A Tonic

Feb 11th, 2006 6:23 pm | By

For a restorative, there is this from Delaware.

In the end, the cartoon battle is not about respect or disrespect. The fundamental conflict behind the rioting is over the idea of blasphemy. That requires belief. But you cannot blaspheme what you don’t believe in. Islamists demand that laws punish blasphemers. That cannot be done in secular societies. How can a society be free if the law requires you to believe?

And there is Ayaan, peace, freedom and secularism be upon her.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali said it was “correct to publish the cartoons” in Jyllands Posten and “right to republish them”…Ms Hirsi Ali, speaking in Berlin, said that “today the open society is challenged by Islamism”. She added: “Within Islam exists a hardline Islamist movement that rejects democratic freedoms and wants to destroy them.” Ms Hirsi Ali criticised European leaders for not standing by Denmark and urged politicians to stop appeasing fundamentalists. She also said that although the Prophet Muhammad did a lot of good things, his decree that homosexuals and apostates should be killed was incompatible with democracy…Ms Hirsi Ali said the furore over the cartoons had exposed the fear among artists and journalists in Europe to “analyse or criticise intolerant aspects of Islam”.

Artists, journalists, and politicians. Which is worrying.

More Wisdom

Feb 11th, 2006 6:17 pm | By

There’s also Anas Altikriti, a former president of the Muslim Association of Britain.

France, which stood against war in Iraq, scuppered its good relations with the Muslim world when its secular fanatics insisted on banning the hijab in state schools. These cartoons come at the end of a long line of events in which there has been a striking absence of representation of the Muslim perspective and of our rights and freedoms.

Secular fanatics is it. And ‘the Muslim perspective’ on the hijab – but a lot of Muslims, especially women, were in favour of the ban. What about their perspective?

Religion no more restricts freedom of speech than secularism promotes it. Is it so difficult to digest that Islam considers insulting the prophets of God a profound violation of what is sacred, just as Europe rightly regards denial of the Nazi Holocaust?

No, not ‘just as’ – quite differently. Denial of the Holocaust has nothing to do with violation of the sacred – that’s complete bullshit (in the most technical sense).

Those who claim to uphold freedom of speech by defending the right to reproduce insulting depictions of the prophet are in effect saying to Muslims that what they hold dear and sacred is far more worthy of protecting than what Muslims hold dear and sacred.

No. That’s wrong. Sacred is the wrong word. It’s the wrong word in the same way and for the same kind of reason that blasphemy is the wrong word.

Tomorrow, Britain’s Muslim groups will be joined by non-Muslims in Trafalgar Square to show unity against Islamophobia and incitement of all kinds.

All of Britain’s ‘Muslim groups’? And if all of Britain’s ‘Muslim groups’ are in fact there, does that mean all Muslims are there, or are represented by the ‘groups’ that are there?

The protest will send a message that Britain is leading the way in the west to creating a modern, multicultural, multiethnic and multifaith society that lives in peace and prosperity.

And, of course, that forbids, legally or by social pressure, ‘blasphemy’ and criticism of (what some people take to be) the ‘sacred’.

We Demand

Feb 11th, 2006 6:13 pm | By

Also sorry I missed that inspiring demo.

Several thousand Muslims turned out today to demonstrate against the controversial cartoons of the prophet Muhammad – but the numbers were far lower than the 30,000 the organisers hoped would take part. They gathered in London’s Trafalgar Square holding banners proclaiming: “United Against Incitement And Islamophobia.”

Good about the numbers. Bad about the moral blackmail.

A series of speakers gathered to offer their support to the Muslim community but also to voice their opposition to the ongoing conflict in Iraq. Jeremy Corbyn MP, a long-term protester against the war in Iraq, said: “The only way our community can survive is by showing mutual respect to each other. We demand that people show respect for each other’s community, each other’s faith and each other’s religion.”

As usual – ‘the’ Muslim community, as if every single Muslim thinks the same thought and breathes the same breath. And then the outrageous demand that we all show respect for all ‘faiths’ and religions. Do I have to respect the Raelians? The Branch Davidians? The late inhabitants of Jonestown? The Heaven’s Gate community? Is there any leeway at all for me to say ‘yes but this is all a load of codswallop and I don’t respect it in the least’?

The Whole World Belongs to Allah

Feb 11th, 2006 6:01 pm | By

Gee, I’m sorry I missed that show.

On Monday, the BBC program Newsnight gathered several Muslims, among them Anjem Choudary, who had organized that demonstration…He verbally abused the other speakers, denouncing one highly intelligent and personable woman, a Conservative candidate at the last election, as an unbeliever because her head was uncovered, and a man because he was clean-shaven. No, of course England didn’t belong to the English, Choudary insisted, or to any human inhabitants, “It belongs to Allah, the whole world belongs to Allah.” He prayed for “the domination of Islam” (“hopefully peacefully”) and looked forward to the day when “the black flag of Islam will be flying over Downing Street.”

Yeah. Can’t wait. Can’t wait to live in a world where I’m not allowed to have my head uncovered, and where I have to take orders from thugs like that. Just cannot wait.

Apart from the demands of multiculturalism and “sensitivity,” there is a factor of which Americans may not be aware: The Labor Party in general and some MPs in particular, Cabinet ministers among them, are gravely concerned about the Muslim vote…Last Friday, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said that he supported free speech – you always know what the next conjunction is going to be – “but there is not an obligation to insult or to be unduly inflammatory.” This was a fine case of non sequitur meets category mistake…

So good-bye secularism and women’s rights on account of the Muslim vote. Spiffy.

Why Truth

Feb 10th, 2006 8:52 pm | By

So, Why Truth Matters is published. Jeremy received a copy of it a week ago, and he says the publishers have done a beautiful job. I was all excited, and looked forward to getting a copy too, rushing to the mailbox every day all eager for the treat, then feeling bitterly disappointed when it wasn’t there. By Wednesday I suspected and by yesterday I realized that I wasn’t getting one, so I asked the publishers if I could have one too, and they explained that they had only one and they sent it to Jeremy. They said they were sorry they couldn’t send me one too. Oh.

