What if 'Life of Brian' had been made by the Saudis?
Sir: A Danish newspaper's depiction of Mohamed as a suicide bomber is presented as a debate over freedom of speech, but what started as a farce risks becoming a tragedy beyond the home of Lego.
When the centre-right Jyllands-Posten ran a competition asking readers to send their drawings of Islam's most revered prophet, it was under the pretence of challenging a taboo. A Danish book on Mohamed had been illustrated anonymously, the artist fearing the potential backlash of breaking what was understood to be a law in the Koran. The newspaper was thus to be at the vanguard of "free speech", fighting religious bigotry.
But one reader drew Mohamed as a suicide bomber, and Jyllands-Posten published that. Perhaps the paper should be congratulated for defending "free speech". Some have even equated the image of Mohamed as a suicide bomber with Monty Python's Life of Brian, where a nobody is mistaken for the "Messiah" and dies on the cross singing, "Always look on the bright side of life". Yet, there is a fundamental difference. The latter was self-critical satire; the former is plain and simple humiliation of the "other".
Life of Brian critiqued not only a faith but a dogma that had structured the lives of its makers. The image of Mohamed as a suicide bomber, published by a newspaper in a country where most people declare themselves "Christian", can make no claim to self-critique.
There is worthy critique of Islam, and it comes from those who choose to call themselves Muslim, thus giving them a right to such critique. By proving the claim that the West is attacking Islam, we reinforce the case of the extremists, and thus lose the support of moderates.
As an English Christian, I owe critiques such as Life of Brian a debt of gratitude for removing some of the bigotry in the world. How would Life of Brian be seen in the UK had it been produced by Saudi Arabians?
DEPARTMENT OF GOVERNMENT, UNIVERSITY OF ESSEX, COLCHESTER
Poking a stick at fundamentalism
Sir: In Jyllands-Posten, I have an image of a group of over-adventurous adolescents faced with a big red button labelled, "Do not press this button!", who then press it. As the building collapses around their ears they choke in the dust, muttering, "Oh bugger!".
This is a stage-managed controversy, and the publishers of the cartoons, with those who support them, are playing into the hands of Islamists and Islamophobes. Several agendas are being played out here, and in the furore over the cartoons, important matters are being overlooked. For example, after the tragedy of the Haj stampede in Mecca, the Saudi regime is conveniently let off the hook, and the cartoons are providing respite also to Hamas.
If we want to criticise religious fundamentalism, surely we can do better than poke sticks and publish second-rate cartoons. We should be engaging in a dialogue with faith communities, not winding them up. The qualified expression of regret from the editor of Jyllands-Posten, and the restrained and dignified response of the Danish government, is a good start.
DR FRANCIS SEDGEMORE
Sir: European newspapers may be going out of their way to cause offence but equally many Muslims are going out of their way to be offended. Does it really bother someone in England, Indonesia or Palestine that a Danish non-Muslim has doodled up a cartoon of Mohamed? Are they really concerned that it was published in a newspaper that they would never normally have read?
Its more likely an excuse to self-righteously proclaim the virtues of their religion. They would have been better served by ignoring the matter.
CLARA VALE, TYNE AND WEAR
The press gives in to a threat of terrorism
Sir: Recent events have made clear that the British people (and, in particular, the British press) have been successfully intimidated by acts of violence and threats of violence by some British Muslims.
The evidence includes the terrorist events of 7 July 2005 in London committed by British Muslims, the report by Lord Carlile QC indicating that the threat of further terrorist actions by British Muslims represents a "real and present danger", and the representations by the Muslim Association of Britain not to publish the cartoons.
The British press has shown that it is too frightened to publish those cartoons. It is a most stunning act of calculated omission; they have all found excuses to seek to distance themselves from what has hitherto been hallowed in this country, namely, the freedom of speech as reflected in our daily newspapers.
Whatever reasons or excuses are offered for this dereliction of press duty (and all papers have today published editorials trying to exonerate themselves from criticism), all result in the same conclusion.
Muslim terrorism and, just as significantly (because one is inextricably interlinked with the other), the mere threat of Muslim terrorism has won, again. History shows that each surrender emboldens the intimidators and inexorably leads on to the next confrontation and the next surrender. I never thought I would live to see this day in this country.
Sir: For a newspaper which prides itself on rationality and free thought, it is almost beyond belief that such an issue as the cartoons was forcibly submerged, kowtowing to religious pressure so meekly. As someone who finds no logic in religious belief, I consider myself anti-Islamic, anti-Christian, anti-Judaistic, etc. To be against the religion is not to be against any person who believes in the religion.
Religion corrupts logic. I believe that to stifle considered debate about religion's self-affirmed right to be above criticism, as you do by refusing to publish the cartoons, is shameful and outrageous.
And to claim the affair is an example of Western ignorance and arrogance is to take the illogical word of the Koran over and above notions of free speech, plurality and rationality.
Sir: If The Independent thinks the media should have the freedom to publish the cartoons, you should have the courage to print them yourselves. Anything less is just cowardice. It is high time that Islam was dragged from the 15th century to join other religions in the 21st century.
Sir: The point of your leading article (3 February) appears to be that we have the right to free speech on subjects that may inflame others, as long as we never use it.
