It was less than a week ago that I asked, on the Staggers blog, why comedians today seem to be reluctant to satirise organised religion. On New Year’s Day an answer of sorts was provided by an axe-wielding Somali man who broke into the house of the Danish artist Kurt Westergaard (the axeman has since been charged with attempted murder).
The reason for the attack? Westergaard is the cartoonist whose drawing of the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, published in the Danish journal Jyllands-Posten in 2005, led to riots and assaults on Denmark’s embassies around the world.
To his credit, the then Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, refused to apologise, and reiterated his defence of free speech on becoming general secretary of Nato last year.
Unfortunately, I do not believe that anyone who found themselves in a similar position in this country could rely on the British government to take such a robust stance. While papers across Europe reprinted the cartoon (and others — Westergaard’s was not the only one) as a gesture of solidarity, we had nothing but weasel words from our then foreign secretary, Jack Straw.
There is freedom of speech, we all respect that, but there is not any obligation to insult or to be gratuitously inflammatory, he said.
I believe that the republication of these cartoons has been unnecessary, it has been insensitive, it has been disrespectful and it has been wrong. There are taboos in every religion. We have to be very careful about showing the proper respect in this situation.
Respect: there’s a word. And there was none of that to be seen in the torchings of Danish embassies and attempted bombings in Europe that followed.
No respect for free speech. No respect for the fact that no one apart from the relevant publishers could be held responsible for the appearance of these cartoons. No respect for the idea that, pace Mr Straw, there is in fact no obligation to be gratuitously offended by a cartoon you would not have seen — which was, in the case of many, published in a country thousands of miles away — unless you had deliberately sought it out.
There is an echo in this of the equivocation by UK politicians after Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa against Salman Rushdie over his 1989 book, The Satanic Verses. Lisa Appignanesi’s The Rushdie File quoted the following report from Publishers Weekly that August:
A number of Labour members of parliament, several of them representing constituencies with large Muslim populations, have warned that unless the party presents a united front and encourages Rushdie to withdraw the book, or prevent softcover publication, it stands to lose a substantial number of seats at the next general election.
Eighteen years later, a former Labour cabinet minister, Shirley Williams, for ever stained her record as a politician of integrity when she said on Question Time that awarding Rushdie a knighthood had been “a mistake”, because he was a man who “had deeply offended Muslims in a very powerful way”. Boris Johnson played it for laughs on that same programme, saying:
I object to the knighthood on purely literary grounds. His novels are more or less impenetrable. What about John le Carré or Martin Amis? Or Dick Francis — has he got a knighthood yet? He has a far better grasp of pace, character and plot than Rushdie.
Quite apart from the fact that Boris should have known (did know) better — he is a highly literate man and I do not believe he is incapable of appreciating Rushdie’s rich, enchanting work — the only proper response was a straightforward rejection of the suggestion that anyone being offended was a reason not to confer an honour on one of our greatest living writers. The kind of response, in fact, that the late Anthony Burgess delivered back around the time of the fatwa.
To order outraged sons of the Prophet to kill him and the directors of British Penguin is tantamount to a jihad
he wrote in the Independent.
It is a declaration of war on citizens of a free country and as such it is a political act. It has to be countered by an equally forthright, if less murderous, declaration of defiance.
All of this is to make no judgement whatsoever on the content or merits of the Danish cartoons or of The Satanic Verses (although, unlike most of those who criticised that book, I have actually read it). Should writers and artists choose not only to satirise religion but to portray it in a way that is likely to offend? That is up to them. It is no sophistry but a hugely important defence of liberty to say that it is free speech itself that is sacred — and that whatever “profanities” and “blasphemies” that may result are part of the costs of that liberty.
To stand for anything less is to give in to those who would enclose expression within an ever-tightening boundary of what is permissible. I was working at the Independent in 2003 when the paper published a cartoon by Dave Brown of the then Israeli PM, Ariel Sharon, eating a young child. It was shortly before an election, and Sharon was depicted as saying, “What’s wrong. you never seen a politician kissing babies before?”
Brown indicated that his picture was after Goya’s Saturn Devouring One of his Children, but it provoked howls of anti-Semitism and the case went to the Press Complaints Commssion. Ultimately, the PCC ruled against the accusation that the cartoon referenced the blood libel against the Jews, but I well remember the force of pressure — in effect, a kind of moral blackmail — that the paper was up against. It didn’t seem to count for anything that the duty comment editor who approved the cartoon was Jewish, as was the paper’s editor (now its editor-in-chief), Simon Kelner, and thus unlikely to be keen on promoting anti-Semitism on their pages.
Yes, the Independent was vindicated; but I wonder if the paper would dare risk such a reaction again. How much easier for someone to ask for an image be toned down a little bit, just to avoid a fuss.
Some readers may find my tone here surprising. Do I not regularly argue in favour of tolerance and acceptance of different religions? I do indeed, and I certainly would not urge anyone to set out to cause offence or deliberately increase hostility between those of varying or no faiths. I would, in fact, exhort them to do precisely the opposite. But neither would I claim the right to silence such voices, however unpleasant or loathsome I may find them — which is why I also believed it was right for the BNP’s Nick Griffin to appear on Question Time late last year.
Never mind what happens in Saudi Arabia or any other country. Free speech is a cornerstone of our society. Here we say that if you do not like a book, then do not pick it up. If you do not like a show — such as Jerry Springer: the Opera — do not go and see it. If you consider a newspaper to be anti-Semitic (as a neighbour once told me, explaining why he never read the Independent), you are under no obligation to buy it. If you find a cartoon offensive, you have only yourself to blame, frankly, if you search it out and disseminate it so that you and others may be needlessly upset by it.
Above all, remember that while your sense of offence may give you cause to protest, to remonstrate with or to condemn, it gives you no right to legal censorship and still less to violence.
My worry is that if a Kurt Westergaard were living in the UK today, who would publish his work, and which politicians would step forward to defend his right to express himself within the law? If we truly agree with the US Supreme Court judge Oliver Wendell Holmes, that “the principle of free thought is not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought we hate”, that is a question that needs answering. Our liberties are being threatened by a creeping curtailment, and a conspiracy of cowardice is letting them slip away, unnoticed and unmourned.