Monday, 24 September 2007

Voltaire upsets Muslims

The latest Muslim blasphemy story comes from Bangladesh, where a cartoonist was arrested after riots erupted over a cartoon featuring a cat named Mohammed. But these stories, though increasingly (and tiresomely) common, didn't start with Salman Rushdie. Here's a footnote from Chapter 50 of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire which the Heresiarch discovered recently:

"After the conquest of Mecca, the Mahomet of Voltaire imagines and perpetrates the most horrid crimes. The poet confesses that he is not supported by the truth of history, and can only allege, que celui qui fait la guerre à sa patrie au nom de Dieu est capable de tout [anyone who makes war in the name of God is capable of anything]. The maxim is neither charitable nor philosophic; and some reverence is surely due to the fame of heroes and the religion of nations. I am informed that the Turkish ambassador at Paris was much scandalised at the representation of this tragedy."

Personally, I'm with Voltaire. But it's striking just how similar this story is to the current controversy. On the one hand there's the French secularist claiming his right to artistic criticism of religion. On the other, the English liberal intellectual more worried about showing "respect". Interesting, though, that the reaction seems to have been confined to a diplomatic protest. They were so much more civilised in the 18th century.

Ironically, Voltaire's play was banned shortly after its first performance in 1742; not because of the ambassador's protest, but because the French censors viewed it as a veiled attack on Catholicism (which of course it was). Today, by contrast, a play about Catholicism might end up being banned if it appeared to contained a veiled attack on Islam!