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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Publish and be damned

Posted: Sun, 09 Feb 2014 13:38 by Abhishek Phadnis

Publish and be damned

The mainstream media's craven refusal to print the Jesus & Mo cartoon seriously undermines the principle of free expression, and will further embolden professional offense takers, argues Abhishek Phadnis.

The Danish scholar Jytte Klausen's definitive book on the Danish cartoons affair, The Cartoons that Shook the World, has no illustrations, and two forewords to explain why this is so. The first, by her publishers, Yale University Press, admits that "inclusion of the cartoons would complement the book's text with a convenient visual reference for the reader" (you don't say). However, it whimpers that since "republication of the cartoons … ran a serious risk of instigating (sic) violence", it had decided against including the cartoons. The second, by Ms. Klausen, ruefully agrees. Yale University, you may recall, is the alma mater of that great American hero, Nathan Hale, whose courage in the face of imminent death (at 21), when caught spying for the Continental Army behind enemy lines, was immortalised in The Ballad of Nathan Hale:

Thou pale king of terrors, thou life's gloomy foe, Go frighten the slave; go frighten the slave;

Tell tyrants, to you their allegiance they owe. No fears for the brave; no fears for the brave.

The bureaucrats of Yale proved unworthy of that mantle, but at least they had the courage to admit they were scared. Those of us who have followed the British news media's coverage of the Jesus & Mo affair this past fortnight have been denied even that closure. To recap, a Muslim man said that he was not offended by an innocuous cartoon, printed on the t-shirts of two students who had nearly been thrown out of a public university for wearing them, and had had to fight an almighty legal battle for the right to do so. For his trouble, this man received death-threats from well-meaning members of his community, and nearly lost his job because some members of that community disagreed with him about the nature of the cartoon. Yet the British media would have you believe that absolutely none of this justifies their showing you the cartoon in question.

Leading the case for the defence was the 'senior editorial team' of Channel 4, which defended its decision to censor Mo (with what looked, for all the world, like a large black egg) on the grounds that "the showing of the entire illustration … was not integral to the story". Given that the entire illustration was the story, this tells us only that the team would prefer to be known as obtuse than as invertebrate, and merits no further rebuttal.

Their sophomore effort was a minor improvement – "where we consider the likelihood of significant offence to our audience, we will attempt to mitigate against that". Now, the frequent and unnecessary coverage of Anjem Choudhary's mob alone should disabuse you of this notion, but I invite you to cast your mind further back, to the various spasms of Islamist outrage overThe Satanic Verses and the Danish cartoons. I, for one, cannot recall a single violent protest that wasn't luridly covered in the media with images – where descriptions would have sufficed – of burning effigies and books and bloodcurdling banners like "Behead those who insult Islam", "Butcher those who mock Islam", "Freedom of expression go to hell" and (this last carried by a child) "Whoever insults a prophet kill him".

I think I speak for most liberals when I say that I am viscerally offended by photographs of these protests, and while Salman Rushdie may stoically quip that a book burned is a book sold, I, as a lover of the bound book, feel deep anguish at the sight of charred copies of The Satanic Verses. I do not, however, expect newspaper articles and television news reports to be excised of book-burnings and baying anti-blasphemy mobs for my benefit (not least because they do me the service of concentrating my mind on the barbarians within the gates) and I would be laughed out of the office of any editor to whom I made representations to this effect.

Nor does this principle see wider application to other religious communities, and rightly so. Retrospectives of Life of Brian (broadcast on Channel 4 in 2007) are regularly marked by adoring stills from the film's funniest scenes, and montages from the raucously blasphemousJerry Springer: The Opera, broadcast on BBC Two, appeared in every mainstream publication at the time. Similarly, almost every British newspaper published photographs of the nauseating artwork Piss Christ, which depicts a crucifix submerged hazily in a jar of the urine of the artist, Andres Serrano. The media's concern for religious sensibilities is the exception, not the norm.

A journalist reasoned with me privately that the press ought not to publish anything overtly hurtful to minorities without a significant public interest justification, a decent and well-meaning consideration that is wasted on those who believe stick-figure cartoons merit resignation or death. By way of comparison, every major British newspaper published photographs of Nicholas Anelka's 'quennelle' – which, unlike Jesus & Mo, was objectively racist and offensive to a minority – presumably on the grounds that the photographs were relevant to the story and would enable the public to form their own opinion on the gesture's provocativeness. As for television, lingering slow-motion close-ups of the 'quennelle' punctuated the analysis of Newsnight, whose editor, Ian Katz, now claims there is "no journalistic reason" to show the Jesus & Mo cartoon "when description of it perfectly adequate to understand story".

Besides, the media's vaunted concern for minority welfare is at odds with its indifference to the minority within Islam that is trying to reform its orthodoxy's disgraceful attitude to blasphemy – a minority that is gravely endangered and in need of friends. Theirs is a spirited rear-guard against a gigantic global power of untold wealth and influence (namely Islamism, or the "loudmouths who have hijacked" Islam, as Maajid Nawaz puts it) which has a wretched record on freedom of expression, and every intention of exporting it. Since 1988, it has suborned the murder of foreign cartoonists, translators, artists, publishers and filmmakers who have offended its sensibilities, and has blighted the life and career of our most gifted contemporary novelist. Its blasphemy code has been visited upon Western universities, publishers, magazines, museums, art galleries, television productions, operas, independent cartoonists, artists and filmmakers and even Wikipedia, and it has sought to sabotage the economies and wreck the diplomatic missions of democracies that refuse to implement that code.

