is a pity to see committed people of principle like
Anthony McIntyre and Eamon McCann at opposite sides
of a trenchant and vigorous row, but, hey, that's
McCann sides with those who are appalled at the
decision to publish in The Blanket the cartoons
which were at the centre of much violent protest
in the Islamic world a month ago.
put his name to a letter to the Daily Ireland
in protest against the cartoons and calling for
all previous articles by signatories to be removed
from The Blanket archives. The letter was
a silly and petulant one, reinforcing its case with
the claim that the quality of journalism in The
Blanket has slipped so badly that Eamon and
his colleagues could not be at home in such company.
It's rare that a journalist has the luxury of disassociating
him or herself in such grand style from the other
contributors to an organ perhaps it only
happens when the organ is a non-paying one. We were
an easy target for similar acts of petulance on
debate has extended into radio a brief slanging
match on Sunday Sequence across Slugger
O'Toole and into the letters pages of the Sundays.
Anthony McIntyre is accused of making a decision
to publish cartoons which will be an affront to
Palestinians without having first consulted his
colleagues in a campaign to defend the rights of
Palestinians. That's in a letter to the Sunday Tribune.
That letter concedes rather more of McIntyre's argument
than the writer has noticed, with its presumption
that ideas and the right to express them belong
first of all to groups and political campaigns rather
than to individuals. The detractors of The Blanket
seem determined to make their case on a dismissal
of the integrity of the editors, as if publishing
the cartoons is a symptom of a once respected organ
of dissenting opinion having gone downhill.
see no evidence that it has.
appears to be wanting here is not the quality of
journalism in The Blanket, but the quality
of argument from its attackers, who seem more committed
to a principle of political solidarity with
each other and with some entity they imagine to
be a race of Muslims. McIntyre's failing, as they
present it, is in his breaking ranks with them,
as if his ideas are only of value if they fit within
a family of ideas, collectively agreed and staunchly
the charge that the cartoons are racist. Islam is
not a race. What is racism anyway, if not a determination
to divide the one race of humanity into separate
races of black, white, Asian and whatever?
whole debate on race is really mostly a debate on
culture. The thugs who sneer at people of a different
colour are racist in that they make the mistake
of attributing a different race to the person they
are sneering at and fail to see that that person
is of the same race as themselves.
by that coarse understanding of race, Islam is gloriously
multiracial. And there is a danger in confusing
a religion with a race; that by doing so you are
reinforcing the internal rules of that religion,
telling people where they belong and what their
appropriate attitudes are. What of the apostates
and the transgressors within Islam? What space do
we leave them if we blithely attribute violent sensitivity
to religious insult so broadly?
is a serious question about the propriety of insulting
a religious tradition, but that is not the question
raised by the detractors of The Blanket.
Indeed, they are probably the least likely to defend
a religious tradition.
some of the debate, on Slugger and elsewhere, the
point has been made that a religious idea is an
expression of lunacy, that religious ideas are flimsy
intellectual constructs, thrown into the marketplace
of ideas in which they deserve to be torn apart.
I don't hold with that myself. A religious culture
succeeds because it bonds a grouping of followers
together. It thrives because it appeals both to
the clan, or tribe, and to the individual. If it
was simply just a bad explanation of how the world
works which is how Richard Dawkins perceives
religion then it wouldn't survive. We are
surely not so far removed from our own religious
past in Ireland that we have forgotten how religion
appeals to the imagination and the sensibility and
how important a life of reverence is for those who
is as much danger of inflaming Islamic passions,
through offence to the sacred, as their would have
been in Ireland 30 years ago. I remember the shock,
felt almost physically, when Ian Paisley held up
the Eucharist wafer at a debate in the Oxford union
to mock those who attributed deity to it. Catholics
who were previously bemused by Paisley felt he had
gone too far.
had made his argument against Catholicism in a manner
which was calculated to insult rather than to impress.
It is hardly conceivable that any catholic at the
time suddenly realised that Ian Paisley had a point
and sought him out to discuss it.
best argument against the cartoons is, perhaps,
that they potentially shut down rather than enable
discussion with Muslims about our diverse ways of
viewing the world and the meaning of life.
would like to explain to Muslims why transgression
of the sacred is liberating, why virtually every
step I have taken in life towards a better understanding
of my self has been a transgression of the sacred.
It is because I value my individual, psychological
liberation more highly than my identification with
any group. I also believe that groupings, like nations,
become wiser too if they do not suppress ideas and
images and allow the fullest and freest possible
is an idea which people whose sense of the sacred
is rooted in collectivism, whether tribal, national
or political, will find repulsive. I know that.
do not believe in lightly transgressing that which
is sacred to others. There is no personal challenge
for me in questioning Islam or in confronting its
values and those things and people it reveres, because
these did not shape me and do not bind me. My journey,
like that of many of my generation, has been a confrontation
with Catholic tradition and culture. That was our
challenge. Muslims should understand, when they
address this issue, that in recent generations western
culture shaped itself through a struggle against
religious conditioning and cannot concede that that
was not a valuable and rewarding struggle. Religious
fundamentalism has not come to us for the first
time in an Islamic guise. We have been up against
it for a long time. And who knows what comes next;
mullahs playing Black Sabbath records backwards
to hear heresies there?
