Freedom of Speech and Religious Limitations - Rethinking Secularism - Craig J. Calhoun

Rethinking Secularism - Craig J. Calhoun (2011)

Chapter 13. Freedom of Speech and Religious Limitations

Talal Asad

For many years now, there has been much talk in Europe and America about the threat to free speech, particularly whenever Muslims have raised the issue of blasphemy in response to some public criticism of Islam. A recent crisis was the scandal of the Danish cartoons. A decade and a half after the Salman Rushdie affair, the old religious denunciation of blasphemy had reared its head again among Muslims in Europe and beyond, seeking to undermine hard-won secular freedoms. Or so we were told. There were angry protests and some violence on one side, many affirmations of principle and expressions of revulsion on the other. The affair was discussed largely in the context of the problem of integrating Muslim immigrants into European society and related to the global menace of “radical Islam.” Coming after the attack on the World Trade Center and the London bombings, the cartoon scandal was linked to a wider discourse: the West’s “war on terror,” a conflict that many saw and still see as part of an intrinsic hostility between two civilizations, Islam and Europe—the one religious, the other secular. Because Islam has no notion of freedom of thought, so it was said, it has no conception of free speech.

The attitudes displayed in the cartoon affair by Muslims and non-Muslims were quite remarkable. However, this chapter is neither an apologia for Muslim reactions nor a criticism of those who defended the publication of the cartoons. I want to think about blasphemy claims through some moral, political, and aesthetic problems that have crystallized in the form of the idea of free speech. So I will have less to say about traditions of Islamic thought and behavior than about liberal secularity. And when I do talk about those traditions, it will not be to criticize or defend them but to think through them as a way of reflecting on the modern secular condition we all inhabit.1

My starting question is this: If blasphemy indicates a religious limit transgressed, does it really have no place in a free, secular society?

I ask this because modern secular societies do have legal constraints on communication. There are laws of copyright, patent, and trademark and laws protecting commercial secrets, all of which prohibit in different ways the free circulation of expressions and ideas. Are property rights in a work of art infringed if it is publicly reproduced in a distorted form by someone other than the original author with the aim of commenting on it? And if they areinfringed, then how does the sense of violation differ from claims about blasphemy? My point here is not that there is no difference but that there are legal conditions that define what may be communicated freely in capitalist societies and that consequently, the flow of public speech has a particular shape by which its freedom is determined.

There are laws that prohibit expression in public and that appear at first sight to have nothing to do with property, for example, indecency laws and laws relating to child pornography, whose circulation is prohibited even in cyberspace. The reader might say that the first set of laws (copyright, etc.) has to do with the workings of a market economy and so with property, whereas the second (pornography) is quite different because it deals with morals. But although infringement of the laws relating to the latter evokes the greatest passion, both sets of constraint are clues to the liberal secular ideal of the human, the proper subject of all rights and freedoms. Both sets of limits articulate different ways in which property and its protection define the person. In a secular society, these laws make it possible to demarcate and defend oneself in terms of what one owns, including, above all, one’s body. Thus, liberal conceptions of “trespassing” on another’s body and of “exploiting” it are matters of central concern to laws regulating sexual propriety. They also relate to slavery, a nonliberal form of property, for modern law holds that one cannot transfer ownership of one’s living body to another person or acquire property rights in another’s body. Freedom is thus regarded as an inalienable form of property, a capacity that all individual persons possess in a state of nature, rooted in the living body. (Women have only very recently achieved that capacity in liberal societies.) There are, of course, exceptions to this principle of absolute ownership in one’s body, some old and some new; for example, suicide—destroying oneself—is not only forbidden but also regarded by most people in liberal countries with horror, even though the person is said to be the sole owner of the body he or she inhabits and animates. This exception to self-ownership is often explained by humanists as a commitment to “the dignity of human life,” a principle that is not seen as conflicting with the demands of war.

In theory, the self-owning secular subject has the ability to choose freely what to do, a freedom that can be publicly claimed. The reality, as we have seen, is more complicated. Famously, there are two subject positions—one economic and the other political—whose freedom is invested with value in liberal democratic society, both of which are linked to a conception of the freely choosing self and the limits that protect it. Thus, as a citizen, the subject has the right to criticize political matters openly and freely and to vote for whichever political candidate he or she wishes but is obliged to vote in strictest secrecy. There is a paradox in the fact that the individual choice of candidates must be hidden to be free, while critical speech to be free must be exercised in public. This difference actually indicates that while the former takes for granted that the citizen is embedded in social attachments and memories, the latter assumes that he or she is an abstract individual with universal rights. This contradiction runs through liberal discourse on democracy.

