Last week, the works of the celebrated Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish were removed from the Riyadh International Book Fair because they were ‘blasphemous’. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Culture and Information said the books “violated the kingdom’s laws”. This theological position comes about because in some of his work Darwish treats Judaism, Christianity and Islam as equivalents, which obviously upsets the fundamentalists.
I spoke to the Guardian about the ban and was quoted in their report:
But the writers’ group English PEN issued a stinging rebuttal to the move. “It is bizarre and disappointing that the government of Saudi Arabia has allowed a small group of people to censor one of the Islamic world’s most important modern poets. The Riyadh international book fair is supposed to promote culture and commerce in Saudi Arabia, but this incident has had precisely the opposite effect,” said its head of campaigns, Robert Sharp. He also pointed to the case of newspaper columnist Hamza Kashgari, who was imprisoned without trial in Saudi Arabia for two years after he posted a short series of tweets in which he imagined a dialogue with the Prophet Muhammad.
“Blasphemy laws stunt cultural development,” said Sharp. “If the government truly wishes Islamic art and culture to flourish in the Kingdom, it must urgently repeal these outdated laws.”
I continue to be obsessed with this sort of thing: A mass of people all taking a photograph, simultaneously, of the same historical moment.
Take a look at this image.
It is St Peter’s Square, Rome, on a Wednesday evening in March, as Pope Francis was introduced to the Faithful. I think perfectly captures our time and obsessions and it should be the definitive image of this particular event.
I continue to be obsessed with this sort of thing: A mass of people all taking a photograph, simultaneously, of the same historical moment. It seems people (myself included) have an obsession with recording their own version of a shared moment… Even if their version of the sight (in this case, a pope) is grainy, tiny, and out of focus… And even if we can guarantee without a shadow of doubt that a better, professionally captured image, will be available.
People would rather watch the special moment through their viewfinder, than with their own eyes.
(I said I included myself among those who indulge in this weird practice, and I meant it. My closest even encounter with the Queen, at an opening of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, was experienced entirely through the view-finder of a Super-8mm cine camera).
I think the image above (which, ironically, I had to re-photograph from the Metro free newspaper because I could not find it online) has extra resonance, however. The glowing screens look a little like candles. In years past, I’m sure the Catholic faithful would have indeed held vigil by candle-light as they waited for the ‘Habemus Papum’ announcement. So the constellation of smart-phones here provides a sort of visual pun, the twenty-first century intruding on a centuries-old ritual.
Jack of Kent has an interesting post about St Luke’s Gospel. He says that the nativity story has been embellished and fabricated to the point where it is simply incorrect… other than the fact that Jesus was indeed born around 4 BC, somewhere in what is now modern Palestine.
Why ‘improve’ on the nativity? Simply put, it makes for better PR, and helps the religion to grow! This mutation of the original facts reminds me of the idea thought that religion is very much like a strand of DNA. The individual elements of the story change and adapt, the better to survive and flourish. Yet throughout, the essence of the story remains.
It was none other than Richard Dawkins who coined the word ‘meme‘ for ideas that grow and evolve, in his famous treatise The Selfish Gene. So I am surprised at the venom with which he and other atheists slag off religion and the preposterous, obviously false claims contained within the Abrahamic texts. If you want the kernel of the Nazarene’s philosophy to survive a couple of millennia of war, disease, natural disaster, shifting borders and mutating languages, then you have to wrap it in parables, fabulism, and sound-bites.* Continue reading “Memes, Religion and DNA”
The opposition to gay marriage is anti-marriage and anti-family, and should be framed as such.
It’s encouraging to see that a group of Tories have formed a campaign group in support of gay marriage. Let us hope it hastens the day when the Government put the necessary legislation in place.
At the end of 2012, I assume the Liberal Conspiracy website is not best place to make arguments for gay marriage. There is a sense of preaching to the converted. Far better that the core case is made on places like Conservative Home. But Christmas is coming, which is the perfect opportunity for us all to debate the issue with relatives or friends who may not yet be persuaded.
