Belated thoughts on Charlie Hebdo, religion, free speech, and all of that jazz

“A shocking crime was committed on the unscrupulous initiative of a few individuals, with the blessing of more, and amid the passive acquiescence of all.”

Tacitus

I haven’t been much inclined toward blogging of late. Which is strange, as a lot of troubled thoughts have been rattling around my head – most of them relating in particular to the Charlie Hebdo murders. I’m sure you’d all like to know my opinion – however belatedly it might have arrived. And that’s what you’re going to get.

My overriding emotion is one of indignation. If there’s one thing more unedifying than a senseless massacre, it’s the pack of dribbling morons that follows – unable to offer any comment but a reflexive concession that senseless massacres are inevitable as long as we haven’t yet capitulated to those that might commit them.

Britain is a nation of weaklings. We value courtesy, tolerance, and – well – politeness. We do so at the expense of all other considerations.   Is there anything more hopelessly British than politeness toward those who deserve scorn, respect for those who deserve none? When someone bumps into you, isn’t your first instinct to say sorry? I’m not sure what ‘sorry’ means in this instance; the best I could come up with is “I regret that you are a cunt.” But I’d venture that this isn’t the sort of respect most of us would like to receive.

If you wanted a demonstration of this sort of respect, then you didn’t need to look very far. Shortly after the leaders of the not-quite-so-free world had finished their meaningless stroll through Paris, the King of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz, dropped dead. Leaders of the free world immediately hurried toward Mecca, so that they might respectfully wrap their lips around the engorged Saudi phallus on our behalf, and imbibe the resultant black succour. Even Obama – who didn’t even bother with the Paris demonstration – took the trip to bend the knee. Would it have been naive to expect anything else?

Sure, the Saudis routinely brutalise people for crimes like blasphemy and sorcery – but they are important to our National Interest. Westminister even lowered the flag at the news – to widespread chagrin. I suppose if Josef Stalin had died shortly after VE day, we’d have given him the same treatment.  Maybe Churchill, whose funeral we recently commemorated in a typically British festival of second-world-war fetishism, was a monster to have ever held meetings with him.

Perhaps the most famous victim of the almighty Saudi sarlacc – at least in recent times – is Raif Badawi, a blogger who has become something of a hero among free speech advocates. For the crime of ‘insulting Islam’, he’s been sentenced to a thousand lashes, to be delivered in weekly chunks of fifty. He’s served the first of these chunks – but at considerable cost to his health, according to his doctor. And so the state has stayed its hand for the moment. This is the sort of mercy that obviously deserves our respect.

It’s hard to bring to mind the terrible reality of this sort of punishment: a big long whip rending the flesh of a person’s back into blood-sodden pieces. I’m sure in the Middle Ages, the people of England would have had a fairly clear idea of what brutal punishments entail – they would undoubtedly approved of them, in much the same way the Saudi populous does currently. But now it seems surreal.

Here’s a confession which might shock you: I’m not sure I’d be blogging if doing so would put me at the slightest risk of being flogged to death. Most bloggers cower in fear in the face of a menacing email – this guy is prepared to defy the world’s most well-financed brutality. He must have balls of steel.

The Pope voiced his opinion on the Charlie Hebdo affair, and drilled down to that which we all know is the real problem: gratuitous offence-giving. His solution – and, to his mind, the only solution – is to react with violent force against anyone who offends your conviction. His view would find much sympathy among the Saudi courts, I’m sure.

“If my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s normal. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”

His Holiness seems to not only want to absolve those that might react violently to perceived slights, but to suggest that they had no choice but to do so. According to Francis, this is not only a probable consequence, but an inevitable one. You will get a punch if you insult his mother; he is as much to blame for this as, say, clouds are for rain. The puncher is thereby absolved of all agency, and the person being punched is the victim of some act of (ha!) God.

Think about that for a second. If you’ve ever at any point wondered how Christianity managed to mutate from a celebration of one heretic being tortured on a cross to a justification for thousands of them to be tortured on a rack, you’ll find an answer in this demented logic.