I had a conversation with Belfast Muslim with whom
I am on friendly terms. I had a sheaf of papers
in my hand and I teased him by pretending to him
that they were the cartoons and asked him if he
would like to see them. He was immediately embarrassed
and pleaded with me not to open the papers. "No
please; whatever you do, do not insult Mohammed."
This is not a Muslim who has engaged publicly in
the debate or let himself be angered by it. He did
not want to see the cartoons and he did not want
to discuss them. That's fair. What is not fair is
for people to express outrage at the cartoons without
having seen them. We must suppose that nearly all
of those who protested on the streets against the
cartoons had not seen them.
detractors of The Blanket who say that they
stand with the offended and insulted Muslims, yet
refuse to look at the cartoons, do nothing to help
us understand where the insult lies, or even if
there is anything seriously offensive to reasonable
Muslims in the cartoons at all. They can't know
and they can't help us to understand. They tell
us that Muslims are under attack, therefore we should
not insult their religion. That is a decent and
courteous principle. It is not an absolute argument
against discussion of the cartoons and publication
of them, without which informed discussion isn't
detractors have argued that they would be equally
averse to publishing anti Irish cartoons from 19th
century Punch. But these have been republished,
for instance by Liz Curtis in More of the Same Old
Story, (Pluto Press). Liz published the cartoons
to show how racist anthropology had sought to present
similarities between the features of black Africans
and Irish peasants, making the case that both were
inferior to highbrowed white Europeans. She
published these cartoons in the 1980s at a time
of intense sectarian violence and anti Irish feeling
in England. No one protested against her doing so.
Nor should they have done. She had done absolutely
nothing wrong. If readers are to be informed about
an issue they have to be shown what is at the heart
is an allegation that the hostility whipped up against
the Danish cartoons was energised by fakes; more
offensive cartoons still than those published in
Denmark. If there is evidence of this, we should
be shown those fakes too. If such fakes could be
exposed that would greatly enrich the discussion
and improve understanding all round.
any paper or website wants to make the case that
Islamic forces are anti Jewish and publish disgusting
anti Jewish cartoons, then that paper should be
free to publish those cartoons also to make its
there is an actual cultural difference between Muslims,
particularly non Westernised Muslims, and even religious
minded Europeans. Westerners are familiar with caustic
and vicious lampooning in cartoons. We know that
the cartoon as a medium goes far beyond what is
acceptable within text, in the ways in which it
describes people and ideas.
Knox's cartoons for Hearts and Minds often present
Irish paramilitaries as folksy, diminutive, gormless
and quaint. To a degree, every cartoon representation
is stereotypical, because the language is image.
We know that Knox does not actually believe that
Ian Paisley looks like the figure he draws of him;
that representing him, say, with slime running from
his chops, is comment and not literal comment either.
In a sense it asks the subject to consider if this
is how he might look to others.
cartoon is fun. It is a safety valve among the rest
of the dark and challenging news. It is always transgressive.
The point of the cartoon is to say that nothing
is sacred; that is the implied message of the medium
itself, regardless of the content of individual
may be that the cartoons were originally framed
with a conscious understanding that they would be
as insulting and hurtful as they have been, though
perhaps not. By now, the original intention is irrelevant.
The cartoons became a major story when a political
jihadist movement threatened those who dared publish
them. The Blanket's publishing of them does
not associate The Blanket with the intentions
of the first publisher. The story has moved on.
The Blanket was seeking to publish new cartoons
simply to invite us all to mock Islam, I would have
nothing to do with it. Context is everything.
people say, we have to defend the right of free
speech. Well, the case against publishing gratuitously
offensive work does not even have to be made with
reference to the principle of free speech. The media
takes decisions every minute of every hour on what
to publish and what not to publish and the principle
of free speech, in my experience, rarely features
in discussion of those decisions. It is perfectly
legitimate for any editor to take a decision not
to publish insensitive or offensive material. For
instance: after the Shankill Bomb, I recorded a
vox pop that included people who approved of the
bomb. The programme I worked on chose not to broadcast
it, and was right to take that decision because
of the pain the material would have caused to the
relatives of the victims.
it turns out, the cartoons I have seen are not that
bad. The contrast of a blinded swordsman with women
who have eyes to see and nothing else raises intriguing
questions about what women in purda really think
of the men who rule them, and in a succinct way
image of suicide bombers running into Heaven, to
be told that all the virgins have been taken, is
simply funny. But it has a sting for anyone who
takes religious mythology literally. It would be
much more exciting as work of cartoon journalism
if it had been drawn by a Muslim critiquing his
or her own culture, of course.
who does more to imply an association between Islam
and terror; the cartoonist who shows Mohammed the
Prophet with a bomb in his turban or the jihadist
who says he will bomb you if you publish that cartoon?
is his reaction which has made the question a vital
to intellectual solidarity between the left and
our Muslim brethren dont wash that horror