You guys better wipe those grins off your faces, because this is a serious one. I’m going to throw my hat into the ring on this whole Maajid Nawaz stuff. I know. It’s crazy. But I’m going to do it!
Now, I’m sure a large proportion of you are unaware of this controversy. Worry not, friends! I’m sure you’re in good company. If you’re looking for a detailed explanation of what happened, then Tom Chivers, Nick Cohen and some bunch of secular lawyers have all written on the subject. But if you’re not, I shall save your blushes and provide a summary:
Maajid Nawaz is a Muslim and Lib Dem parliamentary candidate for some London constituency whose name now escapes me. He appeared on the BBC’s ‘The Big Questions’, which is an early morning (10am on a Sunday!?) show in which they debate big dumb questions like ‘what would Moses have thought of Justin Beiber’s arrest’ and ‘ethnic cleansing: right or wrong?’ Not last Sunday but the one before, there were some people in the audience wearing t-shirts depicting the prophet Mohammed. It wasn’t long before one of the Muslims present informed everyone that the image was offensive to Muslims. Nawaz replied, somewhat reasonably, that he was also a Muslim and it didn’t offend him. He later tweeted the picture along with a similar sentiment.
The tweet is pretty ghastly, I warn you. Would you like to see it?
Cast your mind back to the aftermath of Lee Rigby’s murder. You might recall, if you were paying the slightest attention, that one consequence of the whole unpleasantness was a resurgence of anti-Muslim sentiment, manifest specifically in protests led by the EDL.
You might also recall one specific incident at a mosque in York, where the Imam let the EDL protesters in for tea and biscuits, and they all had a long chat about what they actually believed. In a subsequent Guardian editorial, one of the Mosque’s elders (don’t ask me what an elder is, I’m guessing it’s a sort of man who many agree is old and therefore wise) quoted Voltaire’s most famous aphorism: “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Unfortunately it seems that in some quarters that lesson was misheard as “I disapprove of what you say, so I will deny you your right to say it and subtly incite your death and that of your Pakistan-based extended family.” In these quarters, of course, a Muslim claiming not to be offended is really, really offensive, since unless all Muslims are united in their outrage then that outrage can’t well be exploited for political leverage, can it?
Tell Mama, a group set up to monitor hate-crimes against Muslims, put out a statement about the whole thing. One line in particular stood out for me:
For many Muslims, the perception may well be that Islam is once again being mocked and the strength of this feeling should not be under-estimated or disregarded.
This is a recurring motif that keeps cropping up amidst the uproar: Nawaz knew that ‘many Muslims’ were going to take offence, and that he should therefore have refrained from saying anything. I’m not even sure that this is true, but let’s assume that it is. Is this reason enough for someone to not say something? Because some people might consider it offensive?
Right. Now, I am not – not – denying that anti-Muslim prejudice exists and is a huge problem. But here’s the thing: having your beliefs ‘mocked’ is not such a bad thing. Seriously. It’s not always a sign of prejudice or hatred. It is – occasionally – an indication of the highest respect. Perhaps that seems nonsensical. Perhaps it even seems offensive. Indulge me, pray. Have you lot never heard any heavy metal? Let’s take a very brief tour.
This is Marilyn Manson’s Holy Wood album, from 2000. The cover depicts Manson as Christ (complete with a spear-wound in his side) rotting on the cross. In it, Marilyn Manson sings a song called ‘The Fight Song’, in which he advises his audience that he is neither ‘a slave to a God that doesn’t exist’, nor a ‘slave to a world that doesn’t give a shit’.
You can probably see how some people might find that offensive. You might also say that Manson has deliberately set out to offend people. Well, the only reply to that is ‘good’. That’s his job. That’s the job of the artist. If a piece of art is described as ‘inoffensive’, this is usually taken as shorthand for ‘not very good’.
“Have you seen the new Matt Damon film?”
“No. How is it?”
“Brilliant! I’m there!”
As far as the cover is concerned, it’s hardly the most offensive I’ve ever seen. It’s not even close. Was it censored? No. I remember walking past HMV and seeing this image displayed on a poster that filled the entire wall. This stuff is mainstream; this album went gold on either side of the Atlantic (and, impressively, managed to do so without inspiring societal collapse.)
