"No Offence"…Of Course

Tawfiq Chahboune





A lawyer once told me, tears streaming down his face and difficulty catching his breath through anguished laughter, the following story about his postgraduate student days. A particularly Blimpish law professor of his would forever mock the law of European countries. British common law, to him, is king. After enduring weeks of this peculiar brand of petty nationalism, a Belgian law student finally cracked and reported the professor to the university for "offending my country's laws"! The professor was hauled in by the relevant "authorities" to explain his behaviour. At the very next lecture, though, the law professor retold this whole bizarre story to the class. All the British law students burst out laughing, especially at the "offending my country's laws" line; the visiting Europeans, however, were aghast that the prof. thought the whole thing hilarious and continued to "disrespect" their laws. Well, it seems some people will take offence at anything.


The Danish cartoons controversy reminded of this weird story. In similar fashion, here we are told that some (in this case, Muslims) will find offence where none is intended, and that it is impossible to placate the give-them-an-inch folk. Harmless cartoons stir up Muslims because, well, make up a reason. They can't help it. "Uncivilised, don't you know, old chap!" As I pride myself on my unfashionable manner, I'll restrain myself and won't quote Voltaire's famous maxim (the one thing every bigot knows about Monsieur V, latching on to his words of bravery as if they were following in his footstep). If anyone believes that this is a matter of "freedom of speech" then they are living in cloud cuckoo land.


Jyllands-Posten, the Danish paper that printed these amazingly unfunny and pointless cartoons has a fascist past, has in the past refused to publish cartoons that "satirise" Christianity and has even campaigned to stop publication of cartoons they felt mocked Christ. "Solidarity", you see. "Principle" and "freedom of speech", you see. If it's Muslims, well, that's different. UN Resolutions excepted (or even accepted), is there a clearer case of double standards? If you were so disposed, you might even call it bigotry. How the intellectual climate changes when one know the facts. Nevertheless, I defend their right to print neo-fascist propaganda. Jan Lund, the Jyllands-Posten's foreign editor, defended the whole thing as an exercise in good community relations: "The idea seemed good. The intention was to provoke a debate about the extent to which we self-censor in our coverage of Muslim issues'." I don't know about you, but I'm getting mighty annoyed about the "self-censorship" that plagues the Western media "on coverage of Muslim issues"! It's only February, but I bet no one comes out with a more absurd sentence this year than Jan Lund's.


Die Welt, a German newspaper, found the cartoons so alluring that they printed them three times - "no offence" intended, of course. (One is reminded of the Fast Show's supremely gifted Arabella Weir's portrayal of a South African shop assistant who, after directing a barrage of insults at customers, smilingly pleads: "No offence".)  Were the cartoons that good to be printed three times? Has any cartoon ever had that honour? Or is it only neo-fascist ones that one needs to show "solidarity" with? Actually, when was the last time a German newspaper went out of its way to offend defenceless minorities? At least it's not in a political climate when Germany is registering large votes for neo-fascist parties. Serge Faubert, France Soir's editor-in-chief, resorted to the philosophy of shampoo adverts: "Freedom of expression was at stake and though we know people might be hurt by what we were doing, we felt it was worth it." France Soir's readers are "worth it". I didn't think it was possible that French intellectual culture could sink any further. Thankfully, Monsieur Faubert has introduced us to the postmodernism of Head and Shoulders.




I've viewed the cartoons. Some are harmless. Some are downright stupid and insulting to anyone's intelligence, let alone religious sensibilities. But there was "no offence", of course. Other Europeans newspapers have entered the fray by publishing the cartoons - "in solidarity". To face down a tide "censorship" from a powerful pressure group of second-class citizens, say the newspapers that regularly censor important information. "Solidarity", of course. The media soon made it clear that the mere portrayal of the Prophet Mohammed was the problem. That was the problem, then? Needless to say, there would have been approximately, or exactly, zero outrage if the cartoons portrayed Mohammed in a good light. Mohammed was not only portrayed as a terrorist; Islam itself was portrayed as an inherently violent and vile religion.


Indeed, on close viewing it seems that Mohammed's turban is not a bomb; Mohammed's head is the bomb. On the turban is the recital that makes one a Muslim: that there is but the one God and that Mohammed is his messenger. That is, all Muslims are terrorists: they can't help it; it's hardwired into their brains. "No offence", of course. Malise Ruthven, a leading writer on Islamic affairs, says that the bomb cartoon was an especially "provocative" and knowing insult that suggests "all Muslims are terrorists". Norman Lamont spluttered, "It is arguable that references to bombs raise a serious point about the consequences of Islam". But "no offence", of course.


