What’s the point of lampooning religion? To upset the religious?

January 8, 2015

In the wake of the horrific massacre at Charlie Hebdo, debate has focussed on the issue of causing of offence to religious people. Is that the point of lampooning religion? Is causing offence to Muslims the aim of someone who draws a cartoon of Mohammad? No, usually it’s not (though this point is usually lost on the offended).


The slaughter of Charlie Hebdo journalists by Islamists offended by irreverent depictions of Mohammad was discussed on the BBC’s main news programme Newsnight last night. That programme can be viewed here for a week.


Towards end of the programme cartoonist Steve Bell was interviewed alongside ‘moderate’ Muslim Sir Iqbal Sacranie, Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Great Britain. Sacranie unequivocally condemned the attack on the Charlie Hebdo journalists. But he went on to suggest that there are limits to free speech. Sacranie drew an analogy popular with many Muslims between offending someone by insulting a dear member of their family and offending a Muslim by insulting their Prophet. Sacranie said he ‘would not dare’ to insult a member of your close family with the intention of hurting your feelings. He added that if he did, ‘I would perhaps get a punch on my nose’.


What did Sacranie mean by his ‘punch on the nose’ comment? Was he implying that, while the crime might be abhorrent, the victims bore at least some responsibility for bringing that ‘punch on the nose’ upon themselves? Or was Sacranie just pointing out the obvious: that some Muslims react in a predictably violent fashion when they feel the Prophet has been insulted?


Whatever Sacranie was getting at, I don’t much like his analogy. Is Sacranie’s argument that, just as we ought to avoid lampooning those dearly loved by their families, so we should similarly avoid lampooning the Prophet? If so, it’s an awful argument. After all, almost everyone is dearly loved by someone. Steve Bell, sitting beside Sacranie, regularly lampoons  UK Prime Minister David Cameron by drawing him with a shiny pink condom pulled over his head. Cameron’s parents, wife, and young children no doubt love him dearly and find it upsetting to see him lampooned and insulted by Bell week in and week out. But of course that’s no reason for Bell and others not to do it.


Perhaps Sacranie will say there’s an important difference between Bell’s lampooning of Cameron and the lampooning of Mohammad. Bell’s intention in lampooning Cameron is not to offend Cameron’s close family. Offence to family members is just an unintended consequence of the lampooning, not its aim. So what Bell does is acceptable. The lampooning of Mohammad, on the other hand, is done with the express intention of causing offence to Muslims. Is that what Sacranie thinks is unacceptable?


Actually, few draw pictures of Mohammad with the intention of upsetting Muslims. Of course Steve Bell knows Cameron’s wife and kids probably are upset by his cartoons, but that’s not why Bell draws them. Similarly, when people lampoon Mohammad, they know it will upset Muslims. It doesn’t follow that their aim is to upset Muslims. In fact, that’s usually not their aim.


So why lampoon a much-loved and revered religious figure, if not to upset his followers? Here are two reasons why.


The Hans Christian Anderson story The Emperor’s New Clothes ends with much mocking of the Emperor as he parades pompously around town while stark naked. The hilarity begins with that small boy who points and laughs. His laughter has a revelatory effect on those around him.  Suddenly, as a result of that one boy pointing and laughing, everyone else realizes they’ve been duped. The spell that held them captive is broken. They recognize the truth.


Laughter may not be the only way of getting pe
ople to recognise the truth, but it’s sometimes the quickest and most effective way. Satire and mockery are tools that can be employed entirely appropriately, particularly if we’re criticising figures and institutions that maintain a faithful following in part by fostering attitudes of immense reverence and deference. What the pompous and self-aggrandizing fear most is that small boy who points and laughs – and whose name, in this case, is Charlie Hebdo.


Religions and religious figures are mocked and lampooned for a variety of reasons. Perhaps it’s sometimes done for no other reason than to upset the religious. Let me be clear that I don’t approve of that (though I do defend the right of others to do it).


However, more often than not, the lampooning is done with the intention of shattering, if only for a moment, the protective façade of reverence and deference that has been erected around some iconic figure or belief, so that we can all catch a glimpse of how things really are. At such times, lampooning can become great art.


Here’s a second reason for lampooning those demanding overweening ‘respect’ for some religious figure or institution.  What do the armed clowns who marched into the Charlie Hebdo offices want? They want to create fear, so that no one will ever dare lampoon their Prophet again. Many of us were already self-censoring for fear of such reprisals. Now even more of us will do so. Freedom of expression is being eroded.


But there’s an obvious way we can quickly reclaim that lost freedom. We can, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali nicely put it, ‘spread the risk’. If we all stand up and repeat what caused the supposed ‘offence’, then tomorrow any individual who might have self-censored out of fear will realize they’re not an isolated target, but just one target amongst countless thousands. The risk is spread between us to the point where the danger faced by any one individual becomes negligable again.


There are a number of sensible and thoughtful Muslims prepared bravely to stand up and do just this: to themselves commit the ‘offence’ of showing a cartoon of Mohammad, and so begin to take back a freedom that’s increasingly being lost to fear and self-censorship . We should applaud them. Their reason for repeating the ‘offence’ is very clearly not ‘to upset Muslims’.