So I have it only on hearsay that the publishers have done a beautiful job, but I daresay it’s true. Jeremy made a page for it which includes extracts.


Feb 9th, 2006 6:56 pm | By

And not just threats, but also demands. Like this demand.

British imams have demanded changes in the law and a strengthening of the Press Complaints Commission code to outlaw any possible publication of the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in the UK.

That’s quite a demand. Quite a bold, confident, aggressive, demanding demand. I don’t think clerics and priests and rabbis and imams should make demands like that of secular societies.

Yesterday’s event, which involved imams and grassroots figures from throughout England and Scotland, marked the foundation of the Muslim Action Committee (MAC), whose leaders plan a continuous campaign to confront the alleged disparagement of Muslim communities and to call for “global civility”…Faiz Siddiqi, the MAC’s national convenor, said: “What is being called for is a change of culture. In any civilised society, if someone says, ‘don’t insult me’, you do not, out of respect for them.”

True. If you’re polite and reasonably kind, you don’t insult people. But in any civilised society, if someone says, ‘don’t insult Jesus’ or ‘don’t insult Spock’ or ‘don’t insult Aphrodite’ or ‘don’t insult Loki’ then that’s different. Siddiqi is confusing two completely different kinds of insult. That confusion of course is pervasive, and is a tool of coercion. But one could use the same logic about anything and everything, with the outcome that I keep pointing out: total mental paralysis. To be wearyingly repetitive, free speech isn’t free speech if it is forbidden to say anything offensive, and if one offensive thing is ruled out, why not all offensive things?

I Must Have Misplaced My Glasses

Feb 9th, 2006 6:36 pm | By

Correction, to something in ‘Lesson Time’. I didn’t notice this until well after I’d posted the comment, so I had a good opportunity to feel surprised and irritated at my own befuddlement. It’s like those games where an extra word is inserted in some familiar bit of doggerel, and we don’t notice it because we see what we expect to see. Only not very much like that, because I should have been paying better attention, seeing as how I was arguing with the content. Thanks to sloppy reading I agreed with an absurdity. Allow me to start again.

Even if an artist had failed to find someone to illustrate a children’s book on the Prophet for fear of reprisals, this does not constitute an attack on freedom of speech. It could be construed as recognition and respect for the sacred taboos of another religion.

Really. Really? Illustrators refusing to illustrate a children’s book on the Prophet for fear of reprisals does not constitute an attack on freedom of speech? It could be construed as recognition and respect for the sacred taboos of another religion? Really? (Now you see why I feel like such an idiot for not noticing that yesterday. [slaps self upside head]) So if people refuse to paint or say or write something for fear of reprisals, that’s not an attack on free speech? That’s odd, because it looks exactly like an attack on free speech. Unfortunately Werbner is right about the second part. It shouldn’t be construed as recognition and respect for the sacred taboos of another religion, but it could be, and can be, and is being. That’s the upturned belly thing. People mouthing pieties about free speech while at the same time ordering everyone not to use it, and pasting the label ‘recognition and respect for the sacred taboos of another religion’ over the whole malodorous mess. We’re living through the very situation Werbner describes: threats against free speech construed as recognition and respect for the sacred taboos of another religion.

Lesson Time

Feb 8th, 2006 5:48 pm | By

Anthropologists are reliable sources of you have to understandism. Pnina Werbner does her bit.

There are some lessons (the British) learned from “The Satanic Verses” that I’m afraid others in Europe still need to learn. One of them is the simple lesson that blasphemy is a double-edged sword.

Okay, now it’s time for anthropologists to learn a simple lesson: words like ‘blasphemy’ and ‘haram’ and ‘apostasy’ don’t apply to people who don’t subscribe to the religion in question. It’s a rather disgusting form of coercion to pretend that they do.

But there was no gain on either side in terms of reaching mutual tolerance or understanding. The novel just inflamed peoples’ feelings – Muslims felt they had been disrespected and their feelings disregarded.

Another simple lesson for anthropologists. Here it is. So what. Is every novel ever written supposed to respect the feelings – the alleged feelings, the attributed feelings, the assumed feelings, the guessed-at in advance feelings – of ‘Muslims’? If so, does that apply to the feelings of everyone? Might that be a tall order? Such a tall order that compliance would simply shut down novel-writing entirely? And by extension all writing and all thought? Do you really – academic that you are – want to say that ‘feelings’ about writings should necessarily be respected? If you do, I think you’re an imbecile. That’s a simple lesson.

The Satanic Verses affair taught people in Britain a lesson about the depth of religious feelings among Muslims. Although the affair died down, it remains an underlying, painful memory for British Muslims even today.

Yes. It did. And not only people in Britain – people over here, too, and other places as well. It taught us the lesson that religious zealots were willing to threaten and kill people over a novel they didn’t like. It taught us to fear and despise people like that. It did not, however, teach us to admire or respect or love or think good the ‘depth of religious feelings among Muslims’. It’s not clear whether Werbner grasped that part of the lesson or not.

Even if an artist had failed to find someone to illustrate a children’s book on the Prophet for fear of reprisals, this does not constitute an attack on freedom of speech. It could be construed as recognition and respect for the sacred taboos of another religion.

Yes, it could, and that is a good thing why, exactly? Because all ‘sacred taboos’ are benign and harmless? Are they?

It is a matter of having some kind of voluntary understanding – one that says that the price one pays for a sort of entertaining bit of journalism is not worth it because there are people who will feel genuinely offended. It is difficult for us Westerners with our secular upbringing to understand and sympathize with the depth of feeling of believers. Their passionate belief is puzzling and alien to us.

