The Gift of Offence

OK you might want to make yourself a snack, a nice cup of something and sit down before diving into this blog. If you're going to do it all in one hit properly, it could take some time to read the stuff and watch all the stuff.

In the light of recent events, and if you have the time to spare, it might be worth watching/ listening to this from Martin Rowson on The Gift of Offence.

I don't agree with everything he says, or, perhaps more pertinently, the way he says it. I am also a little disturbed by his apparent preoccupation with faeces, but despite these minor issues, I do think he makes some excellent points. Points like the fact that killing someone is far more offensive than looking at a drawing, no matter how offensive that drawing might be. Also, that we decide to be offended ourselves, and the way in which religion typically chooses to be offended. I suppose this is intrinsic when you hold something sacred. Rowson himself recounts how upset (offended?) he was at one particular incident because of some nasty hate mail he received which referred, in excruciatingly savage terms, to his recently deceased, and much loved mother-in-law. So even he is not immune to feeling hurt. Of course none of us are. Still, I think hearing things from this perspective is very valuable.

I would warn you it contains some very unpleasant images, and some very unpleasant language as well!

I do feel this lecture is a useful exercise in contextualising the value and purpose of cartoons within the socio-political melee of a free society.

Rowson states one of the main reasons he is an Atheist/ Humanist, is because he thinks that people should not be defined by their religion, but rather by their humanity, and that my friends, is an excellent point. There is a mindset (perhaps best illustrated in the New Testament by the Pharisees—which means "separate ones") that uses religion in order to isolate and differentiate; to say "I am better than you" because of a certain set of beliefs. Such a position misses the point of religion, which must always be unity: unity in our fundamental humanity first of all. I can't think of anyone who illustrated that mindset better than Jesus Christ, who was right down in the muck and bullets for all of his public ministry and ended up crucified as a criminal Himself.

I think in this lecture Rowson inevitably plays to the stereotype of forcing his own subjective idea of what a religious person is on those listening, which naturally plays well to the Humanist audience. But it is important to recognise that religious people, like me, are responsible for having given him those ideas in the first place!

Interesting that Rowson continually brings up Christ's advocating we turn the other cheek and uses it in a complex geo-political context to suggest that President George Bush should have looked to Christ for guidance when dealing with the 9/11 terror attacks. This strikes me as overly cynical to be honest, an easy target and an un-nuanced approach to a complicated issue which, nonetheless, Bush & his team did get horribly wrong. It's interesting because Rowson recognises its value.

Of course, embracing humanity: the gift of life, is what being Catholic is all about. Emphasising the value and dignity of all human life first and foremost. Emphasising the dignity of every human being made in the image and likeness of God, which is to say we all have unfathomable value.
"Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being." —CCC 2258
Rowson also points out how valueless he considers it to be for religious people to consider they will die and go somewhere far nicer afterwards. I similarly agree that your value system should be about making life here and now better, both for you and those you interact with, and not merely about securing some later pay-off in paradise.

Rowson also points out that the Danish paper that was first in the news for publishing cartoons that offended Islam, Jyllands-Posten, has spent decades attacking poor powerless people; immigrants. He asserts that whilst humour is about attacking everybody and everything and using it to reinforce your own identity, satire is different and is defined as comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. The Satirist should only attack those who are more powerful than themselves. I think this is a very good point. Rowson goes on to explain how certain Danish Imams then went hawking round the Middle East in order to whip up a political frenzy about these cartoons. The end product of this battle of extremism— "I should be allowed to say whatever I like" versus "the greatest right is my right never to be slightly upset" resulted in over 100 people dying, all of whom were Muslims, shot dead on Muslim streets by Muslim policemen in Muslim countries because of an argument fermented by Muslim clerics seeking to increase their political power. These are real dead people, and that is far more offensive than any cartoon. (this bit starts at 49:50)

That is a very powerful and important point. It also must, surely, make any Muslim stop and think "What am I doing?"

It is interesting that the response to the Charlie Hebdo atrocity has been an unparalleled increase in sales for the magazine and international outcry, and one can only imagine how much damage has been done to the idea of Islam as a religion of peace. Ironically, the extremists are merely exacerbating the precise issue they have a problem with, and I truly hope that moderate, reasonable Muslims will seek to distance themselves from any ideology that advocates murder as a solution for someone being offensive. Only they can solve this.

I think in many ways that I have a strange attitude to this which can be explained as having sympathy with the Muslim outrage, after all this is a direct hadith being deliberately attacked; we might call that sacrilege in the West. Still I think Muslims living in the West should know by now that the plurality of society necessarily means that there are people in it who no doubt angrily disagree with you and are prepared to say so as viciously as possible. As long as it is not physically violent, society tends to turn a blind eye (unless you are speaking out about one of society's current sacred cows: because, as we know it is quite possible to lose your job for causing offense, somewhat ironically against Muslims, but also against Gay activists or for expressing religious conviction in the National Health Service and let's not even mention what happens if you were to admit having doubts about same-sex marriage which can end your career in the secular world of internet companies, as Brandon Eich discovered.

