Let us imagine that a book which Catholics find insulting is published in Britain, and a prominent Polish bishop calls for the author's death. Catholics march on British streets, burning copies of the book. One of its Latin American translators is killed. A conference is held in Italy, where one of the attendees has announced that he has plans to publish the work, and the hotel is attacked and thirty-seven people die.
No one would deny that Catholic Poles in Britain face some exploitation, and some marginalisation, and even some violence. People could debate the merits of the book and whether its content is needlessly insulting. No one, though, would claim that these considerations even approach the importance of opposing an aggressive, indeed murderous, international attempt to bully people into silence.
This, of course, is just a fantasy. Artistic works that offend Catholics have inspired no such reaction. When Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses, though, the Ayatollah Khomeini called for the author's death, Muslims marched on British streets burning copies of his book, its Japanese translator was killed and a Turkish hotel that was playing host to a literary festival was attacked. Thirty-seven people died.
Of course, there were people who believed that Islamic sensitivities were as, if not more, important than defending Rushdie's, his collaborators' and his readers' safety and freedom. Jimmy Carter, for example, offered platitudinous criticism of the Ayatollah's murderous intolerance, but wrung his hands at the lack of 'acknowledgment that [the book] is a direct insult to those millions of Moslems whose sacred beliefs have been violated.' One might think they could have been advised not to read it.
Astonishingly, three decades on, there are still liberals and left-wingers who are more aggressive in criticising Salman Rushdie than his foes. Reviewing a documentary about the affair, the Independent's Sean O'Grady suggested last week that British Muslims were:
'...especially aggrieved about widespread racism – specifically over Britain’s archaic blasphemy laws, which only applied to Christianity.'
Poor souls. How does one live without knowing that your faith has been protected by blasphemy laws? How British Muslims must have chafed against this unfairness when The Life of Brian was banned in parts of England.
O'Grady writes that he shares the conclusions of one Shahid Butt. To him:
'Rushdie is simply “a dickhead”. He says: “What kind of literary writer, academic, are you that the only way that you can get any fame is by being derogatory and by insulting billions of people. Is that the best you can do?”'
Salman Rushdie was already a world-famous Booker Prize winning novelist when he published The Satanic Verses and if his plan to improve his status in the world involved risking his death and being forced into hiding then he must be far more stupid than he seems. There are much easier ways of getting attention.
O'Grady ends his review with a bold, florid conclusion:
'Rushdie’s silly, childish book should be banned under today’s anti-hate legislation. It’s no better than racist graffiti on a bus stop. I wouldn’t have it in my house, out of respect to Muslim people and contempt for Rushdie, and because it sounds quite boring. I’d be quite inclined to burn it, in fact. It’s a free country, after all.'
It 'sounds quite boring'? Sounds? Has he read it? If not, how can he maintain that it is 'silly, childish' and 'no better than racist graffiti on a bus stop'? O'Grady is perhaps no fan of literary criticism, and if his TV reviews are anything to go by we should be thankful that he is not expanding his range, but if you are not just insulting a book, but calling for its prohibition and announcing that it deserves to be burned the very least you owe its author and your readers is a reason why you think it so offensive.
O'Grady offers no such reasons. Perhaps he is trying to strike a bold contrarian pose but if you are a comfortable opinion columnist defending book-burners against a man who spent years living underground for the crime of writing prose, you are not being as contrarian as much as contemptible.
Perhaps we should take O'Grady at his word: that it is the book's perceived offensiveness to Muslims which he finds so appalling. In which case we can count him among the progressives who from The Satanic Verses to Charlie Hebdo have shown themselves to be more provoked by hurt feelings than jihadist murder.
I am, as it happens, of the view that treating other people's religious beliefs with respect tends to be good. Religious belief is an essential part of millions of people's lives, and causing gratuitous offence is obnoxious. Yet when people are so sensitive that even the idea of a blasphemous book inspires them to outrage, and so intolerant as to kill, you cannot tip-toe around their sensitivities without being a coward and a fool. And if someone decides to join the mob, they are even worse.