Extra Credit

Extra Credit

Voltaire famously said: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

Prof. Christopher Kelly (Political Science)
Today, a play some consider the 18th-century French satirist's best likely would not be presented for fear of repercussions from offended Muslims, says Prof. Christopher Kelly (Political Science).

In 1994, Kelly notes, a performance in Geneva of Voltaire's 1741 tragedy "Mahomet, or Fanaticism," which depicts the prophet of Islam as a Machiavellian imposter, was canceled in the face of blasphemy complaints and thinly-veiled threats from Muslim activists.

"The same sort of difficulties would be faced today," said Kelly. "Anyone staging it would have to decide whether to run those risks, and few would be willing to."

Has Voltaire, Enlightenment free-thinker, posthumously been accorded the Salman Rushdie treatment? "I think with respect to this play," said Kelly, who said the play is widely considered among Voltaire's best.

Kelly is an editor of the Collected Works of Rousseau, whose reaction to Enlightenment contemporary Voltaire's play "Mahomet" was the subject of a paper Kelly delivered at a Rousseau Association conference at Oxford this summer.

In the tragedy, Mahomet kidnaps the children of a major rival and raises them to be fanatics. One is induced to murder Mahomet's political opponent, who is, in fact, the boy's father. The boy's name, Seide, has come to be used in French as a term for a slavish follower, Kelly said.

Ironically, "Mahomet" was meant to be taken as a criticism of Christian religious fanaticism closer to home, and so it was: When the play reached Paris in 1742, Jansenists on the Catholic Right urged authorities to close the show. (In this, the Jansenists were "more Catholic than the Pope," Benedict XIV, who praised the play and even had the work dedicated to him by its notably anti-clerical author.)

Rousseau criticized "Mahomet" as more likely to incite than dissuade religious fanatics, said Kelly, whose presentation noted the latter-day controversy surrounding the play.

"Voltaire presents religious fanaticism as a tool used by hypocritical leaders for their own agendas, and as a result, bringing about these horrible crimes," he said. "The polemical goal of the play is to attack fanaticism.

"Voltaire thought fanatics most likely to be impressionable young men in their late teens or 20s. He aimed to expose their leaders as power-hungry hypocrites using them.

"When you think of suicide bombers or the 9/11 hijackers, they do, by and large, fit the description."

Thus the 21st century is mirrored by the 18th: "For a long time, people thought the Enlightenment had settled these issues," he said. "Now they arise again."

-Mark Sullivan


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