Could there be a more regressive, more stupid statement on violence? Isn’t this the precise opposite of ‘turning the other cheek’? This isn’t even an eye for an eye. This is an eye for an eyelash. This is a person who over a billion people look to for ethical guidance. I can’t be alone in finding that worrying.

Religion, eh? If it’s not a young man in a balaclava shooting cartoonists, it’s an old man in a dress spouting bland pieties about how cartoonists might avoid getting shot.

Ol’ Frank has, during his short time in office, picked up something of a reputation for progressiveness among (how can I put this delicately?) thick people. The Vatican PR machine deserves a lot of credit for this; Ratzinger left the building and every thought of raped little boys completely vanished from the agenda. Wow, this new Pope’s so progressive. He even says that gays might not be inherently evil? That’s so swell! Wow, according to this guy, dogs can go to heaven! What a cool pope! Catholicism seems just so sensible now!

The standard for Islam is similarly low. Islam can now be said to be tolerant because, if interpreted correctly, it might allow that apostates be permitted to live. I also once heard a story of how Mohammed gave his last Rolo to a Zoroastrian – how magnanimous of him. If I were to pick one seventh century warlord on whose values to base mine, it would be him.

From where do these terribly low standards come? The fear of being labelled bigoted is a powerful deterrent.  Just look at the spread of term ‘Islamaphobia’, which is like kryptonite for Guardianistas. Whether or not there’s any organisation behind this – and there is certainly reason to suspect that there is – makes little difference to the outcome. Islam is an idea – or collection of ideas. Some are historically suspect; some are morally repellent; some are plain nutty. Some, astonishingly enough, are even wise – the idea that the entire lot exists as some indivisible package, however, is not among them.

I desire a world in which people can bring themselves to say things like ‘I believe in freedom of speech’, without having to clench shut their jaws to prevent the escape of some ‘respectful’ caveat or other:  Yes, while we do all agree in freedom of speech, but it should have limits. Let’s be fair, the cartoonists did insult Mohammed. As for the Jews in the supermarket, well: they were Jews. Come on.

I’m going to be writing more in the future, and on this subject. The alternative seems an act of near-complicity.  Fortunately, there already exists an healthy body of lucid writing on the matter; all that’s left is for a large amount of people to write, speak and draw whatever they like, regardless of any lingering fear of being censured, censored or shot in the head.

Until next time!

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Britain First! are they just wankers?

For a long time I’ve been dimly aware of the group known as Britain First. Britain First are a group of nationalist outrage-merchants, whose purpose is to put – you guessed it – Britain First. This seems distinct from its antecedents in that it spreads the good word through viral media: crappy little brainless images with bone-headed sentiments underneath. I’m sure you’ve all encountered them. I fucking hate those in general by the way, but that’s another blog.

The Britain First Facebook page is mostly used to flog a line of jingoistic t-shirts, hats and badges. This seems to encroach a little onto the territory of already-existing organisations that flog pro-armed forces paraphernalia, whose proceeds go towards helping members of the armed forces, rather than furthering some knuckle-headed political movement. Why the fuck would you not promote them instead, you insufferable parasites?

Britain First now have half a million Facebook likes, which is more than all of the other main four (Three? Five?) parties put together. This is like the young, technologically literate version of the same old bullshit. They are accumulated these through the use of the aforementioned inflammatory images. Do you disapprove of starving a dog to death? LIKE AND SHARE! Do you disapprove of child rape? LIKE AND SHARE! From what I can see, they put up five or six of those dumbass memes a day. Which makes my one-blog-a-week approach seem comparitively slovenly.

Britain First is a fascist organisation. You might think that’s overstating it, since their proposals are undoubtedly mild compared to those of Anjem Choudry and the like. And of course, it isn’t fascistic to denigrate Islam. It is fascistic, however, to relentlessly glorify the military, censor criticism and scapegoat ethnic and religious minorities. Boxes which they have pretty much ticked. I particularly loathe their hard-line Christian message which seems to have been overlooked, as it normally is.  Popular lefty blog AAV has documented this all a great deal more thoroughly than I will here, so go check that out.

