The Danish Islam Cartoons
The row about a number of Danish cartoons about Islam and the prophet is yet to abate. The cartoons themselves are definitely in poor taste and decidedly not funny at all, not even worth the merest of smiles (find a link to the cartoons at the end of this article). But does that mean they should not have been published? Not in my view, no. If bad taste was to be the benchmark against which we decide to favour publication or not then most of what appears in the gutter press should never leave the printing presses. Much of their content I find really quite offensive, yet there isn't a hair on my head which feels that content should be suppressed.
Thing is, you see, I found the article quoted below quite offensive. Now where did I leave my death threat template?
Sukhvinder Stubbs' article in The Guardian condemning the cartoons starts out as follows:
Denmark's cartoons satirising Islam have inflamed Muslims across the world, but the injury runs much deeper than a religious insult. It touches feelings of exclusion and persecution, ...
The furore concerning the cartoon published in a Danish newspaper depicting the prophet Muhammad as a terrorist has yet to abate. In the wake of the government's defeat on the religious hatred bill, many have rushed to the defence of the cartoonist. These voices range from the chattering classes reaching for their book of Voltaire quotes and trumpeting the sanctity of free speech, to the sort of political-correctness-gone-mad types who email Radio 5 live, grumbling that we already "bend over backwards" to accommodate Muslim sensibilities and that enough is enough.
Ah, the chattering classes... Voltaire... Sukhvinder: freedom of speech is the basic, fundamental freedom upon which also rests your freedom to worship your imaginary friend. But freedom of speech also gives me the right to say I think you are a fool for doing so, which, incidentally, I do.
As regards Muslim sensitivities, as an agnostic person I'll gladly extend these sensibilities to religious sensibilities in general, as the storm-in-a-teacup surrounding Richard Dawkin's The Root of all Evil programme demonstrated, are very well alive.
In 1997, when I was director of the Runnymede Trust, I helped launch the Commission on Islamophobia, a newly coined phrase to describe a phenomenon that had grown in tandem with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. We found that "Islamophobia" wasn't just confined to BNP thugs hurling pigs' heads through the windows of Pakistani households, or the vile poison spouted by the recently acquitted Nick Griffin. It manifested itself in middle class circles also, around dining tables, on Radio 4, much of it in (understandably) indignant response to the Salman Rushdie fatwa. Under the pretext of taking a rearguard action against religious dogma, it became permissible to unveil a cultural contempt for peoples who tended to be brown-skinned and poorly off. I sense a similar undercurrent today, in the catharticexcitement with which some have rallied to the Free Speech banner, a sense of fear and loathing of the troublesome, brown hordes we see jumping up and down brandishing guns on our TV screens.
What a dim-witted attempt to turn the argument on it's head: "really, it wasn't the Fatwa itself that was wrong, but rather the indignant response to it because it belied basically a sense of a sense "of fear and loathing of the troublesome, brown hordes we see jumping up and down brandishing guns on our TV screens". I'd like to remind Sir Iqbal Sacranie, the now so revered moderate, whenever I can of his days of unconditional, opportunistic support for that Fatwa. And Hamas et al should indeed stop brandishing weapons and gratuitously firing in the air at every possible occasion. It puts their cause in a rather bad light and makes them vulnerable to cartoonists the world round, well-deservedly I feel.
There's more to it than that, however. Muslim grievances are not merely spiritual but, more pressingly, material. The rage expressed by demonstrators in Gaza against Scandinavian aid workers was, at a deeper level, the rage of the disenfranchised, the displaced. In the UK and across Europe, Muslims are, socially and economically disadvantaged, among those at the bottom of the pile. Cultural gestures such as the Danish cartoon may please well-to-do secular liberals in helping push back the envelope of free speech and cock a snook at religious dogma. To Muslims, however, they merely add to a sense of disaffection, of themselves as a Pariah people. Another insult to add to their social injury.
At the face of it this is a rather fair point but how can we justify Muslim demonstrators taking out their anger at Scandinavian aid workers? It is once again turning everything on its head. Sukhvinder also conveniently forgets that Islam is being used, abused and politically hijacked by those needing martyrs for their cause, a fact that rather clumsily inspired these banal and boring cartoons.
I suspect Muslim anger at this cartoon may be shorter lived and less widespread than initially feared. Some Muslims have themselves added to the pro-free speech chorus and suggested that Islam should be strong enough to withstand these brickbats. What the cartoon will add to, however, is a more longterm feeling of sadness, of exclusion and of being fair game for attack, either with the pen or with the bomb. Our first priority must be to address the material disadvantages many Muslims face worldwide. Until we do that in earnest, we should refrain from stupid, insulting cartoons, not by way of a self-imposed, legally binding gagging order (as the government have found, it's difficult to legislate in these matters) but out of discretion, good sense, good taste and goodwill.
Well, if we've got the Rushdie Fatwa to go by, this isn't really going to blow over all that quickly. Besides, there will always be more cartoons and this latest spat will likely have drawn attention to a phenomenon many disenfranchised Muslims weren't perhaps too aware of.
At the heart of this spate, lies nothing more than unjustified and misplaced religious sensitivity, no matter what Sukhvinder tries to make of it all. And we're all just a liiiiittle upset at the death threats that are being levelled at these cartoonists and their publishers. What do you think, Sukhvinder?
Sukhvinder Stubbs' Guardian article.
Keywords: Islam, Muslims, Fatwa, Denmark, cartoons