“Well, what Jesus blatantly fails to appreciate is that it’s the meek who are the problem.” So says John Cleese as Reg, leader of the People’s Front of Judea, as he and his hapless fellow rebels walk away baffled from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount (“AD 33 Saturday Afternoon About Tea-Time”).
It is 40 years since Monty Python’s Life of Brian was first released, to great acclaim, but also in the face of heated controversy over its alleged blasphemy, indecency and sacrilege. The film tells the tale of Brian Cohen (played by the late Graham Chapman) who is hailed as Saviour by a mob of credulous followers – in spite of his mother Mandy’s insistence that “He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!” – and ends up crucified by the Romans, singing ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ as the credits roll.
The film was banned or forced to carry an X (or 18+) certificate by 39 UK local authorities, denounced by the veteran Christian broadcaster Malcolm Muggeridge as “tenth-rate”, and picketed by the Nationwide Festival of Light.
As Cleese himself recalls, it was only the financial backing of George Harrison that enabled the movie to be made at all. “There wasn’t a studio in the US or the UK that would give us a measly $3,000,000 dollars – for a film recently voted best English comedy ever made. I don’t think there have ever been executives who knew what they were doing.”
All the same: the film did get made, and has gone on to enter comic folklore, a common cultural reference point that is endlessly quoted (“Blessed are the cheese-makers!”, “What have the Romans ever done for us?”, “Welease Woger!”). Four decades on, in an age of hair-trigger emotional outrage and easily-wounded religious sensibilities, one has to ask: would Life of Brian get the green light today? Have we, as Reg might grumble, become too meek?
Cleese believes that, on balance, “Life of Brian wouldn’t get made now”. What is certain is that the context has changed radically: the common law offence of blasphemy, long in disuse, was formally abolished in 2008. In its place, however, has arisen a culture of radically enhanced sensitivity, in which freedom of speech is at risk of losing its status as a fundamental civil right, and is increasingly regarded as a secondary consideration when weighed against the potential offence to protected minorities.
Group sensitivities compete with individual rights. Feelings threaten to trump freedoms. Yesterday’s legitimate remark is today’s career-ending “micro-aggression”. What US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously called, in 1919, “the free trade in ideas” has been challenged by the demand for “safe spaces”.
As it happens, the 40th anniversary of Life of Brian coincides with another landmark in the history of censorship: 30 years since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, revolutionary leader of Iran, pronounced a fatwa against Salman Rushdie, sentencing the novelist to death for the alleged blasphemies of his novel The Satanic Verses, forcing the writer to live in hiding and stay on the move for a decade.
A hugely complex, multi-layered exercise in “magic realism”, the novel includes a dream sequence in which the life of the Prophet Muhammad is re-imagined in the character of “Mahound”, who is subjected to a series of trials and temptations. The imagery of the book owes as much to Bollywood cinema as it does to Koranic doctrine. It is deliberately playful, sometimes confusing, stylistically audacious.
But literary subtlety was not the issue. The mobs that raged against The Satanic Verses were driven by Khomeini’s unambiguous instruction that “all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content are sentenced to death”. The book was burned at protests around the world. Its Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, was stabbed to death in 1991, while its Norwegian publisher, William Nygaard, narrowly survived an assassination attempt in 1993.
In recent years, Rushdie has often expressed his belief that The Satanic Verses – or any book like it – would not be published in today’s much more sensitive climate. It is not hard to see why he has drawn this depressing conclusion.
In 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten printed a series of cartoons of Muhammad, prompting attacks on western embassies and Christian churches around the world. A decade later, 12 staff members of Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine that had also published caricatures of Muhammad, were gunned down in their Parisian offices by Islamist terrorists.
The default position is now to pre-empt such horrors by erring on the side of caution. In May, the Saatchi Gallery in west London – an institution that has not shied away from controversy in the past – decided to cover up two paintings by the artist SKU that included the text of the shahada, one of the Five Pillars of Islam, alongside images of nude women. The gallery claimed that it “fully supported” free expression but had also taken into account “the perceived right not to be offended” – a frankly meaningless statement.
