Quoted in the Guardian on banning Darwish in Saudia Arabia

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 “If the government truly wishes Islamic art and culture to flourish in the Kingdom, it must urgently repeal these outdated laws.”

 

 

Free Speech, Offence, and Maajid Nawaz

Maajid Nawaz, the author of Radical and the Liberal Democrat Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn, has been at the centre of a controversy this week, after he tweeted a image from the satirical Jesus and Mo cartoon series.  Maajid had been a guest on the BBC’s The Big Questions debate show, where the illustration had been discussed.  He made the point that as a liberal Muslim, he found nothing offensive about the cartoon.

Cue an angry social media backlash.  Many people tweeted their condemnations and threats over what they perceived as a blasphemy.
Continue reading “Free Speech, Offence, and Maajid Nawaz”

The diversity of the hijab

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When I was at University and introducing myself to ideas of multiculturalism, orientalism and Samuel Huntington’s (at that time, relatively new) Clash of Civilisations thesis, I distinctly remember being surprised by the attire of a fellow student in the canteen. She wore a black hijab with a huge sequined YSL logo down the back. I remember being surprised that someone who wore such a conservative piece of clothing should also be concerned with such Western concepts as fashion labels.

Of course, that was me just being casually prejudiced on a number of different levels, and I learnt a lot from that short encounter with the back of that woman’s head. No culture or sub-culture has the monopoly on the chic, the fashionable, the well made, the comfortable; Fashion concerns are not the preserve of urban, anti-religious, counter-cultural types. And most importantly, it is possible that the hijab is more than a conservative, patriarchal garb. It can be a means for self-expression just like any other type of clothing.

Artist Sara Shamsavari’s photographs explore this last lesson. Her street photography, exhibited from tomorrow at the Royal Festival Hall, explores the myriad fashion decisions that follow a woman’s choice to wear a hijab or headscarf.

Looking at the photos, I am reminded of an article entitled ‘The Muslim Sartorialist‘ on the MENA focused blog, Aqoul:

Ever heard of the Sartorialist? It’s basically a photo blog done by a guy with a keen eye for fashion. He photographs people in trendy European and North American cities and adds little blurbs about why he thinks the outfits are interesting.

Now, I’ve always taken note of fashionable Muslim girls around me. They are masters of layering, texture and coordination. Whether it’s at the mall, a pretentious cafe or even my gym (where one stylish muhajabat routinely schools me on the treadmill), these ladies are not held back by their headscarves. Unfortunately, most of the photos you find on news sites are of women wearing frumpy hijabs, dowdy overcoats and ominous-looking ninja getups (as Lounsbury likes to call them). Western media is inundated with photos of shapeless baby-blue Afghan burkas and Saudi niqabs, so it’s hardly surprising that most non-Muslims think this style of dress is ubiquitous.

Sara Shamsavari is Iranian, which reminds me of Andrew Sullivan’s ‘Outing Iran‘ series from around the time of the 2009 elections and protests. No, not an assertion that everyone in Iran is gay. Just a recognition of the diversity of opinion and the radical art that is produced inside societies a d cultures we lazily consider to be monolithic.

There has been a lot of this kind of art in the UK in recent years. The London Olympics was a catalyst for this Kind of commissioning. One might even say that in 2013, this exhibition at the Royal Festival Hall is not particularly radical! I wonder whether London is the most appropriate place for this kind of exhibition. Perhaps it should tour to, oh, I don’t know… Bradford? Or Hampshire?

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”

Comparing Like for Like in the Blasphemy Debate

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.

Censoring Inflammatory YouTubes

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.

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”

Trouble Looming over Burqa Ban

So, French MPs have voted to ban the burka.

We know where this story will go next.  Somewhere in France, a woman will engage in a piece of civil disobediance and enter a public space wearing her veil.  She will draw attention, crowds, the press.  She will be asked to leave, but she will not leave.  Eventually, she will be deported from the area by the gendarmerie or other state agency.  Worse, someone may try to pull off the offending strip of cloth.

This event will be photgraphed and videoed by more than one person, and the footage will be on YouTube within the hour.  It will then become a staple of anti-secular propaganda, proving the intolerance of the European mind and the inherent anti-Islamic sentiment sweeping the West.

Some might suggest that my worries about this inevitable end-point are purely pragmatic.  They might agree that the new French law is counter-productive in the PR war against fundamentalist Islam… but then go on to argue that sometimes, the right decisions are not popular and that we cannot allow short-term realpolitik to trump the principle of the thing.

Here, I have to disagree.  I think that the question over policing what people wear is the principle at stake here.  Dictating dress codes is an incursion on an individual’s free expression.  If we condemn a misogynistic religion or a patriarchal culture when it proscribes what women wear, then how can we support a government that intervenes (and sets prohibitions) in precisely the same arena?  It is appalling.

