Both liberty and equality are among the primary goals pursued by human beings throughout many centuries; but total liberty for wolves is death to the lambs, total liberty of the powerful, the gifted, is not compatible with the rights to a decent existence of the weak and the less gifted. – Isaiah Berlin, The Crooked Timber of Humanity, pp12
We move into another day and the furore over the ‘Muhammed cartoons’ continues unabated by anything that remotely resembles common sense to the point where one begins to wonder whether this might all, in some bizarre and unexpected way, herald the end of Western civilisation as we know it. It’s a thought I find both amusing and ironic; the idea that all the many predictions made over the centuries about the nature of the ‘end of days’ may be completely and utter wrong; no fire, no great conflagration, no many headed beasts or whores of Babylon, no second coming, no blinding flash, no mushroom clouds, no melting ice caps or rising seas, not even the nuclear winter that the Cold War promised. No, what better, what more appropriate and ignominious end could there be than that on offer at present; the end that comes with a civilisation that slowly drowns in its own bullshit and hypocrisy.
Freedom of speech means the freedom to speak the unspeakable and to cause offence is the rallying cry of those who are openly supporting the actions of the Danish newspaper that triggered all this off, and of those newspapers who recent reprinted the cartoons – and, of course, in principle, they’re correct – but the mere fact that one can do something does not necessarily mean that one should, or that one should take the view that such things can be done without regard to the consequences of your actions or without fear of disapproval, censure or even sanctions.
I’ve certainly seen the cartoons in question and have taken the decision not to either publish them myself, or even to link to them – which it seems if one takes the criticism levelled at the mainstream media on board, marks me out as a coward who’s afraid of publishing for fear of the reaction they might provoke in the Islamic world.
Yet, my reasons for taking this decision are both entirely clear in my own mind and have nothing to do with either self-censorship or cowardice. I won’t publish them here because, first and foremost, I don’t find them funny or even particularly satirical. Beyond that I seem them as unnecessarily demonising Islam, and by extension, Muslims in general – as tarring the entire Islamic world with the label of being intolerant and violent and as being terrorists. They don’t, as I see them, mock religion so much as rely for their alleged humour on the egregious stereotyping of its followers and, for want of a better word, I consider that to be ‘racist’.
I ought to qualify that last statement by explaining both what I personally mean by ‘racist’ as well as I why I dislike that particular term and consider it both imprecise and unhelpful.
First of all, I do not believe in the concept of ‘race’ as it is commonly presented as meaning differences between human beings arising out of their physiological characteristics. The idea that someone belongs to a special ‘racial’ group because of their skin colour, the colour and texture of their hair, the shape of their nose, their lips or minor variations in the shape of their skull is, I think, a load of unscientific nonsense – if the genetic differences between me and a member of Masai tribe living on the African savannah were that significant we would be classified as belonging to different species, or at least to different sub-species of dear old Homo Sapiens.
‘Race’ is something I see as social construct, a collective social and cultural identity to which individuals identify themselves as belonging and something that is not necessarily predicated on shared physiological characteristics. In law and in the common view we accept the idea of Jews as comprising a distinct ‘racial’ group, yet if one looks at the Jewish population in Israel one finds as much physiological variation amongst that population. The physiological differences between the Ashkenazi, descendents of the Northern and Central European Jewish populations, the Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews of the Iberian peninsula and North Africa and the Beta Israel Jews of Ethiopia are no less marked than those that exist between myself, Mr Ahmed who lives a few door down and the Somali couple who’s names I don’t know but who live just over the road having moved in only a couple of weeks ago, yet we consider Jews to be a single, homogeneous, race for the purposes, certainly, of our Race Relations laws where no one would take the same view of myself and my near neighbours.
You’re free to disagree with particular view if you wish, but it is the way I personally see things and because I see things that way on a moral and ethical level I make no particular distinction between my dislike of the ‘racial’ stereotyping of Jews as mean, grasping and untrustworthy agent-provocateurs and my dislike of seeing Muslims stereotyped as bloodthirsty, barbaric medievalists. Each in its own way is ‘racist’ and I want nothing to do with either as I consider them both to be morally reprehensible.
In observing not just the development of the ‘debate’ – if one can consider it that – that’s sprung up around the Muhammed cartoons and, in general, around Islam since the attack on the World Trade Centre, I keep coming back to one particular passage in Orwell’s essay ‘Anti-Semitism in Britain’, which I consider particularly relevant at present:
And naturally the antisemite thinks of himself as a reasonable being. Whenever I have touched on this [anti-Semitism] in a newspaper article, I have always had a considerable ‘comeback’, and invariably some of the letters are from well-balanced, middling people – doctors for example – with no apparent economic grievance*. These people always say (as Hitler says in Mein Kampf) that they started out with no anti-Jewish prejudice but were driven into their present position by mere observation of the facts. Yet on of the marks of antisemitism is the ability to believe stories that could not possibly be true.