Rod Liddle made the point well in The Spectator, where he writes:
This strikes me as a little hypocritical of our noble members, a point made with some force by the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, who said: ‘The irony appears to be lost on some politicians who say in one breath that they will defend freedom of expression and then in the next advocate a huge encroachment on the freedom of all British citizens.’
Sure, Nick. But the irony seems to be lost on you, too. There were few politicians more delighted to embrace Lord Leveson’s draconian restriction on press freedom and, therefore, freedom of speech. But then it wouldn’t surprise me too much if his lordship was also proudly wearing a pen in his lapel. Hell, right at this moment Steve Coogan and Hugh Grant have probably got pens in their lapels. Has the BBC broadcaster Andrew Marr got a pen in his lapel? Did he have one in his lapel when he took out a super–injunction to stop the press reporting details of his private life which, in the manner of Mohammed (PBUH again, natch), he thought should not be viewed by mortal eyes?
Remember too that it is illegal in this country to use footage of our politicians in Parliament for satirical or humorous purposes, even if unintentionally they provide the humour and satire all by themselves. In this way our elected members have elevated themselves above the fray and almost to the position of Mohammed (PBUH again, and again, fivefold).
Whilst I think we gain nothing from being offensive to each other, I similarly feel that we gain nothing by reacting angrily when offence like this is given. I do feel some images are graphic and offensive, but in all honesty, my offence would more accurately described as sadness, because I can't help but feel that the level of vitriol and disgust required in order to create such an image speaks of a lack of empathy which can only be the result of a sad, sad soul. I wonder what motivates Rowson's images of Tony Blair, for example? I am fascinated that Rowson is so sure of Blair's guilt and moral bankruptcy that he is prepared to create the most vile images of him. I get his point, but I am not so sure that I could ever be so spiteful; that I couldn't see that there is another perspective there, and build into that the fact that I do not really know what the real circumstances or inside agenda was in any given situation. There is a difference between my opinion on an issue and publicly attacking and vilifying someone.

Of course Charlie Hebdo has been as cruel and irreverent concerning what I consider "sacred". But, though I feel it is sad that they feel the need to do that, or that they fail to understand the religious imagery I value as I do, I recognise intrinsically for some reason that there are people who will do that and they are free to do that. If anything it inspires me to show them they are wrong in their caricaturing of my beliefs.

Rowson also remarks on the impact images have compared to text; the way that images are taken less seriously for some reason (he recalls Ann Widdicombe saying something like that to him). But also more effect, an idea conveyed in such a way that it can be apprehended immediately by what is often referred to as the reptilian brain.

Rowson expresses his existence using the kind of stark language I have found common among Atheists, paring his existence down to its animalistic foundations and basest bodily functions. However he also speaks of shared humanity and the value and equal dignity of all human beings in an admirable and inspiring way. I find it hard to image my life the way he visualises his, but I think he makes some really valuable contributions in this lecture that can really help us understand the context of cartoons and imagery in society. British Muslims live in Britain and in a society as diverse as ours, we all have to accept that some people will strongly reject our ideas. If we are to dissuade them, our only option is to act contrary to their stereotype. Ahemdy Coulibaly and Cherif and Said Kouachi only succeeded in confirming the stereotypes and enhancing the unbalance and creating more hatred, fear and potential violence.

To help understand this in an Islamic context, I think the BBC Panorama programme, The Battle for British Islam, illustrated the problem very clearly. It starts off by juxtaposing this Islamic attitude:

With this Islamic response:

Thus setting the scene for the battle alluded to in the title. I guess like most British people I feel comfortable with the first video, and scared of the people in the second one. Scared because they seem pretty confident that I am responsible for oppressing and murdering Muslims in the Middle East. But as I posted on the day of the Charlie Hebdo murders, I recognise the link between the violence in other countries and the acts of terrorism perpetrated by Muslims and I have always predicted it and spoken out against it. Irrespective of that, I think that if these "not so happy" Muslims succeed in their aim of linking terror with foreign policy, they will succeed in creating an horrendous backlash for the Muslim community in many countries. I just don't understand why the attitude is so abrasive and so divisive. It is the sort of attitude which gives me sympathy for and with the opinion of Martin Rowson in the lecture at the start of this blog.

Perhaps the situation was best summed up by Muhammad Manwar Ali who, in the BBC Panorama programme, suggests that the problem is an Islamic ideology of separation and isolation which seeks to promote an attitude of victimhood and divide Muslims from the society they live in. As someone who has read Al Qur'an, that doesn't sound like the attitude promoted by the prophet. Muhammad Manwar Ali says: "The solution to extremism from the Muslims lies with Muslims, obviously, because it is our faith that needs to be moderated or channeled in such a way that it never contributes to harm or injustice".

British Muslims need to step up now and assert their integration and values against Wahhabism and Salafism.


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