Freedom Will Destroy Them

A sad omen of these times is that, in the past week, I have read about three cases of censorship. First, there was the dire threat of five years prison for Italian comedian Sabina Guzzanti – after she had made a joke about the Pope: In 20 years Ratzinger will be dead and will end up in hell, tormented by queer demons – not passive ones, but very active ones. A 1929 law was quoted – one that has since been amended. It took the justice minister himself to decide to drop the case, but the threat was made.

Then, on Saturday, Muslim radicals attempted to firebomb the UK publisher of a controversial book about Muhammad’s child bride Aisha. Publication of the book by American author Sherry Jones was halted in the US – a move described by Salman Rushdie as censorship by fear. A (non-Musim) US professor of Middle Eastern studies deemed an advance copy softcore pornography, which apparently prompted a flurry of activity in the radical Islamic world. It’s a good thing that the London publisher seems determined to go ahead anyway.

This morning, The Guardian published an editorial by writer Philip Pullman, whose book Northern Lights (The Golden Compass in the US) is high on the list of books being challenged in US libraries. Reason: religious viewpoint. He makes light of it, pointing out that cases of censorship always help book sales, and I guess that’s correct. I discovered Salman Rushdie – now one of my favourite authors – because of the controversy over The Satanic Verses, which broke just as I started studying Arabic. For what it’s worth, it has brought him new readers. And it has brought Islam scores of fresh critics.

Religious people seem to believe that the notion of holiness transcends their religion, and that all of us have to be respectful of everything they feel is connected to their god or gods. And no matter how liberal a society has become, they will forever try to unliberalize it, to unliberalize us – in other words, to take away our freedom, whether we believe in their gods or not. It’s not enough for them to tell their kids never to read Rushdie or Pullman. It’s not enough for them to forbid their families to have abortions. It’s not enough for them to preach to the congregation that naturist beaches are a thing of the devil. Hell no, every single non-believer has to be force-fed their petty little rules and regulations as well.

I have no idea why. Maybe they think we will see the wisdom of their ways once we’re put into that straightjacket, and then we’d convert – converting others is one of the goals of any religion. Maybe they think they will rot in hell just for having lived among the non-believers. But most likely, it’s fear. Fear of freedom, fear of being tempted by the devil and giving in, and therefore all temptations must be wiped off of the face of the earth. We are made to suffer for their weaknesses. Freedom will destroy them and they know it.

My basic objection to religion, concludes Pullman, is not that it isn’t true; I like plenty of things that aren’t true. It’s that religion grants its adherents malign, intoxicating and morally corrosive sensations. Destroying intellectual freedom is always evil, but only religion makes doing evil feel quite so good.

He nails it squarely on the head. Banning books and movies, starting wars, bombing hotels, forcing people to have the baby of their rapist, indoctrinating tiny kids (Prussian Blue is just a nasty variety of a perfectly accepted religious practice), it’s all good when it’s for God. Right?

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