Last week, a controversy erupted in Batley, Yorkshire, after a teacher showed his class a cartoon of the prophet Mohammed, during a discussion about the Charlie Hebdo massacre of 2015.
The school has many Muslim students and some of their parents were angry at the teacher for having done this. As we are all probably aware by now, some branches of Islam (not all) consider any depiction of the Prophet to be undesirable and blasphemous.
Where there is an alleged blasphemy, free speech rights are engaged, and people like me become motivated to opine. In this particular case, I was not so much motivated as mobilised: TalkRADIO called me at short notice to chat to Kevin O’Sullivan about it. Here’s our conversation, the first draft of my thoughts on the matter.
There is more to say, however. As I have come to realise whenever such controversies kick-off, there are usually several issues rolled up in the debate. I think it’s more intellectually honest to post ‘notes’ on what those issues are, rather than posting a piece of unequivocal click-bait that condemns one side or the other.
The gallery, founded by the advertising magnateCharles Saatchi, rejected calls from some visitors to remove the paintings, arguing it was up to visitors to come to their own conclusions on the meaning of the art. However, in response to the complaints, SKU suggested as a compromise the works should remain on the gallery wall but be covered up with sheets.
“It seemed a respectful solution that enables a debate about freedom of expression versus the perceived right not to be offended,” he said in a statement to the Sunday Times.
At a museum in Haifa, Israel, a sculpture called McJesushas been removed from display. The name of piece by Jani Leinonen tells you exactly what it looks like and also gives heavy clues as to why it is controversial: it is the crucifixion of Ronald McDonald. There have been angry protests against the sculpture by Israeli Christians who consider it offensive and blasphemous. There were threats of fire bombing. The sculpture brings to mind another crucifixion mash-up, Immersion (Piss Christ) by Andreas Serrano (1987). I also think of The Holy Virgin Mary by Chris Ofili (1996), a picture painted using elephant dung and which features pornographic imagery. Rudi Giuliani, then mayor of New York, called it ‘sick’ when the painting was exhibited there in 1999. Continue reading “Hey, Haifa! 1999 called and it wants it's controversy back!”
Last week I spoke at the launch of Draw The Line Here, the book of cartoons published by English PEN in response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre. I touched on a few things that I have already noted here: the punctured optimism after the 7/7 bombings, for example. I also explicity noted the fact that, on the day after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, all but two British newspapers carried the same terrible image of the murdered policeman Ahmed Merabet, yet only those same two newspapers (The Guardian and The Independent) felt able to reproduce the relatively benign image of Mohammed on the cover of Charlie Hebdo the following week. Amazingly, I also encountered a heckler during the speech! He protested that the incredibly crass cartoons that sometimes found their way into the pages of Charlie Hebdo were not worth defending. I unequivocally disagreed. A recording of my speech is embedded below (and also on SoundCloud). Continue reading “Heckled about Free Speech and Charlie Hebdo”
Charlie Hebdo is not a racist publication. But even if it was, its stand against fundamentalist religion took courage and should be applauded. Freedom of expression is being debated yet again, and this time my colleagues at the PEN American Center are in the middle of the discussion. Six of its members have withdrawn as ‘literary hosts’ from the annual fundraising gala, in protest at the decision to award Charlie Hebdo a ‘Freedom of Expression Courage’ award. In theNew York Times, Peter Carey, one of the boycotting authors, is quoted as saying:
“A hideous crime was committed, but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about?”
Salman Rushdie was also quoted in the New York Times piece, defending the award:
“If PEN as a free speech organization can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name,” Mr. Rushdie said. “What I would say to both Peter and Michael and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them.”