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From 'The Trial Of The Man Who Said He Was God'

by Douglas Harding

Prologue

My name is John a-Nokes, Jack to my friends.

The year is 2003 CE. Or, as I prefer to put it, 2003 AD.

I’m writing this in a prison cell, while I await the outcome of my Trial for the capital offence of BEING WHO I AM. OF BEING MYSELF, instead of what people tell me I am.

Of course that’s not the official name of the crime I was charged with. Far from it! No, I was charged with blasphemy under the Blasphemy Act of 2002. Blasphemy, if you please! In fact, all I did was stop pretending I was someone else. I dared to start all over again and look at myself for myself – at what it’s like being me. And to enthuse about my altogether unexpected findings – findings that (as you will presently see) were at least as sobering as they were exalting, sometimes hilarious, often beautiful and always practical. And not so hard to live by as you might think.

If that’s blasphemy, I’ll be damned! If that’s blasphemy, God help us all!

This cell isn’t the ideal writer’s study, but it will do. The chair I’m sitting on is chair-shaped; the numbing effect no doubt arises from the fact that it’s made of and upholstered with case-hardened cast iron. The table I’m sitting at is sufficiently supplied with mole-grey recycled writing-paper and ball-point pens that write as if they too have been recycled. The view from here is of an interestingly crazed WC pan and a cracked wash-basin set against shining grey graffiti-proof tile walls. High in the wall ahead is a window more heavily barred than it need be, seeing that only a ten-foot prisoner could possibly reach it; and certainly smaller than it should be, seeing that the light it admits seems to have been filtered through grey flannel underwear. The smell, which is of that underwear repeatedly but insufficiently dosed with disinfectant, leaves me gasping occasionally like a stranded but resigned trout.

I’m filling in the time by writing up this account of the Trial, based on the notes I made in the course of it and my present recollection of what happened. Though I shall be doing my best to be truthful, and in particular to be fair to the case for the Prosecution, I can’t pretend to perfect impartiality. How could I? Heretics take a dim view of their inquisitors. In any event, this is not going to be a verbatim account of the proceedings, but (let’s say) a fairly detailed record of my impressions – a layman’s impressions, because I’m no lawyer. Much of the inconsequential to-and-fro between the parties will be left out. It’s possible, of course, that there were things of substance said that I don’t remember because I wish to forget them.

What I can promise you, my Reader (I’ve reason to hope that these pages will be got out of here and find their way to those they are meant for), is that you will get a clear picture of what I’m up to and why, and will be well able to decide for yourself whether or not I’m guilty as charged. In fact, I hereby warn you that my aim is conspiratorial: it isn’t so much to defend myself (it’s a bit late for that) as to involve you in the criminal adventure which led to my arrest and trial. If I can win you over to my side in this affair, I shall be satisfied. And all the more so if, less rash and vociferous than I am, you’re able to keep your nose fairly clean – I mean, stay sufficiently quiet about your discoveries – and so avoid arrest and prosecution, with the risk of a death sentence

Yes, you do run a certain risk in reading this book. If this worries you, read no more, but pass it on to a friend who doesn’t mind living dangerously. Living dangerously (I should add) for the sake of the Ultimate Safety.

Before getting down to the Trial itself you will need to be reminded of its historical background, of what led up to it.

The history of the social upheavals that gave rise to the passing of the Blasphemy Act of 2002 CE is too complicated to go into at all thoroughly here; to summarize will do. They began with the death sentence pronounced on Salman Rushdie by the Ayatollah, and the notorious outcome of that international scandal. They built up to the Fundamentalist Disturbances of 1999-2000, when a newspaper cartoonist, a popular comedian and a modernist bishop were kidnapped and burned at the stake for ridiculing the Second Coming of Christ promised (as millions believed) for 1 January 2000. They culminated in the widespread communal riots of the year 2001 in which hundreds died in Great Britain alone – many of them subjected to the farce of trial by kangaroo courts set up by sects claiming to represent the heart and soul of one or another of the great Western religions, and dedicated to rooting out blasphemy whatever the cost. After which, Parliament decided that the lesser evil would be to institute special courts to try charges of blasphemy in accordance with the law of the land. And so the old common law was updated and made statute law and given teeth. Teeth – following the reintroduction of the death penalty at the turn of the century – that could kill.