Here’s another simple lesson. We’re not required to sympathize. Understand, yes, but sympathize, no. I don’t sympathize with the depth of feeling that motivates school boards to order science teachers to read religious statements to their students, or to murder abortion doctors, just as I don’t sympathize with the depth of feeling of Nazis or Fred Phelps of ‘God Hates Fags’ or people who think Howdy Doody is God’s messenger. I don’t, and I don’t have to. Sympathy is not the right subject here, because the beliefs in question have content, and we are allowed to evaluate the content. We are not obliged to give sight-unseen unconditional pre-judgment sympathy to any and all feelings provided they are deep enough, and as a matter of fact we ought not to do that, we ought to do the opposite. That’s not hard to understand, is it? Even for us with our secular upbringing that makes it so hard for us to understand things?

Ask the Women

Feb 8th, 2006 4:49 pm | By

Yes. I wondered about this a great deal at the time.

Girls do not figure in this “youth uprising”. Stones were thrown in Paris in 1968, too. But the barricades were occupied by men and women, even if the leaders were all men…It is all the more surprising that alongside the justified focus in the French and international press on the issue of racism, the sexism or machismo of these riots has barely been touched on.

Exactly. The riots were discussed as if they were – in however noisy or violent or overenthusiastic a way – representative of Muslim feeling in general. But why assume that? Why not think a little harder and realize that the rioters are all young males, and that not all Muslims are young males, and that violent young males don’t necessarily represent anyone but themselves? And especially, they don’t represent women.

The girls and women in these areas have long been living in fear. As well as being victims of violence within their own families more frequently than the average French woman, they are also at greater risk on the street. The Islamist-influenced boys and men divide women into two categories: saints and whores. The saints stay at home, the whores go out into the world. And they are made to pay. The price ranges from brutal street robberies, that affect women with striking frequency, through to what is called the ‘rotonde’: the form of gang rape to which Kahina’s sister Sohane was also subjected…[W]hen it gets dark and the rioting begins, there is not a single woman left on the streets. For on fiery nights like these, the “whores” are in just as much danger as the “sons of whores”.

Why did that go so unmentioned last autumn? Because it would or could have been seen as defending the discrimination and deprivation of the banlieus? Maybe. But that doesn’t do the girls and women much good, and they are after all half the people in question.

I did hear something about it on the BBC quite recently – well after the riots – a month or so ago, on the World Service, which irritates me so often. A reporter did an in-depth story on the subject, and talked to a group of girls at a community center. Why was it only young men in the riots? the reporter asked them. Because they don’t think, the girls said, they don’t think about what they’re doing, they just react, they don’t care if they hurt people or destroy things. There wasn’t a trace of sympathy or solidarity or admiration in their voices; they didn’t see the rioters as activists working for their betterment; they saw them as a lot of silly violent jerks. And then the reporter asked about male dominance in general, and those girls cut loose. They are angry, and it’s the men around them they’re angry at. ‘Our honour is in our bodies,’ one girl said indignantly. ‘Our bodies are our honour – they don’t belong to us.’

It’s extremely odd that commentary by outsiders so often – so nearly always – assumes that ‘Muslims’ all have the same basic interests and all think and feel as one. This kind of gulf isn’t small or trivial, yet it gets ignored. Very, very odd. Also stupid. Women may be the only hope.


Feb 8th, 2006 2:35 am | By

The credulity-straining oxymoronism continues. You have freedom of speech but only if you don’t use it; you used it; you’re fired; also, we all hate you.

A student editor at the University of Cardiff found out his mistake when he published one of the Jyllands-Posten cartoons. Somebody really ought to test his urine – what other explanation could there be?

A student union spokeswoman said Tom Wellingham, the editor of the paper, which won newspaper of the year at last year’s Guardian’s Student Media Awards, had been suspended alongside three other journalists. “The editorial team enjoy the normal freedoms and independence associated with the press in the UK, and are expected to exercise those freedoms with responsibility, due care and judgment,” she said.

There you are – you can’t say fairer than that. The editorial team enjoy the normal freedoms and independence associated with the press in the UK, so if they publish anything blasphemous and offensive, out they go. Obviously ‘normal freedoms and independence’ has nothing whatever to do with publishing anything that would offend anyone – good heavens, what an idea! Great hopping Christ almighty, newspapers mustn’t offend people! Fuck, no! Not ever; not under any; not no matter how much; not possibly. No, no, no. Everything that appears in a newspaper must be as anodyne and bland and blancmange-like and pallid and limp and devoid of interest or excitement and emollient and soothing as a warm bath to the tune of a lullaby. Obviously. Because looky here, newspapers go into people’s houses, I mean their homes, their lovely tasteful homes, where they eat and sleep and have family values. Newspapers can go into family rooms! Do you realize that? They can go right straight into family rooms, and be seen by family people, who would be upset and distraught and all twisted up inside if they saw something offensive. Had you thought of that? No, I didn’t think so. Well I bet it makes things look a little different, doesn’t it! It makes it pretty dang obvious why nothing offensive can go in newspapers. That still leaves plenty that can. Recipes, and how to make the home look pretty (Martha Stewarty kind of thing), and sports (if there aren’t drugs or swearing or rape or – well maybe not so much sports), and nice cartoons, like that nice Family Circus, and what’s on tv, if it’s not too offensive. That’s plenty.

The students’ union very much regrets any upset caused or disrespect shown by the publication of the controversial cartoon and has taken immediate action by promptly withdrawing all copies of this week’s edition of Gair Rhydd at the earliest moment possible.

Because that’s what you do when something in a newspaper offends anyone – you yank it back quick as winking, and then you tear it up into little tiny minuscule pieces, and you give them to the gerbils. Always. Every time. One peep from Someone Offended, and into the chipper that edition goes.

The students’ union has launched an investigation into how the images came to be published in the paper, which has a potential readership of more than 21,000 students.

Good. Good, good. I feel so reassured. I feel so much happier and more peaceful. Otherwise I would wonder – how, how, how could such a thing happen? Not because the editor wanted to publish something that was in the news – of course not! So how then? But it’s all right, because the union has launched (with a bottle of champagne, I hope) an investigation. I hope they have the handcuffs in reach at all times.

