Cautions, crosses… and those cartoons

If the thuggery of sectarianism is our first concern, the second is how different groups are treated when the hackles of the extremists among them are raised. When violence between Christians occurs, we say that it is a social problem, a feature of urban living. No suggestion is made that the problem may be a flaw in the religion itself, or that one of the two groups should radically change its thinking… or leave. But this is precisely what happens when the troublemakers are Muslim.

Artur BorucAn alarming story I spotted at the weekend, but forgot to mention: ‘Alarm’ at cross player’s caution. The Celtic goal-keeper Artur Boruc was cautioned by police for causing a breach of the peace, after he made overtly Catholic religious gestures at the stauchly protestant Ibrox Stadium. He crossed himself, in the theatrical ‘spectacles-testicles-wallet-and-watch’ manner, so beloved of Catholics everywhere.

The argument for Boruc’s culpability here comes from the idea that he almost certainly knew what effect his gestures would have. They were not done innocently, but were intented to annoy the Rangers fans. It is a worrying decision for many reasons, I think we would do well to remember many of the debates that surrounded the Danish Mohammed cartoons affair in February – another controversy over symbolism, intent, and interpretation.

The most important debate then, as now, did not so much revolve around the ‘meaning’ of the symbol itself. In both cases, we agree that it is at least possible for symbols that one group find offensive, to considered benign or even sacred by another. No-one can define the symbol positively or negatively for everyone – people just have subjective responses. We only become concerned with the matter when one person (or newspaper) seeks to deliberately incite such responses in others. Then we ask whether they have a right to do so, balancing freedom of speech considerations with public order.

In the case of the cartoons published in the Jyllands Posten, the consensus (it seemed to me) settled with the importance of freedom of speech. The right to offend was rightly trumpeted. Those who did have a negative reaction were labelled as intolerant. Certainly, said the blogosphere, the secular ideals of freedom of speech trump the traditions of a religious group, especially when the issue concerns criticism of that group. The government seemed to agree, and those who over-reacted were arrested.

In this latest, analagous case however, the opposite has happened, and it is the provocateur who has been punished. I think this is wrong for a couple of reasons. First, I might say that banter between the home and away teams is part of any game of football. The home fans shout jibes at the opposition, while at the other end the players of the team they support are receiving a similar treatment from the visiting fans. Sometimes the banter works, and a player is put off his game. At other times the player responds, and riles the opposing fans some more. Being annoyed by players from other teams is, I would suggest, a part of the game. It is certainly a big part of being a dedicated fan. Furthermore, Boruc’s contribution was not racist or deprecating to the Ranger’s fans themselves. It was an overt gesture of his own faith which pissed them off. He should be allowed to do it, just as they shout rude things about the Pope in return, as they invariably are wont to do when Celtic visit Ibrox.

Is it not appalling that the Ranger’s fans could get so offended by the crossing gesture in the first place? The real issue here is that the rampant sectarianism still exists, and the punishment of Boruc in a way condones the mutual intolerance between the Catholics and Protestants in Scotland.

If the thuggery of sectarianism is our first concern, the second is how different groups are treated when the hackles of the extremists among them are raised. When violence between Christians occurs, we say that it is a social problem, a feature of urban living. No suggestion is made that the problem may be a flaw in the religion itself, that the policy of “multiculturalism” has failed, or that one of the two groups should radically change its thinking… or leave. But this is precisely what happens when the troublemakers are Muslim. Moreover, there are more Protestants and Catholics in the UK than there are Muslims. If Islamic extremism is such a threat to the unity of this country, then sectarianism is too. And since it manifests itself most overtly during football matches – those weekly beacons of the British way of life – it has a greater impact on the wider culture, than the Islamic lobby could ever have. Yet it occupies our thoughts to a lesser degree. Its easier to demonise those beared weirdos in sheets, than it is to criticise the guy in a football who uses sport to teach his sons how to hate.

11 thoughts on “Cautions, crosses… and those cartoons”

  1. As someone who is neither Christian nor Muslim, I am more touched by innocent faith when a footballing proponent of either of those religions crosses or prostrates themselves after a particularly fine goal/save. Apart from anything else it alleviates the boredom of sport watching. I also enjoy the hakka performed by the New Zealand All Blacks. Frankly, the highlight of the game.

    More of it, I say, and less Police cautioning. I hate official bigotry at any time, when it’s wearing the dubious cloak of Political Correctness, it’s even more vile.

  2. I don’t think that acknowledging something is the same as condoning it.

    Also, I thought the people who were arrested over the cartoons were arrested because of violence or death threats. What’s wrong with that? The problem here would be an economy of scale, in that it is not practical to arrest a whole football stadium at once, especially if they’re in the middle of being violent.

