Thursday, 20 September 2012

The issues that dare not speak their name

Do you ever get the feeling that the world has finally gone completely stark staring mad?

I had just such a moment yesterday. The trigger was a news item about how France has temporarily closed some of its embassies, consulates and cultural centres, and increased security at others.

Why? In case there’s a backlash against the publication of cartoons in a magazine satirising the backlash against a film.

The backlash that has already happened is about a film, The Innocence of Muslims, for which a trailer has been on the internet for some time.

As a result, at least 30 people have died.

So much for the innocence of Muslims.

Made in the US – although there appears to be confusion by whom and also about who exactly funded it – it seems that the actors were conned into something that was altered in post production to make it an onslaught against Islam.

After completely innocent and unconnected people were then murdered in the anger that followed (what a shame that god isn’t much cop at defending his own honour), the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo included cartoons satirising the response.

“This is a disgraceful and hateful, useless and stupid provocation,” Dalil Boubakeur, the rector of the Paris Grand Mosque, according to the Associated Press news agency.

Yeah. Unlike the murderous response to the film itself.

It becomes a vicious circle. Utterly ridiculous over-reactions to even the mildest alleged ‘offense’ trigger further ‘provocations’, some of which are quite clearly intended as just that.

Those doing the rioting and killing are, for the most part, ill-educated and probably living in fairly dismal circumstances, with few opportunities – and are being manipulated by religious leaders and others for political reasons.

It certainly seems likely that the makers of the film were deliberately trying to provoke just such an extreme reaction, while the magazine may have been trying something genuinely meant as satire.

But what do you do in a situation like this? Shut up shop? Never say anything out of fear of upsetting someone else?

Free speech is worth defending – and there should never be a right not to be offended, not least because once you start down that road, it’s a very slippery slope.

But the film certainly appears to be a case of standing in a crowded room and yelling: ‘Fire!’

Saying that does not remotely excuse the actions that followed, but it’s difficult not to wonder how on earth you deal with this situation in a responsible way.

Do you ban anything that might upset a small number of people to the extent that they will resort to violence?

Absolutely not.

The internet clearly exacerbates the issue – simply by closing the miles between vastly different cultures with vastly different attitudes toward many subjects.

Not that controversy is limited to any one religion – or any one region of the world.

The news that writing on a 4th century piece of papyrus seems to suggest Jesus had a wife has caused a mild flutter of response – nobody killed thus far.

According to the BBC, “Jim West, a professor and Baptist pastor in Tennessee, said: ‘A statement on a papyrus fragment isn’t proof of anything. It’s nothing more than a statement ‘in thin air’, without substantial context’.”

Which suggested a certain lack of self awareness, some might think.

Indeed, such a lack of self-awareness seems to be spreading. The Pope has urged religions to root out fundamentalism. (Story)

Which is nice.

It might be Muslim fundamentalists who take the gold medal for over-the-top offense, but there is plenty of other fundamentalism around.

The Pope’s own church is far from innocent – indeed, it continues to prefer death over life: well, if you’re a woman who happens to need an abortion and will die if you don’t have one.

Or if you’re a child victim of rape who is pregnant by the rapist – and is forced to continue with the pregnancy to term by Catholic clergy, up to delivery: something a tad difficult when you’re only nine years of age in the first place.

Nor is fundamentalism limited to Catholicism within the Christian religion. The US can provide plenty of examples, from the nastiness of Westbro Baptists – which even other fundamentalists will denounce – to the shooting of abortion doctors to the belief of attendees at the recent Republican convention that we should freedom in everything.

Well, except for women when it comes to their own uterus. Obviously.

And while there is continued homophobia among some Christians in the US, it’s nothing when compared to some countries in Africa, where politicians use religious justifications to try to introduce homophobic legislation that could even mean execution for being gay.

Imagine, for a minute, a country that had executions for being male or female; for being black or white. That’s how crazy this is. But some countries either have such laws – or have politicians trying to introduce them.

And we’re not immune from fundamentalist nuttery in the UK either, whether it be book burning by Muslims angered at Salman Rushdie or death threats to BBC officials from Christians upset at what they’d read about Jerry Springer: The Opera or Sikhs rioting at a theatre in Birmingham because they object to the play Behzti.

And that is far and away from a complete list.

Don’t imagine that Buddhists are all cuddly and non-violent either: in the Rakhine area of Burma, right now, monks have been encouraging the starvation and killing of members of the local Muslim minority.

And in Israel, we had the recent situation of ultra-Orthodox (a euphemism for fundamentalist) Jews spitting on an eight-year old child – because she was dressed in a way that they disapproved of.

But despite shock – and the incident triggered protests in the country by non-fundamentalist Israelis – it was hardly a unique example of Jewish fundamentalist behaviour.

In 2006, Jewish and Muslim leaders claimed that a planned World Pride Jerusalem could trigger a series of riots even greater than those that had greeted publication of the Danish cartoons of Mohammed the previous year.

“We are faced with the prospect of six days of promiscuity and debauchery unparalleled in the Middle East,” claimed US Rabbi Yehuda Levin, who had threatened bloodshed over the events. Presumably he was jealous that he wasn’t getting any of that lovely debauchery for himself.

Representatives of conservative Christian groups joined Muslim and Orthodox Jewish leaders in demanding that organisers of World Pride Jerusalem cancel planned events.

Fascinating to see what they’ll actually all agree about, isn’t it?

I doubt you’re particularly surprised to find that it involves what they think consenting adults should and should not do with their genitals.

At the same time, police had apparently done nothing to stop Orthodox fundamentalists from handing out leaflets offering a ‘reward’ of 20,000 Israeli shekels to anyone who “kills a sodomite”.

And only a few months earlier, a rabbi had stabbed a marcher during Jerusalem’s own Pride.

So much for pinkwashing.

Amazingly, it seems that what hole you put a cock in is of far more importance than murder.

Today though, we have actually witnessed a UK positive – if unexpected – move, as the director of public prosecutions decided that a message tweeted about diver Tom Daley was not grossly offensive and didn’t, therefore, warrant prosecution.

However, Kier Starmer, the DPP himself, has called for a public debate on the “boundaries of free speech” in terms of the rise of social media. Personally, I’d be concerned that it’s couched in terms of “boundaries”.

Which of course rather begs the question of just who gets to decide whether (and how) something is just plain old offensive – or the obviously much different grossly offensive. Entirely objectively. Of course.

But therein lie the dangers. Perhaps time to take a leaf out of the book of the US and its first amendment?

For the present, though, back to the beginning.

Should we ban anything that could be considered ‘provocative’ by someone?

If we did, perhaps we should also just tell gay people not to be gay.

In 2007, a lesbian asylum seeker to the UK from Jamaica (where they’d just held a 'gay eradication day') was told by the Home Office to go back to the notoriously homophobic island and “try harder not to act gay”.

In 2011, the British system decided that a woman, who was branded with a hot iron because she was gay, should be sent back to Uganda because there was no evidence that that was because of her sexuality, and that her life was at risk. (Story)

A similar case is currently taking place in Germany, where an Iranian lesbian is in danger of being sent back there with similar advice to protect her.

So if we have establishments that do that, then perhaps we really should all just give up any pretence at freedom of speech and simply ensure that we don’t do anything to offend the over-sensitive souls, who barely have a brain cell to rub together between them, and seem to ‘think’ that it’s legitimate to rape and murder when they don’t imagine that their particular invisible friend has been insulted a bit.

I think we could be forgiven if we imagine that politicians and the judiciary are more interested in appeasing extremist religious sensibility than in defending free speech and promoting integration.

Some days I despair. Really I do.

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