Local councillor Joe Carter, whose Cathays constituency houses the students’ union, described the publication of the cartoon as a “controversial and risky manoeuvre. They were wise to pull it but I’m surprised they ran it in the first place. There’s a very strong argument about freedom of the press versus tolerance of religion. We have to have tolerance of people’s views and culture,” he told icwales.co.uk.

There’s a very strong argument, which can be decided in only one way – so it’s actually not so much an argument, as a piece of dogma. We have to have tolerance of people’s views and culture – because if we don’t, there’s that beheading thing.

Ashgar Ali, the chairman of Cardiff’s Medina mosque, criticised the publication. “You can’t play with someone’s religion,” he told the website. “The Muslim students at the university are going to be upset. Pulling it as soon as possible was the right thing to do.”

You can’t play with someone’s religion. You can’t upset people. So no coverage of war, politics, the arts, economics, science – nothing that will upset people. That would lead to mere anarchy of the press. Understand?


Feb 6th, 2006 5:55 pm | By

There’s also the Vatican’s view of this, of course.

The right of freedom of thought and of expression, as contained in the Declaration of Human Rights, cannot imply the right to offend the religious feelings of believers.

Well – so much for the Declaration of Human Rights then. How fortunate to have a supreme court in the shape of the Vatican.

Somebody ought to hurry up and write that into the Declaration, so that we can all be working from the same page. And at the same time (efficiency is good) somebody ought to add that new right we heard about the other day – from the editor of the Indpendent, it was, not Louise Arbour, as I mistakenly said in comments (I heard it on the World Service, it was early in the morning, I wasn’t firing on all cylinders yet) – the right not to be offended. Let’s make it official. The right of freedom of thought and of expression cannot and shall not and must not imply the right to offend the religious feelings of believers. And the right of every individual not to be offended is hereby asserted to be absolute and inviolable. Have a nice day.

I refuse to be spoken to in that tone of voice

Feb 6th, 2006 5:03 pm | By

David Hadley and Chris Whiley pointed out in comments that my doubts about cartoons as a genre could be considered all wrong. Yes. Maybe I only meant bad single panel cartoons. I’m not sure.

But it was basically a side point anyway; the central point remains. No, the imaginary ‘right’ to protect religious beliefs from perceived insult and mockery does not trump the right to insult and mock religious beliefs. It’s not 1520, nor yet 1640, and people who have the good fortune not to live in theocracies get to act accordingly, let the Pope say what he will.

Munira Mirza says terrific things on the subject.

Censorship in the West bolsters the moral authority of leaders in the Middle East to censor their own citizens. Indeed, the religious leaders in Saudi Arabia and Palestine have been opportunistic in using the story as a way of galvanising support and reinforcing the view that only they can protect Muslims from victimisation. Counter to the claims of unelected ‘community leaders’, Muslims do not benefit from censorship.

And counter to the claims or implicit assumptions of supporters of unelected ‘community leaders’, too. The assumption seems to be remarkably widespread that all Muslims, and (especially, and especially mistakenly) all people who live in what are sloppily and misleadingly called ‘Muslim countries’ or ‘the Muslim world’ think with one thought about this issue. But that’s a mistaken assumption. People really ought to keep in mind that a lot of people in ‘Muslim countries’ detest theocrats and religious tyrants, detest them every bit as much as we detest people who want to order public schools to teach creationism and NASA to mention The Designer along with the Big Bang – every bit as much or perhaps a lot more, since the religious tyrants are more powerful and more violent there, and have more searching, detailed, oppressive rules to impose and enforce with beatings and stonings. So the idea that it’s kind or sympathetic or anti-racist to side with the ‘offended’ against the ‘so what if you’re offended’ could well be completely mistaken. We don’t know the stats, because there aren’t polls on the subject in theocracies, and if there were the answers wouldn’t be awfully reliable. But I know people in Pakistan, for instance, who are not at all fond of theocrats. It is my impression that such people are not at all rare.

In Denmark, large numbers of moderate Muslims have sought to oppose the stranglehold of extremist Muslim lobby groups who claim to represent them. In Arhus, they have organised counter-demonstrations. One Muslim city councillor who was involved said: ‘There is a large group of Muslims in this city who want to live in a secular society and adhere to the principle that religion is an issue between them and God and not something that should involve society.’ It turns out that those sympathetic lefty anti-racists who believe censorship will protect Muslims are actually missing the point. Many Muslims want the same freedoms as everyone else to debate, criticise and challenge their religion.

There you are. Unfortunate that so many people so readily assume the opposite.

Unsurprisingly, Hitchens also says many good things.

As well as being a small masterpiece of inarticulacy and self-abnegation, the statement from the State Department about this week’s international Muslim pogrom against the free press was also accidentally accurate. “Anti-Muslim images are as unacceptable as anti-Semitic images, as anti-Christian images, or any other religious belief.” Thus the hapless Sean McCormack, reading painfully slowly from what was reported as a prepared government statement. How appalling for the country of the First Amendment to be represented by such an administration. What does he mean “unacceptable”? That it should be forbidden?

Probably the same thing Jack Straw meant by his waffle. Shut up. Never mind what the First Amendment says; shut up.

Islam makes very large claims for itself…The prohibition on picturing the prophet – who was only another male mammal – is apparently absolute. So is the prohibition on pork or alcohol or, in some Muslim societies, music or dancing. Very well then, let a good Muslim abstain rigorously from all these. But if he claims the right to make me abstain as well, he offers the clearest possible warning and proof of an aggressive intent. This current uneasy coexistence is only an interlude, he seems to say. For the moment, all I can do is claim to possess absolute truth and demand absolute immunity from criticism. But in the future, you will do what I say and you will do it on pain of death.

Exactly. And that is exactly why we are so determined to say No, and so infuriated that so many people insist on not saying No, insist on submitting, instead. No – no Submission, thank you.