As an economic individual, the subject is free to work at, spend, and purchase whatever he or she chooses and has the right to protect his or her property legally. Marx was surely right when he pointed out that in modern liberal societies, the freedom of the worker to sell his or her labor is the condition of capitalist power—and, as some might put it today, the freedom to consume is a source of corporate profit. What he failed to point out, however, is that that freedom, in turn, may limit the liberty of the citizen.

Social constraint (and, as Freud has made us aware, psychological constraint) lies at the heart of individual choice. It seems probable, therefore, that the intolerable character of blasphemy accusations in this kind of society derives not so much from their attempt to constrain as from the theological language in which the constraint is articulated. Theology invokes dependence on a transcendental power, and secularism has rejected that power by affirming human independence. But that freedom from transcendence is secularism’s ideological claim. In fact, political and economic dependence is massively present in our secular world, transcending the subject or agent’s ability to know and to act.

I am not making the banal argument that free speech in a liberal society is necessarily conditional. I want to ask what the particular patterns of liberal restriction can tell us about ideas of the free human. The self-owning individual is a famous liberal idea,2 and although there are limits to what one may do to oneself, there is greater latitude in relation to one’s material property. The ownership of property doesn’t only establish immunity in relation to all those who don’t own it. It also secures one’s right to do with it what one wishes—as long as no damage is done to the rights of others. The right to choose how to dispose of what one owns is integral to the liberal subject—and the subject’s body, affections, beliefs, and speech are regarded as personal property because they constitute the person.

I will return to this point about discourse as personal property below, but first, I want to introduce a concept central to Islamic traditional thought but not to liberal thought, or at least not central in the same way: the idea of seduction.

In liberal society, rape, the subjection of another person’s body against his or her wish for the purpose of sexual enjoyment is a serious crime, whereas seduction, the mere manipulation of another person’s desire, is not. The first is violence; the other is not. In the latter case, no property right is violated. Compare this with ancient Greece, where seduction was a more serious crime than rape because it involved the capture of someone’s affection and loyalty away from the man to whom they properly belonged.3 What this indicates is not only that the woman’s viewpoint did not matter legally in the ancient world but also that in liberal society, seduction is not considered a violation—except where minors are concerned. In liberal society, seduction is not merely permitted, but it is positively valued as a sign of individual freedom. Every adult may dispose of his or her body, affections, and speech at will as long as no harm is done to the property of others. That is why the prohibition of seduction between adults—that is to say, of the exchange of sexual signals—is regarded as a constraint on natural liberty itself. Such a prohibition is normally regarded as of a piece with the curtailment of free speech.

So, how clear is the liberal distinction between coercion and freedom that underlies the notion of free speech? There is, in fact, a large area between these two opposites in which everyday life is lived. The game of seduction—in which both consent and coercion are ambiguously present—is played in this area. And it is in this area, too, that our everyday understanding of liberty is deployed, making our sense of its restriction—whether caused by internal compulsion or external coercion—less fixed and therefore less predictable.

In liberal democracies, the individual as consumer and as voter is subjected to a variety of allurements through appeals to greed, vanity, envy, revenge, and so on. What in other circumstances would be identified and condemned as moral failings are here essential to the functioning of a particular kind of economy and polity. Innumerable studies have described how television as a medium of communication seeks to shape viewers’ choices of commodities and candidates. (Film, which is so central to popular experience, works to seduce the audience even where no political or commercial message is intended.) To seduce is to incite someone to open up his or her self to images, sounds, and words offered by the seducer in order to lead him or her—whether half-complicitly or unwittingly—to an end first conceived by the former.

Let me take up again the question of copyright, which marks out some of the limits to freedom of speech in liberal society, because it brings up the question of how artistic creation is related to law. In a detailed account of the legal disputes over the perpetuity of copyright in late-eighteenth-century England, Mark Rose traced how the idea of incorporeal property (the literary work) emerged through the concept of the author as proprietor. To begin with, those who argued for perpetual copyright did so on the basis that the author had a natural property right to something he had created. When opponents of unlimited copyright insisted that ideas as such couldn’t be considered property and that copyright should therefore be treated as a limited personal right exactly like a patent, they were countered by the argument that the property being claimed was neither the physical book, which could be purchased, nor the ideas communicated but something made up of style and sentiment. “What we here observe,” Rose writes, “is a twin birth, the simultaneous emergence in the discourse of the law of the proprietary author and the literary work. The two concepts are bound to each other.”4 That is to say, the work of art and its creator define each other.

