A Brief History of Blasphemy  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

A Brief History of Blasphemy: Liberalism, Censorship and the Satanic Verses is a 1990 book by Richard Webster that discusses the controversy over Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses. Webster critiqued the freedom to blaspheme, and argued against The Crime of Blasphemy (which advocated the abolition of Britain's blasphemy laws "without replacement"). The laws were repealed in 2008, when MPs voted to support the abolition of blasphemy in an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill.


While condemning the Ayatollah Khomeini's threats against Rushdie, Webster also tries to explain the hurt The Satanic Verses caused Muslims and argues that we should not arbitrarily defend the liberty to publish books that may cause distress to minorities or increase racial tension. Webster notes that he named the book after the fourth section of The Crime of Blasphemy, a pamphlet issued by the International Committee for the Defence of Salman Rushdie and his Publishers, and that his work is influenced by Karen Armstrong's Holy War (1988) and Norman Cohn's books The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957), Warrant for Genocide (1967), and Europe's Inner Demons (1975). He also approvingly cites Muslim writer Shabbir Akhtar's Be Careful With Muhammad! (1989).

Webster described A Brief History of Blasphemy as "an attempt to show, without ever aspiring to completeness or comprehensiveness, that the picture of blasphemy which is presented by the authors of International Committee's document is incomplete, and in some respects, seriously misleading." Webster gives the controversy surrounding Monty Python's film The Life of Brian (1979), which he calls "a rather slight production" as a satire on religion, as an example of the way in which blasphemy has been restrained not by force of law but by internalised censorship.

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