The new anti-blasphemy legislation of the year 2002 has been widely condemned as servile surrender to bigotry and superstition, and as a very serious curtailment of human rights. Many have talked of a revival of the Holy Inquisition. But at least it has, so far and touch wood, done something to calm the more excitable zealots and dissuade them from taking the law into their own hands. The large and growing ‘conscience drain’ (dubbed the ‘blasphemy sewer’ by certain fundamentalists) from the West to the Far East – where the concept of blasphemy is little understood – is reckoned a small price to pay for ending what had begun to look like civil war.

Why (you may well ask) this upsurge of religious fanaticism, throughout the Western world, at the very time when political fanaticism seems to be abating? Is it that people must have a scapegoat to vent their guilt on, or a bête noire to vent their anger on, no matter how unjustified by the facts? A plausible explanation, but not one that’s easy to test. And not one to give any satisfaction or guidance to a government desperate to contain and reduce fundamentalist violence.

And certainly not one to give any comfort to me, at the receiving end of the violence.

As for the provisions of the Blasphemy Act – a long-winded document drafted in standard legal jargon – a note of some of the main points will be enough for our purpose here.

The Act is directed against anyone who disturbs public order by giving offence to religious communities, no matter what medium is used. It may be by means of the printed word or in public meetings or TV and radio broadcasts, or simply by going around and buttonholing strangers and stirring them up. Privately held opinions, expressed in the family and among friends and in peaceable meetings of scholars or like-minded persons, don’t come under the Act. Nor does the occasional and accidental outburst: the offence must be sustained. Blasphemy is defined as the use in public of insulting words and behaviour aimed at any Being or Person or Object whatsoever that’s held to be sacred by an appreciable number of the population. Notably it includes claiming to be one or another of the sacred Entities, but just about any behaviour that gravely upsets their devotees and worshippers is treated as criminal. In fact, it’s difficult to see how anyone who isn’t spiritually moribund could remain, all through his or her life, perfectly innocent of this offence. There’s a good deal of agreement that the Act, as a result of having been drafted in haste and passed in panic, is exceptionally vague and hard to implement. And, what’s much worse, that it’s a bad case of the very disease it aims to treat – the disease of heresy-hunting carried to the point of terrorism. You, my Reader, will soon be well placed for checking how far these criticisms are justified.

Four or five much-publicized arrests have been made, and preparations for the trials of the alleged offenders have reached various stages. My own case is the first to be heard under the Act – which makes it the test case, calculated to bring to light (if doing little to solve) the problems of what promises to be a new and deplorable chapter in the history of jurisprudence. For this reason – and perhaps also because I conducted my own Defence in a way unheard of in the courts – it has become known to the press as the Great Blasphemy Trial. Ignorance of how to behave myself wasn’t bliss, and I’m not sure how it went down with the Jury, but it helped me to extract what entertainment I could from all that pomp and circumstance.

Anyway, it follows from the provisions of the Act, and the special nature of the crime it’s concerned with, that customs which have become sacrosanct in criminal trials can’t be followed here. New and looser procedures are being developed and tried out. Thus in my own Trial the Prosecution was given a remarkably free hand, and the rules about what is and what isn’t admissible evidence were much relaxed. Hearsay, and the opinions of non-expert witnesses, were to a large degree permitted by the Judge. So was the leading of witnesses. Throughout, Counsel and I frequently found ourselves addressing each other directly, in a brisk ding-dong – a gross irregularity which the judge was (apparently) quite happy about.

As a gesture of even-handedness, the Judge made two concessions to the Defence. The first arose from the large number of witnesses called by the Prosecution and the varied nature of their evidence. It was ruled that I should be free to defend myself against each witness’s testimony in turn, as soon as it was given – the reason being that, if my Defence were left to the end, the Jury (and I) would have forgotten what it was all about. Thus I was able to contest the Prosecution’s arguments as they came up and were fresh in all our minds. Counsel for the Crown agreed to this arrangement on the condition that he could at any time (within reason) interrupt my Defence in order to point out its weaknesses to the Jury.

