Having spent so much time expressing concern over issues which impact, not only but primarily, on Muslims, both in Uzbekistan and the West, I should like to give a few thoughts about the recent controversy over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.
First, I will start by saying that I am myself a monotheist. I believe in God, and have never understood why the three great monotheistic religions spend their time arguing over detail. I was brought up myself in a Christian tradition, and I believe that it taught me many excellent ethical values and gave useful insights into life. I believe that the majority of Jews and Muslims gain equally valid insights from teachings that are more similar than is generally commented upon. I have never given much value to the more magical, or as the Church would say mysterious, elements in the story telling of the faith. They are metaphors. Many of them are shared with Judaism and Islam, and each has some uniquely its own.
I have also felt personally most comfortable with those who emphasise a close personal relationship with God, be they Quakers or Methodists, or from the Sufi tradition in Uzbekistan. I believe that faith should be respected, and that you should not lightly belittle somebody’s faith or belief.
But faith is a personal thing, and if someone finds your belief laughable or threatening, they should be completely entitled to express that. I would not myself draw a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed, or write the last scene of ‘Jerry Springer the Opera’, because I would not like to cause unnecessary offence. But I would not in any way prevent others from doing so if they want.
Muslims have every right to believe that nobody should caricature Mohammed, and presumably Muslims don’t do such things. However they have no right to stop anyone else from producing cartoons, commenting on the age of Mohammed’s wives (whatever his relationship with them), or saying whatever else they wish on the subject. You cannot enforce the strictures of your faith on non-believers. The World is not a religiously ordered society. That may come when you die, or not, we’ll find out soon enough.
Religions need to be caricatured. God and faith may be perfect, but men are not, and throughout history religious structures have been used to exert social control, give power to a hierarchy, and to make money from the gullible. Religion has always been distorted to justify both war and repression of people’s rights, and still is today, by Osama Bin Laden, George W Bush, and others. The dangers of protecting religion from ridicule are obvious.
So I don’t agree with the protestors who have sparked such concern, and I think they are very foolish indeed to appear to be threatening violence. In general, it is dangerous to prosecute people for what they write or say, but there does seem to me a case that some may have had an intent to incite violence, which can be dealt with without any new illiberal anti-terrorist laws. But a real sense of proportion is needed here, and we have to aim off for those used to a political culture where extreme language is more acceptable but not literally meant. It seems to me the use of police cautions might be sensible at this stage.
It is particularly important that this is not used to build up steam behind Tony Blair’s ridiculous proposal to ban Hizb-ut-Tehrir. That organisation remains key in that it has the most fundamentalist Islamic views, many of which I personally dislike, but actively preach non-violence at that end of the religious spectrum.
Unfortunately, voices of tolerance on all sides are going to be in short supply in the mainstream punditry in the next few days. Religion still can be manipulated to bring out the worst in people, but we should not forget that it operates more effectively in doing precisely the opposite.