One can imagine the outcry if the same was said of blacks or Jews. In the past, Mohammed has been portrayed as a paedophile, Satanist, sex fiend, bloodthirsty sociopath, amongst other things. Harlan Ullman, creator of "shock and awe", had a simple explanation: "Muslims are nuts". No need to advertise for the post of Minister of Propaganda in any future Fourth Reich.



Now, let me see if I've got this right: a paper with a fascist past publishes vile and bigoted cartoons. Yet there was "no offence intended". (Fascists, or fascist sympathisers, aren't known for intellectual argument, but they're going to have to do a lot better than this. Who do they think they're kidding?) And that this defamation was unintended in a country with an electorate that thinks nothing of voting for fascists, with a head of state who believes that it is necessary to "show our opposition to Islam". And all this in an increasingly Islamophobic Europe, instituting veiled anti-Muslim legislation, where politicians and media vent fascist sentiments (Muslims are a "cancer", Muslims believe it is their "right" to "rape", North Africans "smell", for instance), where Muslims are the subject of almost institutionalised discrimination (see the liberté, egalité and fraternité of France, especially) and feel under siege. We can also add to the mix Western support for the Islamic world's despotic butchers, overthrowing democracies, the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, the proxy occupation of Palestine, the torture and sexual degradation of Muslim detainees in Iraq and the Muslim disappeared in numerous US prisons around the world, to name but a few. This is the stage in which Muslim anger is set. No vacuum this. One would do well to remember the context. Given all this, it is surprising that only a few hundred Muslims were incensed by this centuries-long demonisation and racism. Nearly all those who took offence were essentially of the opinion that one expects no more, or even less, of Europe, and protested peacefully. Nearly all the 1.4 billion Muslims went on with life, unconcerned by Europe's continued bigotry.


So the idea that the West has it in for Islam, though untrue, is one that the West will find difficult to disabuse Muslims of, and the deep wounds inflicted on the Islamic world are ones that will require much soothing ointment. One has to ask what has the West done to prove the opposite? It is the West that has to prove itself tolerant, liberal and not prone to reactionary violence. Muslims have been remarkably restrained over the past few centuries of European cruelty and intolerance. The West, by contrast, resorts to overwhelming violence on parts of the Muslim world when their former allies fly planes into buildings. The difference in attitudes is stark. Yet it is the Islamic world that is solely portrayed as vicious and illiberal!


Publications in France and Germany, countries historically not known for their kindness to foreigners and minorities and that have recently had large votes for neo-Nazis, have rushed to print the cartoons "in solidarity" with a paper with a long history of sympathising with fascism. "Solidarity", of course. Just an astronomical coincidence that these papers never show "solidarity" with discriminated Muslims. After witnessing the outrage the cartoons had provoked, a French magazine - a peddler of postmodern mumbo-jumbo, no doubt - decided on Wednesday 8 February that they, too, would publish the cartoons…"in solidarity". This was the cue for more European publications to join this campaign of, you guessed it, "solidarity" against "censorship".


This in a Europe that has shown remarkable insouciance by Bush's wish to murder Al Jazeera journalists. Freedom of the media meant that the media chose not to make too much of the planned massacre of journalists. Reporters with Borders? The convenient defenders of Farzad Bazoft have, unsurprisingly, stayed mum. Indeed, some of the countries that have banged the drum for "freedom of speech" so loudly are also ones that have deemed it proper to punish Holocaust denial with time in the clink. "Freedom of speech is absolute," huh? Furthermore, if you read or tune in to your media of choice, there's every possibility that you will find discussion of how and when the West should attack Iran. The reverse would be met with howls of indignation. That it's proof of a "Clash of Civilisations", or further proof, if any were needed, that Muslims are heinous creatures, who are obsessed with murdering the West, if not "civilisation" itself. The West as a bastion of liberalism and civilisation? That really is satirical. Asked what he thought of Western civilisation, Gandhi's famously replied that it would be a good idea. 



Europe's newspapers know only too well that publishing the cartoons will incite the lunatic fringe, their former chums until they stopped murdering Lefties and liberal Muslims and instead turned their guns on the empire, and that it will be exploited by the well-organised political Islamic fundamentalists and jihadis. They know that this will aid the extremists, their former allies and "freedom fighters" when fighting the Godless Left. No common cause with the moderate majority who have been battling the forces of reaction for decades. Why change a habit of a lifetime? Indeed, all this plays nicely into the hands of today's empire builders - the West needs a "mandate" to civilise the barbarians at the gates, and within the gates. Europe's media know that it is they that are causing difficulties for the moderate majority in extinguishing the fanatics. This is a clash within a civilisation, not between civilisations. As ever, they side with or, in this case, aid the reactionaries. "Solidarity", you see. They have put the fight against the extremists back many years and have given another propaganda victory to the fundamentalists. Congratulations. But then they always knew this.


