COMMENT: A minor political row over a web comic may look like a stupid storm in a teacup – but we must speak out before it becomes acceptable to arbitrarily censor art in the name of religion again.
Those of you who know me will know I have opinions on all things politics and current affairs. But I generally keep those opinions out of this blog because they don’t belong in something about theatre and arts. But one issue that is relevant is the issue of censorship. Now, I’m not one of those people who dogmatically opposes all kinds of censorship. I could certainly see a case for stepping in if a book, film or play was being used as as a means of provoking hatred against people of another race, religion or nationality. But the one thing I do not accept as a valid reason for censorship any under circumstances whatsoever is that someone found it offensive. It’s quite simple: if you don’t like to look at it, don’t look at it. End of. No arguments.
But lately, the idea has started catching on that censorship is okay if it’s over offending someone’s religious sensibilities – and this is becoming an absolute menace. And nothing is more disproportionate than the idea that all Muslims find depictions of the prophet Mohammed offensive. Something like this first came to prominence in 2005 with some Danish cartoons, one of which ill-advisedly likened Mohammed to a suicide bomber, but the furore wasn’t over equating Muslims with terrorists – it was over drawing Mohammed in a cartoon. Now this is getting out of hand that the latest target is the picture above. Now, it you’re wondering what fuss is about, Jesus and Mo is a web comic that pokes fun at religion, particularly the views of some of the more hard-line Christians and Muslims. I have not checked this strip in detail so I can’t vouch it isn’t racist. For all I know, there might be a theme throughout the strips to apply negative stereotypes to Muslims, but this uproar isn’t over applying negative stereotypes to Muslims. It is about a picture of Mohammed saying “How ya doin?” Grief, you couldn’t draw a less offensive picture if you tried.
But the response to this has been shocking. In 2012, the president of a student atheist society was hounded out of office for showing a Jesus and Mo cartoon on the Facebook page of their own society. The question over why Muslims who find this stuff so offensive would look through the Facebook feed of an atheist society seems to be an irrelevance. This and other stunts have been rumbling throughout the universities in London. This sadly doesn’t surprise me too much, as student politics in London is notorious for witch-hunts over trivial incidents that get blown out of proportion. But now it is spilling out of student politics and into the real world where people should know better. And things came to a head yesterday after Maajid Nawaz, a Parliamentary candidate and anti-extremism campaigner, posted the photo above on Twitter and said that he, a Muslim, did not consider it offensive. And now he is being rewarded with a campaign to get him deselected from within his own party. He is even being likened to the English Defence League.
Make no mistake, this is a censorship campaign at its very worst. These people, not content with forcing other people to not see stuff they claim is offensive and hounding those who refuse, are now moving on to trying to gag people like Nawaz from expressing differing views on what they as Muslims consider offensive. More distressingly, too many people are tolerating this behaviour. I expect little better from the usual rabble of people who leap on to any bandwagon regarding something deemed offensive to minorities (and vilifying anyone from that minority who disagrees on what’s supposed to be offensive), but this is the first time I’ve seen this infect mainstream political parties. Worst of all, programmes like The Daily Politics aren’t showing harmless images like this for fear of causing offence, and with it taking away the chance for people to see for themselves what it was and make up their own mind. This gives the other side free rein to make out it’s another Muslim=terrorist cartoon and get away with it.
So why should we in the theatre world care about this? Because if we tolerate this kind of censorship, it won’t be long before we get the same treatment. Cartoons of Mohammed is not the only thing being censored in the name of religious sensibilities. There’s the laughable groups like the hard-line splinter group at Catholic Truth who called for a boycott of the Edinburgh Fringe because some of the plays have homosexual themes. They could be safely ignored. What you can’t ignore is the lobby who got the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s The Bible (Abridged) banned at Newtonabbey because who didn’t have any intention of seeing the play successfully lobbied the council to stop people who did. That is no laughing matter. And what’s to say we won’t have another Behtzi? The people advocating censorship don’t seem to have any reservations about whipping up these sort of violent protests.
I am showing this supposedly offensive cartoon not because I want to offend some people. but to show that I am not afraid the people who run these campaigns. But I can’t make a difference on my own – that is everyone’s job. The more people who speak out against religious censorship now, the less likely it is that we’ll discover that arbitrary censorship on religious grounds has been allowed to return.
UPDATE 28/01/2014: Small bit of common sense to report since this this was written. Newtonabbey council have reversed their decision to ban The Bible (Abridged), thank goodness. And I’ll guess this is primarily down to people campaigning in force against religious censorship. And the early signs are that the bulk of Lib Dems are siding with Narwaz on this matter. If this pressure for free speech is kept up, I hope I won’t have to write about this sort of censorship again.
UPDATE 07/01/2015: I’ve temporary stuck this back on the front page following the appalling attack on the office of Charlie Hebdo in France. When I first wrote this article, I could not imagine within a year we’d first of all see an Edinburgh Fringe show cancelled, in part, through threats of violence, and now this.
It would be foolish to directly link either of these events to what happened today in France. We do, however, need to ask some serious questions about our reaction to threats of violence. Remember, when this Jesus and Mo row blew up last year and Maajid Nawaz was vilified for daring to say that he, a Muslim, didn’t find the cartoon offensive, he was advised by the Police not to appear on television to defend his position because of threats to public order. Like it or not, the message was that if you make enough threats of violence, the Police will finish your job for you.
Clearly whoever did this thinks if threats of violence work, actual violence works even better. Some serious questions need asking about whether this would still happen if we weren’t routinely capitulating to these threats. And, to all the people who supported the vilification of individuals and turn a blind eye to the threats of violence made in the name of your cause, be it Maajid Nawaz, Incubator Theatre, or countless other examples: have a long hard think about the message you’re really giving the world.