Blasphemy Forever

Schoolboys scuffed a Quran. Why did the police care?

A photograph of a raised finger in front of a Quran
Ben Stansall / AFP / Getty

Almost half a century ago, an English busybody named Mary Whitehouse took a gay publisher to court in London for blasphemy. The publisher had printed a poem depicting a Roman centurion as a necrophile having his way with the corpse of Jesus Christ. She won the case but lost the culture war: Hers was the last successful prosecution for blasphemy in the United Kingdom, and in 2008, after decades as a dead letter, England’s blasphemy law officially ceased to exist.

But the moralists never left, and English authorities have stumbled when trying to figure out how to mediate between them and those they accuse. Last month, in the West Yorkshire town of Wakefield, a 14-year-old bought a bargain-basement English translation of the Quran on Amazon. (Known as the “Pink Qur’an,” it costs about $13.) He gave it to his buddies at school, and by the end of the day it was smudged and slightly torn. The school suspended the kids, and police investigated the incident as a possible hate crime—which, given that it was his own book, and that police don’t generally conduct investigations of creased covers and smudged pages, would be hard to distinguish from a charge of blasphemy.

They did not, in the end, prosecute. And when the owner was threatened with death, police took the menacing seriously. But the incident illustrates how society’s defenses, like a watchman dozing off on a late shift, tend to slip. (Last year’s attempted murder of Salman Rushdie roused many advocates of free speech from a similar slumber.) Only one good thing has come from this incident: It has forced authorities, and civil society, to wipe the crust from their eyes and recall how best to respond to incidents, or non-incidents, like this one.

The reactionaries reacted first. A local politician, Usman Ali, called on the government to deal with the “terrible provocation”—by which he meant not the death threats against a child but the light wear on the book. Then things got grimmer. The boy’s mother, who is not Muslim, awkwardly draped a veil over her head and begged for mercy during a meeting at a Wakefield mosque. A local councilor named Akef Ahmed said in mitigation that her boy (who may not even have been responsible for the smudges) is both sheepish and “highly autistic.” The next speaker, an imam, was less conciliatory than Ahmed. “We will never tolerate disrespect of the Holy Quran,” he said. “We will sacrifice our lives for it.”

The imam’s words suggest support for a Rushdie-style campaign of vengeance against an autistic child. But one must keep in mind that every community has cruel, vindictive members, and like stopped clocks, they’ll keep indicating blasphemy forever. This particular imam’s clock seems to have stopped in the late medieval period.

A more productive target for outrage is the man who sat to the imam’s left, wearing not a turban or a Muslim skullcap but a constable’s uniform, with three pips on the shoulder boards. This police representative nodded along, without even flinching at “we will sacrifice our lives for it.” His reaction has been interpreted as indifference. More charitably, I think his silence and presence were signs of respect—an acknowledgment of his fellow citizens’ strong feelings, which they, like all people, have every right to express without government interference.

He was still in error, and the best lesson from this spectacle of harassment is that in cases of alleged blasphemy, respect is a poor guide to public action. The grumbling of the men (they were all men) at the mosque was of no concern to a police officer in the course of his duties. Sending a cop to ensure the mother’s safety may have been wise; even one of the male speakers described the venue as “intimidating.” The officer should not have sat on the panel of men presiding over this humiliation session. And he should have walked offstage as soon as he realized that the occasion was being used to bully the mother and promulgate a religious, rather than civic, message.

Respect is such a decorous and unobjectionable concept that one tends to default, as a public servant, to acting in a respectful manner. But it is, as the philosopher Simon Blackburn once put it, “a tricky term”—which makes it “uniquely well-placed for ideological purposes … What we might call respect creep sets in, where the request for minimal toleration turns into a demand for more substantial respect, such as fellow-feeling, or esteem, and finally deference and reverence.”

In practice, the recipients of these shows of respect are the insecure, the whiny, and the violent. Cops pay respect to a mob on the brink of violence, to “ease tensions” or “dial down the temperature.” Meanwhile those capable of containing their emotions, or who never threaten anyone, neither demand any public respect nor get it. By being benevolently respectful, the terrorism researcher Liam Duffy recently noted, those nodding authorities “inadvertently lent legitimacy to the complaints of the offended.” Any private person can show good manners and try to soothe a neighbor’s offense. To do so with the authority of the state is something else.

Marvel at how the concept of blasphemy, once relieved of its legal bite, insinuates itself elsewhere, with the color of law if not law itself. One author on the Muslim site wrote that there was nothing “disturbing” about the meeting at the mosque, because “it’s perfectly fine to voluntarily speak to a community of people” in order “to resolve matters or [defuse] tensions.” You can watch the video yourself, to see if it feels more like a neighborly hashing out of differences, or a woman begging for her child’s life. In the aftermath of a death threat, and in the nodding presence of a constable responsible for keeping one’s child safe from assassination, the word voluntarily hides all manner of compulsion.

I assume that the constable regretted his tacit endorsement of that event, probably before it was over. And even Ali, the politician who said the boy should be “dealt with,” seems to have wished he had said otherwise; he took down his tweet. Only last week did a politician issue what should have been the first and only response: to state unequivocally that anyone can respect or disrespect any religion or book in the manner of his choice, without support or sanction by the government.

This sane reply came from Home Secretary Suella Braverman, in The Times of London. “We do not have blasphemy laws in Great Britain, and must not be complicit in the attempts to impose them on this country,” she wrote. “There is no right not to be offended. There is no legal obligation to be reverent towards any religion.” And she denied as bigoted the notion that “Muslims are uniquely incapable of controlling themselves if they feel provoked.” The closest analogue in Christianity to befouling a Quran might be desecrating the Host, one of the few acts that get you automatically excommunicated from the Catholic Church and sent in the EZ Pass lane to the Hot Place. Muslims should know that they are no more protected from mockery than Catholics who believe in transubstantiation.

Braverman’s statement was flawed, with superfluous and ill-considered references to Sharia law and J. K. Rowling; it criticized the U.K.’s counterterrorism strategy, known as Prevent, for not recognizing the “scale” of jihadism, when Prevent’s errors had more to do with implementation. Ordinary conservative Muslims reported that they felt targeted for their beliefs and practices. The problem of radicalization was indeed large, but finding the incipient radicals among the merely devout remains difficult.

But these defects in Braverman’s op-ed only reinforce the wisdom of a policy that keeps the government out of religion entirely. A government that nods gravely to endorse one religious position will nod gravely to condemn another. There is a natural solution: If you’re a government official, stay out of my erotic poetry about Roman centurions, and stay out of my mosque.