Sunday 11 January 2015

On tolerance

Here's a 17th century wooden sculpture by Mattheus van Beveren in the Church of Our Dear Lady in Dendermonde, Belgium. It shows the prophet Mohammed clutching the Koran and being trampled underfoot by angels - the triumph of Christianity over Islam. It has not only a symbolic but also a utile function, as a pulpit. Is it offensive?

Image (c) Mohammed Image Archive

Three centuries later here's another image of the prophet Mohammed, from the front cover of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo:

(c) Charlie Hebdo

                                     (Translation: "One hundred lashes if you don't die laughing"). 

It's not much of a joke, is it? And the draughtsmanship is nothing to get excited about (the large format of the publication does it no favours). But - and here's my point - how on earth are we to know this image represents the prophet Mohammed and not simply a generic bearded and turban'd Arab? Cartoons more than any other art form depend on immediately legible types - Yanks in stetsons, football fans with rattles and rosettes, Germans in lederhosen and so on).

None of the handful of controversial cartoons I've seen depicting the prophet - the same ones that so offend some Muslims - are 'legible' in the way that (say) an image of Christ can be read and understood at a glance by reference to episodes in the New Testament from the Nativity to the Crucifixion.

I've always had an affection for cartoons which are so crude in their execution that they rely for any satiric effect on explicit labels (e.g. a sabre-wielding oman with the words ISLAMIC EXTREMISM helpfully added to his flowing robes, or a briefcase labelled "AMERICAN GLOBAL HEGEMONY totted by a guy in a stetson. You know the type of thing I mean. The Charli Hebdo image of Mohammed wouldn't be legible as the prophet even if he carried a book with 'Koran" written on it, because he might just as well be a mullah.

The image above is considered to be so appallingly provocative and offensive that no British newspaper or magazine is prepared to publish it. So although we are overwhelmed with ghastly images from the streets of Paris (jihadists executing a policeman, terrified Jews fleeing a kosher grocery store, armed troops patrolling the boulevards), we are not allowed to see the images the murderous Al-Quaida shits found sufficient reason to justify their brutal slaughter of seventeen citizens. We see only what the murderers want us to see. We do not see what they do not want us to see.

The New Statesman, in an 'act of solidarity' remarkable for its craven lack of balls, published
online a set of Charlie Hebdo covers that were entirely inoffensive, made no reference whatever to Islamism but lampooned the behemoth drunkard Gerard Depardieu. I repeat: no British newspaper or magazine editor is prepared to take the risk of reproducing any of the allegedly offensive covers or cartoons. Why? Because they are afraid some radicalised little shits will tasks offence, come to their offices and kill them.

I was raised in a very religious household. Almost everything about the modern world offended my parents (although to be sure this didn't prompt them into killing sprees with Kalashnikovs). This ranged from short skirts to bad language, poofs, alcohol, smoking, music of all kinds and Monty Python. They enjoyed being offended because the feeling served to endorse their embattled sense of piety and separateness.

People who hold intense religious convictions are pre-disposed to be offended. These people matter, but their quivering sensibilities do not. They are constantly, chronically judgemental but lack the insight to understand that the same liberality that tolerates their religious beliefs also allows for such beliefs to be mocked. We cannot, must not, build a tolerant society around their short-fused and capricious intolerances. Free speech is bound to offend someone (without, as English law has it, causing "harassment. alarm or distress"). If the mere depiction (not criticism or mockery) of the Prophet Mohammed in any medium causes problems the problems rest with those who choose to be offended. But we should at least pause to recall the furore surrounding The Man Born to be King, a 1941 radio play by Dorothy L. Sayers in which an actor portrayed Christ for the first time, at least on the wireless.)

One of many good commentaries on the events of the past week is a short piece by Tariq Ali, writing in the London Review of Books. You might like to read this.

My two penn'orth is that a secular democracy (the French Republique, for example) has no obligation to accommodate religion. Religion, on the other hand, has an obligation to accommodate and abide by the standards of democracy. French values are essentially, and still, enlightenment values. They are also my values. If you don't like them (as they say in Texas) fuck you and the horse you rode in on. Only one European newspaper - the Berliner Zeitung - has done the right thing. See here.

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