This week the theatrical world, and the arts world more generally, has been up in arms. You might think this happens quite a lot, arts people being fairly passionate folk. But it isn't every week that fully 700 people - many of them very eminent - put their names to a letter to a national newspaper protesting about the cancellation of a play that has offended a number of Sikhs. Well, I'm with them. Freedom of speech is not a decorative amenity in a liberal democracy. It's fundamental to its structure. Without it, other rights and freedoms are effectively empty, because they cannot be asserted, and still less defended, when free speech is forbidden.
So far, so conventionally liberal. But things are changing. The increasing assertiveness of religions in recent years is prompting a crisis. Under the generic cloak of claiming to be "offended" by whatever they do not like, religious conservatives and fundamentalists seek, with increasing insistence, to silence others and to impose on society not merely tolerance of their own preferences but actual solicitude. Thus, Britain is being asked to become a place where no criticism or challenge can be offered to any religion, whether or not we agree with its treatment of women, its practice of female circumcision, its intolerance towards the liberal attitudes of the majority, or its tendentious and sectarian education of children.
At the extreme, devotees have countered "offence" against their religion by committing mass murder, as in the 11 September 2001 atrocities, and individual murder, as of Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands. The former was an expression of hatred towards a system, and the country that most exemplifies it, that many Muslims find threatening to their traditional values. The latter was an act of censorship designed to frighten people into not criticising Islam.
Theo van Gogh's murder has dramatically changed attitudes in the Netherlands, once Europe's most tolerant liberal polity, but now no longer prepared to remain inactive in the face of the threat that liberal societies always, by their very nature, invite: the tolerated rise of the intolerant, who then attack the very freedom that has allowed them to reach their point of strength.
The forced censorship of the play Behzti by parts of Birmingham's Sikh community might be Britain's Van Gogh moment. Britain's Sikhs have hitherto been considered a moderate group, but they have been dismayingly proved by this affair to contain members who are very much otherwise. Some of these latter have even issued death threats to the playwright and to a theatre producer. Put this affair into the pot with the Van Gogh murder, the tensions in France's Islamic community, the renewed power of religious conservatism in the US, the influence exercised over the Church of England by evangelical Nigerian bishops, and the picture becomes one of accumulating threat to the liberal freedoms that underpin the modern West.
The frontal assault by Birmingham's Sikhs on free speech happens at a specially unpropitious time in Britain. Not only are religious groups more militantly assertive, but the government is busily engaged in the very reverse of shoring up our civil liberties. Instead of strengthening the protection of free speech, it is making "incitement to religious hatred" a crime. Instead of defending Article 10 in the Human Rights Bill according the right of free speech to the Behzti author and the Birmingham theatre, it is calling those who oppose identity cards "woolly liberals". (These being the people who, during the past two centuries, extended the franchise, built libraries, introduced universal schooling, fought for women's and workers' rights - and thereby made it possible for most of this government's ministers to get what they would not have got in 1804, namely an education and a seat in parliament. The irony is a rich one.)
Religion is never going to go away, much as one would wish that rationality and sanity would dawn upon humankind and free it from what in my opinion is the distorting oppression of ancient superstitions. Credulity is easier than inquiry, and the majority wish to be told what to believe and how to act. Given these stubborn facts, the question is: how can we protect free speech against the insistent and sometimes murderous encroachments of those who wish everyone to believe, speak and act in one limited way - their way?
The first step is to remind the silent - and too often supine - majority that the liberties they take for granted were hard won. From the Reformation to the present, the story of the West has been one of a series of liberation struggles: first against the hegemony of the church, then against absolute monarchy, then against slavery, then against the exploitation of women and working people, and simultaneously against political disenfranchisement and illiteracy.
Out of these titanic endeavours came the modern liberal democracies of the West, and their crowning achievement has been to describe their fundamental principles in terms of human rights and the rule of law. It is these foundation stones that are being undermined by the threat, posed by militant religionists, to free speech - the most fundamental of these fundamental principles.
Opposition to the West's progress towards its liberties has never been absent; the Counter-Reformation and the counter-Enlightenment exist today in the form of those who believe that there is a single right answer to everything, an answer that must be enforced even at gunpoint if necessary. Their ranks included Nazism and Stalinism in the 20th century, both premised on a rejection of the Enlighten- ment principles of democracy and individual liberty; but religion is a far older and more pervasive opponent, which achieves a more powerful psychological hold over adherents because it feeds on credulities, needs and fears, rather than on political abstractions or economic theories.
If reminding the majority of these facts is the first step in defending free speech, the second is vigorously to reassert the connected values of secularism and pluralism. "Secularism" means the independence of public affairs from religion. It is not anti-religion; on the contrary, it allows all religions to flourish so long as they do so responsibly, exercising the tolerance towards others that they wish for themselves. "Pluralism" means the recognition by everyone that there are different points of view, and that it is wholly unacceptable to interfere with anyone's right to speak, live and believe - consistently with the same rights of others - as they choose.
The Sikhs of Birmingham have every right to protest at Behzti, and to answer whatever charges it implicitly lays against them, but they have no right to silence it, or to prevent others from hearing what it has to say. Being "offended" by the attitudes or actions of others is not an excuse for silencing them. (This applies to obscenity and pornography, too.) It happens that I am profoundly offended by what religion leads some people to do, but I do not seek to force silence on religion, still less by shooting religionists. The proper response is to answer them.
Secularism, pluralism and a strengthened statutory defence of free speech - this last seriously meant, to imply that it should be a crime to prevent free speech in the way that some of Birmingham's Sikhs did - is what is needed now that the relationship between religion and Western liberal values is in crisis. A strong stand by both government and the public majority is required before we have our own Theo van Gogh to mourn on the streets of Birmingham or another British city.
AC Grayling is reader in philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of LondonReuse content