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.
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 Censorshipbacked 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.