The afterlife of Brian

Does a 30-year-old blasphemy row still have relevance today?

More than 30 years on, the controversy surrounding the release of Monty Python's Life of Brian seems more than a bit ridiculous -- a fit subject for a comedy. Certainly, the BBC thinks so: Holy Flying Circus, based on those events, will be broadcast on BBC4 in a few weeks. Taking centre stage is a recreation of a notorious TV debate in which the Pythons John Cleese and Michael Palin took on a fired-up Malcolm Muggeridge, who denounced the film as "squalid", and the slightly milder Bishop of Southwark, who predicted that the team would "get their 30 pieces of silver".

That event (you can watch extracts on YouTube) is indeed rich in comic potential. The bishop, all wild hair and purple cassock, waves around an enormous silver cross. Muggeridge (in his day a significant public figure, though few now remember him) just looks demented. Palin looks, at times, genuinely distressed. The show was parodied shortly afterwards on Not the Nine O'Clock News but the original is much funnier.

At the time, though, the debate was deadly serious. Life of Brian was banned in several US states and a number of countries (including Ireland, in those days still virtually a theocracy -- and we all know how well that turned out). There were protests, too, in Britain, co-ordinated by the Festival of Light, an evangelical group associated with Mary Whitehouse. After an unsuccessful attempt to persuade the BBFC to ban the film, the group masterminded a letter-writing campaign to local authorities. Thirty-nine responded by banning or reclassifying it.

There was even talk of bringing a private prosecution for blasphemy -- sufficiently serious for the team to take legal advice from John Mortimer QC, who had led the defence in Whitehouse's earlier, successful prosecution of Gay News.

It wasn't the Satanic Verses, nowhere near, but the principles at stake were the same. On one side, freedom of expression and the right to treat religion with not greater reverence than, say, politics or literature. On the other, the view that one shouldn't make fun of religion, either because it annoys God or, more pragmatically, because believers tend to get quite upset. The issues remain, sadly, as topical as ever.

Yet it can be hard, today, to see what all the fuss was about. Partly, that's because the film is such a classic. It has given immortal phrases to the English language: "Blessed are the cheesemakers"; "What have the Romans ever done for us?"; "He's not the Messiah. He's a very naughty boy." After all these years, it's still extremely funny; but the religious satire has largely lost its power to shock. In some ways, it has almost become an object of veneration in its own right, as one of the greatest comic films ever made, a high point of British popular culture.

Blasphemy, too, has gone, at least as a crime in British law. After a last, failed attempt to revive it in the case of Jerry Springer: the Opera, the ancient law of blasphemous libel was quietly euthanised in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008. It was probably the campaign against Jerry Springer (led by Stephen Green of the small pressure group Christian Voice) that nudged the then government into repealing the law. There was a rearguard action in both the Lords and Commons to preserve it but the illogicality of the blasphemy law was well summed up by the late (and much missed) Earl of Onslow: "If God does not exist, nothing will happen; if he does exist, it is up to him to get hold of the chap who wrote it and make sure that he does time in the diabolical house of correction."

Stephen Green is a much more marginal figure than Mary Whitehouse and the Church of England is no longer much of a force in the land. The same government that repealed the blasphemy law, however, introduced a new crime of "religious hatred", replacing the fear of insulting God with that of insulting believers. The talk is of mutual respect and social cohesion. Where insult is perceived, it can be very difficult to distinguish between the believer and the belief.

Here, Life of Brian remains as subversive as ever. If not an overt attack on Christianity, the film is devastating in its satire of religious behaviour. Blasphemy is parodied in the famous stoning scene. Just as pointed, in its own way, is the depiction of a would-be disciple who thinks that Brian will heal his wife's headache because "her brother-in-law is the ex-mayor of Gath". The scene in which Brian flees from a crowd of would-be worshippers manages to encapsulate the whole history of religion in around three minutes.

Brian himself is something of a holy fool. Though naive, and far more interested in getting off with Judith than in either revolution or starting a religion, he sees with more clarity than any of the idiots, charlatans and human sheep that constitute the local population. In some ways, he may indeed be the Messiah:

Look, you've got it all wrong! You don't need to follow me! You don't need to follow anybody! You've got to think for yourselves! You're all individuals!

Life of Brian is about much more than just religion. All human life is there: at least, all human folly, which is to say much the same thing. It's a film about human vanity and stupidity, about pretension and wishful thinking, about people's almost irresistible tendency to think inside the box. The grammar-obsessed Roman centurion who forces Brian to write "Romans go home!" in huge letters all over the city wall as a punishment for getting his inflections muddled up is as caught up in his own self-referential universe as Reg, the all-too-recognisable leader of the People's Front of Judea, whose idea of defeating the might of Imperial Rome is to pass resolutions and inveigh against the "splitters" in the Judean People's Front.

Religion, in this wider context, is just another manifestation of human stupidity. Subversive indeed.

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.