Blasphemy and Cynical Plays for Power

I really shouldn’t let the weekend start without jotting a few notes about the ongoing unrest in the Middle East, provoked by the YouTube video “The Innocence of Muslims” and fuelled by the French magazine Charlie Hebdo.

The protests have sparked another round of analysis of the the Muslim faith, with the predictable indictment of Islam as uniquely intolerant. The Onion published a very funny NSFW cartoon, blasphemous to all religions except Islam, with the headline ‘No-one Murdered Because of This Image’. Funny, yes, but not actually accurate as satire. The fundamentalist Hindus of India are not above threats and riots when their sacred images are appropriated. The internationally acclaimed artist MF Hussain spent his twilight years in exile because of threats made by his own countrymen, such was their dislike of his Mother India paintings. And Richard Gere’s effigy was burned by an angry mob after he kissed Shilpa Shetty.

The fact that Hindus riot too is instructive. When they do, it is at the encouragement of nationalists groups like Shiv Sena, who seek political power through demonisation and division. When Muslims riot, it is similarly due to local leaders seeking to win political support. Even the Salman Rushdie fatwā (also in the news this week due to the publication of Rushdie’s autobiography, Joseph Anton) was raised by Ayatollah Khomeini as part of a power-play. The old Ayatollah had been losing political support in the months leading up to Valentine’s Day 1989, when the infamous decree was issued.

See also this article by Hisham Matar in the New Yorker, on the sacking of the US Embassy in Libya that led to the assassination of the Ambassador. Matar makes the case that the attacks were planned an orchestrated, with the ‘outrage’ over the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ merely a cover.

Why are we not seeing any significant opposition to these apparent blasphemies in the UK? Why aren’t the almost 3 million British Muslims rising up in vocal violent protest, as their religion (apparently) demands? Simple: people living in a stable Western Democracy have much less reason to protest and riot. There are no competing centres of power around any religious institutions. So there are far fewer people in Britain making the dubious theological claim that depictions of the prophet must be met with violence.

Its the opposite state of affairs in the Middle East, which is still finding its feet after the Arab Spring of 2011. I think that the fact that the protests are strongest there, and in Pakistan, says more about the weakness of Government in those countries, than it does about the religion of Islam. The protests so numerous and frequent in the Middle East because in those places there are many people seeking to consolidate their alternative power-bases. Demonstrating piety and demonising America is a great way to do this.

That is not to say that there is no philosophical error in the idea of blasphemy, or the idea that a religion could decree any criticism of its Prophet off-limits. Au contraire, I think it is a clear intellectual failing! However, it is one that has been recognised by moderate Muslims, who recognise it is invalid in the secular political discourse.

However, it continues to be exploited by the cynical political players, looking for an excuse to manipulate and incite their followers, the better to control and oppress them.

I enjoy a good religious debate, probing the absurd claims of faithful. But I do not think that such a disagreement is really at the root of the problems we are facing here. Fascinating though the theological argument can be, I feel it is in many ways too simplistic an analysis. Explaining the entire issue as “because Muslims find pictures of the prophet blasphemous” is reductive and unhelpful.

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