I refuse to be spoken to in that tone of voice, which as it happens I chance to find “offensive.” ( By the way, hasn’t the word “offensive” become really offensive lately?)

Yes, of course it has. Hitchens was the other half of the conversation when Stephen Fry did his riff on ‘offensive,’ you know.

I will not be told I can’t eat pork, and I will not respect those who burn books on a regular basis. I, too, have strong convictions and beliefs and value the Enlightenment above any priesthood or any sacred fetish-object. It is revolting to me to breathe the same air as wafts from the exhalations of the madrasahs, or the reeking fumes of the suicide-murderers, or the sermons of Billy Graham and Joseph Ratzinger. But these same principles of mine also prevent me from wreaking random violence on the nearest church, or kidnapping a Muslim at random and holding him hostage, or violating diplomatic immunity by attacking the embassy or the envoys of even the most despotic Islamic state, or making a moronic spectacle of myself threatening blood and fire to faraway individuals who may have hurt my feelings. The babyish rumor-fueled tantrums that erupt all the time, especially in the Islamic world, show yet again that faith belongs to the spoiled and selfish childhood of our species.

Exactly. Tantrums – just what I say. No doubt he got the idea from me.

[A]nother reason for condemning the idiots at Foggy Bottom is their assumption, dangerous in many ways, that the first lynch mob on the scene is actually the genuine voice of the people. There’s an insult to Islam, if you like.

Also just what I say. Very good that Hitchens listens to me so attentively.

Suppose that we all agreed to comport ourselves in order to avoid offending the believers? How could we ever be sure that we had taken enough precautions?…Is it not clear, then, that those who are determined to be “offended” will discover a provocation somewhere? We cannot possibly adjust enough to please the fanatics, and it is degrading to make the attempt…There can be no negotiation under duress or under the threat of blackmail and assassination. And civil society means that free expression trumps the emotions of anyone to whom free expression might be inconvenient. It is depressing to have to restate these obvious precepts, and it is positively outrageous that the administration should have discarded them at the very first sign of a fight.

It is depressing to have to restate these obvious precepts. It’s been a depressing week – all those upturned bellies.

Words and Pictures

Feb 5th, 2006 5:52 pm | By

One thing that occurs to me about this cartoon spat…is that I’ve never actually much liked political cartoons, and this underlines why. I suppose, if I’m going to be completely honest (and I suppose I have to be, don’t I, since I’m always yapping about it), I have to admit that in this sense I may be able to see some point in what the “no need to be offensive” crowd are saying. Only some, mind you, and without all their horrible pious drivel about religious beliefs. I like some political cartoons, the kind that rely on extended strips with plenty of words, like Garry Trudeau’s or Jules Feiffer’s or Marjane Satrapi’s. But the one-panel ones that rely heavily on facial caricature? Not so much. I’ve been pondering this a little, and realizing that’s not particularly surprising. It’s like the difference between someone disagreeing with you by making faces and talking in a silly voice and jumping around, and disagreeing with you by discussing the subject at issue in calm, reasoned language. The first is pretty much always a lot more irritating than the second, and for pretty obvious reasons – the first is just about making fun of you, without properly saying why. Just grimacing and saying ‘Nyah nyah, yer mother wears army boots and you smell bad’ isn’t really instructive, whereas the second approach gets to what it is that is at issue. The second approach is explicit, while the first one is not. Cartoons are all about synechdoche, and synechdoche is fine for some purposes, but for substantive disagreement, it probably isn’t. So the people who talk about caricatures of Jews have a point – caricatures aren’t about reasons, they’re just about ‘we hate you you’re ugly’. That’s not an argument.

So…I think Islam ought to be criticised and reasoned with up one side and down the other, without cease, by as many people as possible – but, for preference, in language, not in mocking pictures.

Which means, I’ve realized with some qualms, that I’m sort of arguing that straightforward rational discussion is better for this kind of thing than satire or ‘art’. I sort of hate to say that! And yet…I think it’s true. The trouble with art is that it can’t explain itself, it can’t reply, its consumers can’t reply to it – it’s just there, given. And it usually doesn’t explain itself in the first place – that’s rather the point of its being art as opposed to an article. Art just isn’t particularly good at making argumentative points; that’s not what it does best, or well. The very ambiguity and room for interpretation that make it art make it also bad at being explicit. It’s extremely hard to argue with the non-explicit. Cartoons don’t really have propositional content. The one with the bomb in the turban, for example – that could mean several things.

Make of that what you will.

HB, Skeptico

Feb 5th, 2006 5:13 pm | By

Skeptico is observing its first birthday with a teasing post in a satirical (but not mocking, or offensive, or disrespectful, or blasphemous, nononono) vein. Views on why the poultry traversed the highway, in the style of various people – James Randi, our dear friend Sylvia Browne, Deepak Chopra, Prince Chuck, and many more. I’m there, being predictable as usual. [curtsies politely]

NASA Gets Uppity

Feb 5th, 2006 5:04 pm | By

Well here’s a new wrinkle. Here’s a new outpost of the global war on secularism and rational thought. Here’s a new battalion of God’s Holy Warriors, a new incursion by the ambassadors of theocracy. Barely post-pubescent White House hacks with shiny new journalism degrees and whole months of experience working on political campaigns, explaining cosmology to the benighted people at NASA and telling them what to say – and that’s just one example.

