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Tweeting Mohammad: Get Religion, February 3, 2014 February 3, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Islam, Press criticism.
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The Mohammad cartoon controversy has resurfaced over the past week with a flutter over a tweet.

The British press appears to have come down on the side of Maajid Nawaz. Newspaper articles, opinion pieces and television chat shows have defended his right to share a cartoon depicting Jesus and Mohammad. But they have also ceded the moral high ground to his opponents — Islamist extremists — by declining to publish a copy of the cartoon that has led to death threats and calls for Nawaz to be blacklisted by the Liberal Democratic Party for Islamophobia.

What we are seeing in the British media — newspapers and television (this has not been a problem for radio) — in the Jesus and Mo controversy is a replay of past disputes over Danish and French cartoons. Freedom of speech and courage in the face of religious intolerance is championed by the press — up to a point.

The point appears to be whether being courageous could get you killed or even worse, earn the displeasure of the bien pensant chattering classes.

The Telegraph gives a good overview of the affair.

A Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate has received death threats after posting a cartoon image of Jesus and the Prophet Mohammed on Twitter. Muslim politician Maajid Nawaz tweeted a picture of a t-shirt with a crudely-drawn cartoon entitled ‘Jesus and Mo’ which he describes as an “innocuous” and inoffensive.

However the image has caused fury among some members of the Islamic community who believe images of the prophet Muhammed are forbidden. More than 7,000 people have now signed a petition calling for the Liberal Democrats to suspend Mr Nawaz. Some have even suggested a fatwa should be placed on him while others have threatened they would be “glad to cut your neck off”.

The Guardian summarized Nawaz’s motives in this subtitle to their story:

Lib Dem candidate says he aimed to defend his religion ‘against those who have hijacked it because they shout the loudest’

It explained:

The row blew up after Nawaz took part in a BBC debate where two students were wearing t-shirts depicting a stick figures of stick figure of Jesus saying “Hi” to a stick figure called Mo, who replied: “How you doin’?”

The politician, who is founder of the Quilliam Foundation, an anti-extremist think-tank, tweeted what he believes is a “bland” image and stated that “as a Muslim, I did not feel threatened by it. My God is greater than that”.

Both stories are sympathetic and are topped by striking photos of Nawaz, who is  running to be an MP for Hampstead and Kilburn. But neither article reproduces the cartoon that has led to the threats against his life. In their defence, it could be argued that a photo of Nawaz, rather than the offending cartoon was more appropriate as the article focused on the politician’s travails over the cartoon, not on the cartoon itself. A week argument but an argument none the less.

Television was not blessed with this excuse. During the debate on The Big Questions which sparked the row, the BBC declined to show members of the audience who were wearing “Jesus and Mo” t-shirts. This censorship, avoidance, prudence (take your pick) led Nawaz to tweet a photo of the cartoon — leading to twitter threats to cut off his head.
Newsnight discussed the controversy over censorship, but decided not to show a copy of the cartoon. Newswatch also discussed the “Jesus and Mo” controversy, noting that complaints had been raised by viewers over its failure to show the cartoon. But Newswatch also declined to show the cartoon. Zero for three for the BBC.

The best (from a cognoscenti  of hypocrisy’s point of view) was Channel 4′s handling of the subject. It broadcast the cartoon, sans Mo. This prompted the popular British blogger, Archbishop Cranmer to write:

[This] censoring images of Mohammed establishes a narrow Sunni-sharia compliance: it is, effectively, a blasphemy code adopted by the state broadcasters.

The columnist for The Times, Janice Turner, excoriated the BBC and Channel 4 in an excellent piece entitled “Show us Jesus & Mo. It’s the price of freedom”. It was:

hard to watch Wednesday’s Newsnight without concluding that Britain has become a very strange place. We saw an artist so frightened for his life that his face and even his voice were disguised. We saw his hand sketching the Christian prophet in a crown of thorns, but forbidden to draw the Muslim one. An 11-minute film debated a drawing at the heart of a national controversy but at no point could we see it.

Turner further reported:

When challenged, Newsnight’s editor, Ian Katz, said that there was “no clear journalistic case to use” the cartoon, and that “describing” it was sufficient. (TV news will get a whole lot cheaper if we needn’t send a camera crew to war-ravaged Damascus: let’s just have it described by Jeremy Bowen.) Any depiction of Muhammad, Katz argued, “causes great offence to many, not just extremists” and to run it would be “journalistic machismo”.

She aptly summarized the journalistic and moral issues at play.

Mr Nawaz’s frustration is understandable. In banning the image, the BBC cast him as the faux-Muslim, his opponents as the rational, majority voice that must be heeded.

