Friday 31 January 2014

Transcript from The Pod Delusion: Jesus & Mo and the right to be offended

Following is the transcript of my report for the Pod Delusion podcast today (from 33:06).

Jesus and Muhammad walk into a bar. On the way in, they greet each other with “Hey”. “How ya doin’?” They seem nice. The barmaid is a witty atheist and they all share deep philosophical discussions and seem to enjoy each other’s company. That’s a bar that I’d like to visit. You wouldn’t think there would calls for beheadings, but you’d be surprised.

Jesus and Mo is a web based comic strip created by an anonymous Author. It is a satirical look at the irrational aspects of some of the world’s major religions. It is irreverent of course but also clever, playful, and really quite benign. I have yet to see anything truly nasty come out of it, except for the frankly hysterical reactions of some members of the British Muslim community who either find the very idea of the cartoons extremely offensive, or find it extremely offensive that another Muslim would dare to say that he didn’t.

A little history: In October last year a couple members of the atheist society at the London School of Economics were threatened by security guards at a Fresher’s fair on campus for wearing t-shirts depicting an image from one of the Jesus and Mo cartoons. The image shows the two characters as line drawings doing nothing more than greeting each other.

They were forced to cover their shirts or face expulsion, with a representative of LSE’s legal and compliance team telling them that the t-shirts were creating an “offensive atmosphere” and could constitute “harassment”. Some students complained, you see. Following a public outcry and the intervention of Richard Dawkins, the school was forced to apologise.

Fast forward to January 12th. BBC One held its weekly debate program on moral, ethical and religious issues in current events called The Big Questions. The subject of this episode was “Should human rights always outweigh religious rights?” That in itself may seem strange to those who understand that religious rights ARE human rights, but it gives an idea of how untidy the thinking can be.

The incident at LSE came up and was debated. The same students were in the audience and wearing the same offending t-shirts, but the BBC declined to show the depictions of Jesus and Mo saying hello to each other. The reason for this (and the reason for the controversy in the first place) is that in strict Muslim tradition, it is forbidden to draw or otherwise depict an image of the prophet Muhammad or any other prophet to the faith (though Jesus seems to be okay). This is a blasphemy that is extremely offensive to many if not most Muslims. Indeed, in some parts of the world it would be punishable by death.

There is a whole laundry list of acts that depending on where they are judged could be Islamic blasphemies of varying degree. Some of these may seem quite strange, such as speculating about how Muhammad would behave if he were alive (Nigeria), saying that Islam is an Arab religion (Indonesia), or practicing yoga (Malaysia). What counts for blasphemy and what counts as punishment is largely the province of clerics in the role of jurist. If you are in a strict Islamic country and wish to avoid blasphemy, it is probably wise to avoid saying or doing anything which might upset anyone.

One of the panelists invited onto the BBC debate show was Maajid Nawaz, a reformed Islamic extremist who is founder of the anti-extremism think tank the Quilliam Foundation and now a Liberal Democrats parliamentary candidate. He observed that some Muslim women who had just been arguing for their right to wear the veil were now questioning these students’ right to wear an offensive t-shirt.

Nawaz defended the students, saying “I’m not offended by that. I’m sure God is greater than to feel threatened by it”. Later when he got home, Nawaz tweeted the same sentiment with a link to the picture that was on the t-shirts, which the BBC had refused to show. His intention, he says, was to defend his religion from “those who have hijacked it just because they shout the loudest.” “To carve out a space to be heard without constantly fearing the blasphemy charge, on pain of death.”

This proved to be a step too far as angry Muslims spread word of the tweet and began attacking Nawaz for having the temerity to admit that he was not offended by something. A fellow member of the Liberal Democrat Party, Mohammed Shafiq, started an online petition as an official complaint to the party, seeking to have Nawaz deselected. He went further, tweeting "We will notify all Muslim organisations in the UK of his despicable behaviour and also notify Islamic countries."

He used more incendiary language as well.

Nawaz would soon wake up to a deluge of abuse, including a significant number of threats to his life. At least one Twitter user called for his beheading. Some of the threats originated in Pakistan and appear credible. And perhaps naturally given the great fuss, the BBC and other news outlets still refuse to show a cartoon line drawing depicting, not rudely by any means, the founder of Islam.

