Monday, September 29, 2008

Only religion makes doing evil feel quite so good

Not my words but those of Philip Pullman on those who've been attempting to erase the excellent His Dark Materials trilogy from the shelves of American libraries.

"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,"
Many of the opponents of these books seem to regard them as an unending tirade against Christianity in favour of a cold hearted Dawkinsite atheism. Fans of that sort of thing would be very disappointed if they were lured to the series for this reason. In fact the trilogy is far more subtle, and if anything argue for the elimination of the power structures that grow up around organised religion rather than for its total abolition.

As Pulman says;
"Religion, uncontaminated by power, can be the source of a great deal of private solace, artistic inspiration, and moral wisdom. But when it gets its hands on the levers of political or social authority, it goes rotten very quickly indeed."
But whilst Christians in the US attempt to take Children's books off the shelves for being too intelligent, the home and offices of an Islington publisher were firebombed on Friday night for publishing "The Jewel of Medina, a romantic tale about Aisha, the Prophet Muhammad's youngest wife."

Whilst Pulman has always taken an overtly critical look at religious institutions - if done with a light and humanist touch - this new book, which has yet to alight on any shelves so can't possibly have offended anyone by what it actually says, appears to be more of an historical adventure with no intention to cause offense or even say anything in particular about Islam.

Indeed the strongest literary criticism I've seen, coming from a Muslim poet, was that, like many historical romances, it wasn't particularly historically accurate when it came to its portrayal of pre-Islamic Arab culture. Hardly a book burning offense.

Whilst I'm opposed to those who posture and preen themselves taking pride at offending Muslims (or anybody) it seems difficult to see this publication in a similar light. Nor in fact has this book seen anything like the widespread offense caused by the tactless publication of cartoons in Denmark which seemed to wear cultural insensitivity as a badge of honour.

Those responsible for the firebombing not only do their cause a massive disservice, and serve to promote a book they wish to see eliminated, they bring into disrepute those Muslims who would find this sort of response to an historical romance absolutely abhorant.

Just as the Christian right tar all Christians with their unblinking, uncheek turning intolerance so do those strands of Islam that offer hate whilst their brethren offer love.

Personally I'm not one of those who'd see all religion abolished, nor would I see an end to the right to fight for your beliefs - but that doesn't mean I have to roll over when there are those who'd cause fire and mayhem against those who'd publish what appears to be a fairly harmless fiction, nor those who'd take off the shelves an interesting discursive fantasy on how institutions and spirituality do not mix.

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