Over the turkey, then, you may hear a version of the tiresome talking point trotted out by Peter Bone MP over the weekend: Marriage has been defined as “between one man and one woman” for hundreds of years. This really seems to be all the opponents of gay marriage have left – a feeble call-back to historical precedent and utterly discredited religious authority. They fail to follow up with a persuasive “and this is a good thing because…” Any arguments for why exclusively heterosexual marriage might better than extending the marriage ‘franchise’ fail in the 21st Century (for example, no-one these days seriously suggests that marriage is primarily about procreation).
Second, many people try to hide behind religious reasons for their opposition. “It is Adam & Eve, not Adam & Steve!” Yawn. To that soundbite, it is worth pointing out that in the Garden of Eden story, the very first thing that God says about His creation, is that man should not be alone (Gen. 2-18). By contrast, the position of the Christian churches currently requires gay people to be alone. It is a pro-loneliness, anti-Genesis position.
The prefixes “pro” and “anti” remind me of the ongoing political arguments over abortion, where the battle is over language as well as facts and values. The campaign for gay marriage needs to be similarly mindful of language. For example, the Coalition for Marriage uses the language of preservation, where in fact their policies suppress the possible number of people who can get married. The opposition to gay marriage is anti-marriage and anti-family, and should be framed as such.
Criminalising political protest in places of worship is un-democratic and wrong.
Following the news that two members of Pussy Riot have been sent to remote penal colonies in Russia, UCB Radio asked me on to Paul Hammond’s show on to discuss ‘Politics and the Pulpit’.
Is a church an appropriate place for political messages? There are two aspects to this question. The first is whether activists should protest in a Church. Was the uninvited ‘hooliganism’ of Pussy Riot justified? I cited the example of Jesus himself, who caused havoc in the Temple in what was surely a political as well as spiritual protest (see, for example, Mark 11-15). Continue reading “On Politics, Power and the Pulpit”
Yesterday I expressed some unease at the way the theological and philosophical debate about blasphemy obscures other reasons why there are protests in the Middle East. This article from Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times is an excellent example of what I mean:
“PISS CHRIST,” a famous photograph partly financed by taxpayers, depicted a crucifix immersed in what the artist said was his own urine. But conservative Christians did not riot on the Washington Mall.
“The Book of Mormon,” a huge hit on Broadway, mocks the church’s beliefs as hocus-pocus. But Mormons haven’t burned down any theaters.
So why do parts of the Islamic world erupt in violence over insults to the Prophet Muhammad?
Note how the two examples of religions tolerating satire are drawn from the US? Kristof then goes International to talk about the violence of Islam.
A more apt comparison would have been with how American Muslims react to satire and ridicule. I do not doubt they raise protest – just as Christians raised protest over the “Piss Christ” art – but they do not engage in violent protest. For one thing, the police are strong enough to put a stop to such violence. But also, society is strong enough that chaotic protests, effigy burning and death are non-existent. Kristof’s sleight-of-keyboard suggests he might be pursuing and ideological agenda, rather than honestly compare like-with-like.
A better example of how to tackle this point was given this morning by none other than Douglas Murray. The Spectator columnist is a known Muslim-baiter, but during his appearance on Sunday Morning Live today, he was keen to point out early on that the protests we have seen this week were isolated and localised to particular countries, and that it was wrong to treat all Muslims as a monolithic block.
The ‘Innocence of Muslims’ nonsense also raises the questions on the other side of the controversy: should the American filmmakers have published the video? Should they have been are allowed to upload it to YouTube?
First: The principles of free speech are pretty clear cut in this case. The video is pretty awful, but does not call for violence towards anyone. So banning such a video would set a terrible precedent. It would allow the religious to censor criticism of their religion… And God knows, the Christian fundamentalists in the USA would relish that opportunity.
