Feltz gets in on the cartoon affair

Twice this evening I’ve received text messages telling me to vote “no” in a text vote for BBC Radio 5 Live regarding whether the Danish cartoons should be published here. This vote actually finished at mid-day today, so if you get a copy, don’t honour it or forward it. The BBC now know our position!

Vanessa Feltz, who has a phone-in show on the BBC’s London radio station, has jumped in on the Danish cartoon controversy. The update is that several newspapers in Europe have published the cartoons in “solidarity” with JP, resulting in one of the editors, at France Soir, being sacked, and you can find the details of one of FS’s cartoon there. I turned on in the middle of Feltz grilling Daud Abdullah over his objection to the cartoons and the idea of newspapers publishing them in the UK, which to their credit, none of them has. (More: avari-nameh.)

Feltz continually makes irrelevant comments in support of her position that there is some sort of threat of censorship: for example, she asks if she be forbidden from laughing at the cartoons, which is what nobody has said. In fact, while she claims that the BBC have forbidden her from even describing one of the cartoons, other than that which has been widely published, the law itself hasn’t, at least not explicitly. The “religious hatred” laws aren’t yet law, so they could publish them while they have the time, and most have nothing to lose by doing so. I actually think more of Britain’s Muslims than that they would go on a riot in response to this, and those that would are most likely the less religious of Muslims. We’ve had two sets of riots involving young Muslims, neither of which were over religious issues (and the more recent of which were not started by them).

Anyway, Daud Abdullah made the quite legitimate point that free speech was not absolute, and that several European countries have laws banning Holocaust denial. As you might expect, Feltzie went apoplectic and resorted to the usual no-moral-equivalence rhetoric so beloved of a certain type of debater. And of course, Dr Abdullah wasn’t drawing any moral equivalence other than that they were both examples of free speech being restricted to avoid causing offence rather than because it directly incites violence or unjustly damages someone’s reputation. He also compared the boycotts to an American boycott of France over the Iraq war, which Feltz attempted to rebut by saying that the boycott of France was over a war, not a set of cartoons; but the boycott was “provoked” by France’s refusal to allow the US to involve the UN in a war they were starting, not by French aggression. It was a petty and pointless method of getting back at the French for rebuffing and frustrating them. You can’t compare this to a boycott aimed at people who deliberately cause pointless, gratuitous offence to an entire religious community.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I happen not to agree with this particular boycott, for many reasons, among which that it will hit targets far beyond Denmark: for example, Arla, the main target of the boycott, also owns the second biggest dairy company in the UK, and much of its produce here is British, not Danish. The company in fact originated in Sweden, although it’s now based in Denmark after a merger with the former MD food company. But there are those who think we have no right to be offended at all; that we should just roll over and accept libellous depictions of our religion and, therefore, of ourselves, in major newspapers, “because that’s what free speech means”.

And if anyone was wondering, the cartoons are indeed libellous. Quite apart from the fact that the decision to print a series of caricatures of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) was done deliberately to cause offence, the content of three of the cartoons involves: a bloke with an unkempt beard, a jambiya (curved dagger), a threatening expression on his face and two bug-eyed veiled women; a man with arms outstretched, standing on a cloud saying to a number of presumable suicide bombers, “Stop, stop, we ran out of virgins”; and a man with a black “turban” with the Kalima on it and a lit fuse coming out of it. The themes are, then, the usual stereotypes of the misogynistic, violent Muslim.

The discussion on the Feltz show more than once made mention of the idea that people are afraid of Muslims’ power, which is why, according to them, the media are shy of reprinting these cartoons here and might have been the reason the cartoons were printed in the first place: to challenge this “Muslim power”, in a country where, as Svend points out, Muslims are increasingly victims of prejudice and racism - as they have been across Europe. It’s a myth that Muslims are particularly powerful even in the UK; we have only a handful of Muslims in Parliament and our community representative bodies are commonly ridiculed in the media. Muslims are in part responsible for this situation, given the difficulty Muslim candidates have in getting elected (in some cases because some Pakistanis would prefer to vote for a non-Muslim than for a Muslim of a different biraderi), but “Muslim power” is a myth all the same.

The other false comparison made on this morning’s show was with other art which poked fun at religions other than Islam, notably the Monty Python film Life of Brian. The comparison with this particular film does not stand up for two reasons, the first being that it did cause offence to a lot of Christians even though the central character was said to be someone who lived around the same time as Jesus (‘alaihi as-salaam). The other reason is that unlike these wretched cartoons, Life of Brian, in between the offensive cheap shots at religion, was actually funny and did make some valid points. These cartoons aren’t funny, and convey nothing except a gratuitous falsehood.

A further observation is made by Osama Saeed, that this attack is (at least from a UK point of view) unusual in that humour about particular groups is best done from within, rather than from without. We’ve all heard of Jackie Mason, the Kahane supporter, and his Jewish jokes, and of Goodness Gracious Me and its Asian Ma jokes. When at college in Wales I bought a book called something like The Best Cardi Jokes, Cardi being a reference to the money-conscious Welshmen of Ceredigion county (the C is hard, as in its English derivative Cardigan), a book I never came across before that trip to Aberaeron. Muslims, of course, would not ridicule Islam itself, but there are some popular humour sites by Muslims about Muslims (Maniac Muslim being the best-known).

The fact is that this newspaper printed these cartoons to cause a reaction, and got one. I actually think that if it was just drawings of a face imagined to be that of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) by people unaware of the taboo or how seriously it is taken by Muslims, it would not have caused the offence that it has done; the issue is their defamatory content and the intention behind them. The Danish government could not be expected to impose legal penalties on the paper, as the cartoons are certainly covered by free speech, but could have expressed public disapproval or insisted that his government would not give interviews or otherwise co-operate with them unless they apologised.

I am not in favour of the boycott because of the innocent ordinary people, in Denmark and elsewhere including the UK, it is likely to affect far more than Arla’s bosses. Consider also the Muslims and other traders who make their living selling goods until this week considered perfectly innocent, who bought large quantities of goods which they now cannot sell. No doubt those trading in Indian spices, some of which may have originated in states ruled by Hindu fascists with blood on their hands, are still doing a roaring trade. (Of course, the gunmen now holding up Europeans in Palestine are to be rejected unconditionally; there’s no question about that.) There are a number of forms of legitimate protest which would have got the message through to the newspaper without affecting third parties. But some protest was in order, although I’m not convinced that this was it. It may be true that other religions take insults lighter than we do; that’s their business. The fact that we take this seriously is something for which some Christians actually admire us Muslims. We can take debate; we will not stand for gratuitous insults of this nature.

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