The Pleasures of Pluralism, the Pain of Offence

Kenan Malik in Pandaemonium:

BehudAlmost twenty years ago, in 1994, the Independent newspaper asked me to write an essay on Tom Paine, the eighteenth-century English revolutionary. It was the 200thanniversary of his masterpiece, The Age of Reason, a book of which Paine said that it was a ‘march through Christianity with an axe’. ‘All national institutions of churches’, wrote Paine, ‘whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to be no more than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolise power and profit.’

Few authors have so punctured the pretensions of organised religion or so savaged the claims of divine revelation as Paine. Fewer still have faced such ridicule and vilification for doing so. In England The Age of Reason was suppressed for decades and successive publishers imprisoned for blasphemy. Anyone who distributed, read or discussed the book faced prosecution. Some were arrested for simply displaying the portrait of the author. In America, where hitherto Paine had been feted as a hero for his unwavering support for independence, newspapers denounced him as a ‘lily-livered sinical [sic] rogue’ and ‘a demihuman archbeast’. The Age of Reason, as I observed in my Independent essay, became ‘The Satanic Verses of its day’. And, given that comparison, I thought it reasonable to open the essay with a quote from Salman Rushdie’s novel, satirising the divine origins of the Qur’an.

The Independent thought otherwise. There was consternation in the editorial offices when I filed my piece. Eventually one of the editors phoned me to say that I could not use the quote from The Satanic Verses because it was deemed too offensive. No amount of logic or reasoning could persuade her otherwise. The irony of having been commissioned to write an essay on Tom Paine, the greatest freethinker of his age, and then being banned from quoting from a freely available book, seemed to escape the Independent editors.

More here.