I will return to the question of aesthetics below. Here I want to emphasize that the law of copyright is not simply a constraint on free communication but a way of defining how, when, and for whom literary communication (one of the most valued forms of freedom in modern liberal society) can be regarded as free, creative, and inalienable. A person’s freedom to say whatever he or she wants, how he or she wants, depends in part on a particular notion of property. It implies a particular kind of property-owning subject whose freedom of speech rests on the relationship of what is spoken to truth—that is, to what is truly created and offered to the public. In a splendid study on the beginnings of copyright law in early-modern England, Jody Greene has demonstrated in detail that “owning one’s book was synonymous with owning up to it,” that having one’s authorial rights recognized legally was combined from the beginning with accepting liability for its contents. Copyright was not only an expression of possession but also a condition of control.5

Thus, while cultural historians have already written at length on the Romantic vocabulary of freedom and the nation, historians of literature have now begun to trace the Romantic roots of the concept of “the literary work”—and thus of “the work of art”—through the mutual shaping of freedom and constraint.6 To what extent the general valuation of “freedom of speech” also has those roots remains to be investigated. Such a genealogy would reveal it not as the demand of secular reason but as the aim of a Romantic project in which the drive for freedom produces, paradoxically, a strengthening of power.

Let me now turn from this brief discussion of freedom of speech as a property of the liberal subject to blasphemy as a necessary way of breaking religious restrictions.

The French historian Alain Cabantous once noted that when Jesus claimed for himself a divine nature, this was condemned as blasphemy. That blasphemy led to his death, and the death was followed by resurrection. “In this one respect,” Cabantous wrote, “blasphemy founded Christianity.”7 We might add here that every new tradition, whether it is called religious or not, is founded in a discursive rupture, which means through a kind of violence. Cabantous doesn’t say this, but others have done so. Some have even made the argument that the disruption of blasphemy may be seen as the attempt by a lesser violence to overcome a greater.8 This may sometimes be so, but I will say only that it does not follow that every blasphemous utterance is therefore a new founding, a new freedom; blasphemy as an act of violence (whether by the weak or by the powerful) may be little more than an obsession, in which the act serves as the reinstantiation of an established genre, the restoration of a style that itself has no foundation and no content. In other words, blasphemy may simply be violence masquerading as creative rupture.

At any rate, Cabantous could have observed that in the foundation of Christianity, the blasphemy was not perceived as such by believers. From a Christian point of view, the charge of blasphemy was merely an expression of disbelief. And although that disbelief eventually led to Christ’s death, Christians have historically held that the violence done to him was part of a divine plan. Did Christ know that his unbelieving listeners would take what he said as blasphemy because his crucifixion was essential to the project of human redemption? He was, after all, both man and God, and that could not, therefore, have been absent. Strictly speaking, of course, what founded Christianity was not blasphemy itself but a new narrative of sacrifice and redemption—a story of martyrdom (witnessing) that would be, for believers, the door to eternal life.

The truth, Jesus told his followers, will set you free. The unredeemed human condition is lack of freedom; free speech—truthful speech—releases the human subject from his or her servitude. The truth must be spoken openly, even if those who do not possess it regard speaking it freely as blasphemy. In this context, a modern New Testament scholar writes: “In spite of the opposition of those who are unbelievers, of those who criticize the apostle [John], the Christian may speak freely because he knows Him who conquers all opposition, because he knows that wonderful communion with God which transcends everything in the world.”9 Of course, the liberal principle of free speech does not depend on the proviso that speech to be free must be literally true, but the Christian idea of truth as the necessary outcome of speaking and listening freely helps, I think, to explain why that principle has come to be thought of as “sacred.”

Blasphemy has a long history in Christianity—a sinful act that is liable to worldly punishment. In England, it became a crime in common law only in the seventeenth century, at a time when national courts were taking over from ecclesiastical courts and the modern state was taking shape. Common law did not distinguish between heresy (the holding of views contrary to church doctrine) and blasphemy (the utterance of insults against God or his saints), as medieval canon law had done. So, from the seventeenth century on, the crime of blasphemy was entangled with the question of political toleration and the formation of the modern secular state. During the next two centuries, differences of legal opinion arose regarding whether public statements lacking defamatory intent or expressed in moderate language were liable to criminal prosecution. It was felt that scholarly debate and discussion needed protection, even if they appeared to be “irreligious.” This led to increasing legal attention being paid to the language (i.e., the style and context) in which “blasphemy” appeared, regardless of how disruptive of established truth it was.

The tendency to emphasize manner of expression—to see blasphemy in terms of form rather than content, of style rather than substance—had some interesting legal consequences: vulgar working-class speech was less protected than the polite speech of the middle and upper classes. A scholar who has studied blasphemy trials in nineteenth-century England calls them “class crimes of language” on account of the class bias that they indicate.10 That an exceptionally large number of them took place during the period when a national state and class system began to be formed is itself of some significance. For this reason, I am inclined to say that, rather than simply indicating class bias, the identification of blasphemy helped to constitute class difference in which asymmetrical power was repeatedly inscribed. I want to suggest that we see the charge of blasphemy in these cases not as a discursive device for suppressing free speech but as one indicator of the shape that free speech takes at different times and in different places, reflecting, as it does so, different structures of power, subjectivity, and truth.