According to Andrew Copson, the chief executive of Humanists UK and author of Secularism: Politics, Religion, and Freedom, this wariness is now a structural problem. “There is a growing reticence to even risk giving offence on religious grounds. This may be part of a broader unwillingness to engage in debate as robustly as in past years, but in relation to religion I think it also has an additional, more specific cause. Because most religious people now are members of a religious minority and, in many cases, are also members of an ethnic minority, many people don’t want to ridicule or challenge the ideas they believe these people may have. In relation to Islam in particular, I think this arises from the soft racism of low expectations from well-meaning non-Muslims, who create a conspiracy of silence around any criticism of the religion. This has spilled over into an exaggerated respect for all religions.”
James Mildred, communications manager of the Christian charity CARE, agrees that a film such as Life of Brian would probably not be commissioned today – though he argues that the screenplay’s spectacular lack of political correctness (it spares nobody’s feelings) would probably count against it more than its alleged mockery of Christianity.
He also takes issue with the characterisation of all believers as cultural snowflakes: “Speaking as a Christian who was born well after the film was released, I can’t imagine getting as worked up by a similar film today. But then those who reacted to it back in ’79 were living at a time when the erosion of the UK’s Christian heritage was happening all about them, and no doubt felt more real. Today, millennial Christians in particular have grown up in a completely different context and therefore are not as sensitive, perhaps, on things like this as those of an older generation.”
Even so, Mildred says that Christians specifically would still welcome a measure of hesitancy among satirists – or at least a level playing field. “There is a general feeling that when it comes to satire, mockery and the like, Christianity is fair game in a way that is not true of other faiths.”
What makes this question socially complex is the extent to which the Rushdie Affair became entangled with growing anxiety of British Muslims that they were regarded as second-class citizens because of their religious convictions. As Sayeeda Warsi, the former Conservative Cabinet Minister, laments in her book The Enemy Within: “The seeds of distrust had been sown, and the fall-out set the Muslims on a journey of simmering resentment and a narrative of grievance.”
Fiyaz Mughal, founder of Tell MAMA, which monitors anti-Muslim incidents in the UK, and of Faith Matters, a counter-extremist interfaith organisation, argues that the Satanic Verses affair confronted British Muslims with a basic conceptual crisis.
“In the eyes of the wider public, this was a question of free speech and of the opportunity to debate faith. It was, in earnest, a clash of values, where people could critique any faith and do [so] openly, and with Muslim communities believing that religion could not be critiqued, especially theirs.”
Three decades on, Mughal continues, this sense of collective embattlement has been compounded. “One must understand that British Muslim communities have seen their ‘identity’ over the last three decades as being shaped by national and international events. So the first Gulf War [1990-91] was seen as an attack on Islam and Muslims, and promoted like that [by] Islamist and conservative elements of Muslim communities and, with each slight, the facts have become less relevant as Islam vs non-Muslim has been the narrative that has become interwoven.”
Though Mughal believes that no mainstream publisher would take on a novel like The Satanic Verses today, he suggests that there are distinctions to be drawn that could plot a way forward. “There is a clear difference between art that offends religious sensibilities and hate speech. Hate speech in law is clearly defined as being speech which inspires others to carry out criminal acts or which induces people to actively discriminate. Drawing a painting of Muhammad or even portraying him in unflattering means is not hate speech. It may be inflammatory, perverse and a piece of fictional art, but it is not illegal and criminal.”
But for that (accurate) distinction to have force, it has to be drawn in a hospitable context. Since the era of Life of Brian and The Satanic Verses, there has been a broad shift of priorities and perspectives that has relegated freedom of speech from its previous primacy in western political discourse.
