18th century English author had called for writers attacking religion to be punished

In a delicious irony, Salman Rushdie’s new book Joseph Anton, an account of his life on the run from free-speech haters, has been longlisted for a prize named after a staunch defender of censorship.

Rushdie is among the 14 writers who figure on the longlist of Britain’s most prestigious non-fiction award, the £25,000 Samuel Johnson Prize, named after the great 18th century English writer and critic, who famously called for writers to be “punished for attacking religion,” arguing that “no member of society has the right to teach any doctrine contrary to what society holds to be true.”

The announcement of the longlist, which also includes Katherine Boo’s widely acclaimed book on the slums of Mumbai — Behind the Beautiful Forevers — prompted critics to recall what “Dr. Johnson” said on free speech and thought.

He wrote: “…if every dreamer of innovations may propagate his projects, there can be no settlement; if every murmurer at government may diffuse discontent, there can be no peace; and if every sceptic in theology may teach his follies, there can be no religion. The remedy against these evils is to punish the authors.”

The chair of judges, David Willetts, who is also the Minister for Universities and Science, rejected suggestions that the current furore on an American anti-Islam film may have influenced the panel’s decision to pick up Rushdie’s book.

“It would be wrong to be swayed in either direction. Joseph Anton was subject to similar standards,” he said.

The prize is funded by an anonymous sponsor.

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