Debate on the cartoons in Prospect

Prospect Magazine (a British Lottery-funded left-leaning intellectual magazine) has published an exchange of letters between Prospect contributing editor Kamran Nazeer and Emel magazine editor Sarah Joseph (Should Muslim turn a blind eye to the cartoons?). As one might expect, Kamran Nazeer takes a basically “liberal” view and suggests that Muslims basically get used to the fact that no religion is sacrosanct in modern liberal society. Sarah Joseph points out that the cartoons came in a context of widespread vilification of Muslims in Danish political discourse, one example being a Danish MP likening Muslims to cancer, “which can only be treated with chemotherapy or surgically removed”.

Sarah Joseph’s is surprisingly not the only traditionalist position in this month’s Prospect; Abdul-Hakim Murad, under his old name Tim Winter, also has an article on page 20 in which he writes that Muslims have sometimes tolerated images of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) and that according to one major Sunni authority, “it is not a criminal offence for a Christian or Jew to blaspheme against the Prophet in a way that is mandated by his or her own beliefs”; what he does not say is that this amounts to stating their beliefs, such as that the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) was not a prophet, or not a prophet to them. He also points out that in several European countries there are laws against blasphemy, often upheld by the European Court of Human Rights.

So, Abdul-Hakim’s article articles some of Nazeer’s points in ways Ms Joseph does not. Yes, insults and disrespectful behaviour towards every religion is common, but it’s not always legal. And there are other sensibilities which cannot be offended: for example, while Holocaust denial is not illegal in the UK (as it is in several countries in Europe), one can cause huge controversy for otherwise offending Jewish sensibilities. Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London, is presently facing a tribunal which could deprive him of his position for suggesting that a Jewish reporter might have been a Nazi war criminal. One also remembers the teacup storms kicked up when Michael Howard and Oliver Letwin were depicted as flying pigs in the 2005 General Election campaign, and another Jewish Tory front-bencher (which might have been Letwin) was compared to Fagin from Oliver Twist. (Not everyone who has heard of Fagin has actually read Dickens’ book.)

And, as Sarah Joseph points out, when the editor of the same paper briefly decided to print the Iranian Holocaust cartoons, he ended up having to apologise for that. He will not, however, apologise for wilfully offending the Muslims. The double standard is obvious, but in his concluding letter, Kamran Nazeer insists that there is “only one double standard in play here”, namely that “Muslims are asking for a level of protection against offence which no other religion any longer receives or expects”. He offers the example of South Park depicting Christian charity workers as selling religion in exchange for food and depicting their director (he doesn’t mention which charity) as Jabba the Hutt. The difference is (obviously) that the cartoons in question associate the person through whom Islam came to us (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam), and thus the entire community, with the worst elements in the community. It’s a much more serious slur than the one in South Park.

Also, Nazeer brings in the old saw about Islam needing to have a “Protestant moment”. In fact, the origins of Protestantism, much like the Rome-Constantinople split, led to major wars. Some of the Crusades were launched against the eastern Christians; some were against the Hussites in Bohemia (the forefathers of today’s Moravians), but the bitterness caused by the Protestant splits lingers in some places even today, notably Northern Ireland and Scotland. It was not a movement of what some on the intellectual left today call Englightenment rationalism; it included some rationalistic departures, such as the abandonment of practices like visiting relics, but it was initially a fundamentalist movement (the original fundamentalists were, in fact, Protestants). It led to terrible oppression. Why on earth would any Muslim want this to be replicated (if it has not been already) among the Muslims?

Sarah Joseph concludes that it’s possible for the two worlds she belongs to “find a way to live together” and not clash, but that it is necessary to “first recognise our shared and common humanity and treat each other with respect and dignity”. And (perhaps surprisingly) this is the last word in the debate. The debate is currently available for free, while Dr Abdul-Hakim Murad’s piece is on a pay-to-view basis, although perhaps it might become available on Mas’ud Khan’s site in time. The magazine itself costs £4.50.

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