How can moderate Muslims be expected to speak out, if they are cast as apostates by national TV? Those who have not yet made up their minds will see angry offence as the default position. They hear it proclaimed by the deceptively reasonable Mohammed Shafiq, the Lib Dem, whose Ramadhan Foundation hosts homophobic speakers, and that hot-air balloon Mo Ansar, who argues that gender-divided public meetings are just like BBQs where guys cluster around the grill while wives chat with the kids. No biggie.

The BBC and Channel 4 are guilty of cant and hypocrisy. They are daring when it is safe to be daring, but cowards when it comes to militant Islam. Are the Guardian and Telegraph guilty of cant as well? They preach freedom of speech, but by refusing to show the Jesus and Mo cartoon are they not also ceding the moral high ground to the enemies of free speech?

First printed in Get Religion.

Anglican-Muslim call to ban blasphemy: The Church of England Newspaper, September 30, 2012 p 2. October 2, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Church of England Newspaper, Episcopal Church in Jerusalem & the Middle East, Free Speech.
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Four Anglican bishops from North Africa and Middle East have joined Muslim leaders in Egypt in writing to U.N. Secretary Ban Ki-moon urging the adoption of an international declaration against religious defamation.

On 16 the Egyptian State Information service reported the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Dr. Ahmed el-Tayyeb had written to the U.N. leader urging the adoption of an anti-blasphemy resolution that would criminalize insults to Islam and to its prophet, Muhammad.  The government also reported that the Bishop of Egypt, Mouneer Anis had issued a similar call to the U.N. to ban blasphemy.

On 15 Sept 2012 Bishops Anis of Egypt, Michael Lewis of Cyprus and the Gulf,  Bill Musk of North Africa and Grant LeMarquand of the Horn of Africa urged the U.N. to prohibit actions and language that denigrated all religious faiths.

In “view of the current inflamed situation in several countries in response to the production of a film in the USA which evidently intends to offend our Muslim brothers and sisters by insulting the Prophet Mohammed, and in view of the fact that in recent years similar offensive incidents have occurred in some European countries which evoked massive and violent responses worldwide, we hereby suggest that an international declaration be negotiated that outlaws the intentional and deliberate insulting or defamation of persons (such as prophets), symbols, texts and constructs of belief deemed holy by people of faith.”

They said such a declaration would not be a violation of the right of free speech, but would encourage people to be “responsible and self-restraining in expressing or promoting offensive or malicious opinions with regard to the religions of the world.”

The bishops said their aim in offering this suggestion was to build peaceful relations amongst the world’s religions and prevent “violence that may easily lead to wars between nations and conflicts between people from different cultural or philosophical backgrounds or followers of different faiths,” the bishops said.

First printed in The Church of England Newspaper.

Crazy Charlie: His cartoons are insane: Get Religion, September 29, 2012 September 29, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Free Speech, Get Religion, Islam.
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In this week’s podcast Issues Etc. host Todd Wilkin and I discussed two of my recent GetReligion stories: “Charlie Hebdo’s Muhammad Cartoon Crassness” and “Foggy Bottom’s ‘pantywaist protocol pussy-footers’.” Starting with the press coverage on the attacks on the U.S. embassy in Cairo and consulate in Benghazi, the articles (and our discussion) moved on to the vexed question of how the Western media reports on blasphemy in an Islamic context.

I argued the early coverage on the Middle East stories was uneven.  There were some great stories from the Washington Post, New York Times and other outlets from their reporters on the streets of Cairo.  I also singled out for praise a CNN story that put the issue of blasphemy in context for an American audience — answering the question why the “Innocence of Muslims” movie would be so offensive.

The domestic reporting on the embassy attacks was not as strong.  In my opinion, stateside reporters seemed to view this incident  through the lens of the Presidential election campaign.  They parroted the State Department’s claims the riots were spontaneous reactions to to the YouTube video — even though the same papers’ overseas reporters were writing there was evidence the riots were scripted and pre-planned, awaiting a suitable provocation.

The second story about the cartoons satirizing Muhammad as a gay porn star in the French magazine Charlie Hebdo reinforces the disconnect between the domestic and overseas reporting.  The assertion that this was spontaneous, or some sort of religious flash mob, has not been borne out by the responses to the French cartons.  The Charlie Hebdo cartoons are obscene, while the “Innocence of Muslims” video is dumb. The French government closed 20 embassies in the Muslim world in fear of attacks, yet nothing so far has happened (either in Metropolitan France or abroad).

Other European magazines have joined Charlie Hebdo in printing Muhammad cartoons.  The German magazine Titanic pictured depicts Germany’s former “First Lady” Bettina Wulff, being threatened (or defended) by an armed Muslim.  Is it Muhammad?