What, in contrast, do Islamic ideas of blasphemy tell us about our modern liberal assumptions about free speech? Obviously, not all Muslims think alike, but questions about Islamic ideas of blasphemy are aimed at a moral tradition. And even that tradition contains divergences, tensions, and instabilities that cannot be attributed to an entire “civilizational people.” Nevertheless, I will draw on aspects of that tradition in order to explore further some liberal ideas about freedom. One of these is the assumption that the Islamic tradition is rooted in a more restrictive system of ethics, that it does not allow the freedom (especially the freedom of speech) provided and defended by liberal society. Although there is something to this, the simple notion of liberty as something that is either present or absent seems to me unsatisfactory.

But first, let’s consider the term “blasphemy.” Is there an equivalent in the Islamic tradition? Although the Arabic word tajdif is usually glossed in English as “blasphemy” and is used by Christian Arabs to identify what in European religious history is called “blasphemy,” Arabic speakers, in the case of the Danish cartoons, did not (as far as I am aware) employ it. Of course, there are other words that resonate with the English word “blasphemy” (e.g., kufr, “apostasy, blasphemy, infidelity”; ridda, “apostasy”; fisq, “moral depravity”; and ilhād, “heresy, apostasy”), but these were not, to my knowledge, used in response to the Danish cartoons. When the World Union of Muslim Scholars made its statement on the cartoons affair, for example, it used the word isā’ah, not tajdif. And isā’ah has a range of meanings, including “insult, harm, and offense,” that are applied in secular contexts.11 The World Union stated that it had waited so that the efforts exerted by numerous Islamic and Arab organizations, and by several states, to elicit appropriate expressions of remorse from Denmark could be given time to succeed, but this was to no avail. Therefore, “the Union will be obliged to call upon the millions of Muslims in the world to boycott Danish and Norwegian products and activities.”12 Thus, the right to campaign freely against consumer goods confronted the right to criticize beliefs at will: one social weapon faced another, each employing a different aspect of the modern idea of freedom. If physical violence was sometimes used by some of those who advocated a boycott, we should not forget that a commercial boycott is always a kind of violence, especially if it is infused with anger, because it attacks people’s livelihood. The European history of boycotts (the refusal to purchase commodities) and strikes (the withholding of labor), with all of their accompanying physical violence, has been a story of the definition of modern rights. And yet in this case, many European commentators described the two quite differently: the one as an expression of freedom, the other as a violent attempt at restricting it and as yet another sign of the conflict between civilizations having opposed values.

More interesting than the defense of free speech as an absolute value in this case was the argument that it was a good thing that pious Muslims felt injured, because being hurt by criticism might provoke people to reexamine their beliefs—something vital both for democratic debate and for enlightened ethics. This point, in contrast with the first, valorizes the consequence of free speech rather than the act itself. The criticism of questionable (religious) beliefs is presented as an obligation of free speech, an act carried out in the service of education toward the truth, making truth the door to liberty. Many even in post-Christian Western society agree with the Christian claim that the truth makes one free (John 8: 32).

That this is not an Islamic formulation emerges from a brief examination of the widely discussed trial of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, a professor at Cairo University, for apostasy (ridda) because he had advocated a radically new interpretation of the revealed text of the Qur’an.13 Of course, both truth and freedom are valued in the Islamic tradition, but they are not tied together quite as they are in Christianity. (It may be pointed out in passing that the many cases of apostasy in the contemporary Middle East that have received much publicity in the West are actually relatively recent and closely connected with the formation of the modern nation-state, a modern judiciary, and the rise of modern politics. In this context, one may recall the burst of blasphemy trials in nineteenth-century England to which I referred earlier.) My question, therefore, is whether these trials should be seen solely in terms of the suppression of freedom. What do they tell us about the secular idea of the human subject?

In a book that deals with the Abu Zayd case,14 the Islamist lawyer Muhammad Salīm al-‘Awwa emphasizes that the shari‘a guarantees freedom of belief: “Freedom of belief means the right of every human being to embrace whatever ideas and doctrines he wishes, even if they conflict with those of the group in which he lives or to which he belongs, or conflict with what the majority of its members regard as true.”15 He goes on to say that no one may exert pressure to get another to reveal his or her religious beliefs—that is to say, the shari‘a prohibits the use of inquisitorial methods. The right to think whatever one wishes does not, however, include the right to express one’s religious or moral beliefs publicly with the intention of converting people to a false commitment. Such a limitation may seem strange to modern liberals, for whom the ability to speak publicly about one’s beliefs is necessary to freedom. This ability is, after all, one aspect of “the freedom of religion” that is guaranteed by secular liberal democracies. Al-‘Awwa is aware of this, and he cites two Qur’anic verses that seem to guarantee freedom of religion: lāikrāhafi-ddīn, “there is no compulsion in religion” (2: 256), and faman shā’a falyu’min wa man shā’a falyakfur, “let him who wills have faith, and him who wills reject it” (18: 29). But for the Islamic tradition, what matters is the Muslim subject’s social practices—including verbal pronouncements—not that person’s internal thoughts, whatever these might be. In contrast, the Christian tradition allows that thoughts can commit the sin of blasphemy and should therefore be subject to discipline: thoughts are subject to confession.16