It has been said that the Jyllands-Posten cartoons were not the ones that caused riots and violence in the Muslim world. The story is that militants have seized on unprinted cartoons of Mohammed being overly-friendly with a pig, recreated them and touted them around in the Muslim world as evidence of Europe's incurable Islamophobia. There may be some truth in this, but it is, nevertheless, the cartoon of Mohammed as a terrorist that Muslims have made clear is the most repellent. And even if untrue, this is quite simply the blowback from siding with the reactionaries for decades. It is time to side with the moderates and refuse to give in to temptation. In the end, though, it was nice to see Danish officials, media and politico alike, lining up to apologise for any "offence" when they feared that Danish goods would be hit by a boycott. "Principle," you see. There's only one thing more vile than media and political self-righteousness. It's media and political self-righteousness giving way to the smell of money.


The one thing worse than the cartoons is the hypocrisy surrounding the cartoons. Hypocrisy usually gravitates around a pole of retardation - here "liberal Western values". In this case the liberal phrases "freedom", "solidarity" and "debate" are the reflexive excuses one hears in mitigation - their gravitational attraction is strong. That this is about "freedom of speech". Well, no, it's not. See above. It's about "freedom to purposely offend" certain people, especially defenceless Muslims. Why not say so? You'd need a good PR team if one had to admit to this truth. Therefore pretend it is about secular and democratic values, defending the spirit of the Enlightenment (forgetting its shameful chapters), anything that will make Europe feel easy about treating Muslims like second-class citizens - third-class, if you're lucky, in France. After harrumphing that the issue was one of "principle", Roger Koppel was asked a relevant question. Asked on Newsnight whether Die Welt would publish anti-Semitic cartoons, Die Welt's editor replied, "Of course not. There is a limit." If that's not principle, I don't know what is. Not realising the contradiction, he fulminated elsewhere about an "appeasement mentality". If only the Berliner had said "bunker mentality". The superb Gary Younge recollected the controversy that engulfed the New Statesman when it printed an unbelievably stupid and loathsome cartoon on its cover about "a kosher conspiracy" apparently overwhelming Britain, adding: "Nor do I recall editors across Europe rushing to reprint the cover in solidarity." Muslims are apparently another matter.



 The cartoons were, one imagines, trying to be satirical. But as the great satirists would be at pains to point out, Swift especially, you can't satirise something without understanding it. My colleague Jim Jepps directed my attention to some remarks by Stewart Lee, writer of Jerry Springer - The Opera. Lee says nearly all that needs to be said on satirising religion:


"When you satirise something, you need to at least give it the credit of understanding it. The cartoon in which the Prophet is trying to stop suicide bombers entering the afterlife because they have run out of virgins has a kind of political point behind it. But I don't think they really appreciated the massive taboo you cross by portraying the image of Mohammed. There is really no historical precedent for it.


"They have tried to deal with a subject they don't know enough about, and this is one of the teething problems of the cross-over of cultures in the world. I'm sure the level of offence is far greater than would have been intended.


"I look forward to a point where we can live in a genuinely multicultural society when people know enough about each other's faiths and culture to be able to satirise these things from an informed position.


"In Jerry Springer - The Opera, we were looking for a story that could be commonly understood in a Christian context. In the West, Christianity relinquished the right to be protective of its icons the day Virgin Mary snow globes were put up for sale at the Vatican.


"But in the Islamic culture it is very different. To use a corporate image, Islam has always been a lot more conscientious about protecting its brand and as a satirist you need to engage with it on its own terms. That's what we did with Jerry Springer with the Christian religion."


Other than a few minor errors - that this has no "historical precedent"; that is it the mere portrayal of Mohammed's image that is the taboo; the idea that suicide bombing is purely motivated by religion, that there was no intent to offend - Lee's contribution is eloquent.


Another cartoon has a horned Mohammed. That's satire, you see. The definition of satire: "The use of ridicule, sarcasm, irony, etc. to attack or deride vices, follies, etc." You see? No, of course you don't. The link between a horned Mohammed and serious commentary via ridicule simply does not exist here, unless one invents a new definition of "satire". One is also forced to add that it is impossible to make serious political or cultural criticism if you're a fascist or an ignorant thug.



 Unsurprisingly, rightwingers, liberal militarists and those whose primary loyalty is to apartheid Israel (Mad "Melanie" Phillips springs to mind) have, salivating like rabid dogs with a spittle problem, leapt on the controversy. "The Arab world regularly prints anti-Semitic cartoons," is their shallow cry. The irony is, as ever, at their expense. Translating from Newspeak: "The anti-Semitic Arab despotisms I support print anti-Semitic cartoons. How dreadful. Why can't they stick to torturing darkies…I mean sand niggers…I mean…?" Ian Duncan Smith seethed with anger as he recounted anti-Semitic cartoons in Arab newspapers: "It's quite outrageous and nothing's ever done" to stop this freedom of speech in the sadistic tyrannies I support, he fumed unquietly. Yes, never "underestimate the determination of a quiet man". Or indeed a stupid man. Do turn down the volume, you ass. It must be awful being this stupid. Luckily, though, they're paid handsomely and are congratulated for this special talent.