Allow me to make an obvious invitation: why not imagine that Manson had posed as Mohammed? If his album had contained lyrics about Iran? Or about Palestine? Syria? Would that be okay? Would that be offensive? Or would it be essential? Who knows.
Blasphemy rating: 6/10
Okay, a year later and we have a Slayer offering ‘God Hates us All’. Weirdly, this album was released on September the 11th, 2001 – which I suppose you could take as evidence that, if God does exist, he was trying very, very hard to tell us something.
This cover isn’t quite as graphic as the Manson one – it doesn’t depict any actual human suffering. But it does show the Bible desecrated, which some religious people found immeasurably worse, and sure enough, demanded it be censored. American recordings, who probably just wanted an easy life, complied.
This album contains many pearls of wisdom. Here is a selection:
“The strength of religion is the repression of knowledge.”
“…you’re blind, screaming for your God. Pathetic God!”
“…I reject all the biblical views of the truth, dismiss it as the folklore of the times.
I won’t be force fed prophecies, from a book of untruths for the weakest mind.
I keep the Bible in a pool of blood so that none of its lies can affect me.”
You get the idea, don’t you? I’m really treading the same ground here. Overblown; ridiculous; all statements Maajid Nawaz could have probably made without inciting anything more than a raised eyebrow or two, or perhaps a chuckle here and there.
Blasphemy rating: 8/10
Okay, we moved up a gear here, haven’t we? This one isn’t even music, and you’d have to be very charitable indeed to term it ‘art’. It’s a T-Shirt that Cradle of Filth released in the mid-nineties, in a subtle attempt to court controversy. For those of you suffering from a visual impairment, the front depicts semi-naked nun masturbating herself, while the rear bears the slogan ‘Jesus is a cunt’.
I’m not sure I can offer much in the way of commentary on this t-shirt. It speaks for itself, does it not? While researching, however, I did stumble across a discussion on the Cradle of Filth website where people shared their experiences of being arrested for wearing the t-shirt. The most pertinent contribution came from some guy named Paul:
“As a Christian I’m not fond of the ‘Jesus is a cunt’ shirt, but I find it distressing that anyone could be fined for wearing one. What happened to freedom of speech? Sure, it’s my God, and I don’t like seeing others disrespect my faith, but who am I to tell someone else they have to shut-up? I thought we were all free to express ourselves – which takes tolerance.”
No, Paul. Tolerance is where you stop people saying things you don’t like! Idiot!
This t-shirt achieved some notoriety, and went on to inspire copycats, including a ‘Dani Filth is a cunt’ version. But I’m not sure we’ll be seeing an Islamic version any time soon. If a picture of Mohammed saying ‘how are you doing?’ is deemed ‘deeply offensive’, I can only imagine the reaction that would spark. Probably something like this.
Blasphemy rating: 9/10
This next one is a bit more relevant to the case in hand. It’s from South Carolinan death metal outfit, Nile. It’s the first track from their 2009 album, ‘Those Whom the Gods Detest’. Appropriately enough, it is entitled ‘Kafir’.
There is no God!
There is no God!
There is no God!
There is no God but God!
Oh dear. This is an open goal for even the most inept offense-taker. It is, if I’m not very much mistaken, a pretty fundamental Islamic creed. The rest of the song is no less Islamic; the verses are bastardisations (mistranslations?) of various parts of the Qur’an. In fact, I’m not sure there are any truly original lyrics to this song. It’s really a cover. Allah only knows what confusion this song might inspire in Orthodox Muslim households:
“What’s that racket? It doesn’t sound very Islamic.”
“It’s very Islamic. Listen: ALLAH HU AKBAR!!!!”
“Alright then. Can you turn it down a bit? Please?”
“Sure thing mother! THEIRS IS AN AWFUL DOOOOOOOOM!!!! KAFEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEERRRR!!!!!”