According to al-‘Awwa, publishing one’s thoughts changes their character, makes them into publicly accessible signs. “To publish something,” he quotes an old saying, “is to lay oneself open to the public.”17 It is one thing to think whatever one wishes, he argues, and quite a different thing to publish those thoughts, because the latter always has a social objective. So the point at issue here is not a threat to social order (as many argued in the affair of the Danish cartoons) but evidence of the publisher’s relation to the moral order. In a well-known book published in Lebanon in 1970, responding to the accusation of apostasy against the Syrian philosopher Jalal Sadiq al-‘Azm for his famous Naqd al-fikr al-dīnī (The Critique of Religious Thought) of 1969, Shaykh ‘Uthman Safi makes a similar distinction but without reference to Islamic religious authorities. His approach, instead, is to make an explicit distinction between “natural, innate freedom” and freedom as defined and limited by the law. The individual may give free rein to his thought and imagination, accepting or rejecting as he wishes within the limits of what he contemplates. “When these possibilities of freedom that the human being enjoys remain within his soul, the law, especially, cannot interfere with them except when the belief is moved from secrecy to broad daylight [min as-sirr ila al-jahr].”18

The principal issue in the Abu Zayd case is not the correctness or otherwise of “belief” but the legal and social consequences of a Muslim professor’s teaching ideas that were said to be contrary to Islamic doctrine.19 In the classic shari‘a position, the strength of personal conviction is said to be a matter between the individual and God. At any rate, disbelief incurs no legal punishment; even the Qur’an stipulates no worldly punishment for disbelief. In the classical law, punishment for apostasy is justified on the grounds of its political and social consequences, not of entertaining false doctrine itself. Put another way, insofar as the law concerns itself with disbelief, that is as a matter not of its propositional untruth but of the open repudiation of a solemn social relationship. Legally, apostasy (ridda, kufr) can therefore be established only on the basis of the functioning of external signs, including public speech or writing, publicly visible behavior, never on the basis of inferred or internal beliefs that have been forcibly or deceptively extracted. There has, incidentally, been considerable disagreement in modern Islamic history over the criteria for determining apostasy, as well as whether and, if so, how it should be punished. Thus, one of the medieval collections of hadith, by Bukhari, records a statement by the Prophet Muhammad that apostates must be killed; but another canonical collection, that by Muslim, declares this statement to be inauthentic. The debate has continued in modern times.

The crucial distinction made in liberal thought between seduction and forcible subjection to which I referred above, in which the former is legally permitted and the latter penalized, is here absent—at least in al-‘Awwa’s argument. In the Islamic tradition, to seduce someone is to connive at rendering him or her unfaithful, to make him or her break those existing social commitments that embody standards of truth.20 Even in medieval Christendom, the term infidelitas could be used not only in relation to personal departures from authorized doctrine but also, in a secular sense, to breaking a contract. “Unfaithfulness” in this worldly sense now has a quaint ring about it in modern secular society and relates only to sexual seduction. Infidelity is not quite the vice it once was.

In Islamic theology, seduction is a matter of great concern—and not merely in the sexual sense. The Qur’an contains numerous words that can be glossed as “seducing” and “deluding”—among them the verbal roots fatana, rāwada, gharra. Fatana (from which comes the familiar noun fitna) always has the sense of “temptation and affliction as a testing,” of “persecution, treachery, or social strife.”21 Muslim theologians and jurists assumed that seduction in all of its forms was necessarily dangerous not only for the individual (because it indicated a loss of self-control) but for the social order, too (because it could lead to violence and civil discord). They were wrong, of course, because they didn’t know about market democracy, a system that thrives on the consumer’s loss of self-control and one in which politicians, prompted by the corporations, have learned to seduce their audiences in the context of liberal democracies.

In market democracy, it is possible to control belief—as well as emotions, attitudes, and desires that go with it—in ways other than brainwashing. As long as we recognize that coercion takes many forms, seduction may be counted as one of them, because seduction can be interpreted as the dynamic between internal compulsion and external capture, between desire and power. As many critics have pointed out, the violence of modern capitalism consists precisely in its capture of the desires of consenting subjects.