A week after NASA’s top climate scientist complained that the space agency’s public-affairs office was trying to silence his statements on global warming, the agency’s administrator, Michael D. Griffin, issued a sharply worded statement yesterday calling for “scientific openness” throughout the agency. “It is not the job of public-affairs officers,” Dr. Griffin wrote in an e-mail message to the agency’s 19,000 employees, “to alter, filter or adjust engineering or scientific material produced by NASA’s technical staff.”…Other National Aeronautics and Space Administration scientists and public-affairs employees came forward this week to say that beyond Dr. Hansen’s case, there were several other instances in which political appointees had sought to control the flow of scientific information from the agency…In October, for example, George Deutsch, a presidential appointee in NASA headquarters, told a Web designer working for the agency to add the word “theory” after every mention of the Big Bang…

Oh, not that again…

The Big Bang memo came from Mr. Deutsch, a 24-year-old presidential appointee in the press office at NASA headquarters whose résumé says he was an intern in the “war room” of the 2004 Bush-Cheney re-election campaign. A 2003 journalism graduate of Texas A&M, he was also the public-affairs officer who sought more control over Dr. Hansen’s public statements. In October 2005, Mr. Deutsch sent an e-mail message to Flint Wild, a NASA contractor working on a set of Web presentations about Einstein for middle-school students. The message said the word “theory” needed to be added after every mention of the Big Bang. The Big Bang is “not proven fact; it is opinion,” Mr. Deutsch wrote, adding, “It is not NASA’s place, nor should it be to make a declaration such as this about the existence of the universe that discounts intelligent design by a creator.” It continued: “This is more than a science issue, it is a religious issue. And I would hate to think that young people would only be getting one-half of this debate from NASA. That would mean we had failed to properly educate the very people who rely on us for factual information the most.”

Is that staggering, or what?! It’s not NASA’s place to make a ‘declaration’ about the ‘existence’ of the universe (does Deutsch want to deny the existence of the universe? Is he plotting some kind of quasi-Berkeleyian move? Or did he mean to say ‘origin’ and then get confused?) that discounts intelligent design by a creator! Shades of Kansas and its exciting new science curriculum that has been rewritten in order not to rule out supernatural explanations; shades of the dear clever Dover school board that got its head handed to it first by the electorate and then by Judge Jones; only more so, if only because of the breathtaking conceit – even, dare I say, arrogance. Remember that fool Haggard lecturing Dawkins – ‘But please, don’t be arrogant’ – right after inadvertently revealing his own entire ignorance of evolution coupled with his eagerness to set a zoologist straight on the subject? This is like that. Or like that combined with The Adventures of Brownie in New Orleans, or those two combined with Dennis the Menace or Home Alone. A youthful hack with a political-reward job tells people at NASA what’s what about the Big Bang! And tells them they’re not allowed to ‘discount’ intelligent design by a creator! And then comes right out and says it’s a religious issue! I’d better stop before I run out of exclamation points – but you must admit, it is quite something. I keep shaking my head in disbelief – it is not NASA’s place. It is not NASA’s place! Oy veh.

PZ comments at Pharyngula. So does Phil at Bad Astronomy.


Feb 4th, 2006 8:33 pm | By

More. It keeps getting worse and worse and worse, as more people drop to the ground and display their pale soft bellies beseechingly, all the while crooning melodic horseshit about their profound respect for free speech as long as no one ever actually uses it for anything.

The Guardian.

The Guardian believes uncompromisingly in freedom of expression, but not in any duty to gratuitously offend…To directly associate the founder of one of the world’s three great monotheistic religions with terrorist violence – the unmistakable meaning of the most explicit of these cartoons – is wrong, even if the intention was satirical rather than blasphemous.

Freedom of expression, huh huh huh, but don’t go gratuitously offending now. Don’t offend unless somebody gives you a lot of money for it, and it’s absolutely safe to do so, and no one will be offended except one very small dull ineffectual person that no one pays any attention to. And what’s this crap about ‘one of the world’s three great monotheistic religions’? What’s so great about it? What’s so great about any of them? Why are we expected to grovel before them and defer to them and refrain from saying anything disrespectful or accusing about any of their ‘founders’?

In this country concerns about Islamophobia have been accompanied by increased sensitivity to the feelings of Muslims…The extraordinary unanimity of the British press in refraining from publishing the drawings – in contrast to the Nordic countries, Germany, Spain and France – speaks volumes. John Stuart Mill is a better guide to this issue than Voltaire.

‘Increased sensitivity’ resulting in increased social pressure to shut up shut up shut up – to refrain from ever under any circumstances saying anything skeptical or critical about Islam. Increased sensitivity is not always an unmixed blessing.

To be fair, the leader gets better after that, but that’s a remarkably bad beginning, I think.

For refreshment, turn to Ibn Warraq – who also cites Mill, but with an implication contrary to the Guardian’s.

The great British philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty, “Strange it is, that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free discussion, but object to their being ‘pushed to an extreme’; not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case.” The cartoons in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten raise the most important question of our times: freedom of expression. Are we in the west going to cave into pressure from societies with a medieval mindset, or are we going to defend our most precious freedom — freedom of expression, a freedom for which thousands of people sacrificed their lives? A democracy cannot survive long without freedom of expression, the freedom to argue, to dissent, even to insult and offend…Unless, we show some solidarity, unashamed, noisy, public solidarity with the Danish cartoonists, then the forces that are trying to impose on the Free West a totalitarian ideology will have won; the Islamization of Europe will have begun in earnest.

Matthew Parris in the Times also refreshes.

I’m afraid we really do have to decide whether the demand is reasonable. I do not think it is. I am not a Muslim. Nor am I a Christian or a Jew or a Hindu. Now it’s very easy to murmur “I am not a Muslim/Christian/Jew/Hindu” as though not being something was terribly inoffensive – a sin, at worst, of omission; a way of avoiding an argument – the suggestion, perhaps, that “your” religion may be “true for you” but, as for me, I’ll sit this one out. But let us not duck what that “I do not believe” really means. It means I do not believe that there is one God, Allah, or that Muhammad is His Prophet. It means I do not believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, or that no man cometh to the Father except by Him…In my opinion these views are profoundly mistaken, and those who subscribe to them are under a serious misapprehension on a most important matter. Not only are their views not true for me: they are not true for them. They are not true for anyone. They are wrong.

Just so. And since they are wrong, we should not be expected to obey them or defer to them. And yet it is only these wrong views that we are expected to defer to and be ‘sensitive’ about. Robust views that have some contact with the real world are expected to take care of themselves; it’s the mistaken ones that race around screaming for respect.

