Once, blasphemy was damning the faithful’s gods and sacred books. Now, criticism of the world’s largest dictatorship has become sacrilegious. You shouldn’t be surprised. As some of us tried to say in the 1990s and 2000s, the gap between the sacred and the profane was never as wide as religious sentimentalists and liberal multiculturalists believed.
They went along with the argument that it was bad taste at best and racism at worst to offend believers. You were “punching down” at largely poor and largely Muslim communities. We thought they were being wilfully blind. They did not understand how men with real power and malice were manipulating religious outrage to consolidate their rule over their wretched population. Iran issued a death sentence on Salman Rushdie in 1989 for satirising Islam’s foundation myths in The Satanic Verses. Its theocratic dictator, Ayatollah Khomeini, was augmenting his powers by claiming to speak for the Muslim world, as well as taking aim at novelists. When the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published largely innocuous cartoons of Muhammad in 2005, to assert the right to mock religion, the Egyptian and Syrian dictators, Hosni Mubarak and Bashar al-Assad, turned a local argument into a global campaign against Denmark. The cries of rage usefully distracted from their corruption and misrule. I could add further examples but they tell the same story. Authoritarian politics and authoritarian religion are just two sides of the same debased coin.
China has stripped away the religious justifications to reveal what was once half-hidden: unadorned and unstoppable power. In many countries, criticising China is the new blasphemy. Nowhere can you see the power more nakedly displayed than in Muslim-majority regimes. Once, they tried to murder blasphemous novelists and screamed about their desire to defend the prophet from the smallest insult. Today, they bend their knees and bite their tongues as China engages in unspeakable atrocities against the largely Muslim Uighur population of western China.
One of the great crimes of the 21st century is being committed in front of our eyes. We see it, yet we don’t register it. The Chinese Communist party is reverting to type, and reviving the totalitarian fear of the Mao era. To bring down numbers of the largely Muslim Uighurs of Xinjiang, the China scholar Adrian Zenz reports, the Communists are forcing women to be sterilised or fitted with contraceptive devices. If they resist, the state sends them to join the one million Uighur people and other Muslim minorities detained in what the state defines as “re-education” camps. A BBC investigation found that China was separating children from their families so they grew up without understanding Islam.
Countries that could not tolerate Rushdie’s magical realist novel can live with the mass sterilisation of Muslim women
It may be a cheap point but it remains true that if a western country were to display one-tenth, one-hundredth or one-thousandth of the brutality that China is inflicting on Muslims, the global left would be burning with outrage.
Suggested reading by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times