Thursday 4 September 2008

Wrongs and rights

Julian Baggini makes a useful point with regard to Terence Koh's 'blasphemous' statue. He argues that saying we have a right to offend doesn't mean that we are right to offend. This distinction can get lost in the heat of debates about religious offence, though more often than not it works the other way round. In the case of the Danish cartoons, those who took offence, and their supporters in the media, frequently muddled up a moral judgement that publishing the pictures was unwise and gratuitous, with declarations that it should be prohibited by law. So the reverse of Baggini's dictum is also true: saying that someone is foolish, rude or unkind to cause offence to a particular group doesn't mean that they shouldn't have the legal right to do so.

I'm less comfortable with another of Baggini's points. He argues that 'you just can't ignore the background against which lampooning takes place'. He goes on:

Christians, for example, are not oppressed, despite what some wannabe martyrs would have us believe. British Muslims, in contrast, are a somewhat beleaguered minority. We should think twice before mocking them because, while comedy speaking truth to power is funny, the powerful laughing at the weak is not.

I agree with his first sentence, but not with the second, if only because everything he says about Christians could be applied equally to Muslims. Recent events have taught us that there are as many (if not more) 'wannabe martyrs' (both literal and metaphorical) among Muslims as there are among Christians. I notice that Baggini refrains from describing British Muslims as 'oppressed', perhaps fearing that this wouldn't quite wash, but I think even the weaker word 'beleaguered' is questionable. Muslims enjoy complete freedom of religion and expression in Britain (unlike the truly beleaguered religious minorities in some majority-Muslim countries). And despite the part played by political Islam in recent terrorist atrocities, no restrictions have been placed on the practice of their faith and there have been remarkably few attacks on Muslims because of their beliefs. If some people of Muslim heritage are economically or otherwise disadvantaged in Britain, this has more to do with social class and with racial rather than religious discrimination. 

Moreover, who gets to decide which (religious) groups are 'weak' or 'beleaguered' ?Fundamentalist Christians might argue that, in an increasingly secular and sceptical society, these adjectives also apply to them. Jehovah's Witnesses are a minority group with very little social power: does this mean that their beliefs should be off-limits for artists and humorists? Surely it's possible to lampoon the ideas without attacking the people who believe in them?

Norm adds a further point:

By his choice of example Julian makes life too easy for himself. Mockery of the weak is an egregious practice of course. But what if someone makes a criticism of Islam - or any religion - in perfectly measured terms and some take offence, perceiving this criticism as mockery? What if the satirical treatment of a sacred figure in a work of fiction arouses anger, pleas for censorship, death threats? What if it is disputed between difference parties whether certain images or statements are offensive or not? In such cases, the right to say what you think - within the usual limits concerning incitement to violence and defamation - trumps what any of us might believe is the right way to behave.

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