Saturday, February 04, 2006

A Clash of Civilisations?

The last few days have been marked by a so-called clash of civilisations, not just in Britain, or even in Europe, but across the world.
On the one side are ranged the so-called forces of secular liberalism – people who believe so passionately in free speech that they insist on the right to insult other people and offend their most cherished beliefs, for no other reason than to show that there aren't any no-go areas in Western culture.
On the other side, are ranged those people who feel that freedom of speech goes too far when people are using it simply to wound others or cause trouble and division. For the most part these are people of faith – Christians upset by the portrayal of Jesus in 'Jerry Springer The Opera' and Muslims upset by the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad published in European newspapers and shown fleetingly on British television.
The forces of secular liberalism seem to have the upper hand in the UK just now. Only a few days ago they formed an unholy alliance with some Christian groups, who were worried about possible curbs on their right to proclaim the Gospel message, in order to defeat a new law which would have banned people from using abusive and insulting language about another faith and its followers.
Why evangelists would want to use abusive and insulting language, and why they think it would help them to convert the followers of another faith if they did, is a mystery to me. However, members of the BNP are fond of using abusive and insulting language about Muslims and the law would have prevented them from doing so. It would also have prevented fanatics of all kinds from abusing and insulting one another, like the young men who marched through London on Friday carrying placards calling for Europe to be attacked by Al Qaeda and for the cartoonist who caricatured the Prophet Muhammad to have his head cut off.
The jury which acquitted Nick Griffin and Mark Collett on charges of using words intended to stir up racial hatred were apparently persuaded by legal arguments that Muslims are not a race and therefore aren't protected by the law. The BNP leaders' acquittal certainly preserves freedom of speech, but it makes a law against religious hatred seem all the more necessary. Christians who opposed it need, in my view, to think long and hard about the verdict and what it means for British society.
Of course, the controversy about the cartoons which caricatured the Prophet Muhammad plays right into the hands of the BNP. It allows them to portray Muslims as intolerant and humourless and to argue that there is indeed a clash of civilisations between Muslim and Western society.
For secularists, the real clash of civilisations is not just between Islam and the West, it's between people of faith and everyone else, or, at least, it's a confrontation between people who do not believe that religion should be protected from ridicule and those religious believers who think their most cherished beliefs should be safeguarded by the law.
The cartoonist, and the newspapers which published his work, seem to have been driven by an urge to prove that religion and free speech are irreconcilable. Their argument seems to be that people should be free to say whatever they like even when it's disrespectful and offensive to religious faith. They don't seem to have any other motive. The cartoons aren't particularly funny, and most of them don't seem to make any particular point, except to break a taboo.
They were only drawn because a children's writer in Denmark couldn't find any artists who were prepared to illustrate a book about the Prophet Muhammad, and so a Danish newspaper issued a challenge. It said it would publish pictures of the Prophet if any artist dared to draw some. And the other newspapers, which have published the pictures since, seem to have done so for exactly the same reason – just to show that they could.
Another cartoonist said that offending religious fanatics is part of his job description. He had, he said, drawn pictures of the Ku Klux Klan which offended Christian extremists. But he seemed to overlook the fact that members of the Klan – like Members of the BNP – misuse Christianity simply to defend racism and actually offend a great many Christians in the process, whereas even moderate Muslims have been offended by the cartoons of the Prophet, though they wouldn't want to do anything extreme about it to punish the cartoonist. All they want is an apology.
It's very interesting that the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, has condemned the newspapers which published the cartoons. But it's also worth noting that no one from the Government was prepared to condemn 'Jerry Springer The Opera', even though it was just as offensive to many Christians.
I heard the producer of 'Jerry Springer The Opera' talking on the radio last week. Funnily enough, he said he thought that publishing the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad was wrong because there was no history of caricaturing faith in Islam. 'If I can borrow an idea from commerce, Muslims have been more protective of their brand,' he said, whereas Christians had forfeited the right to complain about how Jesus is depicted when the Vatican started selling snow domes with Jesus in them! It's a matter of opinion. Personally I felt that the offence given by some of the lyrics in 'Jerry Springer The Opera' went way beyond bad taste or tackiness.
This week's Old Testament reading [1] has a lot to say to us about our situation. It too features a kind of clash of civilisations. The Arameans, who lived in modern day Syria, were at loggerheads with Israel. The conflict was not just about power and land, but also about religion.
It takes great courage for everyone in the story to set aside their prejudices. The servant girl, who had been kidnapped by the Aramean soldiers, could have nursed a grudge against her master and taken secret pleasure in his sufferings. Instead, she tells his wife about Elisha, the prophet of the one true God, who can channel God's power to make him well. Naaman and the Aramean king could have refused to believe that anything good might come out of Israel. Instead, Naaman is sent with valuable gifts and letters of introduction, to seek help from Aram's traditional enemies. Elisha, for his part, could have refused to heal someone who had done his country so much harm, and Naaman's servants could have shared his disgust about bathing in the tiny River Jordan. But, instead, all the people in the story set aside their differences to work together for good and Naaman ends up as a faithful worshipper of God, determined to offer no more sacrifices to any false gods.
If it was possible for Naaman, his wife's servant girl and the prophet Elisha to cross the boundaries of faith and prejudice which separated them, how much easier must it be for modern day Christians and Muslims to stand alongside one another – despite our very real differences – in the struggle against militant secularism and fanaticism! Freedom of speech is a very valuable right which we certainly don't want to surrender, but that freedom shouldn't be used to insult other people for no good reason or to oppress and threaten them. Neither the BNP, nor the hot-heads parading through London with their offensive placards about chopping off people's heads, should be allowed to abuse free speech. But at the same time, it can't be right for freedom of expression to be used to ridicule or belittle the beliefs of Christians and Muslims just for a few cheap laughs. Honest criticism is one thing, but causing offence for its own sake is another. As the chief rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks said, freedom – and the responsibility to use it wisely and compassionately – go hand in hand.
[1] 2 Kings 5.1-17

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