Tuesday, February 07, 2006


Since I mentioned the Danish cartoons of Mohammed, events have moved on a lot and I've thought long and hard whether I should add to the mountains of commentary. A friend once said I was a "rebel without a cause", but being civilised, educated, thoughtful and literary, I'd amend that to say I'm "without a cause", but have hardly rebelled. However a conformist without a cause (to conform to) is just as damaging in the long-run. If I have a cause, then "freedom of speech", is one. If I have an enemy, then "institutionalised religion" is it. Yet, being anti-religious in a country where that is perfectly all right, perhaps even encouraged, it makes me wonder whether I should concentrate what "fire" I have on something that has such an unimportant role in my life. May as well be anti-Speedway or anti-Morris-Dancing; my opinions on both are pretty much irrelevant. Yet being pro-free speech its the one thing that does get me riled. Though, even here, in the free-space of the internet, having been anonymously vilified a couple of times, I'm aware that with freedom comes responsibility. In the original pieces on the Danish cartoons (They are on the internet if you've not yet seen them, www.aldaily.com will take you there if you want to see them) nothing was said of their context - that they were published because of this very debate about "depicting" Mohammed. As someone from a Christian background I was a bit "deaf" to the particular offence of depiction. As Christianity iconises Christ (albeit usually a very white, non-Jewish looking Christ), I'd forgotten that Islam prevents this depiction of the prophet. You have to wonder if a 7th century Saatchi and Saatchi had come up with this peculiarity of the brand - "hey, Mohammed, keep your mystery, it's all you've got" - "but what about Jesus, he's everywhere...", "you're a me-too brand, Mohammed, you have to differentiate, Avis to Hertz, Pepsi to Coke..." Now, here's the problem, I'm not sure, if that conversation is in itself offensive to Muslims, if so, I apologise, but wonder how else I'm supposed to talk openly - and humorously - about this topic. Bill Hicks used to do a great skit on Jesus's 2nd coming, only to find everyone wearing jewellery showing him nailed to the cross. Now Allah is God, Mohammed is his prophet, therefore there's a massive difference with Christianity where Jesus is both prophet and deity. (The Catholic Church's veneration of Mary is more appropriate a distinction between the two religions, and perhaps an inevitable contradiction of a son of God born of woman.) But what I am sure of now, after the outrages of the last week, that it is the depiction of Mohammed that has so outraged Muslims, since this is forbidden by the religion. It's bad taste of the worst kind I guess. (I'm not sure whether you could show Allah instead or just read his name on a fish?) The Guardian has been all mealy-mouthed about free speech for the last couple of weeks, and generally dismayed at the cartoons, but has since decided that civil unrest is slightly worse in the scheme of things. (Ah, to see a liberal confused... a wonderful sight). I guess what I'm saying is that I think it is imperative that non-religious people and communities can comment and comment fiercely on the dogmatic beliefs, customs and views of organised religion; not forgetting, as someone who believes "all men and women are equal" there is not a religion in the world that doesn't find some excuse for oppressing women whicheve way it can get away with (another debate, but a very valid one - like when Tony Blair went to the Pope's funeral, you could only wonder whether he'd go to the funeral of anyone other Homophobe?) but that one should respect things that are gratuitously offensive to people who follow that faith. I've got the impression from the last week or so that Muslims are okay with satire, criticism, but not - and I don't think they should be - with this gratuitous disrespect. That kind of summarises my own permission. Yet there's something weird here. The very "world" nature of Islam seems to see a brotherhood amongst peoples that is in itself disturbing. A British Muslim aligning themselves in sympathy with the religious government of Iran for instance is deeply disturbing; just as a British working man in the thirties aligning himself with Hitler would have been. It is not "Islamophobia" which seems on the increase around the world but anti-semitism. I was stood outside of Marks and Spencers in Manchester a year or so ago and I asked why people were protesting against M&S. "Because they're Zionists", was the reply that the middle-aged white man gave me, "its well known." M&S is a PLC which means it predominantly owned by pension funds; you and me in other words. It would be entirely possible for a rich Muslim company to buy M&S if it so wanted, I guess. I wondered why M&S was being protested against as opposed to Debenhams or Sainsburys, and the only conclusion I could come to was that it was a company with a well-known Jewish history. This seemed perilously close to anti-semitism, rather than just being pro-Palestine. I mention this with some concern and some loathing, since - though these are things I have no right to have a real opinion on - the demonisation of the Jews was one of the key elements of Fascism, and it should be possible for us to now live in a world where it is possible to criticise America without being pro-Zionist, and it is possible to criticise the regimes of the Middle East, without being anti-Islam. It is with some misgiving that I hear that the abhorrent, opinionated, insane Abu Hamza has been jailed for seven years from today. This is astonishing to me: that in a country that believes in free speech anyone, however abhorrent their views (and it is for his views that he has been charged and jailed), could be imprisoned. (But on second thoughts, I'm not really that concerned that such a nasty piece of work is finally getting his comeuppance. Maybe I should be, but perhaps he created a climate of fear and loathing, and that's enough.) Unwrap all of this and I'm not sure there's a present here any more, just a series of wrappers, each smaller, more crumpled and more dispiriting than before. (But read this for a more erudite discussion of the issues.) An interesting article in yesterday's Times on a Manchester-based writer, Paul Southern who lives in Longsight as an "alien", unable to be seen with his Muslim girlfriend because of the approbation from her friends and family. I've not heard of Southern before, nor the almost-made-it band Sexus he was once in, yet the article seems to imply he's got no choice about where he finds himself, whilst being aware of the absurdity of it. The photograph that accompanies the piece sees him stood on the curry mile, rather than in the depths of Longsight, probably the most cosmopolitan road in Manchester.

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