Twenty years ago, in February of 1989, Salman Rushdie began a life of hiding that would last almost a decade. After the publication of Rushdie’s brilliant novel The Satanic Verses, the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa ordering all true Muslims to kill him. Last November I met the great author in Miami and was pleased to see him alive and in good spirits. His place among the greatest minds of our time is undisputed, but for almost 10 years we came dangerously close to losing him.
And yet the people willing to condemn him for allegedly insulting Islam abound. Religion deserves respect, we are told, and criticism of it is invariably perceived as an assault on the right to religious belief. The price of religious tolerance quickly becomes the intolerance of freedom, for the simple fact that certain religious values – whether Christian, Islamic or otherwise – are in opposition to the values of a liberal democracy. According to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the brave Muslim dissident whose life has been threatened countless times, female genital mutilation is practiced in over 30 countries. Are secular democratic nations somehow supposed to accept this ritual in the name of religious tolerance?
Take a less extreme and more familiar example. In the United States, right-wing Christian organizations such as the Family Research Council have fought quite successfully against mandatory vaccination against human papillomavirus in young girls on the grounds that it might encourage sexual promiscuity. Religious conviction thus gets in the way of public health; cervical cancer, the risk of which the HPV vaccine can lower considerably, is currently one of the major causes of death from cancer among women across the globe.
If I seem to focus somewhat on the influence of religious beliefs on women, it is because this problematic relationship remains, to me at least, one of most objectionable issues of mainstream religious belief. You don’t have to delve deep into either the Bible or the Qu’ran to encounter blatant examples of misogyny, particularly when it comes to issues of female sexuality which, as ever, elicit suspicious (and violent) male distrust.
Should I respect religion? I am inclined to say no on the grounds that religion doesn’t respect me either. On the other hand, religious belief is an inalienable right in the same way that disbelief is, and that is something I will always respect and defend without hesitation. What I refuse to respect is the heavy machinery of organized religion that continues to threaten the openness of secular democratic values (and thereby other religions, too). Open-armed tolerance of religious rituals and beliefs is a far more problematic and complex issue than people are willing to admit. The cost of this ignorance could be far greater than we realize.