[Orwell is writing here, for the Contemporary Jewish Record in 1945. Earlier in this essay, Orwell notes that Jews working in the retail trade in London, selling commodities which were scarce due to rationing – food, clothes, furniture, tobacco, etc. – were being targeted for abuse on the basis that it was assumed that they were engaged in profiteering, black-market trading and favouritism. Undoubtedly some of this did happen at the time, and some Jewish shopkeepers would have been involved in such activities, but then so would many other non-Jewish shopkeepers as well. Orwell notes this alongside other examples of what he sees as people rationalising their anti-Semitic views, views that Orwell himself considered to be entirely irrational]
Orwell, who was ever the superb observer of human nature and character would, I have no doubt, make a similar observation about the growing tide of irrational prejudice against Muslims that we see today.
And that really is my position on this whole issue.
There are one or two cartoons amongst those commissioned by the Danish newspaper that just about qualify as satirical, albeit that the jokes are pretty piss poor, but others, and I am thinking particularly of the turban-bomb ‘gag’ which deliberately draws the parallel between Islam and terrorism are what I would consider ‘racist’ within the definition of the term I’ve give above. Moreover, very few of the ‘jokes’ rely in any way on the central character of the cartoon actually being Mohammed – the turban-bomb joke, which is one that has caused particular offence and for good reason, would work just as well, in fact better, were it a cartoon of Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri. So on that basis I may well defend the principle of free expression but I’m damn well not going to defend the content of the particular cartoons.
And that, for me, is one of the more disturbing aspects of this whole issue; that in and amongst all the grandstanding about free expression, it seems that some have forgotten to consider the content of the cartoons themselves and take a view as to whether its right that Muslims should consider them offensive, not simply because they deliberately break an important religious taboo but simply because some of them are ‘racist’ and do make use of stereotypes to present a demeaning and oppressive view of Muslims.
Much of what’s been written about this issue of late, certainly in the blogosphere, carries with it the distinct stench of hypocrisy precisely because some, if not many of those expressing a stridently ‘libertarian’ line on this issue, have failed to give any consideration to the question of whether Muslims have, after all, a genuine grievance here.
That is not to suggest that one should condone the extreme reaction that these cartoons have generated in parts of the Islamic world, rather it should cast our own reaction to the sight of Muslims carrying placards demanding the execution of those who insult Islam rather more into the mode of understanding that two wrongs don’t make a right. As much as we may, in the West, be either offended or alarmed by the violent reaction these cartoons have provoked, we should remember that such a reaction was, and is, entirely predictable given past reaction in the Islamic world to other perceived ‘insults’ to their religion – one thinks immediately of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, although that situation was made considerably more complex by his own Muslim origins, which led him to seen not only as insulting Islam but as an apostate as well. Rather, should not give some consideration to our own role in these events and ask the question as to whether the newspaper that commissioned and published these cartoons was justified in its action, knowing full well the reaction they would engender?
It’s in this question that one finds the deepest hypocrisies exposed.
As with near enough all our dealings with the Islamic world of late, the idea that we, in the West, may bear some measure of responsibility for our actions when, as in this case, they trigger a violent response from disaffected Muslims is too much for our supposedly civilised and enlightened sensibilities to bear. Immediately we retreat into abstractions and cosset ourselves with the sure and certain knowledge that whatever the consequences of our own conduct, that conduct is itself of unimpeachable character, being driven by the highest of principles; the defence of free expression and the promotion of liberal democratic values. So it is that we are right to defend the principle of free speech and, more than that, to demonstrate unequivocally our collective will to defend that right by publishing and re-publishing these cartoons with impunity. And, naturally, because we are right, those Muslims who complain that we have insulted them and their religion and culture are wrong; better yet they go on to prove conclusively that they are wrong by reacting violently to our actions; by protesting, by boycotting Western goods and, ultimately, by burning down the embassy’s of those who’ve offended them.
And are we in any way responsible, let alone culpable, for that reaction?
Of course not – and out come the abstractions, the ideals and the principles yet again. Muslims have a choice, they possess moral agency and so can choose not to protest, not to boycott, not to respond to perceived insults – although curiously enough this same concept of moral agency, of choice, rarely seems to be applied to our own actions and our own choices and, moreover, any hint of a suggestion that it should is met immediately with a further abstraction, the dread charge of ‘moral relativism’.
Of course such hypocrisy is nothing new as the South African activist, Steve Biko, pointed noted:
Not only are whites kicking us; they are telling us how to react to being kicked.
As much as I find the ‘racist’ stereotyping of some of these cartoons unpalatable, I find the hypocrisy of some of those now defending their publication on the grounds of free speech to be reprehensible – in some ways the position of the Nick Griffin and BNP is preferable to that taken up by some of the self-styled defenders of liberty and free-expression that have taken up their pseudo-intellectual cudgels on this issue. Griffin may well play the same kind of intellectual games as others have adopted on this issue, skirting around the parameters of the UK’s race relations laws by targeting his bile on the abstract notion of ‘Islam’ but at least you know deep down that he and others of his ilk are just the same old racist bigots that the far-right have always been, that when he says that he hates Islam, what he means deep down is that he hates “Pakis, Wogs and Niggers