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14/02/2006

The right to blaspheme

Eleven French writers demand the right to poke fun wherever and whenever they want.

At the time of "The Satanic Verses" when the fatwa was pronounced on a famous author, here and there on the radio and television, at dinners and between the lines of editorials, fine minds were asking whether it was a good book. Other, more blunt ones, were already talking about provocation.

Today we are asked to consider whether the cartoons of a prophet published in a Danish paper five months ago are in fact any good. One is tempted to say the cartoons and the question of their artistic value are hardly worth considering at all. We are told they are stirring up hatred. Here too we would like to say that hatred is neither in our values nor in our hearts. And how can we be responsible for stirring up hatred in others, when hatred is a spontaneously combustible fuel?

Those older than us will no doubt be feeling a strong sense of deja-vu. It seems that for the fine minds at the time of the Munich Agreement, the German people were not to be humiliated at any cost, to save the pride of this grand nation which had suffered ever since its defeat in 1918, etc. This was a strange way of showing our consideration for our German friends, by leaving them in the hands of a power that would oppress them, lead them into endless wars, make them stoop to ignoble acts and, adding insult to injury, demonise them and literally split their country in two, for the Devil divides.

We are asked to make an aesthetic, moral and sentimental judgement on a matter that goes to the heart of the basic principles of our democracies. The right of men and women to live freely is not the credo of religions, and it will never be.

What is at stake is not just being free to make mistakes. The truth is that we are free to commit blasphemy. There is something rather disconcerting about having to remind people in France in 2006 that we have the right to commit blasphemy, that picking on the parish priest has long been a national sport.

Nowadays we hear the question "Have you seen them?", just like we used to hear "Have you read it?" about Rushdie's book. But regardless if we have seen them or not, nothing can justify the mix of outraged reactions by those sincerely hurt, by politicians only too happy with this windfall and by new prophets holding out the menace, and the promise, of war. When the president of the Mouvement contre le racisme et pour l'amitié pour les peuples decides to press charges against the papers guilty of complicity with the blasphemers on the pretext that the cartoons are "anti-Muslim racism", we ask: what race are we talking about? Is Islam genetically transmittable? What do the hundreds of thousands of immigrant men and women think about this, those who once again are identified with a religion they very often do not even practice?

We are not to be duped: on the one hand we have cartoons which went totally unnoticed almost six months ago, and on the other we have ultra-religious parties which win the elections in Palestine and the threat from Iran (how to judge the Iranian provocation? As useful? As useless?)

We are writers. We come from different horizons and have different origins. We belong to different social groups and religious heritages. We have singular destinies, individual convictions and – yes – sexual preferences.

It is difficult not to see that in the war now being waged by the Christian fanatics in America and the Muslim fanatics in the Middle East, the anger and the frustration will fall upon the moderate lay countries.

Soon, in France like in Denmark, the liberty to publish will be denied us in the name of respect for this or that god. If we give in, the libraries will be burned that house Voltaire, Sade, Ovid, Omar Khayyam, Proust and all the rest. And there is no doubt that the popes, the grand rabbis and the grand muftis will all be there to dance at this grand auto-da-fé.

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Salim Bachi, Jean-Yves Cendrey, Didier Daeninckx, Paula Jacques, Pierre Jourde, Jean-Marie Laclaventine, Gilles Leroy, Marie NDiaye, Daniel Pennac, Patrick Raynal, Boualem Sansal.

The letter was originally published in French in Le Monde on February 13, 2006. It was published in German in Perlentaucher.

Translation: jab.
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