Beyond belief

Ian Jack on the conflict between religion and free speech

Some years ago I tried to write a book, an important part of which was to tell the life of a Baptist missionary in early 19th-century India. This man, William Carey, a cobbler from Northamptonshire, has many quite wonderful achievements to his name. He was a linguist, a printer, a botanist, and energetic in all these departments of the material world: India and early western understanding of it owe him a great deal. And yet he came to India and persisted in it, suffering hardship and disease, for very different reasons.

Aged 18, according to one of his Victorian biographers, “to his spiritual intelligence there was given the Word of God … it converted the hypocritical Pharisee into the evangelical preacher; it turned the vicious peasant into the most self-denying saint; it sent the village shoemaker far off to the Hindoos.”

In fact (and like David Livingstone), he made remarkably few converts. One can see the folly of his enterprise in the description of his debates with the brahmins. Brahminism had to be false because the Flood had wiped out brahmins. We were all the descendants of Noah, who was not a brahmin. In attempting to persuade brahmins to swap their own supple and complex cosmology for his own rudimentary one – and that without any earthly benefit to brahmins and at the cost of ostracism in their own community – he was barking up a whole forest of wrong trees.

This was fun to describe. Much more difficult to evoke, and eventually to me impossible, were the beliefs that lay at the centre of Carey’s life and personality. What did notions such as Saviour, soul, redemption, and God mean to Carey? A lot, obviously. To me, very little. My eyes would skip over such words on the page. It may be always the case, as Janet Malcolm remarks, that all a biographer has to work with is the “husk” of a dead personality: what he leaves behind in the form of letters and the memories of others. But when that personality is so infused with a faith in things unseen – unseeable – by the writer, the task requires a leap of imagination or empathy which was beyond me. I might as well have been trying to enter the minds of the Islamists who seized the aircraft controls on 9/11.

Religious belief is now almost never seriously discussed among the kind of people I know and the same is true, I suspect, for most readers of this newspaper. Religion as sociology, religion as history, religion as ethnicity, religion as politics and ethics, religion as art, ritual or good works, religion as the best route to a good C of E primary school: we can and do about talk about these.

But religion as faith and as an explanation of the world – why God exists, what happens after we die, who gets to heaven (or hell): most of us would run a mile from such a conversation. We know that argument was won a long time ago and there is no point discussing it. Real believers (as opposed to the soppy “there-must-be-something else” brigade) are infrequently encountered and are not in any case amenable to what we believe is reason. They have their private beliefs; let them get on with them.

Atheism is too combative a noun to describe this prevailing European condition, which is also a relatively recent one. My father, for example, was an atheist who enjoyed a good argument with any doorstep Jehovah’s Witness, being equipped by his scriptural youth to trade contrasting verses from the Book of Revelations.

But now we just know it ain’t so. The promise of religion, despite the loveliness of Verdi’s Requiem or the Blue Mosque, isn’t credible. And therefore, to us, nothing is, or can ever be, sacred – that is, according to one of its definitions in the Shorter Oxford, “secured by religious sentiment, reverence, sense of justice, etc, against violation, infringement, or encroachment”.

The secular world can offer no real analogy for sacredness, nothing to help us understand how the avid religionist feels. The principles of “liberty” and “free speech” might seem to come close, but here we also understand that sometimes these things need to be curbed – violated – in, for example, times of war, or when free speech leads to slander, libel or racial hatred.

But perhaps I am using this “we” too freely. When rioting Sikhs forced the closure of Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Behzti ( Dishonour) in Birmingham last month, many people thought this wrong – an absolute term – and that the principle of free expression should have been upheld by protecting the theatre with police and continuing a performance that infringed no law.

Reports suggest that this principle had been upheld at an earlier stage, when the theatre and playwright had refused entreaties by some Sikhs to change the play’s setting from a gurdwara, the Sikh sacred place of worship, to a “Sikh community centre” so that the murder and rape in the play could occur there instead. I haven’t read the play so I don’t know if that would have damaged its plot, though it might well have weakened its pungency (“Murder in the Community Centre, a new play by TS Eliot”).

In any case, I couldn’t help remembering what happened at Wapping during 1986 and 1987, when the Metropolitan Police and their horses upheld the law in the face of mass protests night after night, so that Murdoch’s newspapers continued to to express themselves freely and the future of his business was secured. I worked there for some of that time, and I think that maintaining the law was the only thing to do.

Perhaps a similar protection would have been afforded the play, had the author, actors, and management decided to carry on. But would that have been wise? A locked-out printworker, with only his material self-interest at heart, is a more amenable enemy than the man who is keen to feel that the very centre of his being has been insulted.

Salman Rushdie wrote with hindsight after the fatwa: “It did not seem to me that my ungodliness, or rather my post-godliness, need necessarily bring me into conflict with belief… [I believed] the most secular of authors ought to be capable of presenting a sympathetic portrait of a devout believer… Now, however, I find my entire world-picture under fire.”

Eventually, one has to ask: what has the law to do with it? The state has no law forbidding a pictorial representation of the Prophet and I cannot see how a portrait of Him would cause people to think less of Islam or its believers. But I never expect to see such a picture. On the one hand, there is the individual’s right to exhibit or publish one; on the other hand, the immeasurable insult and damage to life and property that the exercise of such a right would cause.

In this case, we understand that the price is too high – even though we, the faithless, don’t understand the offence. The idea of sacrilege is too far away from us, like William Carey with his fever and his Good Book in the swamps of Bengal.

• Ian Jack is editor of Granta magazine.

Related special report:
More about Behzti

More Guardian theatre features


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The Guardian, UK
Jan. 1, 2005 Opinion
Ian Jack
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Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday January 2, 2005.
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