It seems that the row over cartoon depictions of Mohammed has been cranked up a notch, as several European newspapers re-print the images, in a gesture of solidarity with the Jyllands-Posten. It reminds me of a premiership-brawl, where after one guy gets into a bit of banter with an opponent, his mates run the full length of the pitch in order to inflame the situation further.
A comment from theologian Sohaib Bencheikh caught my eye.
one must find the borders between freedom of expression and freedom to protect the sacred.”
On one hand, declaring that a certain action is off limits to everybody, because one particular group considers it sacred, is a non-argument on a par with screaming children in a supermarket. However, Bencheikh’s wider point is that we should, out of respect for other groups, refrain from deliberately offending them. It is legitimate to ask: “why did you feel you had to do that?” to the editor of the paper, because at that point the debate leaves the realm of faith and enters that of human politics. If the cartoons of Mohammed were not very good, or printed for a frivolous or deliberately antagonistic reason, then we should condemn Jyllands-Posten because it was a risible decision on its own terms, not because we give any credence to the sanctity of the Prophet’s image.
In comparision to Jyllands-Posten, its immitators around Europe do actually have a good reason for publishing the pictures. This is because the debate has moved on. The topic of their articles is not one of provocation or ridicule, but a genuine philosophical question to the muslim world: “Why are these offensive?” And muslims cannot respond with simply or “belief” or “Qu’ran” because they know that these are not our terms, not our points of reference, and are meaningless to anyone outside the faith. So the copy-cats are actually more interesting than the original, because they present a genuine response to the protest, rather than instigating the antagonism in the first place.
I find the attitude of faith groups in these situations rather naive. It is the very fact that they take offence, which prompts the desire to cause offence! Religions, by their very nature, preach certain rules and regulations. If any notion of faith is invoked, then we find that the rules are absolute, and cannot be questioned. They become walls, a psycological prison. Not only is it human nature to want to break free, but it is a human right to do so. Religious dictats invite disobediance, the philosophical equivalent of a “Please Keep Off The Grass” sign.
I am ashamed to admit it, but “Jesus Wants To Fuck His Dad” makes me laugh precisely because I know it will leave others shocked. This is a apparently the point of a lot of Gilbert & George’s art too. The play Bhetzi, which would have passed below my radar, now interests me precisely because it has the power to mobilise an angry mob. The Sheffield Crucible’s production of The Romans In Britain will have sell-out audiences, as a direct result of Mary Whitehouse’s campaign to have it banned in 1980.
All these plays and pictures gain publicity and legitimacy, as a direct result of the complaints against them. As a result, more people will engage with the work than would otherwise have been the case, had the protestors kept quiet. These campaigners achieve the exact opposite of what they intend… and that irony makes me laugh too.