How did this happen? Britain is a free and liberal democracy with a strong human rights tradition of free speech, though that appears to be slipping. Multiculturalism has tended to produce a stale political atmosphere in which we dare not offend the religious and cultural sensitivities of our minority groups lest we risk inflaming the fragile harmony of our volatile communities. Mockery of religious teachings has been confused with causing harassment. Valid and forceful criticism of the many ignoble deeds carried out in the name of a religion is conflated with hate speech.

Some Muslims I’ve spoken to about the present crisis have suggested that although nobody dispute’s Nawaz’s right to tweet an image and to declare that he does not find that image offensive, he should choose more carefully the manner in which he expresses this view so as not to offend. In other words, be serious. Be sober. I have to say, as a liberal I find that idea extremely insulting in itself.

It reminds me of something the former Cat Stevens once said to Jon Stewart when asked about Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. The gist was “Yes, of course we have free speech. But why is it necessary to insult the Prophet?” Turning it around into a question for the speaker is a diversionary tactic. It is calling for nothing more or less than self censorship, which is the most insidious kind. It is making the case for fear masquerading as respect. “Yes you have free speech, but please try hard to make your speech the good kind that I don’t object to. Let’s have a civil, constructive debate. Don’t take the piss.”

I will make this very plain. You do not get to choose the medium and manner in which I am permitted to challenge your beliefs. It is not supposed to be comfortable for you. That’s entirely the point. “Have I Got News For You” can be more effective at opposing government than the opposition party. Nothing unmans oppressive power quite so quickly and effectively as popular ridicule, which is why oppressive authority works so hard to suppress it. If we can’t agree that the Jesus and Mo cartoons are civil and constructive, though by knowledge of their mere existence offensive, then we will never agree the terms of the debate.

The Liberal Democrats initially tried to patch things up in this row with a predictably milquetoast statement recognising Nawaz’s right to be offensive, but also calling for moderate language and warning members against causing unnecessary offence. Sometimes, though, it is necessary to cause offence in order to make a point that is of great public importance.

Like the Liberal Democrat MP for Bradford East, Mike David Ward*, who was suspended after choosing Holocaust Memorial Day to remind us that Israel has committed a few atrocities of its own, Maajid Nawaz has made a brave and principled stand against an orthodoxy of thought. It was wrong to suspend Ward. Israel is a nation state and far from immune to scorn. He should have been asked to clarify his views, which would get people talking instead of having someone shut up. Let’s not make the same mistake here.

I will not deal with the various ad hominem attacks against Maajid Nawaz coming from Islamic quarters that are naturally at odds with him for various political reasons. They are completely transparent and not worth what little time I have to talk. Suffice to say there are plenty of Muslims who have plenty of reasons to want to discredit the man. I will stick to what is relevant. I’ve seen Muslims attempting to explain why defaming the Prophet is so extremely hurtful and offensive. I sort of get it. It goes something like this:

Mocking someone’s mother is the one thing in all cultures that is deemed absolutely unacceptable, something you only do when you deliberately seek to offend. Muslims believe paradise lies beneath the feet of your mother, and you must obey her without question unless contrary to God’s laws. The prophet Muhammad, who taught this, is more beloved to Muslims than their mothers and all loved ones.

That is fair enough; however, I would only say this. If I mock your mother then it is no doubt insulting and very hurtful. But when your mother is Margaret Thatcher who commanded armies  and police forces and who still embodies a political ideology, I will say what I damn well feel. My sympathies to Mark and Carol, but when your mother is or was the Prime Minister of Great Britain, mockery and worse go with the territory. Don’t blame me for what she subjected you to. I’m sorry Chelsea Clinton, but when your mother is running for President of the United States, she is fair game. So is your dad, and so is your faith for that matter.

Those of us whose mothers are powerful public figures need to develop thicker skin or else live a life of monastic seclusion.

Why, Yusuf Islam, is it necessary to insult the Prophet? I’ll tell you. Because it is not yet universally accepted (not even in this country) that criticism of a religion and all its various customs and diktats is a right. That such criticism may not be followed by threats to one’s physical existence. It is kind of out of order to suggest that someone who creates a picture of Muhammad should have his head cut off. Belief systems which, as with politics, control entire populaces, and in whose name people are maimed and tortured and killed, are public discourse.

People have the right to believe that the sin of blasphemy should be punishable by death, but they MUST accept that it is not. It once was, but no longer, and it never will be again as long as there is a liberal in this country with a pulse, drawing breath without the aid of a respirator. Until that time, these acts of defiance are not only justified, they are absolutely necessary.

