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Rushdie, blasphemy and our woeful indifference

Salman Rushdie
British author Salman Rushdie speaks as he presents his book "Quichotte" at the Volkstheater in Vienna, Austria, on November 16, 2019. |

Despite his recent, near-fatal stabbing, Salman Rushdie is not a household name, especially for a younger generation of Americans.  Few today are familiar with his controversial novel, The Satanic Verses, which in the late 1980’s led to Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issuing a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death, forcing him into years of hiding. Rushdie’s offense? Blasphemy!

In his book, the atheist British author (with a Muslim background in India) pointedly offended Muslim sensitivities along a number of fronts, beginning with the name of his fictional character, “Mahound”— a name given to Muhammad by various critics, being synonymous with the devil. Adding insult to injury, each of the 12 prostitutes in Rushdie’s story wore the name of one of Muhammad’s 12 wives.  (How to poke the bear in 12 easy steps!)

Far more serious, Rushdie exploited a centuries-old controversy over a passage in the Quran that, so it is said, are words of “satanic suggestion” that Muhammad is alleged to have mistaken for divine revelation. If, similarly, a novelist were to perpetuate a claim that the Bible contained verses inspired by Satan rather than by God, we could relate to Muslims being outraged. Rushdie was calling into question the inspiration of the Quran — not as a serious religious critic, but as a secular cynic, crassly showing contempt for his discarded religion.

As a fellow author, often addressing controversial, “hot button” topics, I appreciate more than most the need for literary and academic freedom. Kill the message, if you must, but not the messenger, no matter how repulsive the message might be. Yet, Rushdie must have known that he was putting himself in harm’s way from those who believe that blasphemers deserve to die. Nor could he have doubted that his book was blasphemous, perhaps best evidenced by his inclusion of no fewer than 14 references to blasphemy (some specifically against Muhammad or Islam), making his book uncannily prophetic!      

Living in England when “the Rushdie affair” first broke, I wrote a responsive book, titled Blasphemy and the Battle for Faith (now long out of print), analyzing Britain’s blasphemy laws and exploring what it means to take blasphemy seriously. (It was God himself who first made blasphemy a capital offense, Leviticus 24:16.) Secularists certainly don’t “get it,” but even lackadaisical Christians don’t seem to appreciate the spiritual danger of tolerating blasphemy.    

Today, ironically, it is the political Left (vocally incensed at Islamic fundamentalism’s attack on Rushdie) who issue their own “soft fatwas,” calling for the cancellation of anyone who dares impugn their “infallible” woke creed — especially anyone of godly faith! Unsurprisingly, those who demand tolerance for all are the most intolerant of all! Those who cry, “Free speech!” have shut down free speech!  Religious and political fanatics make predictable, if strange, bedfellows.

Who was the most blasphemous person ever? By all appearances, Jesus of Nazareth! The carpenter’s son, who claimed he was God’s one and only Son. The flesh-and-blood human who boldly declared he was eternal. The teacher who dared to forgive sins. For such claims, the Jews condemned Jesus as a blasphemer, issued their own “fatwa,” and had him killed. Wrong as they were about Jesus, at least the Jews took blasphemy seriously. As do most Muslims, radicalized or not. But, do we? 

Faced with a daily litany of secularist blasphemy in the media and culture, we should be righteously outraged. Yet, when despisers of faith sneeringly trespass on holy ground, we are woefully indifferent. We don’t even utter the otherwise blasphemous, “Oh, my God!” that we toss around so profanely about, say, a tasty dessert. Far more important, we make little effort to engage Muslims, whose own rank blasphemy is in elevating Muhammad over Christ.

Rushdie’s reprehensible stabbing speaks less about the obvious evil of murderous Islamic fanaticism than — at the opposite extreme — our own tepid faith. To be fully Christlike is to recognize when God is being blasphemed and, filled with the same godly zeal, to “send tables flying” by every spiritually-appropriate means at our command!

F. LaGard Smith is a retired law school professor (principally at Pepperdine University), and is the author of some 35 books, touching on law, faith, and social issues.  He is the compiler and narrator of The Daily Bible (the NIV and NLT arranged in chronological order). 

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