    And finally, on the subject of it being de rigeur to abuse people in the name of football – is that really a very edifying aspect of human nature? Also, if players and fans have to just train themselves to ignore it, do we as a society really want large numbers of people habituated to a culture of aggression and abuse like that? I do not. I think it’s most unsavoury. If you don’t let it upset you, then it’s kind of dumb to dish it out, wouldn’t you say?

  3. I recall the first time I heard about the Rangers and the Celyics. About 1970 in my home town in Tennessee, i heard a native of Scotland, a Catholic woman, describe fan behavior at on of their games. You would not believe it, she said. Every Protestant in the crowd was chanting, “Fuck the Pope.”

  4. Yep, that’s the staple.

    Clarice – I’m not complaining about the Muslims who were arrested for violence, or the lack of football fan arrested (I imagine a fair few probably were, as usual). Instead, I’m saying that those who incited the violence – in the first case, the newspaper publishers, and in the second case, Boruc – have been judged very differently.

  5. Yes, Rob, on a careful re-reading, I can see what you mean. In a way, the difference in treatment is a good thing, because it highlights what a grey area it is. I don’t want to harp on (much), but it does remind me also of the GWAOTM debate about intention vs consequence. It’s a time-old issue, it’s in the King Arthur story. I think it might be a bit like nature/nurture…analogue/digital…I could go on. Black and white thinking is much less problematic, but I think it leads to injustice and worse.

  6. “The Celtic goal-keeper Artur Boruc was cautioned by police for causing a breach of the peace, after he made overtly Catholic religious gestures at the stauchly protestant Ibrox Stadium.”

    Maybe it was because he was wearing big goal-keeper gloves?

  7. Robert,

    I agree with your general premise – that JP and Boruc should be treated the same.

    But (guess what) I have two “builds”.

    firstly this is wrong:
    “I’m saying that those who incited the violence”

    In neither case was there any incitement to violence. If offensive speech elicits a violence response, there is no blame whatsoever to attach to the speaker. Full Stop. Incitement to violence occurs when you use speech to encourage those who agree with you to do violence to others.

    Secondly, this is misleading:
    When violence between Christians occurs, we say that it is a social problem, a feature of urban living. No suggestion is made that the problem may be a flaw in the religion itself, that the policy of “multiculturalism” has failed, or that one of the two groups should radically change its thinking… or leave. But this is precisely what happens when the troublemakers are Muslim.

    when violence occurs, one ought to ask what motives were at stake. In the case of Rangers and Celtic, it may be ostensibly religious, but the religion is being abused. Christian religious leaders positively discourage this behaviour so there must be some other cause.

    There are well publicised incidences – Omar Bakri Mohammed, Abu Hamza et al, where Muslim religion leaders invoke violence. I submit that that makes the religious nature of the violence worth noting.

    PG

  8. But for the avoidance of doubt – absolutely not in all cases: violence should be treated on a case by case basis. It’s just that there are enough cases of religious leaders encouraging violence in the name of the religion. Where this happens we should not shy from saying so. I’m not sure that that is quite you meant above.

  9. Very interesting PG. You’re right that in one case, the violence is being called for by the clergy. In another case it is being instigated by merely the professed adherants. Clearly an interpretation (or misinterpretation) by a member of the clergy is going to be more worrying, and probaby cause more damage.

    However, regardless of who is encouraging violence, we still allow that this encouragement is a distortion of the religion. A misinterpretation. We still countenance the idea that the religion itself can promote peace and goodwill among men. Much of the criticism of Islam suggests that this is simply not possible, and that everyone is a latent terrorist.

    Much of the debate I see around this idea of ‘Islamic Fascism’ assumes that a moderate and peaceful side to the religion simply isn’t possible. And that is definitely a false assumption.

    I don’t deny (well, not in this debate, anyway) the suggestion that there are more extremists in Islam than in Christianity. But that doesn’t prove that moderate Islam cannot be a positive thing that we should encourage. (Indeed, I remember reading that Sharia, Bin Laden-type fundamentalism, and even the humble hijab are actually phenomena from the couple of centuries – Will have to check this, however).

    This is why phrases like ‘Islamic Fascism’ get a lot of people worried. I can conceive of a ‘moderate’ muslim being a good thing, but a ‘moderate nazi’ seems an oxymoron.

  10. I don’t deny (well, not in this debate, anyway) the suggestion that there are more extremists in Islam than in Christianity.

    I add this caveat, by the way, merely because I’ve been reading a lot stuff like this:

    I’m just scratching the surface. With the exception of Al Qaeda (and perhaps Saudi Wahhabi clerics), I doubt that any group in the Middle East or Iran can compete with the US Republican Party in level of mendacitiy, hysteria, paranoia and cruelty. Hezbollah and Hamas engage in extensive community organizing and social welfare work and seem more in touch with elementary principles of science, ethics, geography, and international law.

    But that is, as I say, a different debate.

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