In contemporary secular democracies, it would seem that while the state must be denied the power to coerce belief, the market may employ that power in its own fashion. Whether this coercion has any relevance for religiousbelief depends on how the self-described believer (and the state to which he or she is subject) defines “authentic religion” and its place in social life. It also depends on whether one wants to protest against it or to excuse it. Market and political seduction in modern secular society are not always irresistible, of course. But suppose that the resistance, to be effective, requires stubborn religious convictions. It is not clear whether democrats will want to delegitimize that resistance in principle because it conflicts with a secular political order or to accept it only on the liberal grounds of “free speech.” But whether those grounds define that freedom as instrumental (whose value derives from what it can achieve) or as absolute (which justifies itself) is not always clear. In other words, one cannot be certain whether the secular right to blaspheme (and the right to criticize or create publicly) rests on pragmatism or on transcendence, as I tried to show in my examination of the reasons given for defending the Danish cartoons.

It is in liberal universities that “freedom of speech” in the form of public critique has come to be asserted as an absolute value. Professional critique, however, has less to do with the right of free speech than with the reproduction of intellectual disciplines and the aesthetics and ethics that go with them. Jon Roberts and James Turner, in The Sacred and Secular University, have described the emergence of the modern university in the United States, together with its secular culture, starting in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. They recount how the marginalization or exclusion of formal “religion” in the American university was accompanied by an emphasis on research, professionalization, and specialization and how these things, in turn, led to a fragmentation of the traditional map of knowledge, which had until then been articulated in a theological language. It was in this situation that the humanities eventually emerged out of the traditions of moral philosophy and philology and restored coherence to knowledge while according it a distinctive “religious” aura. One consequence was that a less sectarian, less doctrinal idea of religion became part of a liberal culture and therefore part of its understanding of criticism. “This new edition of liberal education had two key elements,” they write. “The first was to acquaint students with beauty, especially as manifest in ‘poetry’ broadly conceived…. A second element thus entered the humanities: a stress on continuities linking the ‘poetry’ of one era to that of succeeding periods and ultimately our own.” Roberts and Turner then describe how there developed a sharper sense of imparting the moral essence of European civilization to students in higher education through the study of great literature and great art. Thus, the idea of European civilization became fused with great aesthetic achievements, both literary and artistic. Literary and art criticism accordingly became the disciplinary means to celebrate those achievements.22

During the last few centuries, modern powers have encouraged and used the developing sciences and humanities to normalize and regulate social life—and that has included legitimizing a particular kind of disciplinary criticism. Critique that is integral to the growth of useful knowledge is part of a process of power wielded by the imperial state and by transnational corporations. Thus, while the freedom to criticize is represented as being at once a right and a duty of the modern individual, its truth-producing capacity remains subject to disciplinary criteria, and its material conditions of existence (laboratories, buildings, research funds, publishing houses, computers, tenure) are provided and watched over by corporate and state power to ensure that citizens can be useful. For reasons that are not difficult to understand, people in the academy are rarely prepared to challenge the controlling limits set by modern transcendent power.

So how does the scandal of the Danish cartoons fit into what I’ve said so far? The cartoons are, clearly, at once politics and art. For those who denounced them, the cartoons represented a political provocation against Muslim immigrants; for their defenders, the publication of the cartoons constituted at once an act of political freedom and an act of artistic creation. The political claim is clear enough here, but what is the connection of artistic creation to it? The answer may lie in the fact that aesthetics is particularly valued in industrial capitalist society because to the extent that it is useless, it is free from external constraint.

“Most aesthetic concepts are theological ones in disguise,” Terry Eagleton writes:

The Romantics saw works of art as mysteriously autonomous, conjuring themselves up from their own unfathomable depths. They were self-originating, self-determining, carrying their ends and raisons d’être within themselves. As such, art was a secular version of the Almighty. Both God and art belonged to that rare category of objects which existed entirely for their own sake, free of the vulgar taint of utility…. It was no accident that this exalted vision of art grew stronger with the advent of industrial capitalism. The artwork was the enemy of industrial production because it was an example of creativity rather than manufacture. That it was fast becoming just another market commodity made this all the more poignant…. Perhaps the artwork was the one thing left that had a value rather than a price, and didn’t exist for the sake of something else…. As the idea of God was gradually ousted, art was on hand to fill his shoes. Like him, it was a repository of absolute value. Like him, too, it was transcendent, universal, unified, all-seeing and all-sympathetic.23

Eagleton does not say this, but the sanctity of modern art depends partly on its having been reimagined: from art as the eighteenth-century mirror of nature to art as the twentieth-century creator of reality. It is this, I think, that enables us to understand why the influential literary critic, cited by Eagleton, declared that poetry (broadly conceived) was the path to secular salvation—because all of life has now becomes material for an expanding redemptive project. And although Eagleton does not mention the Danish cartoons or Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, it is clear that this view of aesthetics gives them a unique justification.

