I have spent most of the last fortnight debating Islam and blasphemy and wanted to take the opportunity to put down a few unwritten thoughts.
In the immediate aftermath of the Paris atrocities most of the people who thought the journalists and cartoonists in some sense ‘had it coming to them’ kept their heads down. I encountered a few who did not, including Asghar Bukhari from the MPAC (Muslim Public Affairs Committee). In the aftermath of the atrocity Asghar was immediately eager to smear the cartoonists and editors of Charlie Hebdo as racists. From what he and others of his ilk have been sending around since, they appear to have dug down into a narrative which now goes something like this: ‘The murders had nothing to do with Islam, Muslims or Islamic blasphemy law. They certainly had something to do with Western foreign policy or domestic Islamophobia. But by the way Charlie Hebdo is a racist magazine.’
For the first time, MPAC proved to be ahead of the curve. Because by the end of the first week after the atrocity more ‘mainstream’ and ‘moderate’ voices joined in with this narrative. In the UK they included Mehdi Hasan (happily now off to the free media that is Al Jazeera) and the convert to Islam Myriam Francois-Cerrah. Myriam even treated us to a piece about ‘My kind of satire’, as though she is widely recognised as a satirist, or indeed a critic. But what followed was a core part of the wider grievance-mongering: ‘My kind of satire is the type that punches up,’ Myriam wrote, ‘the type that holds the powerful to account and mocks authority.’ Will Self was also responsible for the projection of this particular inanity. And by this particular standard (ignoring Charlie Hebdo’s attacks on all presidents, popes and politicians) the magazine’s portrayal of Mohammed constituted a clear criticism of Islam, which is uniquely bad because Islam is followed by Muslims and Muslims constitute a cowering and beleaguered minority.
To believe this you would have to put aside, among other things, the 56 countries around the world which form the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. And you would also have to forget that only a few years ago when an obscure American citizen posted an excerpt from a budget film about Mohammed on YouTube, President Obama – no less – declared that ‘The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.’
But let us take a strain from this strained idea and pretend that Muslims constitute a tiny put-upon sect in France and Western Europe, and that for this reason anything which transgresses Islamic blasphemy laws must be recognised as the big guys (cartoonists) beating up the little guys (tens of millions of Muslims). If it is the minority component that is the issue then let us transfer this to a country where Islam does not constitute a minority. Saudi Arabia, say. Or Iran. Or Pakistan. What if a free-thinker were to publish a cartoon of Mohammed there? Would that be Myriam’s and Mehdi’s kind of satire? I cannot help thinking that they and all the other ‘context of these cartoons’ complainers would feel no happier about a drawing of Mohammed done in Mecca, Tehran or Islamabad than one drawn in Copenhagen or Paris. In the same way I can see them being little happier about free Western non-Muslims ‘insulting’ Mohammed if they also did this alongside making more jokes about the Holocaust.
Incidentally the Holocaust detour is a particularly fascinating one. Disturbing too, because it is surprising how many Muslims in particular have in recent weeks responded to drawings of Mohammed with the cry ‘But you can’t draw cartoons that upset the Jews or joke about the Holocaust.’ In saying this they not only confuse denial, diminishment or praise of the murder of six million Jews within living memory with a stick drawing of someone subsequently called ‘Mohammed’. They also give something away. Because although I am sure that Mehdi, Myriam et al are far too moderate to wish to start taunting Jews about the Holocaust, I cannot forget all those banners at anti-Israel parades in Britain where, for instance, the banners say ‘Stop the Holocaust in Gaza’ and so on. And I cannot help thinking that here too the selection of the Holocaust or Jews as the comparison is a little more revealing, or insinuating, than the speakers intend it to be. ‘Taunt my prophet and I’ll taunt your dead family’ is an interesting argument. But after the last couple of weeks I have come to the conclusion that there are more people than I had previously thought who wish to really get stuck in on the Jews and the Holocaust once they get the chance.
But like most other arguments against Charlie Hebdo in recent weeks what this boils down to is a scramble for a justification for why Islamic blasphemy law must be observed even in Western Europe.
The most shocking scramble came from the Cambridge don Abdal Hakim Murad (‘Tim Winters’ until his conversion to Islam). Hakim, or Tim, is often held up as a model of moderation, though I have had reason to doubt this claim before. And now there is even more cause to doubt it, because earlier this week we had him (and remember this is someone regularly held up as one of the great hopes of ‘liberal’ Islam in Britain) using the pages of the Telegraph to argue that the law of the land in Britain should be used to prosecute anyone who blasphemes Islam. In the UK. In the 21st century.
Hakim / Tim also went on to describe drawings of his ‘prophet’ as an ‘act of violence’. We should dwell on that for a moment. A drawing of Mohammed is an ‘act of violence.’ Taken along with his other claims (about how beleaguered, put-upon and persecuted he thinks Muslims are across Europe) someone who had just delved back into the news after an absence of several weeks might easily come away with the idea that earlier this month a bunch of cartoonists stormed a mosque in Paris and gunned down Muslims. Like a lot of other readers of Hakim / Tim’s article, I was also left wondering how many years you would have to go back to find a Cambridge don using the pages of the Telegraph to call for greater state enforcement of blasphemy laws. But then this is someone who seems to believe a ‘moderate’ policy for punishing those who leave Islam is to imprison them. What all these apologists and excusers have in common is a concerted and transparent effort to reverse the roles of victim and aggressor. In their world the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo were the aggressors and Muslims in general were the victims. And this is at one with a mainstream media narrative.
While Jews were still lying dead on the floor of the Kosher food shop various broadcasters scuttled around Paris asking Muslims ‘how safe they felt in France.’ The day after the attacks I was on Al Jazeera where for half an hour the presenter in Doha (who I could not see) tried to pursue a line of questioning which ignored the actual victims (cartoonists and Jews) and tried to paint Europe as some fascist backwater where the main victims of everything are Muslims. I thought, and think, this a disgrace and spent a considerable amount of the programme pushing back against this disgusting Islamist propaganda. Nor was I beneath pointing out to the presenter that since he lived in an unfree country and worked for an unfree media I wasn’t going to take any lessons from him about free speech. Incidentally, at one point towards the end he asked me another of his rambling questions (who does he know to get a job as a presenter?) in which he referred to me as ‘far-right’. A number of people have asked why I didn’t hit back at that. The simple reason is that I didn’t quite catch it. I thought for a beat that he might have said it, but didn’t think that even a stooge of the state-run Al Jazeera would so lower himself to insulting his guests and so let it pass. Anyhow – I suppose there are people like him who think (or pretend to think) that anybody who doesn’t wish to live under Islamic blasphemy law is ‘far-right’ and even ‘racist’. But these people are (like the MCB in recent days) only further disabling the use of a term they – and all of us – might have been grateful for in the future they are making.