Posted by: Sarah | November 24, 2005

Pre-Emptive Censorship?

I feel a rant coming on, so don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Today’s Times reports that the recent Barbican production of Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great was censored to remove a scene in which the Koran is burned and Mohammed disparaged. Why? To avoid offending Muslims, of course.

Is the Government’s cynical Muslim-vote-winning Incitement to Religious Hatred Bill starting to take effect even before it’s passed into law?

If so, it bodes ill for the freedom of expression that we all take for granted in this country. I can’t understand why more people aren’t up in arms about it. The fallout from the Salman Rushdie Affair still looms after 16 years, it seems, but for all the wrong reasons.

The stupid thing is that even a spokesman for one of the more fundamentalist Muslim organizations is quoted in the Times article as being puzzled by this ludicrous piece of self-censorship. It reminds me of the farce about the World War II-damaged statue of a boar in a park in Derby, which featured in a Channel 4 documentary by Kenan Malik, shown in January 2005. The city council originally decided to replace the boar as part of the park’s renovation but changed its mind, fearing the porcine beastie might be offensive to Muslims, despite the fact that no Muslims had complained about it in all the years it had stood there. In this case at least, common sense has prevailed, however: a public petition has ensured that the new statue will be installed this very month.

The Guardian’s Books Section on 19 November published extracts from a new book, Free Expression Is No Offence in which Philip Pullman, Monica Ali, Philip Hensher and Salman Rushdie give their views on the implications of the proposed law.

My own stance on this is that far from extending legal protections for religions, we should abolish the current anomalous blasphemy law in England (which protects only the established Anglican church, anyway) and let all religions take their chances in the rich marketplace of ideas. This unworkable piece of legislation will fail in its aim while damaging one of our most cherished and valuable liberties. We should heed the advice of Soli Sorabjee, former Attorney-General of India, quoted in the recent House of Lords debate on the bill:

Experience shows that criminal laws prohibiting hate speech and expression will encourage intolerance, divisiveness and unreasonable interference with freedom of expression. Fundamentalist Christians, religious Muslims and devout Hindus would then seek to invoke the criminal machinery against each other’s religion, tenets or practices. That is what is increasingly happening today in India. We need not more repressive laws but more free speech to combat bigotry and to promote tolerance.

On the subject of freedom of expression, I see that Grumpy Old Bookman has something to say today about a different aspect thereof.


  1. If we pass legislation that prohibits incitement to religious (and a few other specified forms of) hatred are we not implicitly saying that it is acceptable to incite hatred on non-religious grounds? I would have thought that it was incitement to hate that was the real issue, not the specific topic that was used to trigger it.

    So I’m with you on this, and on repealing the archaic blasphemy laws.

    (I will respond to your post on my blog soon.)

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