Islam, We Have A Problem

This is the third of three related posts. The first #1 There Is No Right To Offend looked at self-restraint on freedom of offensive expression, and the second #2 The Court Jester concerned the specific cases where expression of offensive humour has satirical intent. These were argued most generally, but were obviously prompted by the Charlie Hebdo massacre and ongoing responses.

In that specific context we’ve already seen Stephen Fry advocate that “we must mock”. Well he’s wrong. It’s OK for him speaking from his position as a national treasure, an established rebel, a comic TV actor, a spokesperson on Humanism and LGBT freedoms to name a few, but in those roles he is one of our most recognisable court-jesters. He surely must mock mercilessly, provided he skewers establishment targets, and so should all satirists, but we cannot all be court-jester at the same time. If we all mock we have our “day of mockery” – an expression of solidarity and depth of feeling – claiming the right of expression, but not constructively addressing any argument. Ultimately degenerate and not progressive beyond claiming the right to do so.

On the other hand we see Will Self and Martin Rowson agreeing, on Channel 4 News, that there really is no absolute right of expression of mockery and offense. Freedom really does come with responsibility for restraint and appropriateness of content and context, where appropriateness includes targetting authority, power or establishment. [Post Note : See also by Will Self.]

On the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, it was a powerful expression of solidarity against violent intimidation of free speech to claim #JeSuisCharlie in the (Spartacus) moment when the lethal intimidation was palpable and shareable. Now after the event we need more than simple sloganising to discern ongoing issues and actions. Charlie Hebdo were not an unalloyed good. We cannot absolutely identify with the whole of Charlie Hebdo. They asserted their right, but their targets were wide-ranging and their content variable, and in the run-up to the specific events, they knowingly provoked the response they achieved.

Provocation is one aim of satire, but the target matters.
Murder is murder, provoked or not.

Where the topic is Islamism (Jihadism or other terrorist extremism or plain murder “in the name of Islam”) there really is no establishment target for the satire. When the topic is Islam more generally, then there are real establishment – Islamic state establishment – targets, but the target is not Islam itself. When a Jihadist group brands itself “Islamic State” it blurs the picture for sure, but it does not make them an Islamic establishment target. Islam is a target for deliberately offensive satire only where it is the established religion.

Apart from all the questions of security in the face of the reality of armed and motivated Islamists, including those that our freely expressing citizens feel the need to provoke without restraint, there is one topic crystallising in the fall-out. Of course in the process of falling-out we get both extreme perspectives:

  • Islamist extremism has nothing to do with Islam.
    (The politically correct end of social media.)
  • Islamist extremism has everything to do with Islam.
    (The indiscriminate & prejudiced end of social media.)

The wise position, as ever, lies between the two.

And the good news is that many Muslim spokespeople do recognise this. I say spokeseople, but don’t forget there are billions of Moslems, with thousands of disparate and overlapping Islamic constituencies and communities. I say many Moslems, but I don’t say all or even most (I’ve no idea), just a positively encouraging number. We will never meet a spokesperson or spokespeople people for Islam itself. So:

There is something about Islam that leads to violent Islamist extremism and Moslems have as much interest as anyone else in sorting out what that is and how it should be addressed. Properly targetted (freely expressed, even offensive) satire is surely part of it, but it’s clearly not the solution.

For example: back on 25th November 2014, there was an excellent event #CmnGrnd @ConwayHall “Looking for Common Ground – How can humanists and Muslims live and work together in 21st century London?” Organised by Western and Central London Humanist groups supported by @BHAHumanists.

Chaired by Alom Shaha, the audience was predominantly active Humanists but all four panelists were practising Moslems speaking for a range of Muslim organisations. To a man, the panel highlighted the caveat that “one brings one’s own prejudices to the reading of any holy text” so that the text could form a pretext for any prejudice. Pretext is not justification in anybody’s book.

All also spoke of first-hand experience of prejudice, intimidation (and worse) against themselves and their loved ones, and recognition of mutual responsibility to find solutions.

As the speaking and questioning progressed through the evening a whole range of specific topics came up, many in the realm of rights and freedoms, none of course addressed conclusively on the night. (The above link includes a full audio recording – and I also have comprehensive notes.) Radicalisation to levels of extreme, violent and/or terrorist intent is driven by many different sources of perceived oppression and grievance. One observation made very strongly from the floor was that complexity was actually part of the problem. Anyone asking a specific direct question was asking to be disappointed, if they expected simply expressible satisfactory answers. Even the simplest open questions were indeed rhetorical. We are dealing with complex issues with deep histories with wide scopes and varied perspectives.

The other take-away was sheer gratitude. Thanks for talking to us, thanks for sharing the problem, thanks for listening to our point of view, please let’s continue the dialogue to find solutions.

And the Muslims thanked the Humanists too.

Finally – Pulling Charlie Together – I drew together summaries and links to all three posts in this series into a further post where I am also collecting related responses to the same issues from other social media and blogs.