Eagleton’s conclusion is that aesthetics never acquired the powerful political role religion once did because whereas devotion to God involved millions, art remained the preoccupation of the very few. This is suggestive, but surely Eagleton takes too much for granted in equating art with elite theories of “the beautiful” that have no political aspiration, because this ignores the enormous investment the modern state has in the enchantment of the nation. And it is not only fascist theatricality or socialist realism that I have in mind here. My thought is that while we may all be enmeshed in a global economy, the killing machines are essentially national. Whether the killing machine faces the threat of “Islamic terrorism” in Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, or Iran, it seems to require an aesthetics and erotics of war. TV viewers and combat soldiers—as well as the designers of IBMs and other modern weaponry—are encouraged to experience the seductive, horrific beauty of violent destruction. And bear in mind that the killing machine destroys not only the political conditions of free speech but the human subjects of freedom themselves. Understandably, liberal opposition to it is minimal and ineffective.

So here is my question: Does the modern secular aversion to the category of blasphemy derive from a suspicion of political religion? Yet it is specifically Islam that is the object of hostility, and even the head of the Catholic church has learned to express it as pointedly as any rigid laicist. How to account for this? Islamophobia is a symptom, not an explanation. All phobias point to an uncontrollable and irrational anxiety on the part of the subject, in this case of European non-Muslims imagining European Muslims as the bearers of a religion, a culture, a race. Islamophobes often refer to the general fear of “Islamic terrorism.” But isn’t there something odd here? For while terrorists typically work in quiet secrecy, the scandal surrounding blasphemy charges are full of public noise.

And now consider some figures. According to the first Europol report on terrorism published in 2007, of the 498 acts of terrorism that took place in the European Union during 2006, Islamists were responsible for only one. The largest number was carried out by Basque separatists. Yet more than half of those arrested on suspicion of terrorism were Muslims. Almost all media in Europe ignored these figures while playing up “the threat of Islam.” What accounts for this voluble silence? One commentator to whom I presented these figures observed that they might, in fact, show that it was the justified suspicion of the European police that had forestalled Islamic terrorists. The reader may recognize that attitude as the essence of paranoia, for paranoiacs have a tendency to make accidental concatenations into meaningful signs of a threat (or the forestalling of a threat) toward themselves. So I am inclined to say that Islamophobia is rooted, in part at least, in paranoia, in a pathological sense of danger whose final elimination is never possible.

Paranoia is the condition that some literary historians have, interestingly, identified as integral to modernist aesthetics.24 It denotes a range of affective states, including horror, loathing, and nausea, generated by uncontrolled migration, by movement not from Europe to non-Europe but from non-Europe to Europe. As such, aesthetics, no less than theology, is a dimension of all modern politics, national and international. Modernism—the aesthetics accompanying modernity—engages with powerful feelings of visceral disgust. And it is in mimesis that modernism finds one of the most potent sources of revulsion and of paranoia, revulsion because modernism values only independence of judgment and despises imitation, paranoia because modernism seeks to penetrate disguises that make things (people, actions, words) appear normal and innocent and shows them to be really meaningful and hostile.

Whatever one may think is the reason for European revulsion against Muslim immigrants, I want to end with some questions that seem to be raised by the idea of blasphemy. Why is it that aggression in the name of God shocks secular liberal sensibilities, whereas the art of killing in the name of the secular nation, of democracy, does not? Can this differential response tell us something about the way secular and religious violence and experiences of beauty and horror come together to constitute the model secular subject? Apart from the sense of sanctity attaching to the idea of free speech, what accounts for the undercurrent of powerful emotions of loathing and fear?


1. An earlier and rather different version of this chapter was published as “Reflections on Blasphemy and Secular Criticism,” in Hent de Vries, ed., Religion: Beyond a Concept (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008). A similar version has also appeared more recently as “Free Speech, Blasphemy, and Secular Criticism,” in Talal Asad, Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, and Saba Mahmood, Is Critique Secular? (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).

2. The classic study on this question is C. B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962).

3. K. J. Dover, “Classical Greek Attitudes to Sexual Behaviour,” in M. Golden and P. Toohey, eds., Sex and Difference in Ancient Greece and Rome (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003), 117-118.

4. Mark Rose, “The Author as Proprietor: Donaldson v. Becket and the Genealogy of Modern Authorship,” Representations 23 (1988): 51-85.

5. Jody Greene, The Trouble with Ownership: Literary Property and Authorial Liability in England, 1660-1730 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005).

6. See Martha Woodmansee, “The Genius and the Copyright: Economic and Legal Conditions of the Emergence of the ‘Author,’” Eighteenth-Century Studies 17, no. 4 (1984): 425-448.

7. Alain Cabantous, Blasphemy: Impious Speech in the West from the Seventeenth to the Nineteenth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 5.

8. Hent de Vries has made precisely this argument by drawing on Derrida, as well as Benjamin, in his excellent Religion and Violence (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002).

9. W. C. Van Unnik, “The Christian’s Freedom of Speech in the New Testament,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 44 (1962): 487.