I often hear the argument that women who wear the veil are “brainwashed”, an assertion that certainly makes sense to me.1 But such a claim is unfalsifiable, impossible to verify.  It is therefore a useless and illegitimate argument to put forward in the political arena, and not a good enough reason to legislate.  If we are truly convinced that brainwashing has taken place, then we must engage in “reverse-brainwashing”, putting forward alternative arguments, explaining the theory and the history of patriarchy, in the hope that people make different choices.  We might begin by discussing the value of facial expressions in communication, while taking an honest look at the idea of the “male gaze” and the undoubted objectification and sexualisation of the female form that is endemic in all cultures.

This is a longer and more frustrating approach, but far better than one which says that you are empowered by being criminalised.  Unfortunately, such long-term thinking rarely appeals to politicians, who favour the heavy-hand of legislation over deeper, cultural approaches.  A burqa ban is also a convenient dog-whistle for the far-right groups, who mainstream politicians are happy to pander to at the expense of a minority with no discernible political power.

If the burqa and the niqab are oppressive to women, then the only people who can shrug off that oppression is the women themselves.  Ripping off that ‘oppression’, by force and at a time of our own choosing, does not look like liberation at all.  It merely substitutes one form of dictatorship for another, returns no autonomy to the women themselves, and unwittingly endorses intolerance.  The philosopher Alain Badiou has a great formulation:

Basically put: these girls or women are oppressed. Hence, they shall be punished. It’s a little like saying: “This woman has been raped: throw her in jail.”

Interesting articles taking a similar view at the F-Word and Oye Times.

'Her Eyes' by Ranoush on Flickr. Creative Commons Licence.
‘Her Eyes’ by Ranoush on Flickr. Creative Commons Licence.

1. One might also suggest that women who wear too little are similarly brainwashed. After all, are they not persuaded to do so by the diktats of the celebrity gossip magazines?

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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.

Call to Prayer, Eastern Spice

Oxford Skyline by Ed Webster

Its been a while since a good multicultural conundrum came along to bother us. For a while, I thought that the issue of the mosque in Oxford that wants to broadcast its call to prayer might be one such issue, but while reading a couple of articles in order to write a blog, I came across this quote from the Telegraph:

“We want to fix a loudspeaker to our minaret to broadcast our call to prayer. We would like to have three two-minute calls a day, but if that is not accepted then we would like to have it at least on Fridays.

“In Islamic counties the call is loud so people are reminded to come to prayer. We do not need the volume to be loud, that can be adjusted because our members have a time-table for the prayers. But we want to have the call in some form because it is our tradition.”

Now this doesn’t look like a culture clash to me, so much as groups engaging in a dialogue with a local authority, just as they should in a liberal democracy. It is being portrayed as an example of the Muslim community making unreasonable demands, when in fact it is merely a polite request, and a modest one at that. Its obvious that the Friday broadcast will be approved, and tolerated, and finally accepted as part of the city, just like football stadiums, nightclubs, and cathedral bells.

Some, such as Daniel Finkelstein in the Times today, complain that this particular addition to Oxford’s sound-scape amounts to an erosion of British, Christian culture. Yet I do not see the validity in this argument. First, we know that culture is a nebulous term and cannot be protected in the way Finkelstein suggests. Adding a new tradition for Oxford does not dilute or those already in existence – it is not as if noise is regulated by a carbon-like trading scheme. Nor is it the case, as Finkelstein seems to suggest, that the existence of a call to prayer will somehow undermine Anglicanism. Religions are not chain pubs trying to out-do one another with larger and brighter advertisements of cheap beer. The call to prayer will not tempt customers aways from the church down the road (and in any case, the wine they serve in the mosque is horrible).

If anything, a new sound in the mix causes us to notice and appreciate the others already there. In this sense, the muzezzin’s call is a piece of genuine Eastern spice.

Second, if anywhere in the country should have a Call to Prayer, its Oxford. The city of dreaming spires is well known for its theological heritage, from medieval times up to the present day. It has been a centre for the study of Islam, the Orient, and Arabic for centuries.

To my mind, only thing offensive about the Call to Prayer is the often poor quality loudspeakers through which it is piped. This is not an offence to culture, but to the good taste for which we British are so well known. Oxford City Council should ensure that funds are available for a decent sound-system, which can do justice to the full-flavoured tones of the vocallist. Either that, or some kind of scholarship so that young men and women can train to sing the call unamplified, like opera singers, choirboys, and (so long as we are talking traditions, here) town criers.

(Cross posted at the Liberal Conspiracy)