In recent years, it has gentrified itself for the task of policing our opinions of it, with the institution of the Islamophobia Observatory in Mecca in 2005 (to, inter alia, challenge "insulting, offensive and contemptuous" representations of Mohammed that "incite (sic) unrest in society"). The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation has, since, taken it upon itself to exploit diplomatic representations and complaints to the United Nations to coerce democracies into condemning satires of Islam, which dovetails neatly with its decade-long pet project for a UN resolution criminalising blasphemy. It is a theocratic juggernaut that must be stopped before it overwhelms us, and Maajid Nawaz and other liberal Muslims are performing this thankless task, for which they deserve our support and respect.

It is not unreasonable to expect the media to occupy the frontline of this defence, for even those who resent being conscripted into this fight would admit that free expression is the oxygen of the journalistic trade, and any attempt to curtail it through theocratic bullying takes an axe to the whole structure of freedoms that sustains the free press. Instead, the editors of every mainstream news outlet have bought into the convenient fiction that censoring the cartoons is the neutral position. It is not. It is perhaps unique to free-speech issues that those who report on them become part of the story themselves, their task being to tell their audience what it is that someone else is being restrained from saying. To censor the cartoons is to side with those who claim they are offensive. To show them, is, in fact, the neutral position – in that it can be done without implying support for either side.

It is a damning indictment of the press's confusion that every publication has ended up on the wrong side of its own politics in this matter. Left-liberal publications, normally awash with hand-wringing on 'Islamophobia', have implicitly condoned the scurrilous assumption that every Muslim is an oversensitive crank with no sense of humour. The populist outlets that adorn our newsstands with screeds like " Now Muslims Demand: GIVE US FULL SHARIA LAW" and "MUSLIMS TELL US HOW TO RUN OUR SCHOOLS" have themselves succumbed to Islam's blasphemy code. Even Private Eye, that scourge of censors in sheep's clothing and home of Britain's most irreverent cartoons, won't confront the horrible chilling effect of the most blatant example of censorship by force that modern Britain has seen.

My correspondent argues that censoring the cartoons would protect the sensibilities of Muslims. It won't, because, as Maajid Nawaz reminds us, there is no one Islam. Particularly given the generational flux within the Muslim community, any decision the media makes in this matter upsets either the reformers straining for greater freedom or the reactionaries bent on denying them it, and therefore our editors must choose which group they wish to offend. It baffles me, then, to see that the media prefers to offer 'respect' and succour to those who scorn the mores of our shared society and the freedoms that sustain the free press. Every press article or television news report that censors Jesus & Mo thus does a greater disservice to the 'Muslim community' than the cartoon could, by condemning Muslims to be defined by the worst among them.

For all the deliberation on offended sensibilities, it is striking that no editor claims to have found anything objectively offensive in Jesus & Mo. Ian Katz spoke for his profession when he said that "it's been very clear in coverage that (Jesus & Mo) is not an offensive representation ... any representation is considered offensive" (emphasis mine). In other words, the Islamic prohibition on idolatry (shirk) must be universally obeyed, lest we offend the believers, never mind that people like Maajid Nawaz have shown that the believers themselvesdon't necessarily agree on the matter. Such consideration appears unduly generous for an ancient superstition that is part of the deadwood of pointless obligations that bloats every religion, lacking any credible justification or connection with genuine morality. It also marks an unhealthy shift in editorial considerations from objective offence (which is the only kind of offence an editor ought to make allowances for) to subjective offence. Such extravagant concern provides an incentive for Muslims to become more narrow-minded and reactionary and hands a licence to the most illiberal elements of that community to pose as the authentic leaders of the community and to set the terms for the public debate on Islam.

The media's refusal to show the cartoon has elevated this ancient superstition into a masochistic national fetish, emboldening professional victims and censorious grievance-peddlers at the expense of inoffensive satirists. It has robbed the cartoonist of the presumption of innocence, by feeding insidiously into the notion among the uninitiated that the cartoon really must be beyond the pale if no outlet will show it. As Flemming Rose, the publisher of the Danish cartoons, lamented to Jytte Klausen, "once people see them, they see that they are not as bad as their reputation would indicate".

Those of us who have followed the news media's refusal to show any illustration of Mohammed over the past decade will recall being fobbed off with soothing explanations that the climate is unsuitable, the editorial justification not strong enoughor the content too crude, to publish the images in question. Nine years after the Danish cartoons affair, the Goldilocks moment of this piece is upon us – an utterly innocuous depiction of Mohammed is at the heart of a major news story, at a time when the right to depict it is in question and a nascent school of Islamic thought is defying crude reactionary opposition in urging the media to show the cartoon. If they won't show it now, they never will.

The Islamist propensity for violent offendedness is the national equivalent of a child's tantrum in the cereal aisle, not an insuperable law of physics for which every allowance must always be made. It can, and must, be fixed, and if the media won't support those undertaking this thankless task, the least it can do is admit it's scared, and stop getting in the way.

Abhishek Phadnis is a Master's candidate at the London School of Economics & Political Science and President of the LSESU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the NSS.

Tags: Freedom of Expression