The Spanish magazine El Jueves last week published its Muhammad cover showing a line up of men in Islamic outfits. The cover says: “But how do they know which one is Muhammad?”

Writing in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Hilmar Klute argued the Muhammad cartoons and videos — and the responses they have generated have become rather tiresome.

Seldom has satire been so much in the public spotlight as it has these days. Seldom have satirical drawings and cover pages in Germany and especially in France caused such a great stir. And rarely have so many supporters and opponents of satire popped up with a number of somewhat outrageous claims and warnings. Günter Wallraff wants to flood the European media with anti-Islamic cartoons to ensure that the “demonstration of liberty” – and he really means it – is not just the concern of a few friends of freedom.

This vibrant audacity is, in truth, the quivering anger of an over-excited neo-bourgeoisie that believes that the liberal order can be toppled by crazed Islamists and that we can also defend our open society with art. Sharpened quills versus the scimitar.

This is a pity because satire, precisely at a time when there’s so much material, has seldom been as mediocre as it is today. The mediocre craftsmanship of Charlie Hebdo cartoonist, Charb, is not the problem here. What’s sad is the intellectual laziness behind all these sensationalist pictures, photo-montages and jokes.

My sympathies lie with Mr. Klute. There is an air of unreality and lack of intellectual and moral seriousness about this controversy. Those who lived in the New York area in the 1980s will certainly remember “Crazy Eddie”. The discount electronics chain ended each of its high power, high volume advertisements with the tag line: “His prices are insane!”.

At times I feel Crazy Eddie has returned, but this time round he is peddling politics.

First published in GetReligion.

Egyptian bishop backs blasphemy ban: The Church of England Newspaper, September 23, 2012 p 5. September 24, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Church of England Newspaper, Episcopal Church in Jerusalem & the Middle East, Islam.
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Bishop Mouneer Anis

The Government of Egypt reports the Anglican Bishop of Egypt, Dr. Mouneer Anis, has written to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon endorsing the call made by Islamic member states to ban blasphemy. The government statement comes as part of the Muslim Brotherhood government’s media response to the attack on the U.S. embassy in Cairo by Muslim militants last week ostensibly in response to a YouTube video that defamed Mohammad.

In a statement released on 16 Sept 2012, the Egyptian State Information Service said Dr. Anis had written to the U.N. chief the previous day urging him to “issue a declaration that prohibits blasphemy.”

The Egyptian government said that in his letter, Dr. Anis said a ban on blasphemy would “not run counter to freedom of speech, but it prevents using this right to insult religious sanctities. ‘We believe that mutual respect is the only way for peaceful coexistence’.”

The Church of England Newspaper has not been able to confirm with Dr. Anis or the Diocese of Egypt the veracity of the state information service’s claim, or whether Dr. Anis’ letter was an endorsement of the resolution adopted by the U.N. General Assembly on 19 Dec 2011 condemning the stereotyping, negative profiling and stigmatization of people based on their religion, and urging countries to take effective steps “to address and combat such incidents.”

Similar resolutions had been brought to the U.N. each year since 1999 by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) – a 56 member block of Muslim nation-states, but had been opposed by Western states.

However, in 2011 the language of the resolution was changed with language condemning the “defamation” of religion dropped and a clause inserted that reaffirmed “the positive role that the exercise of the right to freedom of opinion and expression and the full respect for the freedom to seek, receive and impart information can play in strengthening democracy and combating religious intolerance.”

The amended resolution received the backing of the U.S. and U.K. and the E.U., though Poland’s ambassador questioned whether this resolution favored one religion over others. After the vote, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said “the best way to treat offensive speech is by people either ignoring it or combating it with good arguments and good speech that overwhelms it.”

First printed in The Church of England Newspaper.

Charlie Hebdo’s Muhammad Cartoon Crassness: Get Religion, September 19, 2012 September 19, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion.
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Get ready GetReligion readers for the next twist in the Muslim outrage story. Today’s issue of  Charlie Hebdo a lowbrow political humor magazine akin to Private Eye — tops the “Innocence of Muslims” film in crassness and bad taste.

That direct to YouTube video produced by an expatriate Egyptian Copt denigrates Islam and Muhammad, denouncing him as a charlatan, womanizer, and sexual degenerate. The rest is history.

While some members of the mob that assaulted the U.S. embassy may have been paid to express their outrage, and it is unlikely the well planned assault on the consulate in Benghazi that led to the rape and murder of the U.S. ambassador was an act of spontaneous outrage — there is little doubt the film has sparked indignation across the Muslim world.