Some UKIP supporters apparently didn’t get this memo. They decided to pose with Jayda Fransen, Britain First’s new front-end, for a photo, on the grounds that they agreed with everything that she had to say. This did not go down well at UKIP headquarters, who promptly issued a clarification, reaffirming that they are not not NOT a bunch of fascists.

Fransen is not a big bald white dude, which from a PR-perspective, is helpful. She has also mastered that amazing feminine ability to be obnoxious because she knows she won’t get a punch in the face. This talent is exhibited flawlessly in the videos on Britain First’s YouTube channel, in which her exploits are soundtracked by what sounds like a less well-financed Hans Zimmer alongside Two Steps from Hell and whatever other Epic music they could track down. Is this Rochdale town centre? Or is it Skyrim? This impression is re-enforced moments later when they barge into the local Tory office and encounter a man who can only repeat the words: “Could you leave please?” like an NPC for whom only one line of dialogue was ever recorded.

No reasonable person could have conceivably profited from the resulting exchange, wherein Fransen bellowed her political talking points at this hapless man. This is a common Britain First tactic: walk unsolicited toward your political opponents and bawl your opinions at them. Yeah, stick it to the man, Jayda! Don’t forget to LIKE AND SHARE.

I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the Tory-boy in question. He couldn’t very well call the police – that would not reflect well on the party, would it? He also couldn’t do what any other office worker would have done and tell them to fuck off. This is, I suspect, why no-one much wants to get into politics; you’re not allowed to simply tell people to fuck off. He instead attempts to subtly manoeuvre her out of the building using only his chest, which results in several bizarre accusations of manhandling.

He’d almost managed to get them to the door when he made the fatal mistake of deviating from the script and mentioning the proposed Tory in-out EU referendum, which prompted a tirade from the hitherto-silent cameraman. “TORY LIES AND SUBTERFUGE! WHERE WAS GONDOR WHEN THE WESTFOLD FELL!?”

I’m paraphrasing.

Camera Man also tried to get involved in a latter exchange with some Muslim guy outside a mosque. Something about England being for English people – because Jesus fucking Christ, why bother with subtlety at this point? Why pretend you’re not just the same old NF bullshit? Why not just become a cliché?

The primary concern seems to be a proposed mega-mosque. I can see why; if you’re not keen on mosques to begin with, the idea of a mega-mosque might seem utterly terrifying. If these Britain First people are to be believed, there’s a not-insignificant danger of the thing transforming, decepticon-style, into an enormous gun.  If you want my opinion, it seems only fair, since Britain’s churchgoers now enjoy around five-hundred square yards of worshipping space each, that the Muslims of Rochester be afforded a ginormo-mosque the size of Heathrow airport.

I’m not sure whether simply wandering into the nearest mosque and haranguing all the bemused-looking Muslims is a productive use of anyone’s time, but Jayda is. I think it’s quite impressive that none of them really lost their temper. I can see why they don’t, though; any anger would probably be held up as an example of terrible rage problems within The Muslim Community.

Britain First, and their ilk, seem keen to crowbar the Rotherham child-abuse scandal into their condemnation of Islam. It seems that the vast majority of the horrible child-molestation occurred in takeaway shops rather than mosques, and yet takeaways seem to have eluded the ire of Britain First. I get that. It’s not easy to campaign against kebab-houses. Everyone fucking loves kebab.

I’m sure we will hear more from this charming group in the future, but for now I’m done with them.

Until next week.

On criticising Islam, religion, Sam Harris and Reza Aslan etc.

There was a point in my life when I couldn’t go five minutes without criticising religion. I would inform anyone who would listen of my opinion that it was horrible and stupid and divisive.

I’ve stopped doing it now though. For three reasons:

  1. It’s boring.
  2. Other people have done it better.
  3. Everyone’s pretty much made up their minds.

The topic will occasionally rear its ugly head in public discourse, and so it has done quite recently.  I’m going to confront it – but I’m going to do it wearily. I’m particularly weary because the hubbub centres, as ever, on Islam.