Naturally, nobody wants to be seen as actively hostile to free expression; but the passion with which this particular liberty is defended has faded markedly. A Pew Research Center poll in 2015 found that 40 per cent of American millennials (aged 18-34 at the time) believed that “the government should be able to prevent people from saying offensive statements about minority groups” – a high level of support in the land of the First Amendment. No less striking was a 2016 survey of more than 4,000 people in the UK, in which 46 per cent said that there were “some things” you “should not be able to say about religion”.
The double anniversary of Life of Brian’s first release and the Rushdie fatwa should prompt some serious reflection: why do we care so much less in 2019 about the liberty once defended so passionately by philosophers from J.S. Mill to Ronald Dworkin, by polemicists from John Wilkes to Lenny Bruce, by left-wing radicals throughout the 20th Century who understood that all social rights depend upon a clear infrastructure of civil liberties?
It is easy to forget that the Monty Python team and Rushdie were writing against a dramatically different geopolitical backdrop: the Cold War, Apartheid in South Africa, the campaigns of Soviet bloc dissident leaders such as Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia, many of them gifted writers. The suppression of free speech was a clear and present danger, and its defence was a cause in whose service western liberals and conservatives could (and did) unite.
Today, the stakes seem much lower. The rise of identity politics – which ascribes greater importance to group membership than to individual rights – has been an emancipatory force, enabling marginalised communities to organise and intervene more effectively in the political process. But it has also eroded the primacy of free speech, and even surrounded a once-cherished freedom with the nasty whiff of white privilege.
As Jodie Ginsberg, chief executive of the magazine Index of Censorship, points out, it does not help that so many of those involved in contemporary free speech cases are far-right activists. Tommy Robinson, Milo Yiannopoulos and Alex Jones are among those who have been the target of campus protests or “de-platformed” from social media sites – and have subsequently postured as the victims of “politically correct” censorship.
“The co-opting of the language of liberalism and freedom of expression by the Far Right is one of my greatest concerns at present,” she says. “It is having a hugely damaging effect on freedom of expression because it sends the message that free speech is only for privileged white men, rather than a universal value that benefits all, and in particular minority and oppressed groups. It’s vital that progressives and liberals reclaim this value as being core to promoting tolerance and equal rights – not antithetical to it. We need to be pushing harder for organisations like Index to be the voice of freedom of expression rather than allowing paid-for controversialists on the right becoming free speech’s de facto spokespeople.”
This is the heart of the matter. If free speech has faded as a public priority, it is partly because there are not enough liberal campaigners like Ginsberg who are relentlessly determined to see it defended and championed. “We are still plagued by a lack of understanding about what needs to be done to protect and promote freedom of expression,” she says. “When people say they are in favour of it, they often mean that they are in favour of speech they support. And that also means we have a tendency to reach for censorship and suppression as a solution.”
The most dangerous assumption made by those who now call so glibly for constraints upon “offensive” speech is that the measures taken will always match their value-system; that only the people they see as the bad guys will be silenced, and everything will be nice.
But the cliché applies here: be careful what you wish for. To realise how untameable a force censorship can be, one only has to look at, say, the crackdown on socialist academics that followed the election of the populist right-wing President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro; or the warning issued to students at the University of Reading last year to be careful when reading an essay by the radical scholar Norman Geras on the ethics of revolution, which had been flagged by the counter-terrorist programme Prevent as “sensitive”.
Once the supreme importance of free speech has been forgotten, it cannot be restored as a matter of convenience. As the great Frederick Douglass understood in his fight against slavery, freedom of expression is the ultimate guarantor of the rights of minorities and the oppressed.
“Liberty is meaningless,” he said in 1860, “where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist. That, of all rights, is the dread of tyrants. It is the right which they first of all strike down. They know its power.”
As so often, there is wisdom to be found in the comic genius of Monty Python. As the non-messiah Brian tells his deluded followers: “You’ve got it all wrong. You don’t need to follow me. You don’t need to follow anybody. You’ve got to think for yourselves.” Rarely has this precious principle of western civilisation – free thought – seemed so fragile and neglected; and that is no laughing matter.
All Photographs by Getty Images/Alamy