Having listened to protestors chanting "freedom go to hell", "Denmark, USA, 7/7 on its way", "nuke, nuke Denmark", my eyes were assaulted with the following charming words on placards: "butcher", "massacre", "kill", "exterminate", "behead", amongst other soothing words. But the theocratic fruitcakes have a strange way of making me extremely angry and, seconds later, then howl like a dog. I collapsed with laughter on viewing an unintentionally surreal placard emblazoned with "Newsnight go to hell!!!" The exclamation marks weren't presumably meant ironically. As much as I would miss the hapless Gavin Esler, one sincerely hopes that he will be put under indefinite, preferably infinite, 24-hour "house arrest" sharpish by Special Branch, for his own protection - and that of the British viewing public. On the topic of satire, Gavin Esler rebuking former New York Times journalist Judith Miller for credulousness regarding Iraqi WMD - yes, that's right, your eyes don't deceive you! - is as good as anything to be found in Erewhon.


Clearly these buffoons are under the impression that they too are expressing their right to "freedom of speech". An impression they will painfully be disabused of in court. Newsnight reported that about "twenty" people were carrying such obscene placards. Evidently they are not dangerous; dangerous people keep their heads down. Omar Khayam, the moron who dressed up as a suicide bomber, believing that he was cleverly mocking "freedom of speech" [he means expression], was rebuked, in the style of the Life of Brian, by the leader of the mosque Khayam attends: "He's not a terrorist; he's an idiot".



Wait long enough and a bunch of religious idiots will say what you want to hear. The media usually is far too impatient to wait, and so invites Hizb ut-Tahrir (HuT), al Muhajiroun or the fruitcake's fruitcake Omar Bakri Mohammed for intelligent and informed commentary. Now, what would one expect a Jabber the HuT or the now exiled "Sheikh" Bakri to say? Something along the lines of, er, execute the blasphemers? Bingo. No offence, of course, to allow the most unrepresentative of freaks to represent the overwhelmingly moderate majority. Imagine the outrage in the UK if the Muslim world turned reflexively and solely to Nick "Not A Racist" Griffin for comment. It would be portrayed as further proof of the Islamic world's fanaticism and backwardness to do something so demonstrably offensive.


Under the title "Islam and the West", as if Islam is a direction to be found on a compass, Newsnight's Jeremy Paxman asked "Can Western society come to an accommodation with people so fanatical?" As ever on Newsnight, this was the wrong question. Having interviewed Nick Griffin (there was a "looming clash" with Islam and that Europe faced a "catastrophic disaster" said the neo-fascist leader recently cleared of racism), Newsnight invited Anjem Choudary, a spokesman from the demented Al-Ghurabaa, an offshoot of the now defunct Al-Muhajiroun. Ann Cryer MP, guilty of veiled Islamophobia in the past, said, "I can represent the Muslims in my constituency better than you can". Except for Likud, the BNP and the BJP, who couldn't? Later she added, "I do feel that Nick Griffin and Mr Choudary have a great deal in common." Quite so, although theocratic sociopath-cum-fruitcakes are not fascists (in the same way that Stalin or Mao were not fascists). Sayeeda Warsi, vice chair of the Tories, said "I think it's a shame that we have Mr Choudary on this programme." Indeed. The size of Choudary's mouth is in inverse proportion to the intelligent comment that springs from it. Choudary's aim is to make Muslims look bad, to stir up hostility, perhaps even cause a "Clash of Civilisations". So why give him the airtime?


Politicians and media forever splutter that, given the lack of moderate Muslim voices being heard, the militants must be the majority. If one rushes to Jabberers the HuT for comment, what does one expect? By definition, an axiom is proven if one resorts to the axiom to prove itself. Circular logic. And what of this constant, disgusting caricaturing of Muslims? Even when the Orientalist caricatures are briefly put to one side, what is the visual portrayal of the Islamic world? Not that much better, actually: there's the call to prayer from a minaret, the devout at prayer, people booming "Death to…", women enveloped in black tents, children being Talibanised, etc. Goebbels would be proud of this unremitting propaganda. There is presumably "no offence" intended in portraying every Muslim as a violent and intolerant monster, a reactionary zealot, militant anti-feminist, brainwasher of innocent children, etc… of course.




March 2006

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