Fuck.

Let’s be real. It’s controversial to criticise Islam. More than that, it’s controversial to mention that it’s controversial to criticise Islam. This much was demonstrated by Ben Affleck the other week in his now-infamous televised bellowing session.

Reza Aslan and Chris Stedman have since jointly penned an article in the Guardian. “Can’t we all just get along?” they say. Well that sounds very reasonable. I’m all for dialogue. Who isn’t? But there are a number of things in this piece which I found problematic. (‘Problematic’, by the way, is the new fashionable lefty word for when you want to complain without sounding like Mary Whitehouse).

“When 46% of Americans think Islam is more violent than other faiths but only 37% even know a Muslim.”

I’d rate ‘I know some Muslims and they’re alright’ as among the worst possible reasons for believing that one religion is more or less violent than another. Why not carefully and honestly examine its core tenants? The scripture? The homicide rate among its practitioners? Not just ‘I know Muslims and they’re alright’.   What the hell does that prove?

Here’s another gem:

“There is a great deal of work to do in the Muslim community concerning attitudes about and practices affecting LGBTQ people, ex-Muslims and women. At the same time, the atheist community continues to struggle with fraught debates over anti-theism, sexism and racism among atheists.”

If ever there was a false equivalence, this is it. A significant chunk of the world’s Muslim population believes that apostates should be killed, for the reason that it says in the Qu’ran that apostates should be killed. On the other hand, some atheists once disbarraged some feminists, according to some blog. So, y’know.

I’m unsure what the problem with ‘anti-theism’ is. Could this word be the new ‘islamophobia’? Am I going to encounter a lot of hand-wringing opinion pieces about confronting ‘anti-theism’? Can’t wait!

Here’s the rub. Criticising Islam is not the same as criticising Muslims. Muslims are people that practice Islam. Except most of them don’t do it very much, or do it in the same way I do – which is to say, not at all. This entire ceaseless hoo-ra could be distilled down to confusion around, and wilful obfuscation of, this distinction.

Let me give some obvious examples. The Qu’ran (and the Bible, for that matter) condones slavery. But only a complete cretin would believe that Muslims therefore condone slavery. I know plenty of Christians, who, if you were to ask them, would say that they didn’t believe in the efficacy of human sacrifice. That hasn’t affected my belief that Christianity is a nihilistic death-cult.

I’m now going to pose some questions to myself and answer them, just so you can follow my train of thought. I know, it’s annoying when people do this. It makes you think they’re trying to trick you or something. But bear with me.

Do the beliefs people hold influence their behaviour?

The answer is obviously yes. For example, my belief that I’m really clever and have a lot of shit to say influences my desire to write this blog. Your belief that you unreservedly agree with me influences you to continue reading it.

Do religious beliefs influence behaviour?

I see no reason why religious beliefs would be somehow exempt from this rule. In fact, many religious people claim that their religious beliefs influence their day to day activities more profoundly than any of their other sorts of belief.

Do religious beliefs influence bad behaviour?

Yeah. Especially when the religious beliefs themselves often determine what the practitioner believes to be ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

What about George Bush/drone strikes/Israel/The Westboro Baptist church?

These are often brought up as a diversionary tactic. I can see why; when I’m arguing about something I’m tempted to steer the conversation toward some superficially-related topic with which I’m more acquainted. For example: Do you know how many drone strikes Obama carried out in Pakistan the other month? How does that sit with your claims regarding the futility of prayer? Motherfucker?

Reza Aslan has shot to prominence in the last month or so, thanks to some viral encounters with barely-cogent newscasters. I haven’t read any of his books, but I have read some of his interviews, including one with nymag.com, where he had the following to say:

“…the scriptures are inundated with conflicting sentiments about almost every subject. In other words, the same Torah that tells Jews to love their neighbour also tells them to kill every single man, woman, and child who doesn’t worship Yahweh. The same Jesus who told his disciples to give away their cloaks to the needy also told them to sell their cloaks and buy swords. The same Quran that tells believers if you kill a single individual, it’s as though you’ve killed all of humanity, also tells them to slay every idolater wherever you find them.

