Friday, 23 January 2015

Insulting gods – it's 'punching up'

Never mind the politicians: this was the people in Paris
The murders in Paris just over a fortnight ago have already illustrated a number of things – one of which was how the presence of 40 global leaders on the city’s massive march a few days after the killings merely served to highlight a great deal of hypocrisy over freedom of speech from a substantial number of them.

Indeed, the sycophantic sounds heard from many of the same politicians in the wake of the death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah – the monarch of a country that routinely beheads people in public and flogs others for the ‘crime’ of expressing non-violent opinion – was, to put it politely, nauseating.

But setting this issue aside for the sake of today’s post, one of the most extraordinary things that has happened in the aftermath of the attack on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has been the attitude among some on the political left in the UK of criticising that publication as racist, Islamophobic and a clear case of ‘white men punching down’.

Now I’m going to assume that the last piece of jargon is understandable to all – although obviously, if you’re white and male, you cannot comment on it. Given that I’m female, I have more points than you and therefore will comment.

Various writers have attempted to correct these assertions, using something as unfashionable as facts.

The facts in question include pointing out that the magazine satirises all religions – and also (on a particularly regular basis) the French far right and its anti-immigrant stance, while also calling an amnesty for all illegal immigrants. On a slightly different tack, the same magazine published articles by economist Bernard Maris (one of the victims) opposing austerity and damning of the way in which Greece has been treated.

But still the shrill little cries about it being racist persist.

It appears that you (well, not if you’re white and male, obviously) must never, ever insult someone’s religion – or at least not if that religion is Islam, which is the religion of choice (or not) for a great many people in the world, of whom many exist in poverty.

But what are the ‘insults’?

The problem is of publishing pictures of ‘the prophet’ – Muhammed – and the problem is twofold.

Nowhere in the Qu’ran is there anything forbidding images of Muhammed or Allah, but these occur in the hadith – a record of sayings and actions of Muhammed and his companions, which was written over the years after his death.

The key idea here is that, since Muhammed was a man and not god, portraying him may lead to worship of Muhammed rather than of Allah.

So at its core, it’s about idolatry, in other words.

Islam is far from being alone in a fear of idolatry. Judaism shares the same fear, up to and including any representations of Yahweh.

In Christianity, the early church was also aniconist, as was the 8th century Byzantine church, while the likes of Calvin and Luther proscribed images in churches after the Protestant Reformation. To varying degrees, this continues today in some sects.

And the bar on images of Muhammed and Allah also extends to Moses and Christ, both of whom are revered as prophets in Islam. This is a large part of why the film Exodus: Gods and Kings has been banned in Morocco and Egypt (apart from the ‘historical inaccuracies’, but let’s not go there).

Aniconism in Islam, though, is nowhere near universal. Sunni Muslims are considerably more likely to believe it than Shias. Shia Islamic tradition is far less strict and there were, for instance, images of the prophet produced in 7th century Persia.

On Islamic representations of the prophet, Omid Safi, a religious studies professor at Duke University, told CNN: “We have had visual depictions of the prophet in the form of miniatures and pictures in the Iranian context, the Turkish context, the central Asian context. The one significant context where depictions of the prophet have not been image-related has been in the Arab context”.

This tallies with the spread of Wahhabism, a particularly austere and fundamentalist version of Islam that arose from the Middle Eastern deserts, which has been actively spread by the likes of Saudi Arabia for years and which provides the theological basis for the likes of Islamic State (IS).

But if idolatry is a fear, how does a cartoon – let alone a satirical one – encourage that? Is someone really likely to worship Muhammed rather than Allah on the basis of any cartoon?

There is no obvious connection – although perversely, the murders have now made the post-massacre Charlie Hebdo cover an icon in its own right, complete with its portrayal of the prophet.

And as Hussein Rashid, a professor of Islamic studies at Hofstra University in New York, told CNN, there’s a “bitter irony” in violent attacks against portrayals of the prophet, since they become, in effect, a “kind of reverse idol-worship, revering – and killing for – the absence of an image”.

So the murders have created one of the things that were feared in the first place.

The second theological response is that picturing the Prophet is a direct insult to Allah.

This is the point at which many will have real difficulty. How do you insult something that doesn’t exist? Or, if such a god does exist, then isn’t he big enough and powerful enough to take issue with any mere mortal who does ‘insult’ him?

Besides, how do you insult a god? And why would a god be so thin-skinned anyway?

Mind, if that’s what the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were doing, I think it counts as the ultimate ‘punching up’.

But there is a further matter of context. Take a Charlie Hebdo cartoon of the prophet about to be beheaded by someone dressed as we’re used to seeing IS insurgents attired. The word bubble has him complaining that he is the prophet.

It’s pretty clear that what’s being suggested here is that the likes of IS are the ones doing damage to Islam – in terms both of reputation and, indeed, in the murder of so very many other Muslims across Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Nigeria and so on.

Let’s ignore the nonsense accusations of racism, which start from a position of ignoring the fact that Islam is no more a race than Christianity.

And as for the faux empathy with ‘poor Muslims’ – a particularly patronising bit of Western, liberal guilt – would the same people condemn Charlie Hebdo cartoons satirising the Pope, given that many millions of Catholics live in abject poverty and squalor, even as the current Pope is telling them that no, they still shouldn’t use contraception, but not to ‘breed like rabbits’?

Have they forgotten (if ever they knew) that, while religion might well be the “sigh of an oppressed creature”, it is also “the opium of the people” – in other words, part of the problem.

The people who are now getting upset about the post-murders Charlie Hebdo cover are being whipped up by powerful religious leaders with their own agendas – and those agendas have nothing to do with promoting equality, education, opportunity or pretty much anything else that is in contradiction to their power and to the version of their religion that they use to control people.

