I recently returned from a trip to Britain, where I discovered, to my consternation, that the government is proposing a law to ban what it is calling "incitement to religious hatred." This measure, much beloved by liberals, is apparently designed to protect people "targeted" because of their religious beliefs.
But I see nothing to applaud. To me it is merely further evidence that in Britain, just as in the United States, we may need to fight the battle for the Enlightenment all over again.
That battle, you may remember, was about the church's desire to place limits on thought. Diderot's novel "La Religieuse," with its portrayal of nuns and their behavior, was deliberately blasphemous: It challenged religious authority, with its indexes and inquisitions, on what was possible to say. Most of our contemporary ideas about freedom of speech and imagination come from the Enlightenment.
But although we may have thought the battle long since won, if we aren't careful, it is about to be "un-won."
Offense and insult are part of everyday life for everyone in Britain (or the U.S., for that matter). All you have to do is open a daily paper and there's plenty to offend. Or you can walk into the religion section of a bookshop and discover you're damned to various kinds of eternal hellfire, which is certainly insulting, not to say overheated.
The idea that any kind of free society can be constructed in which people will never be offended or insulted, or in which they have the right to call on the law to defend them against being offended or insulted, is absurd.
In the end, a fundamental decision needs to be made: Do we want to live in a free society or not? Democracy is not a tea party where people sit around making polite conversation. In democracies, people get extremely upset with each other. They argue vehemently against each other's positions. (But they don't shoot.)
At Cambridge I was taught a laudable method of argument: You never personalize, but you have absolutely no respect for people's opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks. That seems to me a crucial distinction: People must be protected from discrimination by virtue of their race, but you cannot ring-fence their ideas. The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it's a belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.
With its proposed "incitement to religious hatred" law, Prime Minister Tony Blair's government has set out to create that impossibility. Privately they'll tell you the law is designed to please "the Muslims." But which Muslims, when and on what day?
The ability of this proposed law to protect "the Muslims" seems to me arguable. It is possible that instead it will be used against Muslims before it's used against anyone else. There are identifiable racist and right-wing groups in Britain that would argue that Muslims are the ones inciting religious hatred, and these groups would use, or try to use, this law against them.
There is no question that there also are Muslim leaders who are anxious to prosecute others (for example, me and my book, "The Satanic Verses") and will try to do so if this law is passed. So this law would unleash some major expressions of intolerance.
Rioting Sikhs already have forced the closure of Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's play, "Behzti," in Birmingham, and the government has said nothing to criticize them for attacking the theater, breaking windows and issuing death threats. Hanif Kureishi made one of the best comments about all this when he noted that the theater was a temple too -- just as much as the fictional temple in the play. Evangelical Christians caught on quickly and protested against the BBC's screening of "Jerry Springer: The Opera."
What this kind of attitude ultimately does, and what the law would do, is undermine a principle of free expression that affects everyone in Britain, religious or not. If we cannot have open discourse about the ideas by which we live, then we are straitjacketing ourselves.
It does matter that people have the right to take an argument to the point where somebody is offended by what they say. It's no trick to support the free speech of somebody you agree with or to whose opinion you are indifferent. The defense of free speech begins at the point when people say something you can't stand. If you can't defend their right to say it, then you don't believe in free speech. You believe in free speech only as long as it doesn't get up your nose. But free speech does get up people's noses. Nietzsche called Christianity "the one great curse" and "the one immortal blemish on mankind." Would Nietzsche now be prosecuted?
There is a long tradition of irreverent, raw and critical remarks about religion in Britain, some by very eminent thinkers, some by our favorite comedians -- like Rowan Atkinson in "Blackadder" muttering "bad weather is God's way of telling us we should burn more Catholics." Even if the government doesn't think that such remarks will find their way into court prosecutions, the very possibility that they might, at the discretion of its chief legal advisor, will be enough to bring down the curtains of self- and corporate censorship.