The second concession arose from the difficulty that my witnesses, though far outnumbering the Prosecution’s and far out weighing them in prestige, couldn’t be subpoenaed to appear in court. The difficulty was that they were dead. Fortunately so, let me add: if they had been around and saying now what I’m quoting them as having said, many would have exposed themselves to prosecution under the Act. All the more reason for seeking leave to cite in my Defence the recorded testimony of these people who, though dead, were (say I) among the best that ever lived; and who, in a sense, live on, more alive than ever. Quite reasonably, the Prosecution objected that their so-called evidence was inadmissible, seeing that they couldn’t be sworn and examined and cross-examined, and moreover seeing that (as everyone knows) the sayings attributed to the famous are often garbled and occasionally spurious. After some argument the Judge ruled that such material might, with discretion, be produced in court, but only as illustrations for giving shape and colour to my case and by no means as testimony for proving it. I expressed my satisfaction, inasmuch as I never dreamed of founding my case on what these or any other pundits say, but upon the experiments and practical demonstrations (helped out by visual aids) which test what they say. I pointed out to the Judge that it wasn’t belief but doubt – my daring to question dogmas and assumptions that are rarely challenged – that had landed me in the dock. My unbridled scepticism is what some of my critics call it. They’re about right.

The visual aids consisted of diagrams and sketches I had made in advance – for clarifying my case in detail – bound together in a booklet with a mirror mounted on the cover. The Judge, the Jury members and the Prosecution lawyers were each furnished with a copy. The importance of its role in the Defence can scarcely be exaggerated. I’m obliged to the authorities for their co-operation in the preparation of the booklet, and its use throughout the Trial.

The overall effect of these legal irregularities and concessions was to turn the court – Court One in London’s New Bailey – into something like a superior debating-chamber, tricked out with all the pageantry of the law. A debating-chamber which nevertheless retained full powers of determining guilt and passing the severest of sentences.

The ultimate penalty prescribed by the Act is death – death by beheading, of course, since the reintroduction of the death penalty. The sentence may, however, be reduced to imprisonment and fine if the offender publicly recants and apologizes to the outraged parties, in terms and circumstances to be decided by the Judge. The impression one is left with is that the last thing the politicians who brought in the Act wanted was a line of martyrs whose bleeding but haloed heads could be laid at their door.

Two or three more points before we get down to business.

A thing that puzzled me at the time, and may well puzzle you as you read on, is what I can only call the patchy and enigmatical performance of Sir Gerald Wilberforce, the Crown Counsel. He has a reputation for knowledge in fields that top lawyers rarely have time to cultivate, and for skill in applying it. No doubt that’s why he was chosen to prosecute. His versatility did indeed come out in the Trial. But so, mysteriously, did lost opportunities to press and follow through points that emerged to the Prosecution’s advantage, or to the Defence’s discomfiture. Not infrequently, he seemed to play into my hands. Again, though he generally put up the obligatory show of forensic vigour and aggression (and sometimes overdid it), there were occasions when he seemed to stray from his brief – to the extent of forgetting his role and the terms of the charge against me. At such times he slipped into the urbane and discursive polemic of the lecture theatre, instead of sticking to the tighter polemic of the lawcourt. It was as if Sir Gerald wasn’t sure whether he was wearing his doctoral hood or his tie-wig. The question remains: was his peculiarly mixed performance incidental; or was it deliberate, arising from a secret brief behind his brief?

The other thing that puzzled me is the trouble the Prosecution took to call witness upon witness till there were twenty-seven of them, when it could have made its case with half that number. If it had known in advance how vulnerable many of them were to prove, it would no doubt have reduced them to a carefully selected dozen. But it’s easy to be wise after a Trial without precedent. And having, of course, supplied the Defence in advance with abstracts of the testimonies of all twenty-seven, the Prosecution was committed to calling most if not all of them. Nevertheless we’re left with the question: why so many in the first place? And again the bigger question: what was the Prosecution really up to?

Even now I’m not at all sure of the answer to these two conundrums. But whatever it is, I think it belongs at the end of this write-up of the proceedings. By then, your guess will be as good as mine.

"Nobody can be said to have attained to the pinnacle of truth until a thousand sincere people have denounced him for blasphemy." Anthony de Mello, SJ.

"All great truths begin as blasphemies." George Bernard Shaw.

(The Trial Of The Man Who Said He Was God was first published in 1992.)

(All books presented in our Book Extracts are available via Amazon or our website shop.)
George Bernard Shaw

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