Indeed, so successful is that winding up, that people have burned down churches in an entirely different country in protest at a cartoon – a country that hasn’t got enough of it’s own troubles with Islamic terrorists in the shape of Boko Haram, who think nothing of mass murder, mass kidnapping etc.

Priorities, eh?

'Weapons of Choice'
But then again, protests against the post-massacre cover are now also being whipped up in Pakistan, the site of December’s Peshawar school attack, when the Taliban – precisely the sort of fundamentalist goons who get het up about cartoons – massacred 141 people, of whom 132 were children, not because of Western imperialism, but precisely because they want to keep people uneducated.

It’s impossible not to remember Luther’s description of reason as the devil’s whore, as I point out what should by now be bleedin obvious: that pissing off shit-stirring clerics and religious leaders, who have power and use it negatively to keep people in an oppressed state, is punching up – not down.

Incidentally, the phrase the “opium of the people” was not new when Marx wrote it in the 1840s. In 1797, in his novel Juliette, Marquis de Sade has his eponymous character tell the king that ignorance is “This opium you feed your people, so that, drugged, they do not feel their hurts, inflicted by you”.

Sade spent a great deal of his adult life in prison. His repeated ‘crime’? That’s right: offending religious sensibilities – and his relatives were among those who were desperate to get him imprisoned.

And so we return to the question of offence. Who gets to decide what is allowed and what is not?

Freedom of speech must have limits, surely?

Well there’s an old philosophical point that you cannot just get to yell ‘fire!’ in a crowded building for the sake of it. The reasons should be obvious.

Many cartoons are grotesque – see the work of Ralph Steadman or Steve Bell. Should we ban them because of that? Only last year, the Times was forced to grovel an apology for a scathing Steadman cartoon on the state of Israel’s assault on Gaza.

I’d suggest that it was a pity they didn’t have more balls in the face of the offence taken by some.

There have been examples of cartoons by Muslims that are downright objectionable in their portrayals of Jewish people. Is this ‘punching up’, on the basis that those drawing them are probably ‘brown’ and those being drawn probably white?

But at what stage do we say that someone’s offense is reason to bar something? If so, who gets to choose?

Unless something is a direct incitement to violence against a particular group – and we have laws for that – then why ban anything?

Should we ban Bell’s portrayals of politicians if their party’s followers feel offended by them? Or only if he is unpleasant about something or someone we like?

Subjectivity should never be a basis for law or for banning anything or restricting free speech. And once we start down that path, there is no logical – or reasonable – reason to not ban anything and, ultimately, everything.

And don’t forget how glorious mockery can be too – for instance, in the wonderful Twitter reaction to Fox News’s uncritical allowing of a so-called extremism ‘expert’ to say that Birmingham was 100% Muslim and a no-go area for any non-Muslim?

Although given the ownership of Fox, that would probably also count as ‘punching up’.

But Twitter has also been on fire when countering factually incorrect and racist content from the likes of the EDL.

However, the EDL is not a sort of group that attracts powerful, middle-class people, but many who feel powerless and economically disenfranchised, and who look for scapegoats to why they’re not doing well. It’s classic kick-the-cat syndrome, and it’s also as old as the hills (hence the tragic rise in anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice).

Does ridiculing EDL then, become ‘punching up’ because they’re racists and Islamophobes (and often sexists and homophobes too) or ‘punching down’ because of their lack (perceived or otherwise) of opportunity in a de-industrialised society that has never replaced all the skilled, manual jobs that formerly paid a decent and dignified wage?

We can – or at least should – be able to condemn the racism and see what feeds that at the same time.

Just as we should be able to empathise with the lives of the millions of Muslims who are living in poverty, in brutal dictatorships or theocracies – many being slaughtered or driven from their homes by Islamic fundamentalists – without pretending that religion is not a tool used by oppressors to maintain oppression, and without adopting an attitude that the ‘problem’ is cartoons that offend on the most spurious of grounds.

And we should be very wary of patronising certain groups by suggesting that their religious sensibilities deserve special consideration.

If we go down that route, what would the opinion be about Lillian Ladele, the Islington registrar who objected to the mere idea of performing a civil partnership ceremony for lesbian or gay couple – on the basis that it ‘offended’ her religious sensibilities?

Her employer – Islaington Council – disciplined and threatened to dismiss her. She claimed it was discrimination.

Eventually, some appeals and counter-appeals later, she lost her case on the grounds that, in essence, she wanted to be discriminated for on the basis of her religious sensibilities: she wanted different treatment from her colleagues, because of what she chose to believe.

Indeed, given that Ms Ladele had had a child out of wedlock it could be taken as her being a tad choosy about which bits of theology she chose to consider important and those she chose to ignore (always a problem with all religions).

Which leaves one thinking she might just have been a bigot.

So, were the unions involved and later, the assorted tribunals/courts, wrong?

Should she have been allowed special treatment because of what she chose to believe and how she chose to interpret her religion?

To apply the same stance as that of some on Charlie Hebdo, then she should have been treated differently because, well, you know, she’s black and, you know, many of ‘them’ are religious and obviously we can’t say anything ‘offensive’ about that.

See what I mean about patronising?

To conclude this particular post, some on the left might perhaps benefit from learning what happened to secular opponents of the Shah in Iran after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, when their use to the theocrats had ceased.

• Note: no divinities have been insulted in the making of this post. I tweeted and re-tweeted a number of Charlie Hebdo cartoons in the immediate wake of the murders, but using some here as illustrations had the potential to get in the way of the argument.

• A further post is in development looking at the causes of Islamic extremism.

No comments:

Post a Comment