So, how do you, as an individual, confront that text? It’s so basic, a child can understand: The way that you would give credence or emphasis to one verse as opposed to the other has everything to do with who you are. That’s why they have to sort of constantly go back to this notion of an almost comical lack of sophistication in the conversations that we are having about religion. And to me, there’s a shocking inability to understand what, as I say, a child would understand, which is that religions are neither peaceful nor violent, neither pluralistic nor misogynistic — people are peaceful, violent, pluralistic, or misogynistic, and you bring to your religion what you yourself already believe.”

I’ve noticed one running theme through Aslan’s rhetoric: his opponent’s ability to comprehend the obvious truth of the shit he’s laying down, which he will often unfavourably compare to that of a child. Another favourite accusation is that his opponents lack ‘sophistication’, or ‘nuance’. To an ‘almost comical’ degree, no less.

Aslan’s contention here seems to be that religious beliefs aren’t actually caused by religion. Rather, religious believers cherry-pick the bits they like and leave the rest. Right. This is undoubtedly sometimes true of religious people – but it seems to strongly support the contention that religion is fucking dumb. If you’ll excuse the lack of sophistication.

Aslan, you won’t be at all surprised to learn, has voiced a particular dislike for Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, for the reason that they say uncharitable things about his religion. Harris has attracted censure for his claim that “Islam is the mother-lode of bad ideas”; Dawkins is currently experiencing the wrath of the twitterati with his disagreement with those that consider the Arabic language ‘beautiful’ – a view that I find it hard to disagree with, especially in the case of spoken Arabic, which demands that the speakers occasionally simulate the sound of filling their mouths with mucus. HUUUUUUUAAAKKKKK.

Aslan also finds himself at odds with everyone who has read The End of Faith without coming to believe that Sam Harris wants to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against Iran, or that he thinks perpetrating genocide against religionists is morally permissible. Harris defends himself from this bullshit and more here!

I’m not sure how much further out of their way Bill Maher and Harris and Dawkins et al need to go to point out that they’re not talking about all Muslims. And yet still, whenever they blithely refer to ‘Muslims’ without inserting some quantifying adjective beforehand, they are accosted with accusations of racism.

It’s all rather tedious, really. God, even writing about this topic is like walking through a minefield! Whatever happened to the benefit of the doubt? Need our whole discourse now be conducted in horrible legalese? Need I insert hedges and caveats into every sentence in order to avoid the tiniest shred of doubt? Must I assume that my readership will wilfully misunderstand my every statement?

Is this qualification necessary? Would omitting it make me guilty of some sort of hate crime? When I go into the chippy and they ask “would you like salt and vinegar on your chips?” and I reply “yes,” would it be reasonable for them to say: “AHA! I TAKE IT YOU MEAN ALL OF THE SALT AND VINEGAR IN THE WHOLE WORLD? I HOPE SO BECAUSE THAT IS WHAT YOU WILL GET.”

Is everyone who says ‘Communism is a mother lode of bad ideas’ going to be assailed with accounts of the plight of how some enfeebled old woman who once lived in Maoist china had never hurt a fly in her life? What about my great great uncle Pytor, an avowed communist until his final breath?   He harmed no-one! Your criticism of the system which propelled him toward a premature and horrible death besmirches his memory!

I want to be able to go through the claims of a religion and criticise them. Not only that, I want to be able to malign, ridicule, and generally attack them. And I’d prefer to be able to do it without anyone taking it personally. But if they do, then, well, whatever.

Until next week.

PS.

I really don’t need much of an excuse to share this god-bashing video: 

A blog about ritual slaughter

Late last year I visited a Halal takeaway in Tooting.  I noticed the sign on the door, and so ordered a bean burger.  My droogs were at first perplexed at this, but for some reason I didn’t feel as though I could voice my concerns without coming across as – well – a bit rude.  Perhaps this was incredibly patronising of me.  I do like to think that this did have some effect on alleviating animal suffering.  I like to think of myself as something of a modern day Pocahontas.

