TO REFRESH THE MEMORY OF THE PUBLIC (WHICH, IT IS SAID, IS VERY SHORT!)
“……..a particular case study, which tellingly illuminates society’s exaggerated respect for religion, over and above ordinary human respect. The case flared up in February 2006 – a ludicrous episode, which veered wildly between the extremes of comedy and tragedy. The previous September, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published twelve cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. Over the next three months, indignation was carefully and systematically nurtured throughout the Islamic world by a small group of Muslims living in Denmark, led by two imams who had been granted sanctuary there. In late 2005 these malevolent exiles travelled from Denmark to Egypt bearing a dossier, which was copied and circulated from there to the whole Islamic world, including, importantly, Indonesia. The dossier contained falsehoods about alleged maltreatment of Muslims in Denmark, and their tendentious lie that Jyllands-Posten was a government run newspaper. It also contained the twelve cartoons which, crucially, the imams had supplemented with three additional images whose origin was mysterious but which certainly had no connection with Denmark. Unlike the original twelve, these three add-ons were genuinely offensive—or would have been if they had, as the zealous propagandists alleged, depicted Muhammad. A particularly damaging one of these three was not a cartoon at all but a faxed photograph of a bearded man wearing a fake pig’s snout held on with elastic. It has subsequently turned out that this was an Associated Press photograph of a Frenchman entered for a pig-squealing contest at a country fair in France. The photograph had no connection whatsoever with the prophet Muhammad, no connection with Islam, and co connection with Denmark. But the Muslim activists, on their mischief- stirring hike to Cairo, implied all three connections . . . with predictable results.
The carefully cultivated ‘hurt’ and ‘offence’ was brought to an explosive head five months after the twelve cartoons were originally published. Demonstrators in Pakistan and Indonesia burned Danish flags (where did they get them from?) and hysterical demands were made for the Danish government to apologize. (Apologize for what? They didn’t draw the cartoons, or publish them. Danes just live in a country with a free press, something that people in many Islamic countries might have a hard time understanding.) Newspapers in Norway, Germany, France and even the United States (but, conspicuously, not Britain) reprinted the cartoons in gestures of solidarity with Jyllands-Posten, which added fuel to the flames. Embassies and consulates were trashed, Danish goods were boycotted, Danish citizens and, indeed, Westerners generally, were physically threatened; Christian churches in Pakistan, with no Danish or European connections at all, were burned. Nine people were killed when Libyan rioters attacked and burned the Italian consulate in Benghazi. As Germaine Greer wrote, what these people really love and do best is pandemonium.
A bounty of $1 million was placed on the head of ‘the Danish cartoonist’ by a Pakistani imam (Reminds you of the BSP Rascal who offered Rs.51 crores to those who killed at Charlie Hebdo….doesn’t he?)—who was apparently unaware that there were twelve different Danish cartoonists, and almost certainly unaware that the three most offensive pictures had never appeared in Denmark at all (and by the way, where was that million going to come from?). In Nigeria, Muslim protesters against the Danish cartoons burned down several Christian churches and used machetes to attack and kill (black Nigerian) Christians in the streets. One Christian was put inside a rubber tyre, doused with petrol and set alight. Demonstrators were photographed in Britain bearing banners saying ‘Slay those who insult Islam’, ‘Butcher those who mock Islam’, ‘Europe you will pay: Demolition is on its way’ and ‘Behead those who insult Islam’. Fortunately, our political leaders were on hand to remind us that Islam is a religion of peace and mercy.
In the aftermath of all this, the journalist Andrew Mueller interviewed Britain’s leading ‘moderate’ Muslim, Sir Iqbal Sacranie. Moderate he may be by today’s Islamic standards, but in Andrew Mueller’s account he still stands by the remark he made when Salman Rushdie as condemned to death for writing a novel: ‘Death is perhaps too easy for him’—a remark that sets him in ignominious contrast to his courageous predecessor as Britain’s most influential Muslim, the late Dr.Zaki Badawi, who offered Salman Rushdie sanctuary in his own home. Sacranie told Mueller how concerned he was about the Danish cartoons. Mueller was concerned too, but for a different reason: ‘I am concerned that the ridiculous, disproportionate reaction to some unfunny sketches in an obscure Scandinavian newspaper may confirm that . . . Islam and the west are fundamentally irreconcilable’. Sacranie, on the other hand, praised British Newspapers for not reprinting the cartoons, to which Mueller voiced the suspicion of most of the nation that ‘the restraint of British newspapers derived less from sensitivity to Muslim discontent that it did from a desire not to have their windows broken’. (Probably learnt during their rule of India!)
Sacranie explained that ‘The person of the Prophet, peace be upon him, is revered so profoundly in the Muslim world, with a love and affection that cannot be explained in words. It goes beyond your parent, your loved ones, your children. That is part of the faith. There is also an Islamic teaching that one does not depict the Prophet’. This rather assumes, as Mueller observed,
that the values of Islam trump anyone else’s—which is what any follower of
Islam does assume, just as any follower of any religion believes that theirs
is the sole way, truth and light. If people wish to love a 7th century preacher
more than their own families, that’s up to them, but nobody else is obliged to
take it seriously . . .
Except that if you don’t take it seriously and accord it proper respect you are phyically threatened, on a scale that no other religion has aspired to since the Middle Ages. One can’t help wondering why such violence is necessary, given that, as Mueller notes: ‘If any of you clowns are right about anything, the cartoonists are going to hell anyway-won’t that do? In the meantime, if you want to get excited about affronts to Muslims, read the Amnesty International reports on Syria and Saudi Arabia’.
Many people have noted the contrast between the hysterical ‘hurt’ professed by Muslims and the readiness with which Arab media publish stereotypical anti-Jewish cartoons. At a demonstration in Pakistan against the Danish cartoons, a woman in a clack burka was photographed carrying a banner reading ‘God Bless Hitler’.
In response to all this frenzied pandemonium, decent liberal newspapers deplored the violence and made token noises about free speech. But at the same time they expressed ’respect’ and ‘sympathy’ for the deep ‘offence’ and ’hurt’ that Muslims had ‘suffered’. The ‘hurt’ and ‘suffering’ consisted, remember, not in any person enduring violence or real pain of any kind: nothing more than a few daubs of printing ink in a newspaper that nobody outside Denmark would ever have heard of but for a deliberate campaign of incitement to mayhem. (Strongly reminds us of Charlie Hebdo!)
I am not in favour of offending or hurting anyone just for the sake of it. But I am intrigued and mystified by the disproportionate privileging of religion in our otherwise secular societies. All politicians must get used to disrespectful cartoons of their faces, and nobody riots in their defence. What is so special about religion that we grant it such uniquely privileged respect? As H.L. Mencken said: ‘We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.’
It is in the light of the unparalleled presumption of respect for religion* that I make my own disclaimer for this book. I shall not go out of my way to offend, but nor shall I don kid gloves to handle religion any more gently than I would handle anything else.