And Repeat

Right, I’m going to go on being predictable for awhile. Can’t be helped.

Sarah Joseph in the Guardian for instance.

The battle is set, of religious extremism versus freedom of speech. These are the lines drawn, or so we are told, in the escalating tensions worldwide surrounding the printing of images of Muhammad in Denmark and elsewhere in Europe.

That’s not how I would draw them, actually. That is a little too predictable, and it’s also not quite the point. It seems to me the battle is between the idea that religion should be immune from criticism and the idea that it should not be. Or, perhaps, it’s between the idea that ‘sensitivities’ and feelings of being ‘offended’ and desires for ‘respect’ should receive great deference and attention and loving concern and the idea that grownups are supposed to have learned how to take being ‘offended’ in stride and move on. Or it’s between the idea that ‘the sacred’ should be inviolate and the idea that it should be subject to scrutiny. Or it’s between the idea that ‘blasphemy’ is strictly forbidden and the idea that ‘blasphemy’ is a meaningless word referring to an empty category and should be drummed out of our vocabulary, let alone our laws. Or all those, and a few more.

First, the easy part. Any depiction of Muhammad, however temperate, is not allowed. There are but a few images of him in Muslim history, and even these are shown with his face veiled. This applies not only to images of Muhammad: no prophet is to be depicted. There are no images of God in Islam either.

Not allowed to whom? Interesting that she neglects to include the necessary qualifier. Interesting and revealing, and of course she’s not the only one who’s been using that trick. There’s an authoritarian little move going on by which people try to pretend that taboos apply universally as opposed to only the people who accept them. We can all draw pictures of Muhammad if we want to, and the Sarah Josephs don’t get to tell us it’s not allowed.

And there’s Paul Vallely in the Independent, solemnly explaining the problem for us.

Images of the Prophet Mohamed have long been discouraged in Islam. The West has little understanding of why this should be so – nor of the intensity of the feelings aroused by non-believers’ attitudes to the founder of Islam…Because Muslims believe that Mohamed was the messenger of Allah, they extrapolate that all his actions were willed by God. A singular love and veneration thus attaches to the person of Mohamed himself. When speaking or writing, his name is always preceded by the title “Prophet” and followed by the phrase: “Peace be upon him”, often abbreviated in English as PBUH…More than that, to reject and criticise Mohamed is to reject and criticise Allah himself. Criticism of the Prophet is therefore equated with blasphemy, which is punishable by death in some Muslim states. When Salman Rushdie, in his novel The Satanic Verses, depicted Mohamed as a cynical schemer and his wives as prostitutes, the outcome was – to those with any understanding of Islam – predictable. But understanding of Islam is sorely lacking in the West.

What is it that we’re supposed to understand? And what is supposed to follow from this understanding? Are we supposed to say ‘Oh, I see, criticism of the Prophet is equated with blasphemy, which is punishable by death – oh well now I understand, and I am filled with respect and deference, and I will go and sin no more. As long as they’re willing to kill people for the sake of all this intensity of feeling, then I have not a word to say against any of it.’ What if we already do understand all that, and it’s exactly what we take exception to? What if we don’t want 7th century taboos imposed on us as 21st century secular somewhat rational people?

Oh, never mind. I’m still trying to recover from listening to Sacranie on the World Service this morning. My head hurts.

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