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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

A Vital Question Not Easily Washed Away

 

 

Malachi O'Doherty • 19 March 2006

It 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 politics.

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.

He 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 Fortnight.

The 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.

I see no evidence that it has.

What 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 defended.

Take 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?

The 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.

Even 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?

There 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.

In 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 live it.

There 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.

He 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.

The 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.

I 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 discussion.

This 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.

I 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?

Recently 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.

The 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 possible.

The 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 high—browed 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 of it.

There 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.

If 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 case.

But 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.

Ian 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.

The 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 works.

It 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.

If 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.

But, 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.

As 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 that works.

The 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.

And 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?

It is his reaction which has made the question a vital one.

Appeals to intellectual solidarity between the left and our Muslim brethren don’t wash that horror away.

 

 

 

 


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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



 

 

There is no such thing as a dirty word. Nor is there a word so powerful, that it's going to send the listener to the lake of fire upon hearing it.
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Index: Current Articles



19 March 2006

Other Articles From This Issue:

Profile: Irshad Manji
Anthony McIntyre

How Muslims are Caricaturing Ourselves
Irshad Manji

The Clash of the Uncivilized
Imam Zaid Shakir

Misunderstandings Abound
Mick Hall

A Vital Question Not Easily Washed Away
Malachi O'Doherty

Zen and the Heart of Blasphemy
Liam Clarke

Gerry Peacemaker
John Kennedy

Surrendered
John Kennedy

Closer to Home
Anthony McIntyre

Drawing a Line Under the Past
David Adams

It's Our Easter, Too, You Know
Dr John Coulter

'The Way Ireland Ought to Be'
Michael Gilliespie

Former Hunger Striker leads 1981 Commemoration March in St. Pat's Day Parade
Deirdre Fennessy

Corn Beef & Lunatics
Fred A. Wilcox

The Letters page has been updated:

New Convert

Cartoons

About the Possible Posting of the Muslim Cartoons

Well Done

A Muslim's Response

Straight Talk vs Orthodoxy

Freedom of Speech index


12 March 2006

Profile: Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Anthony McIntyre

The Right to Offend
Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Spool of Threads
Marc Kerr

Wrong to Claim Freedom of Speech
Mick Hall

Anti-Racism Network Urges Website Not to Publish Racist-Cartoons
ARN Press Release

Fires of Hate
Anthony McIntyre

All is Far From Lost After Riots
David Adams

Who's A Nazi?
Dr John Coulter

'Screamingly Funny in its Absurdity'
Liam O Ruairc

The Letters page has been updated:

One Man's Terrorist is Another Man's Prophet

Christ Collage

An Eye for An Eye

Glad to See Someone is Not Afraid

There Are No Sides to Peace

Silence is Not Golden; It is Complicity
Anthony McIntyre

Freedom of Speech index

 

 

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