MORTON D PALEY
BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA, USA
Constrained by the beliefs of others
Sir: The furore in the Islamic world over those cartoons is hard to understand for a non-Muslim such as myself, and it would be nice if Muslims could explain their position.
If I understand it correctly, many Muslims expect people who do not accept their religion to "respect" their beliefs. In fact, it seems they want non-Muslims to be constrained by their beliefs. Well, for Hindus, the cow is sacred, and should not be harmed. Many people, including Muslims, kill and eat cows. This is clearly grossly disrespectful and offensive to Hindus. I conclude that Muslims should stop this offensive behaviour at once if they want to be consistent.
If any Muslims think this is not necessary, I call on them to stop expecting people who do not believe in their religion to act according to Islamic principles.
Insult to millions of peaceful Muslims
Sir: As a student from Pakistan, I have been greatly disturbed by some of the virulent anti-Islam comments in the media. The publication of insults to Prophet Mohamed and the acquittal of the BNP on race charges have not helped my confidence.
I admit there are some extremist mindsets among a section of the Muslims, due to the political climate and wrong interpretations of Islam. I invite everyone to work with us to remove misunderstandings and confusion in this clash of civilisations. But it is an insult to the intelligence and integrity of more than a billion peace-loving, committed Muslims like me when Islam is portrayed as wicked, evil and barbaric.
WARWICK UNIVERSITY COVENTRY
Unlearnt lesson about hatred
Sir: I have a suggestion for all us freedom-loving democrats in Europe. In the name of "freedom of expression", we should all be allowed to abuse Islam, its followers, its beliefs and personalities. In a few short years, when the public climate becomes favourable, we can also start to bar Muslims from public jobs and mark their front doors with a symbol, to enable easy identification of the occupants.
In 50 years, our successor governments can make public statements of regret for the wrongful deaths of the millions of Muslims in Europe, state that it must never happen again and commemorate the past events on Holocaust day. Have we learnt no lessons in the past 70 years?
It's really about globalisation
Sir: The issue of the cartoons is about how people of different cultures cope with globalisation. Thanks to the communications revolution, we are all living much closer together.
Imagine we are sitting around a table, drinking tea, an agnostic European cartoonist, a Muslim friend, and a Jewish friend. In this situation, would the cartoonist draw a picture of Mohamed with a bomb on his head, and show it? Perhaps, if his insensitivity grossly outweighed his good human instincts.
The agnostic cartoonist must remember he is with Muslim and Jewish friends whom he presumably has no reason to upset. And his Muslim and Jewish friends must realise the cartoonist has but a dim understanding of other cultures and religions, and he's likely to offend them accidentally occasionally
The more we realise our new situation in a globalised society, the more we should attempt to understand the culture of our neighbours. Those who promote uni-cultural values, those who deliberately stay blind to the values and norms of the others, have not yet realised the new reality. They are unenlightened.
If my 'god' was a chicken ...
Sir: It's an interesting one. "My beliefs, whether you share them or not, constrain your behaviour. You should respect those beliefs by doing nothing which offends them." But should this always be the case, or never, or sometimes? Is it a question of how many people hold these beliefs before behaviour should be constrained?
If my "god" is, say, a supernatural chicken, then will you infidels who kill and eat them, disrespecting my beliefs, cease to do so? Of course not. You give no credence to my beliefs and refuse to be bound by them, because I am a small minority. But since every religion is practised only by a minority, I must ask why the majority should be forced to show the "respect" which that minority defines and demands?
Sir: I am the appointed UK representative of a small community in New Guinea, who worship HRH the Duke of Edinburgh as the Supreme Deity. They have asked me to make it clear they will henceforward regard any public depiction of Him in the UK press or other media, mocking or reverential in intent, as profoundly and unforgivably offensive. Action under the proposed Racial and Religious Hatred legislation will be seriously considered. I hope you will allow me to give publicity to their deeply felt sensitivities.
A G BRIDGEWATER
CHICHESTER, WEST SUSSEX
Sir: Presumably you will now dispense with the need for photo-journalism since your readership has "sufficient imagination" (leading article, 3 February) to deal with awkward images you will not print.
TUNBRIDGE WELLS, KENT
Sir: It is gratifying to know, that on the day Google lost £13m from their share value, due to alleged censorship, that I was still able to download the cartoons with ease.
WEST MOLESEY, SURREY
Other side of the coin
Sir: Reproduction of the offending Mohamed cartoons in your newspaper is obviously unthinkable. Might I suggest that, in their place, you present a selection of similar material from Arabic journals vilifying Jews and Christians? If you can find any, of course.
Sir: Religions in civilised countries are free to impose whatever restrictions they like on their own members, within the bounds of the law. But they should not expect the non-believers to conform to their religious traditions. To expect such submission is arrogant and oppressive.
Sticks and stones
Sir: If you're confident in the validity of your chosen beliefs or religion, then surely words and cartoons won't upset you?
Murder for the faith
Sir: I, like most people, I assume, agree with the principle of free speech, but I feel the publication of satire that is clearly offensive to Muslims should not occur. It is even more disgusting that those who feel aggrieved by such acts think threats of violence in retaliation are justified.
How can people who feel so connected to the principles of a religion think that acts of murder are in keeping with their faith?
Sir: Why not publish the cartoons of Mohamed in a "dot-to-dot" form? Then those who wish to see them can, those who don't won't.
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