Cutting through the babble of well-meaning souls who like to speak of the “community” of belief among “people of faith”, this must also be what the Muslim is saying to the Christian, Jew or Hindu; or what the Christian must be saying to the Jew, Hindu or Muslim. These faiths make demands and assert truths that are not compatible with the demands and truths of other faiths. To assert one must be to deny the others…People of faith and people of none cannot escape attaching themselves to claims that are inherently offensive – and at the deepest level – to other people. But offence implicitly offered, and offence actually taken, are two different matters.

And if we embark on this course of threats and arson, firings and imprisonment, beatings and killings, every time anyone is offended by anything – why, it will be hardly any time at all before there is nothing left of this particular species but six and a half billion rotting corpses. So let’s not do that.

Of Course You Can, Except When You Can’t

Feb 4th, 2006 2:31 am | By

Back to the real world, where cartoons ‘are’ representations of Mohammed – some depressing oxymoronism from Jack Straw. Of course we respect free speech, but you can’t say that; of course everyone has a right to free speech, but no one can insult religion. Well which is it, bub? It ain’t both! I’m not a free speech absolutist, as I’ve said many times, but this idea that free speech is okay as long as it doesn’t offend anyone is sheer jam tomorrow. If we can’t say anything that might offend someone, our speech is pretty damn restricted, isn’t it!

Speaking after talks with the Sudanese foreign minister, Mr Straw said: “There is freedom of speech, we all respect that. But there is not any obligation to insult or to be gratuitously inflammatory. I believe that the republication of these cartoons has been insulting, it has been insensitive, it has been disrespectful and it has been wrong. There are taboos in every religion. It is not the case that there is open season in respect of all aspects of Christian rites and rituals in the name of free speech.

Oh? Really? What does he mean? That it’s illegal to say ‘offensive’ things about some aspects of Christian rites and rituals? (Perhaps he’s thinking of the dear blasphemy law.) Does he mean that if one says ‘offensive’ things about some aspects of Christian rites and rituals, the result will be violent riots and death threats, and that that’s a good thing? If neither of those, what does he mean? What, exactly, does he mean?

Nor is it the case that there is open season in respect of rights and rituals of the Jewish religion, the Hindu religion, the Sikh religion. It should not be the case in respect of the Islamic religion either. We have to be very careful about showing the proper respect in this situation.

Do we? Why? And why doesn’t that work the other way? Why don’t people who want to prevent free speech on the subject of religion have to be very careful about showing the proper respect for our beliefs? Because we don’t chant ‘”7/7 is on its way” while also waving placards and burning flags, during a march through London to the Danish, French and German embassies’? Because we don’t threaten to blow up 57 random people as revenge for our feeling offended?

More bullying oxymoronism, this sample from Bunglawala.

UK Muslims have denied that the reaction to the cartoons’ reproduction has been a threat to freedom of speech. It was a “question of exercising good judgement”, said Inayat Bunglawala, from the Muslim Council of Britain…”Of course Europe has the right to freedom of speech, and of course newspapers have the right to publish offensive cartoons. This was really a question about exercising good judgment,” he said. “Knowing full well the nature of these cartoons, they were offensive, deeply offensive to millions of Muslims, these newspaper editors should have exercised better judgment.”

But of course Europe has the right to freedom of speech, and of course the reaction to the cartoons is not a threat to freedom of speech. How silly! Of course you can have your pesky freedom of speech! You just can’t say anything we don’t like, that’s all! What is the big stinking deal?

That is a really massively irritating trope – that saying you can have free speech and then instantly saying the opposite, in the very same breath. At leas they could have the honesty to say what they mean – ‘No, you can’t have free speech, because you say things we don’t like, so you have to shut up. And shut up about your free speech, too.’

I’ve had exactly the same thought Mediawatchwatch has had – remembering Stephen Fry at the Hay Festival last summer, talking with Hitchens, talking about the two words that have taken on a creepy resonance (and I knew what they were before he said them), ‘offended’ and ‘respect’. And I can hear him saying what Mediawatchwatch quotes him saying – ‘So you’re offended. So fucking what?’


Feb 4th, 2006 1:50 am | By

Wait, hold on – something has just crossed my tiny mind. These cartoons – that are so ‘offensive’ because they are cartoons of Mohammed – how do the people who are so offended know they are cartoons of Mohammed? There aren’t, like, photographs of him, right? Not to mention the fact that it’s a no-no to make pictures of him anyway, so that if there were photos of him, they’d all have been thrown away by now. But surely it’s much more likely that they weren’t taken in the first place, and that drawings, paintings, watercolours, engravings, etchings, and silhouettes were not made either. And even if they had been they’d probably be pretty dilapidated by now. Pretty crumbly and curly at the edges and faded – at best. And then who knows how accurate the artists would have been, if they had taken any likenesses, which they probably didn’t, on account of how it was taboo (as we keep being reminded, because we’re so likely to forget, with all this shouting going on)? So – let’s face it – nobody knows what the guy looked like. It was fourteen hundred years ago after all. It’s like Jesus. People think they know what he looked like, but they don’t really – they know what Raphael and Rembrandt and people like that thought he looked like. But they didn’t know, see, so that doesn’t help. There’s not, like, an unbroken chain of accurate portrayals of Jesus going all the way back to 35 CE, is there. Same deal with the prophet. Nobody knows what the guy looked like. No idea. Now I know what you’re thinking – well he looked like the cartoons! Mediterranean, bearded, kind of burly (because he was a powerful guy), kind of impressive-looking, a mensch – dark hair, big features – kind of like – oh, Anthony Quinn, say. Well no doubt you’re right, but I have to tell you, we don’t actually know that. Seriously. Nobody does. (Don’t forget the taboo thing.)

