On Politics, Power and the Pulpit

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”

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. Continue reading “Blasphemy and Cynical Plays for Power”

Fear of Offending

Last week we learned that South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have suffered death-threats on an Islamist site, after they attempted to depict the Prophet Mohammed in South Park.  Contributors to site called Revolutionmuslim.com warned they might be killed, like the filmmaker Theo Van Gogh.  The Revolutionmuslim site is now down, but their threats are cached by Google:

We have to warn Matt and Trey that what they are doing is stupid and they will probably wind up like Theo Van Gogh for airing this show. This is not a threat, but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them.

The post also contained a link to a Huffington Post article which describes where Stone and Parker live.  The group later presented a ‘clarification’ on SlideShare, which is still live, and which repeats the threat:

As for the Islamic ruling on the situation, then this is clear. There is no difference of opinion from those with any degree of a reputation that the punishment is death.  For one example, Ibn Taymiyyah the great scholar of Islam says, “Whoever curses the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) – a Muslim or a non Muslim- then he must be killed…” and this is the opinion of the general body of Islamic  scholars.

… This shows that taking this stance is virtually obligatory, but it does not mean that our taking this stance is in some way an absolute call toward the requirement that the creators of South Park must be killed, nor a deliberate attempt at incitement, it is only to declare the truth regardless of consequence and to offer an awareness in the mind of Westerners when they proceed forward with even more of the same.

Quite chilling. In the end, Mohammed was shown on South Park in a bear suit, and then underneath a big black ‘censored’ box, with references to his name bleeped out. Producers at Comedy Central made clear that it was they, and not Stone/Parker, that inserted this censorship.  In the second of the two part episode, the man in the suit was revealed to be Father Christmas, not Mohammed.

What is odd about all this is that, before the Mohammed cartoons controversy in Denmark, South Park quite happily featured Mohammed, unveiled, uncloaked, and unbearsuited.  The episode freely circulates in repeats and on DVD, and can be viewed in this short Boing Boing interview with Parker and Stone:

This week, the saga took a strang twist, when cartoonist Molly Norris published and circulated a cartoon entitled ‘Everybody Draw Mohammed Day‘, highlighting the ridiculous outcome of the South Park situation, where drawing anything can be taboo if it is labelled ‘Mohammed’:

The images and the idea were dedicated to Parker and Stone, but their heritage can be traced back clearly to the beginnings of conceptual art: René Magritte’s ‘The Treachery of Images‘ (“Ceci n’est pas une pipe”), perhaps? Norris ‘Citizens Against Citizens Against Humor’ label was quickly taken to be a real movement (it was not), and the ‘day’ assumed to be a proper publicity drive (which it wasn’t). Norris quickly removed her image, and made clear that she was not attempting to disrespect religion herself.

This entire episode marks a continuation, rather than a departure, from the frustrating discourse around blasphemy and ‘offence’.  Since the Rushdie affair, and especially since more recent examples such as the Theo Van Gogh murder, the ideal and right of free expression has been on the back foot.  Matt Stone’s quote in the video above highlights the sorry state of affairs:

Now that’s the new normal.  We lost. Something that was OK is now not OK.

When people like Stone and Parker do attempt to take this on, they are foiled by their own network.  Cartoonists like Molly Norris back away from any controversy.  In the UK, the recent production of Behud by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti reminds us that no-one is brave enough to put on Behzti, her controversial play set in a Sikh Temple.   Even the board of the illustrious Index on Censorship backed away from publishing a Mohammed cartoon earlier this year.

We are living in one of two worlds.  Either

  • the fears of all these people are justified, in which case, we have actually descended into a sort of fascist dystopia;  Or
  • we are being over-cautious, and self-censoring unnecessarily

My personal sense is that it is the latter state of affairs is where we are at.  The Revolution Muslim group seem tiny, pathetic and are easily dealt with using existing laws against threatening behaviour.  Likewise with other protesting groups in both the USA and the UK, who can be easily countered if free speech activists and artists co-ordinate properly.  Moreover, public opinion is certainly with free speech, and against those who think that blasphemy is a legitimate reason to censor.

Those with a personal connection to Theo Van Gogh, or Hitoshi Igarashi (Salman Rushdie’s Japanese translator) may disagree over the nature of the threat.  Crucially, however, either situation is untenable and an assault on democracy, and cannot be allowed to stand.

My feeling is that political leadership is required.  Only political leaders can guarantee police and legal protection for those who push the boundaries of satire… and the companies that facilitate this.  We don’t have this at the moment, and artists seem to be swimming in uncertainty, lost and scared.