10. See Joss Marsh, Word Crimes: Blasphemy, Culture, and Literature in Nineteenth-Century England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998). Marsh deals with more than 200 blasphemy trials, all of which had a strong class component.

11. In this respect, it overlaps with such words as shatīma, sabb, and istihāna.

12. “Bayān al-ittihād hawl nashr suwar masī’a li-rrasūl [Statement of the (World) Union (of Islamic Scholars) about the Publication of Images Insulting to the Prophet], Cairo, January 23, 2006,

13. The book that got Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd declared an apostate (and hence no longer legally married to his wife) was Mafhūm al-nass: Dirāsah fi ‘ulūm al-Qur’ān [Understanding the (Sacred) Text: A Study of the Sciences of the Qur’an] (Beirut: Al-Markaz al-Thaqafi al-‘Arabi, 1990). Two interesting articles on Abu Zayd’s methodology should be noted: Charles Hirschkind, “Heresy or Hermeneutics: The Case of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd,” Stanford Humanities Review 5, no. 1 (1996); and Saba Mahmood, “Secularism, Hermeneutics, and Empire: The Politics of Islamic Reformation,” Public Culture 18, no. 2 (2006): 323-347. Mahmood deals with Abu Zayd among other liberal Islamic reformers.

14. A detailed account of the case is given in Kilian Bälz, “Submitting Faith to Judicial Scrutiny through the Family Trial: The ‘Abu Zayd Case,’” Die Welt des Islams, n.s. 37, no. 2 (1997): 135-155. A more interesting account is provided in chap. 1 (“The Legalization of Hisba in the Case of Nasr Abu Zayd”) of Hussein Agrama’s PhD dissertation, Law Courts and Fatwa Councils in Modern Egypt: An Ethnography of Islamic Legal Practice, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Md., 2005. Extended extracts from the judgments in the court of first instance, the court of appeals, and the court of cassation are given (in French translation) in “Jurisprudence Abu Zayd,” Egypte/Monde Arabe 34 (1998): 169-201. The original Arabic judgments are contained in Muhammad Salim al-‘Awwa, Al-haq fi al-ta‘bīr [The Right to Free Speech] (Cairo: Dar al-Sharuq, 1998).

15. Al-‘Awwa, Al-haq fi al-ta‘bīr, 23. See also Ahmad Rashad Tahun, Hurriyat al-’aqīda fi-shsharī‘a al-islāmiyya (Cairo: Ītrāk lil-Nashr wa-al-Tawzī’, 1998), who is more concerned with the political issues—especially with the unity of the umma—than al-’Awwa is.

16. “It is to be noted that according to the definition (1) blasphemy is set down as a word, for ordinarily it is expressed in speech, though it may be committed in thought or in act. Being primarily a sin of the tongue, it will be seen to be opposed directly to the religious act of praising God. (2) It is said to be against God, though this may be only mediately, as when the contumelious word is spoken of the saints or of sacred things, because of the relationship they sustain to God and His service.” The Catholic Encyclopedia 2 (New York: Robert Appleton, 1907), 595.

17. Al-‘Awwa, Al-haqfi al-ta’bīr, 13.

18. Al-Shaykh ‘Uthman Safi, ‘Ala Hāmish “Naqdal-fikr ad-dīnī” [A Footnote to “The Critique of Religious Thought”] (Beirut: Daru-ttali‘a Li-ttaba‘a Wa-nnashr, 1970), 87.

19. Ibid., 12-13.

20. The Arabic word imān is often translated into English as “belief”—as in the frequently used Qur’anic phrase ayyuhal-mu’minīn, “O Believers!”—but is better rendered as “faith,” as in “I shall be faithful to you.” Another word commonly glossed as “belief,” i‘tiqād, derives from the root ‘aqada; “to put together.” This root gives the word ‘aqd, “contract,” and its many cognates, and thus carries a sense of social relationship. Its primary sense in classical Arabic is the bond that commits the believer to God. This is not unlike the premodern meaning of the word “belief” in English and its equivalents in other European languages. See chap. 6 of Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Faith and Belief (Oxford: One World, 1998), for an interesting etymology of the word.

21. A typical sentence: Wa-l-fitnatu ashaddu min al-qatl (2: 191), “persecution is worse than killing.”

22. When the British art critic Kenneth Clark produced his famous 1969 BBC television series Civilisation, John Berger responded critically with his own series three years later, Ways of Seeing: “when an image is presented as a work of art, the way people look at it is affected by a whole series of learnt assumptions about art. Assumptions concerning: Beauty, Truth, Genius, Civilization… Taste, etc.” And Berger proceeded to pull these assumptions apart.

23. Terry Eagleton, “Coruscating on Thin Ice,” London Review of Books 24 (January 2008): 19-20.

24. David Trotter, Paranoid Modernism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).