So what I’m wondering is, why on earth do all these offended people think the cartoons are of Mohammed? Because the cartoonists said so? Because they have, like, ‘Mohammed’ scribbled somewhere along the edge or on the bottom? Because of the pose and the turban? Well – that’s not much of a reason! I can do that! I can draw a picture of a dog or a cat or a bag of carrots or a teapot (no, not the one that orbits the sun, a different one) and say it’s a drawing of Mohammed, but what good does that do? Me just saying it’s Mohammed doesn’t make it Mohammed, does it. So why does a cartoonist saying it’s Mohammed make it Mohammed?

Now that I’ve had my fun, that’s actually a serious question, as well as a mocking one. Really – why do all the offended people accept that the cartoons are of Mohammed? Because a bunch of non-Muslim Danish cartoonists say they are? But how would they know? And what are they, magic? They can transform a drawing of some generic bearded guy in a turban into a representation of a specific person who died fourteen centuries ago? How? By saying so, by writing his name underneath, by the context of the jokes. But that still doesn’t make the cartoons cartoons of the actual Mohammed – not for people who just don’t accept that that’s what they are. Why don’t all the infuriated Muslims just laugh and shrug and ignore the whole thing? Why don’t they just say ‘those goofy Danish cartoonists, pretending they’ve drawn pictures of Mohammed – like they have any idea what he looked like. I’m so sure’? Why don’t they just say ‘you guys don’t know what Mohammed looked like any more than we do, and probably less (because we have this like inner intuition, which is denied to non-Muslims), so dream on – draw your stupid little pictures if you want to, we don’t care, it’s nothing to do with us’?

Actually the whole taboo is empty, it’s a taboo without a referent. It’s like a taboo on walking on water, or a taboo on sleeping on the wing of a jet plane when it’s in flight. Nobody can make a representation of Mohammed, it’s quite, quite impossible – so why worry about it? Just making representations of a man and naming them Mohammed doesn’t make them Mohammed – so why on earth worry about it?

Because the cartoons were a provocation, were meant to offend, and so on and so on. Hmm. Not really. The shouting is all about the guy himself, and how terribly terribly forbidden it all is. So – why don’t they just wake up and realize that those cartoons are not Mohammed, not in any way, because they can’t be? Why not just laugh at the pretensions of cartoonists and forget all about it?

This occurred to me while looking at the cartoons on Groep Wilders’s blog. Surely it must have occurred to a lot of people. Those are just lines on paper. We all have to buy into the idea that they are cartoons of Mohammed; otherwise they just stay lines on paper. Why buy into the idea if you don’t like it then? Very odd, people are – we believe our own lies.

And Repeat

Feb 3rd, 2006 6:10 pm | By

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.

Nothing Sacred

Feb 2nd, 2006 8:47 pm | By

Paul Goggins went on the Today programme on the day the religious hatred bill was passed in the Lords version not the government’s version, to explain why the bill (particularly, in the government’s version, with the language about ‘recklessness’, instead of the Lords’) was necessary and a good idea. After some pressing he articulated the basic (I take it) point.

Well I accept, Jim, and we always have accepted that there are fine balances to be drawn here, but religious belief is an important part of identity, and the expression of that religious belief is important to many people, and that others should set out intentionally to stir up hatred about those people because of those religious beliefs has no part in our society, so for all the difficulty in getting the balance right we think it’s right to press ahead with this legislation.

That’s it. Religious belief is an important part of identity, and expression of that belief is important to many people (no! really?!?). Therefore stirring up hatred about those people because of those religious beliefs should be made a crime – but stirring up hatred about people because of any other beliefs should not. Because…? The expression of other beliefs is not important to many people? No, that can’t be right, because it’s not true. Because other belief is not ‘an important part of identity’ (whatever that may mean)? No, because that’s not true either. To the extent that ‘identity’ means much of anything in that phrase other than cuddly feelings about oneself, other kinds of belief and other beliefs are also an important part of identity. Religion may be an important part of identity, but you’ll notice Goggins didn’t say it was the most important part of identity, much less the exclusive source of it. So – why are religious beliefs special? Why does their part of ‘identity’ have to be protected if other parts don’t?

Because they’re special? Because they’re sacred? Because they make people go all red in the face with rage and offendedness and outrage and hurt feelings if anyone makes fun of them? Maybe; probably; but there again: why? Why do they make people go all red in the face and self-righteous, and why do so many people think they have every right not only to feel that way, but to demand that the rest of the world join them in feeling that way? Well – because they’re sacred. Oh dear.

I saw a comment yesterday in this article, which Allen Esterson sent me a link to, which included a comment that apparently disappeared when the article was updated. Someone in what is generally (and I think rather patronizingly and communalistically) called ‘the Muslim world’ said that the right to freedom of speech ought to be balanced with – wait for it – the right to protect the sacred. Er – no. That is just exactly the one thing it must not be balanced with, because that is the one thing that would render it null and void. Refusal to ‘protect the sacred’ is the very essence of free speech. And the mindset that thinks great big holy circles need to be drawn around ‘the sacred’ and policed day and night by indignant men with large guns, is a mindset that if left unchecked will suck all our brains out and leave us like pod people.

Rowan Atkinson answered what Goggins said on the same ‘Today.’

You can’t draft a piece of legislation with the intention of just picking off a few nasty people, because the very nature of law is that it applies to us all. And there’s absolutely no doubt that this bill is seeking to provide immunity from criticism and ridicule to religious beliefs, and I’m a great believer that you should be able to say whatever you like about religious beliefs and practices, and if the practitioners and believers are caught in the crossfire, then they just have to accept that. If the exposure of hateful or ridiculous religious practices is there and is done, then the religion’s followers are just going to have to accept responsibility for those things.

That’s a big problem with this whole idea right there. What Goggins said would seem to imply that religion is the first thing that should be protected and given immunity, but in fact it’s the last thing that should. Religion is in need of constant vigilance and interrogation and steady unrelenting pressure, so that maybe someday in some other happier time, it will stop being a source of misery and deprivation and oppression for so damn many people, especially women. So bring on criticism, mockery, cartoons, robust discussion, and whatever else it takes.