And at this point in the story, Charlie Hebdo steps in. The cover of the offending issue portrays an Orthodox Jew pushing a Muslim in a wheelchair. Atop the cartoon is the mock-movie title “Untouchables 2″, which Reuters says is:

a reference to a hugely popular French movie about a paralyzed rich white man and his black assistant.

The text balloon states “You must not mock”, but there is also the undertone of “Make my day” here also. Last November the offices of Charlie Hebdo were firebombed after they put Muhammad on the cover of their magazine and ran some distasteful cartoons inside the magazine.

It may be worse this time round. France 24 reported that after today’s issue of the magazine was released, the Quai d’Orsay announced it was closing 20 French embassies on Friday in anticipation of trouble. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who happens to be in Cairo today, expressed his anger at the timing of the release of these new cartoons. Publishing inflammatory cartoons while the Muslim world was still seething over the YouTube video was not helpful to the cause of peace, he told i-Télé. However, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault has affirmed that freedom of speech is a fundamental principle for France.

The anger at Charlie Hebdo will focus on the cartoons on the inside of the magazine, not the cover. Here is a link to one page where you can see for yourself what is causing the fuss. Taking its film theme from the Youtube video, Charlie Hebdo portrays Muhammad as a gay porn star.

I suspect we will see calls for censorship of Charlie Hebdo just as the “Innocence of Muslims” has prompted pro-censorship commentaries in the U.S. press. Some self-censorship around the Charlie Hebdo story has already begun. While some European and American newspapers and broadcasters have not held back on showing the cover, Fox NewsABC News, CBS News, the Guardian, the Jerusalem Post, Al-Ahram and others chose to describe the cover and contents, but not show them to their readers. I’ve not seen any reprint the inside cartoons.

I too am guilty of self-censorship. I chose not to publish the risque cartoons on this blog, but  placed them on a private page where a reader can examine them if he so chooses. Am I guilty of moral cowardice?

The editor of Charlie Hebdo spoke to RTL defended his decision to publish, saying:

If we start to ask questions now about whether or not we have the right to draw Muhammad, if it’s dangerous or not, the next questions is going to be: ‘Can we show images of Muslims in the paper?’ Then the question after that will be: ‘Can we show images of people in the paper?’ And then at the end, we won’t be representing anything and this form of extremism that is happening around the world will have won.

Reuters quoted him as saying:

“To me, these religious hardliners who protest and kill over a crappy film are no different to the people who made the crappy film. They’re all the same pack, a bunch of assholes,” editor Stephane Charbonnier, under police protection since printing similar caricatures last November, told Reuters.

The last time Charlie Hebdo ran a Muhammad cartoon, I argued that this was done in bad taste and lacked journalistic merit — but it was their right to do so. I also stated that Islamic law does not forbid depictions of Muhammad. As my colleagues at GetReligion have pointed out in Everybody Draw Mohammad Day, South Park, and the Jyllands-Posten cartoons there is no one Muslim law, nor common view on this topic. Here is a gallery of Muhammad images in Western and Turkish art collections.

I also argued that the failure to print the Muhammad cartoon that prompted the firebombing of Charlie Hebdo, while printing covers from other issues of the magazine to illustrate the story, was moral cowardice. I rejected the contention that by publishing something that someone might find offensive you were crying fire in a crowded theater. I cited Christopher Hitchens in support of my argument. He wrote:

If you instigate something, it means that you wish and intend it to happen. If it’s a riot, then by instigating it, you have yourself fomented it. If it’s a murder, then by instigating it, you have yourself colluded in it. There is no other usage given for the word in any dictionary, with the possible exception of the word provoke, which does have a passive connotation. After all, there are people who argue that women who won’t wear the veil have “provoked” those who rape or disfigure them … It was bad enough during the original controversy, when most of the news media—and in the age of “the image” at that—refused to show the cartoons out of simple fear. But now the rot has gone a serious degree further into the fabric. Now we have to say that the mayhem we fear is also our fault, if not indeed our direct responsibility. This is the worst sort of masochism, and it involves inverting the honest meaning of our language as well as what might hitherto have been thought of as our concept of moral responsibility.

Tell me GetReligion readers, does this argument still work? Should we limit free speech in the name of a moral responsibility not to offend, or does the moral responsibility to act within the bounds of civilized society take precedence? Where I the editor of Charlie Hebdo I would not have commissioned the cartoons nor printed them in this climate. But having been printed, I believe the press should show them to their readers.  I respect Charlie Hebdo‘s right to be offensive and crass, but would not do it myself. Is this moral cowardice? Preening or prudence? What say you?

First printed in GetReligion.