This week, the President Elect of the British Vetinary Assosciation, John Blackwell, has only gone out and said that slicing open an animal’s throat while it’s still fully conscious may not be the most humane thing in the world.  Which seems to have re-ignited a fair bit of outrage. All of this could, however, be just a giant conspiracy against Muslims and Jews, led by far-right extremist hate groups like the BVA,  the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe, the Humane Slaughter Association, the RSPCA and errrrr…Compassion in World Farming.

Of course, all of our animal welfare laws were written with special clauses exempting religious groups.  People whose religious feelings are violated by animal welfare.  God, I detest this sort of exemption.  They are unfair by definition.  It’s literally literally one rule for some people and another for others, provided you can come up with a sufficiently mystical reason why you should be exempted.  Really, our laws could be paraphrased:

“You must not do this, unless you believe that you shouldn’t have to, in which case don’t worry about it.”

And whenever this sort of debate is held, it’s always some empirically-derived certainty balanced against ‘strongly held religious feelings’.  For example:  Most experts agree that the world is round.   But some people think it’s flat.  How is this going to affect air traffic control?

While I’m not entirely sure why the religiousness of a particular feeling should be important, I am quite sure that the people who say this sort of thing believe its importance to be absolutely paramount.  As you may have gathered, I disagree; and whenever I hear a phrase of this sort, I make a point of mentally subtracting the adjective:  

“We have to balance animal welfare with people’s feelings.” 

There you go, now you can see how insane everything is.

Religious rules are so nebulous and open to interpretation that they’re not really rules at all.  All the word ‘Halal’, means is that Muslims are allowed to eat it.  How this is decided, exactly, I have no idea – what does and doesn’t constitute Halal is a matter of such intense controversy that entire careers have been devoted to debating it.

The thing is, the word ‘Halal’ doesn’t necessarily indicate that the animal hasn’t been stunned.  In fact, if this 2011 survey by the FSA is at all representative, Shechita is far worse.  Around 80% of meat is stunned prior to slaughter in Halal abattoirs, whereas for their Shechita equivalents the number approached nil.

Despite this, I haven’t seen much in the way of anti-Shechita sentiment in the media.  Maybe it’s because there aren’t quite so many Shechita butchers?  I rather think it’s down to the fact that Jew-bashing lacks the social licence that Muslim-bashing has acquired; indeed, the latter practice seems to be enjoying something of a renaissance.  If you want proof of this, find a tabloid headline that refers to Muslims and replace it with the word ‘Jew’:  “Jews tell us how to run our schools”; “Jews tell British – go to hell!!1”; “Jewish plot to kill Pope”; and so on.

There are several schools of ethical thought on the matter; one popular one, which I subscribe to, and have discussed here previously, is the thing where you minimise pain caused to the animal.  The popular method of doing this is to deliver a massive electric shock to the temples just prior to slaughter, rendering the animal instantly insensible. 

The problem here is that this suggestion was not made any point in any Holy Books of Unassailable Wisdom.  I’ve got a fairly good idea of why that is the case: at the time the Torah and Qu’ran were written, electricity hadn’t been invented yet.  That would come much later, upon Chris Hemsworth’s descent from Asgard.

One suggestion that’s been brought up is that idea of mandatory labelling – not of Halal or Kosher, but of anything that hasn’t been stunned.  I can understand why someone’s religion might command them not to stun the animal, insofar as I understand that religion can command people to do all manner of crazy things.  I can’t, however, understand how anyone could object to sticking a goddam label on the packet so everyone – whatever their beliefs – is aware of what they are buying.  If I buy a piece of dead animal flesh, I’d like to have some control over how the animal came to arrive at that state. 

 

Until next week.

On being offensive

Right,

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?

Alright, then:

jesusandmo

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.

holywood

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?”

“Inoffensive.”

“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

ghua

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

cradle

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!

Allah-hu-Akbar!

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.