The ridiculous and untenable situation in which we’ve found ourselves only serves to show that they do not happen often enough. Insulting the Prophet (or whatever religious equivalent) needs to become a normal thing. Though it may be painful to many, it will become accustomed and the pain will become manageable in time. Your God is strong and your belief will survive. If not, then what was it ever worth?

The same BBC that was afraid to show a cartoon offensive to Muslims had no qualms about screening Jerry Springer the Opera in January 2005, which features a scene in which it is suggested that the Virgin Mary was “raped by God”. I honestly cannot imagine anything more offensive to anyone deeply Christian. Even I, as a lapsed Catholic, was offended! I sat there transfixed with my jaw halfway to the floor wondering how anyone could be so bold.

The Beeb received no fewer than 55,000 complaints from viewers after the event and vigorously defended its decision to broadcast, one which prompted the Christian Institute to attempt to bring a private prosecution against the Director General on a blasphemy charge (thank gawd we binned that one, eh?). I commend the BBC for this, but why the double standards?

The fact is there was a time in this country when producing Jerry Springer the Opera would have gotten you burned alive on a pyre. Thankfully we are over that. I’m very sorry, but Islam has some catching up to do on that score. Cowardly pseudo-liberal appeasement of extreme feeling does not get us any further along. Drawing the blurry line where the BBC and its contemporaries have chosen to draw it on this occasion is deeply offensive to liberalism. It is simply the case that the belief that drawing a decent cartoon is blasphemy and may deserve death is one that is incompatible with our laws and traditions. The belief, though rightfully held, deserves no respect. 

It needs to be offended, often and mercilessly. Call it tough love.

It is often said that you don’t have the right not to be offended. That bears repeating. Nobody has the right to not be offended. A corollary is that, very broadly speaking, everyone has the right to cause offence to anyone. Absolutely, everybody has the right to take offence and to express their outrage, even to call for something to be done. What is not often articulated though is the right to be offended as a proactive thing.

If we all allowed ourselves to be offended more often, the world would be a much better place. Being offended is good for you and it’s good for me. It is something that I believe we should each seek out regularly for our own personal, empathic development. The reason is that being offended challenges our rigid thinking and stale notions. If we take the time to think about our gut reaction to being offended, we might come to find that the roots of our objection are misjudged and misplaced.

If we open our minds to a challenge, our minds can be changed. It is wonderfully transformative and all for the good. At the very least, we can look forward to building some character.

For me, the right to be offended means that if you find something offensive you have no right to take away my opportunity to be offended. Being offended does not make you special, nor does it give you powers. It certainly does not appoint you my guardian of good taste, whoever you think you are. Be offended and find some way of dealing with it. But go do it over there, away from me please if you’d be so kind. I’m happy for you, but if I’m honest I have my own matters to attend to. But do make sure to thank the person who offended you for the great service performed for humanity.

Muhammad Shafiq had the gall to appear on Andrew Neil’s politics show and complain that people were trying to stifle his right to speak as a Muslim on behalf of other Muslims. He mentioned abuse that he’d received over his petition, including some death threats. I noted that this did not prevent him from appearing on the program, unlike his adversary who was advised by police not to make any further comment or to appear on television as it would be too dangerous for him.

Shafiq has in fact appeared several times on television since these events unfolded calling for Maajid Nawaz to be silenced, while Nawaz has not. When a person is made to fear for his safety if he tries to speak up, that is silencing. Maajid Nawaz was not able at that time to speak freely on behalf of himself let alone other Muslims who might be inclined to agree with him. Have the police forgotten (or perhaps they never fully understood) that the law owes Maajid Nawaz a positive duty to defend his unpopular speech against the angry torch waving mob?

Muhammad Shafiq may have a point that I as a non-Muslim have no business telling him how to speak on behalf of Muslims. But I’ll tell you what, Mr Shafiq. I am a liberal with a strong sense of liberty and a particular attachment to Article 10. I can tell you that you have no business wearing the badge of liberal, and I will. Take it off, if you can’t see how important it is to defend the freedom to offend.

I have criticised you, but I’m not calling for your head. I do not dispute your right to create a petition calling for your party fellow to be disciplined. I just think you’re dead wrong in a way that no self respecting liberal could fail to see. There is no place for such blind intolerance in any party that calls itself liberal or democratic. If anyone has brought the Liberal Democrat Party into disrepute, Mr Shafiq, it is you. Do I need to draw you a picture?

* On the podcast recording I mistakenly refer to this person as Mike Ward.

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