However, the question of whether the authors should have made the video is another matter. I wish they had not. They did it for hateful, disrespectful reasons. It comes from a bigoted mindset, and is designed to provoke and inflame. People who make that kind of art tend not to be very nice, interesting, or intelligent. But, to repeat the key point of the article I wrote about Günter Grass for the New Statesman, To say this is an act of artistic and moral criticism, not a statement on the principles of free speech.
Finally: should YouTube have removed the clip or suppressed it in certain countries? They did precisely this in Egypt, I believe. I think that this might be the most interesting part of the whole affair. On the one hand, YouTube is a private company, with its own Terms & Conditions that are distinct from the law of the land. If it wants to set a higher bar for free expression then I suppose it has the right to do that. On the other hand, YouTube has become so ubiquitous that It has become part of our public square, a shared communal space that is essential for democracy. Perhaps it has to act more like a government than a private company, and take a more permissive attitude to free expression.
Let’s have a think about this report by the Church of England, warning that gay marriage will ruin its ability to perform marriage.
First, the church says that marriage has/will become a “hollowed out” shell of its former glory. Personally, I do not think that allowing people who love each other to have access to the stability and security that marriage brings is a “hollowing out”. As I have argued before, in refusing to countenance gay marriage, religions forget their core mission. Instead of fostering community, inclusion and family stability as they claim, they instead promote ostracism, division and exclusion.
The Church also says that new proposals will mean that they will end up not performing any marriages. Campaigners dismiss this will actually happen, but I wonder whether principle says that it should. The conundrum arises because Churches are technically state institutions… And our modern principles of equality demand that everyone be allowed access to them. If priests are adamant that they will not marry some (gay) people, the only way to achieve that consistently is to not marry anyone in a Church.
The Church raise this point because they think the logic points to the absurdity of gay marriage. It does not. Instead, it points to the absurdity of an established Church. In this multi-faith era, how can any particular faith have the backing of the state? Issues of equality and conscience and tradition are bound to collide, with people compelled to take part in situations they would rather not, due to their personal faith. The answer is disestablishment. An unfettered Church of England would be free to persue its conscience into the same marginalised corner of society as the Catholic Church. Of course, that would mean renouncing the Bishop’s seats in the House of Lords, and presumably a lot of the power, property and prestige that comes with being Established. But I think it would be for the best.
More on the issue of gay marriage. The Network of Sikh Organisations sent me a press release over the weekend. I can’t find a link online, so the whole thing is reproduced below. It begins:
Lord Singh, Director of the Network of Sikh Organisations, supports Anglican and Catholic Bishops in opposing Coalition’s legislation to distort the meaning of marriage.
Along with Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet, who is an advisor to the Chief Rabbi, Lord Singh accused the Coalition of launching an “assault” on religious values.
I disagree with Lord Singh on this. I think the “assault on religion” argument is invalid. It implies that religion (any religion) has a fixed and inmutable view of marriage, which they palpably do not. The definition has evolved over the centuries within religions, as well as without.
His stance also claims a primacy for religious definitions over secular society’s definitions, which doesn’t hold in the 21st Century. Why do religions to which I do not subscribe get to define “marriage” for me and my friends. Rather the secular, democratic parliament (if anyone), following society at large.
Lord Singh and the others should make clear that no Gurdwara or Mandir or Synagogue or Church will ever be compelled to perform or endorse a homosexual marriage. He and his co-dissenters know this is the case, but it is missing from their rhetoric. Not one Sikh marriage will be damaged or changed by this… though lesbian and gay Sikhs will be driven away from their faith, which is a shame.
I also think the parity between Civil partnerships and Marriage is overstated. One has an important social element, the other is merely a legalistic device. Denying gays the social recognition of their love and commitment is, to my mind, wrong – but it seems to be the precise intention of this cabal. I discuss this in the comments on this post.
Since religious communities are supposed to exist precisely to encourage strong inter-personal bonds and social stability, it’s actually odd that they choose to condemn this extension of the marriage “franchise”.