Can the words of the Holy Qur’an be offensive? I’m not entirely sure. But offense-takers are a resourceful bunch. I have faith in you, offense-takers! Of course, this particular recitation is a bit subversive. In other words, it’s too arty – which is, after all, The Problem. Maybe they should come up with a new rule: only recite the Holy Qur’an if your rendition won’t inspire anyone to think about the words in ways that they haven’t already thought about them.
Allah, of course, anticipated all of this; that’s why he made sure to specify that there shouldn’t be any stringed instruments. (Accounts of Mohammed’s life lead me to believe he’d have been more of an electro sort of guy.) Of course, enforcement of this law probably would lead to a great many aspiring guitarists to switch to woodwind, which, based on this clarinet rendition of Necrophagist’s ‘Full Body Autopsy’, might actually be quite interesting.
Anyway, subverting the holy Qur’an probably makes it even more blasphemous. Although I suppose that, what’s blasphemous and what’s not blasphemous is largely a matter of perspective. EXCEPT WHEN ITS NOT!
Blasphemy rating 0/10 (or 10/10, possibly.)
I could continue in this vein for a long, long while. But we’ve all got lives to lead. I think we’ve established that there’s a generally accepted bar for what constitutes inflammatory material. And in the case of the Prophet Mohammed this bar is set absurdly low. It has been decided that there shall be no images of this person, no matter how stunningly innocuous they are.
Here’s the thing: Being confronted with something provocative is a privilege. Having your beliefs challenged is a privilege. Having your beliefs mocked, maligned and ridiculed is a privilege, and it staggers me that anyone could be so willing to give it up.
If an opinion cannot survive rock and roll music, or a crude drawing of a man saying ‘how are you doing?’ is it really an opinion worth having? You know, I learned more about what’s really written in the Bible from ‘Holy Wood’ than I ever did in Sunday School. It showed me another perspective, as good art often does. Good art alters you and your beliefs. It’s not something you have any control over. Perhaps that idea disturbs you. Perhaps it scares you. Perhaps it excites you.
Here are some questions that have been posed before, and will be posed again: Where are the Muslim pop stars? Rock stars? Artists, musicians, poets, novelists, filmmakers, comedians, and satirists? Where’s the Islamic Marilyn Manson? Alice Cooper? Madonna? Where’s the Islamic Life of Brian? Book of Mormon? Jesus Christ Superstar? Where’s the Islamic Divine Comedy? Paradise Lost? His Dark Materials? Why must the author of ‘Jesus and Mo’ remain anonymous?
When we arrive at the answer to that lot, we’ll have found something worth being offended over. That a whole universe of art, music, literature and thought is being denied to us by religious thugs who, in spite of their purported ‘respect’ for certain figures from antiquity, have no qualms over exploiting the nebulous ‘hurt feelings’ of those figures in order to further their own brand of vacuous, sycophantic, asinine, dribbling hypocrisy.
Here’s a thought experiment. Consider, if you will, a man who holds an opinion that he suspects you might find objectionable. He doesn’t know that you’ll find it objectionable, he merely suspects that you might. Consider that this man then withheld this controversial opinion on the grounds that someone, somewhere might take offense at it. Again, he doesn’t know that they will, he merely suspects.
Would you consider that evidence of ‘respect’? Of that man’s high opinion of you? Or is it evidence, rather, to the contrary? Of his horribly low opinion of you? His view that you are a delicate flower whose sensibilities cannot endure the slightest whiff of contrary opinion, or, worse, a potentially violent lunatic who might at any moment erupt into rage?
Would you consider this person a friend? Would a real friend be so horrifically patronising? Would a real friend deceive you in this way? Would they mollycoddle you so? Would they lie? I do hope you consider that offensive; I certainly fucking would.
Salaam, until next week.
PS. The preceding blog contained words and images that some people might have found offensive. Those that are easily offended would have done well to avoid reading it.
PPS. Nick Clegg has publically backed his man. Well done, Nick Clegg. I was going to make some wise-crack about your party renaming themselves the ‘Illiberal Autocrats’, but I’ll have to save that for another time. By the way, this piece regarding the dubious fruitcakes in your party might be of interest.