Listen to this article
Liberals have lost some important battles in the struggle to preserve democratic standards in the face of extremism. One was lost here in Britain, and by my profession, namely the decision by all British newspapers not to reprint the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten.
The papers’ decision was encouraged by the Labour government and accompanied by a good deal of sage self-congratulation that wisdom had prevailed.
The fact that journalism’s central task is to relate or show to people what is happening was put to one side, even though in this case what was happening was, inter alia, murders, burnings, riots and boycotts. Now that the smoke has literally cleared, we can see more clearly what that decision was: a disastrous miscalculation.
The fourth estate acted on the possibility rather than the actuality of a threat, putting it in the same league as the management of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, which took off the play Behzti after it was attacked by militant Sikhs, and, more recently, the organisers of last month’s London exhibition of the paintings of Maqbool Fida Husain.
Husain was targeted by Hindu militants because he painted nude gods and goddesses, which happens to be common in Hindu art and sculpture. But militants in any faith community are driven by competitive pressures as much as the keenest business leader. If the Muslims win a trick, why shouldn’t the Sikhs? And the Hindus? The only faith that hasn’t generally won these kind of contests is that of the Christians, who last month had to put up with seeing Madonna perform while hanging from a cross.
Even in a jaded age, it was mind-bending to realise that what had been achieved was the miscegenation of two of the religion’s holiest image-concepts, the Madonna of charity with the Cross of suffering. But those shocked by that would have calculated that it was useless to complain. The entertainment and media gatekeepers know well how to shut out Christian complaint, for they have been doing it for half a century. Yet that too may be changing, under the malign effects of the inter-faith competition of complaint. Christians in the Philippines are showing some success in having The Da Vinci Code withdrawn from cinemas, and last year an Athens court banned a book that depicted Jesus as a pot-smoking hippie and pronounced a six-month jail sentence on its author, the Austrian Gerhard Haderer; not that he is planning to set foot in Greece any time soon.
No wonder complaint backed by believable threat of violence, laced with the undertones of cultural guilt, has proved such a winning combination.
“Without fear or favour” has been a motto of the press. But in the case of the cartoons, it showed fear, and did itself and the communities to which the pro-ban militants claim allegiance no favours. Fundamentalist, violent Islam has, of course, a world-conquering ideology that no other religion now possesses.
A crucial debate is going on within Islam. While the keenest and most violent spirits of this war seek to win the fight by exporting it to the lands of the Crusaders and the Jews, their non-violent co-religionists are engaged in a struggle of opinions that must now involve us all. This debate is going on in the only place it can - in western Europe, where there are many diverse Muslim communities, and where the traditions and freedoms necessary for open argument exist.
In this context, acceptance of limits on debate serve Muslim communities ill. The defeat of the proposed law on incitement to religious hatred was a victory for free speech, but also for Muslims. When powerful figures in religious-ethnic communities seek to preserve their authoritarian status and confine argument, their first targets are their dissenting co-religionists.
In a recent essay in the collection “Free Expression is No Offence”, edited by Lisa Appignanesi, Baroness Helena Kennedy writes that her experience with Southall Black Sisters, a black and Asian women’s organisation, taught her that some Muslims oppose any form of religious extremism, for the good reason that this often starts with the suppression of women’s voices.
There is no question that open debate on religion can be painful to sincere believers, who may feel isolated by their minority status and in many cases by their lack of command of the language. But these are the rules of the western game, arrived at by the expenditure of much treasure, sweat and blood by men and women who were regarded in their times as violators of society and organised religion.
We should remember that western societies suffered a long hangover from their own religious intolerance. London’s Gay News was successfully prosecuted in 1977 for publishing a poem that described in detail homosexual acts with the body of Christ after the crucifixion. Such an alleged crime of blasphemy probably would not succeed today; a happy state of affairs that the government tried, with its incitement to religious hatred Bill, to roll back. But the new religious communities, particularly the Muslim ones, still see jokes about or criticism of religion in much the same way as western Christians did centuries before - as an attack on the fabric of society itself.
Religion is again on the march and since we live in free societies, it must have its parade ground. But those who would seek special protection, and who seek it with threats, have to be pushed back. We didn’t find freedom for nothing, nor for ourselves only. The words pronounced by the Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi when she received a Nobel peace prize 15 years ago remain a good text: “Please, use your freedom so you can promote ours.”
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published