For the Sake of Words

The first time I heard about Salman Rushdie was during high school in the 1990s. I spotted a copy of The Satanic Verses on the shelf at a friend’s house and, being fascinated by the macabre from a young age, I was immediately drawn to the diabolic title, not knowing the book’s content or the controversy it had caused. “What is this?”

“A damn fine novel,” my friend’s mother said.

“What will we do if they come for us?” my friend asked his mother.

“We will stand up for it,” she replied.

Open and informed political debate at home, let alone passionate defense of ideals like free speech, was not a staple of my upbringing, so all this talk was mystifying to me. Especially perplexing was my friend’s question. “What will we do if they come for us?” Who’s coming? Why are they coming? What will they do if they find this book? It’s just a book! The idea that words had consequences — even life-or-death ones — had never occurred to me. It just wasn’t necessary to my existence to think about it.

Indian Moslems burn an effigy of British
Salman Rushdie burnt in effigy in India

Only in college did I learn the details of Rushdie’s life, the controversy sparked by The Satanic Verses and its alleged mockery of Islam, the ordeal suffered by Rushdie after he was marked for death by the head of a sovereign state (Iran), the western media’s perennial fixation on blasphemy laws in the Muslim world. That world and my understanding of it remained limited by my white, middle-class suburban upbringing, even having grown up just outside cosmopolitan Washington, D.C. Though I didn’t know it at the time, this brief exchange with my friend and his mother set me on a path full of desire to better understand countries where something that seemed to my American mindset so unremarkable, even benign — criticism of religion — could be such a serious offense, even deadly. But it would take another confluence of events for me to start digging at the roots of speech itself, to start asking questions about how and why people put limits on expression, not just in the Muslim world but in every society, including and especially the West.

Fast forward almost twenty years. It’s 2015 and I am a PhD candidate in Arabic language and literature. I have spent the last decade thinking constantly about the two worlds I inhabit: Middle Eastern language and culture, and U.S. higher education. September 11th and the Danish cartoons have come and gone. The rise of ISIS dominates news cycles and white papers the world over. I try my best to think about the medieval Arabic poetry I’m writing about for my dissertation when, just a week after New Year’s Day, a pair of brothers born in France to Algerian immigrants stormed the Paris offices of satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo — which most of the world had never heard of before that day — and gunned down a dozen people and injured a dozen more. Their stated motive? Avenging the honor of the prophet Muhammad, a regular target of Charlie Hebdo lampoons.

“All is Pardoned,” the first issue of Charlie Hebdo after the attack

This horrific incident sparked vociferous debate about free expression and Islam. Are the two compatible? Is it possible to champion free expression and historically-oppressed peoples at the same time? Is racism protected speech? Are images allowed by Islam? Much of the conversation was a screen onto which individuals and groups projected their own existential pre-commitments and anxieties. Facebook profiles became littered with “Je suis Charlie” and “Je ne suis pas Charlie.” For me personally, it was a chance to imagine what the world must have felt like in February 1989 — a time I was too young to recall — when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa calling on Muslims to murder Salman Rushdie, a fatwa that, despite its legal force being rejected by Iranian president Mohammad Khatami in 1998, still remains on the books. Words and images once again came to have life-or-death implications. Once again they divided nation against nation and brother against brother. At a time when I had begun to wonder whether my chosen profession — the humanities — had any relevance to people’s everyday lives, the fact that people were willing to kill and be killed for the sake of words was a terrible reminder that it does.

University of Missouri Turmoil
Protesters at the University of Missouri in 2015. They and others raised questions about the limits of speech on college campuses.

The Charlie Hebdo attacks had not quite faded from memory when another debate about free speech arose later that fall. This time, however, it was American colleges that took center stage. A series of charged events — culturally insensitive Halloween costumes at Yale, racial slurs and a fecal Swastika at University of Missouri, a clumsily-worded email at Claremont McKenna, and many others — led to student demonstrations, protests, and sit-ins at campuses all over the country. Official student demands were issued. Administrators resigned. Campus speech codes and diversity training programs were instituted. Building names were changed. As with the Charlie Hebdo attacks, media coverage of these developments reflected the pre-commitments and anxieties people brought with them to the debate. The image of Melissa Click calling for muscle at Mizzou became a symbol of intolerance. Many blamed the millennial generation as a coddled one, while others pointed out the fact that for the first time, voices marginalized for decades or even centuries were now being heard.

My own experience of these events was a fraught one. Since I want be a university professor, I wondered if college campuses were becoming too toxic for me to want to spend the next 40 years working at one. I have no interest in verbally attacking anyone, but what if other people don’t see it that way? What if my research or teaching requires me to say something controversial? Will I be protected against reprisal for voicing my views? It gave me pause to think about making my professional home in a place where I would have to censor myself beyond the normal bounds of workplace civility and politesse. This question is especially urgent in an industry — academia —that upholds free inquiry as a professional ideal.

But for me, the other result of the fall 2015 campus debates was to help me see that people in every society, not just the Middle East, find certain words and images offensive, even to the point where they are willing to silence them or commit violence because of them. This hit me even more forcefully because the campus protests happened in the same year as the Charlie Hebdo attacks and, in November 2015, the Stade de France attacks that killed 130 people and injured hundreds more.

The decapitated statue of Abu al-`Ala’ al-Ma`arri near Aleppo, Syria.

The confluence of these events last year took my already burgeoning interest in the limits people place on speech, and set it on fire. I have now begun to notice any and all controversy about the limits of human expression. This has even affected the questions I ask in my seemingly esoteric research on medieval Arabic literature, since my dissertation is about a poet long thought of as an arch-heretic against Islam, Abu al-`Ala’ al-Ma`arri. What is heresy? Who decides what it is, and why? How is this affected by the way people experience words and images? How and when is it silenced? This train of thought left the station in full force last fall, and ever since it has left me wondering about the limits of speech.

That’s what I want to do with my blog now — wonder out loud about the whos, whats, whens, wheres, whys, and hows of limits to human expression. Since I figured travel photos — what I was blogging about before — can easily be posted on Facebook and fit nicely with its raison d’être, I should dedicate my blog posts to something requiring more space to flesh out and which is not easily categorized as belonging to a given social media platform’s community. I chose “The Blasphemy Blog” because the Greek root of blasphemy has the same meaning as the Latin root of defamation — to attack (blaptein) one’s reputation or good name, pheme, cognate with “fame” in modern English. To me, the word “blasphemy” therefore has the potential to include not just insults against religion but anything humans hold to be sacred. How people limit speech goes back to how they judge value, both of good versus bad and also beauty versus ugliness, and the stakes of those value judgments for what others think, i.e. “fame” or reputation.

With this as a starting point, I want to explore examples from my academic field, Middle East Studies, but really anything that touches on debates over the limits of human expression. Of course I have my own personal opinions, but I figure the best way to interrogate them is by allowing myself free reign to wonder aloud about issues related to “blasphemy” broadly defined. My hope in so doing is that people will recognize that human expression, the “humanities,” have real power in everyday human life, and for that recognition to be an honor rendered to people like the Charlie Hebdo victims and others who have paid the ultimate price for the sake of words.


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