reason why the Sikhs felt offended was that Bhatti’s comedy aimed to stimulate a discussion on homosexuality, rape, and suicide within the Sikh community. The result was not discussion, but intimidation. The theatre was stormed, all performances were cancelled and that was the end of it.[99]

A similar row occurred around Jerry Springer: The Opera (2003), a British musical by Stewart Lee (1968– ) and Richard Thomas (1964– ) that was severely criticized for its irreverent handling of Judeo-Christian themes. Its main character was cast to resemble the real Jerry Springer (1944– ), the host of one of the most popular TV talk shows in America (since 1991). In Jerry Springer: The Opera we see a parade of misfits, sexual deviants, and crooks, mixed with religious themes. Controversy arose when the BBC decided to broadcast the production on television (BBC Two) in 2005. The BBC got 55,000 complaints; Christian groups organized street protests and announced that they were going to bring blasphemy charges.

Obviously, resorts to violence are not restricted to the Muslim world. Violence is also perpetrated by fanatical Sikhs and, we could add, by Christians. Paul Hill (1954–2003), a Presbyterian, murdered an abortion physician and his assistants. Hill conveyed “the inner joy and peace” that had flooded his soul after he had cast off “the state’s tyranny.”[100] He declared that he was completely at peace with his incarceration and also with his execution, which took place in 2003. He appeared to accept Christian martyrdom.

What seems to distinguish the violence perpetrated by Sikhs and Muslims from that carried out by Christians is that Islamist violence enjoys a wider popularity among Muslim youth (especially in European countries)[101] and is directed against freedom of speech as an important principle of democratic culture.

The Danish cartoons affair and its aftermath constitute an underestimated sequence of events in this respect. On 30 September, 2005 a Danish newspaper, Jyllands Posten, published caricatures or cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. This caused a worldwide controversy lasting for some months, with reverberations continuing up to the present day. On October 20, Islamic ambassadors complained to the Danish Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen (1953– ). On November 8, Pakistan condemned the pictures. On November 10 some Nordic newspapers decided to publish the cartoons too. On January 26, 2006 Saudi-Arabia withdrew its ambassadors from Denmark. On January, 20 armed men broke into the office of the EU on the Gaza Strip and demanded an apology. This shows close similarities with the Rushdie affair. Indignation seemed to leap from one country to the other, as if carried by some contagious virus.[102] On January 31 Jyllands Posten presented something of an apology.

The reaction of the West was the usual political correctness about “dialogue” and “respect,” while it was, so Bawer (1956– ) contends, “political correctness that has gotten Europe into its current mess,”[103] but there were also voices that vindicated free speech and open debate – including the freedom to make cartoons on religious themes. In the name of the liberty of the press several European newspapers republished the cartoons.

Apart from this, there was also the economic side to the affair. In many Muslim countries there was a call to boycott Danish products. On February 3, 4, and 5, 2006 several embassies and consulates in Indonesia, Jordan, and Lebanon were stormed and wrecked. On January 1, 2010 Kurt Westergaard (1935– ), one of the Danish cartoonists, was attacked in his house by a Somali intruder armed with an axe and a knife yelling “revenge.” Westergaard survived the attack.

Excerpted from The Secular Outlook by Paul Cliteur. Copyright © Paul Cliteur, 2010. All rights reserved.


[91] Roughly the works associated with the core curriculum or with a liberal education. See: Schall, James, S.J., A Student’s Guide to Liberal Learning, ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware 2000; Henrie, Mark C., A Student’s Guide to the Core Curriculum, ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware 2001 (2000).

[92] MacCulloch, Diarmaid, Reformation: Europe’s House Divided, 1490–1700, Penguin Books, London 2004 (2003), p. 406.

[93] Shea, William R., and Artigas, Mariano, Galileo in Rome. The Rise and Fall of a Troublesome Genius, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2003.

[94] See: Jahangir, Asma, Promotion and Protection of all Human Rights, Civil, Political, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, including the Right to Development, Report by the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, A/HRC/6/5, 20 July 2007.

[95] See Najjar, Fauzi M., “Islamic Fundamentalism and the Intellectuals: The Case of Naguib Mahfouz,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 25, no. 1 1998, pp. 139–168; Darwish, Cruel and Unusual, p. 105; Sorman, Les Enfants de Rifaa, p. 38.

[96] “Paris bietet Taslima Nasreen Asyl an” [Paris offers Taslima Nasreen Asylum], St. Galler Tagblatt, January 5, 2009; “Parijs neemt schrijfster Taslima Nasreen in bescherming” [Paris Takes Writer Taslima Nasreen under its Protection], De Standaard, January 9, 2009.

[97] Lemm, Robert, Paus Benedictus XVI en de opkomst van Eurabia [Pope Benedict XVI and the Rise of Eurabia], Uitgeverij Aspekt, Soesterberg 2007; Welzel, Knut, ed., Die Religionen und die Vernunft: Die Debatte um die Regensburger Vorlesung des Papstes [Religions and Reason: The Debate about the Pope’s Regensburg Lecture], Herder, Freiburg im Breisgau 2007.

[98] Bhatti, Gurpreet Kaur, Behzti (Dishonour), First Performed at Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Birmingham on December 19, 2004.

[99] See: Pyke, Nicholas, “Sikhs Storm Theatre in Attempt to Halt Play,” Independent on Sunday, December 19, 2004. For commentary: Dromgoole, Dominic, “Comment: Drama’s Role is to Challenge Religion,” The Guardian, 20 December 2004; Alibhai-Brown, Yasmin, “No Religion Is immune from Criticism,” The Independent, December 20, 2004.

[100] Quoted in: Selengut, Charles, Sacred Fury, p. 37.

[101] See: Mekhennet, Souad, Sautter, Claudia, and Hanfeld, Michael, Die Kinder des Dschihad: Die neue Generation des islamistischen Terrors in Europa [The Children of Jihad: The New Generation of Islamist Terror in Europe], Piper, Munich 2008.

[102] The idea of religious indignation as a “virus” that can spread from person to person, from society to society, is developed in the work of: Dennett, Daniel C., Breaking the Spell. Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Allen Lane, Penguin Books, New York 2006 and long before by Baron d’Holbach in La Contagion Sacrée [Sacred Contagion] (1768), in: D’Holbach, Paul Henri Dietrich, Baron, Premières Oeuvres, Éditions Sociales, Paris 1971, pp. 139–175.

[103] Bawer, Bruce, While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam Is Destroying the West From Within, Doubleday, New York 2006, p. 6. See also: Minow, Martha, “Tolerance in an Age of Terror,” Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Journal, 16 2007, pp. 453–494, p. 479.

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

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