Blasphemy laws, not books, belong on the bonfire

Posted: Wed, 21st Sep 2022 by Helen Nicholls

Blasphemy laws, not books, belong on the bonfire

During Banned Books Week, Helen Nicholls examines the impact of blasphemy laws on those who write about religion – both in the past and today.

In the Middle Ages, it was not only books that were burnt but also authors and publishers. Anyone connected with a heretical or blasphemous work could potentially be burned at the stake.

In 1524 William Tyndale was forced to flee Britain for the 'crime' of translating the Bible into English. He was captured in Belgium and was strangled and burnt at the stake in 1536. His work could not be suppressed and was a major influence on later authorised Bibles, including the King James Bible.

As Britain became more liberal, the penalties for blasphemy became less severe, although fines and prison sentences could still be ruinous for those targeted. The last person to be imprisoned for blasphemy in Britain was John William Gott in 1922. His health was so badly affected that he died later that year.

Blasphemy laws were repealed in England and Wales in 2008 and in Scotland in 2021. They remain in force in Northern Ireland. But the existence of blasphemy laws anywhere can have a devastating impact on freedom of expression globally.

In 1989 Ayatollah Khomeini, the supreme leader of Iran, issued a fatwa that invited Muslims worldwide to kill the author Salman Rushdie and anyone involved with his book The Satanic Verses. Rushdie went into hiding for many years. In 1991 Hitoshi Igarashi, the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses, was found murdered at his university. Others involved with the production and sale of the book faced violence. Rushdie himself was stabbed onstage at an event in New York in August but thankfully survived.

One consequence of the fatwa was that The Satanic Verses has been far more widely read than it otherwise would have been. However, the fatwa nevertheless had a chilling effect on free speech as few writers or publishers would be prepared to risk suffering the same fate as Igarashi or Rushdie.

This was demonstrated in 2008 when The Jewel of Medina, a historical novel about Aisha, the wife of the Islamic prophet Mohammed, was dropped by its publisher due to fears that the book would be considered inflammatory. Martin Rynja, founder of Gibson Square publishers, announced his intention to publish it but changed his mind after his home was firebombed. The book was never published in the UK although the American edition is available here.

In recent years, there have been further attacks on those perceived to have insulted Islam. The most notable is the attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015 following its publications of cartoons of Mohammed. In 2020, teacher Samuel Paty was murdered in France for showing his high school class a Charlie Hebdo cartoon of Mohammed during a discussion on free expression. The following year, a UK teacher was forced into hiding after doing the same thing.

In the UK, no-one fears being killed by the state for blasphemy, but many fear being murdered if they are accused of insulting Islam. This de facto blasphemy law is perhaps harder to counter than a judicial one as there is no due process or mechanism for repeal. However, we can start by challenging those who claim that violence is an acceptable response to a novel or cartoon and support those who find themselves targeted by violent extremists. Otherwise, we risk having a right to free speech that exists in law but not in fact.

Image by Rafael Juárez from Pixabay

Freedom of Expression

Democracy cannot exist without the right to free speech. Join our campaign to protect freedom of expression from religious incursions.

Tags: Free speech