So close to the answer

Thanks to a post at Burningbird – and in particular some thoughtful comments from Yule Heibel – I saw the Danish cartoons today. I won’t say I was shocked, but I was surprised. If offensiveness has anything to do with intention to offend, these are strikingly inoffensive images. Certainly the widespread comparison with hate speech, and with cartoons used as hate propaganda, doesn’t hold up for a second. The images have been seen as offensive because they’re portrayals of Mohammed, and because they’re critical of Islam: it’s an explosive and provocative combination, which probably shouldn’t have been attempted. (Although not because of the ‘predictable’ violent reaction – which I persist in regarding as entirely unpredictable, and entirely the fault of the people who were directly responsible.)

That said, I don’t think there’s a case for censorship, even in the case of irresponsible provocations (or rather, especially in that case – hard cases make bad law). I don’t think it’s acceptable that the Muslim community should have a veto over portrayals of Mohammed, any more than that Christians should be able to have ‘blasphemy’ banned. As for the political content of the cartoons, I think that the questions they ask about Islam can be asked reasonably and without racist intent. Is the subjugation of women justified by reference to Islam? Is suicide bombing? Is violence against apostates and blasphemers? Or violence against non-Muslims who commit what would be blasphemy if they were Muslims, e.g. Danish cartoonists? And, if the answer in practice is Yes (as it clearly is in the case of question 4), does this say anything about Islam as a body of doctrine and practice? Are these beliefs aberrations from the mainstream of Islam – like professed Christians supporting the death penalty – and if so how are they justified in terms of Islam? These are troubling questions, but they’re open questions – or should be. As I wrote back here,

It would be absurd – and grossly insulting – to assume that full-face veiling invariably reflects personal feelings of misogyny. But it would be equally absurd to ignore the degree of ‘fit’ between the injunction for women to be veiled and broader misogynistic social structures, and to assume that contemporary veiling is never associated with misogyny. The conversation needs to take place, out of the shadow of the criminal law.

And, I would add, out of the shadow of accusations of racism. Christianity isn’t afforded immunity from criticism – even biased and ignorant criticism – in our societies, and I don’t think we should approach other religions any differently.

Henry Porter has it about right:

We should accept that it has caused deep offence to people whose religion we do not fully comprehend. But, equally, Muslims must allow for the error in a continent of free but flawed societies. They should understand that our societies are not simply based on godless consumption and self-indulgence, but on one or two deeply held convictions.

An anonymous commenter at Indigo Jo goes to the heart of this disagreement when [s]he writes:

there are areas [in Islam] that can be “compromised”, but there are foundational areas that cannot. When you reach those core areas, a choice has to be made as to what you stand for, who you are, etc. … your identity is not guaranteed under the law [if] the law allows for trivialisation and ridicule of those core beliefs/principles that constitute your identity. True it may not be inciting to hatred or murder, but such ridicules and trivialisation still has some effect in the society. It is only a matter of time before it culminates in the likes of Jerry Springer’s portrayal of Jesus (peace be upon him), and ultimately mockery of Christianity. The outcome is evident. Religious values and its objectives are destroyed in the hearts of people.

Well, I liked Jerry Springer: the Opera, and I’ve got a great deal of time for the teachings of Jesus. More generally, I believe firmly that mocking the symbols and impedimenta of a belief does not mock the belief itself – and that even mocking a belief itself doesn’t destroy it: books don’t burn (Mikhail Bulgakov said that). Perhaps it’s a British (or Northern European?) thing; there have been quite long periods when Christians of different denominations have had to think of their faith as something that wasn’t protected from mockery, by the state or anyone else. I have beliefs and I expect you to respect my right to hold them, but my faith isn’t protected from criticism, mockery or abuse – and neither is yours. Between this outlook – this conviction – and the conviction that my faith needs to be protected, I’m not sure how much dialogue there can be.

But I may be wrong. And there could, in any case, be more respect – from both sides.

Postscript Ken MacLeod has the mood of much of this discussion bang to rights.

If anti-semitism is, in an important aspect, a rage against the machine, against progress, is there an opposite rage: a rage against reaction, a fury at the recalcitrance of the concrete and the stubbornness of tradition? A rage against what is sacred and refuses to be profaned, against what is solid and doesn’t melt into air, against ways of life that resist commodification, against use-value that refuses to become exchange-value? And might that rage too need a fantasy object?

I’ll admit to an element of rage – rant, even. I think it’s partly because I was brought up Christian and still have a distinct emotional investment in religion: I know that (a certain type of) religious belief can be not only compatible with but conducive to liberal and radical politics, leading people from a vague wish to be good and do good to the shores of libertarian socialism. So seeing a violent mobilisation in the defence of religion against liberalism, with the apparent approval of socialists… well, there are people who read the New Testament and find nothing in it but what they already knew (queers are bad, abortion’s bad and smacking your kids is good, essentially), and I feel pretty much the same about them. Apart from anything else, it seems such a wasteWhen you’re so close to the answer, why don’t you go in?

Anyway, Ken’s comment is one of the few things I’ve read during this affair that has really given me pause. Read the whole thing. (Then re-read this post. Balance, y’know.)

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One Comment

  1. Rob Jubb
    Posted 7 February 2006 at 21:56 | Permalink | Reply

    I second Ken MacLeod being good. Notwithstanding having been groping for precisely that insight for some time.

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