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Freedom to laugh

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2006-02-10

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

I am seriously worried that the liberal Western civilization of Voltaire, Locke, Hume, John Stewart Mill, Huxley, Russel and Popper is about to disappear.

It is not because the Muslim 'street' has been staging violent demonstrations, burning embassies, demanding that laws are changed, editors sacked and goods boycotted--and all this over cartoons of the prophet Mohammad. With all the honor killings, genocide and refusal to acknowledge human rights in parts of the Muslim world today, you'd think there were more serious things to get worked up about. But this appears to be part of a campaign to impose the darkest of Muslim values, from its least enlightened substrata, onto the West.  The response is a pathetic capitulation that may well lead in time to the denial of the right to poke fun at religion and the end of the ability to demolish dangerous myths.

The overwhelming body of opinion I have been hearing in the press and on the media on both sides of the Atlantic is that it was wrong to allow the publication of the cartoons and that one should not give offense to the most fundamentalist distortions of Islam.

So the Danish Government has apologized, the French editor was sacked, and in Britain they are too scared to even show us what the fuss was all about. No wonder the press is losing ground to the freedom of the internet. The head of the UN, a morally corrupt organization that cannot stop genocide in Darfur, has to express his concern for offended Muslim feelings. Where is this all going to lead?

One of our values is that the press should be free. Another, going back at least to Jonathan Swift, himself a cleric, is that one should be able to make fun of religion and even to satirize it. In my youth, there was nothing more calculated to attract scorn than pompous humourless clerics of any faith. Just think of 'The Life of Brian', or 'The dancing Inquisition' in Mel Brooks' ‘History of the World’. Indeed God Himself, in all His variations, has been the subject of ribald criticism, let alone a human prophet. And if the issue is Muslim sensitivity to representations of prophets, then we should by rights be up in arms over the Sistine Chapels semi naked God!

There is a very healthy tradition of anticlericalism in Europe. This is why crazy religions and sects tend to find it harder to take root in Europe than in America and why there are far more cases of religious abuse and corruption in America, too. Sure, the downside is an anti-mystical, cynical dimension that works the other way and discourages outward religiosity. But if this important feature of European culture is lost, then I believe we are in trouble, because as is now abundantly clear, religion without humour is really dangerous!

Christianity and Judaism have adjusted to the fact that living in a free and open society means being prepared to have people poke harmless and sometimes far from innocent fun at your most cherished beliefs. Many Muslims (and sadly not a few Jews) are still stuck in a medieval mindset that recalls the days of Elizabeth 1st when they burnt dissenters at the stake. Do we really want to go back to that frame of mind?

What worries me is not that politicians fall over backwards to apologize and run around bleating with their tails between the legs. That's what politicians do when they want votes. In Britain they are terrified of losing the Inner Cities. Why else would reasonable, liberally educated men and women give serious consideration to a law that prevents one making fun of any religion? Politicians are the last people I would ever expect to defend ideas or culture.

No, it’s the men and women of letters and the Third Estate that concern me. It seems the disease of anti-Semitism is so profound that a socialist would rather defend a gay-bashing, woman-humiliating, antidemocratic fundamentalist absolutist, than a liberal Jew.

It all began with Salman Rushdie’s 'Satanic Verses' and the disgraceful way so many academics and media personalities refused to stand up for Rushdie's right to write whatever he felt like writing, in fiction of all things! Then it went to the pusillanimous response, with the exception of Rowan Atkinson, to the British Government's introduction of blasphemy laws to restrict what one can say or write if it can in any way be taken as offensive to Islam. Thank goodness the Conservative party ambushed the Government to water it down. Meanwhile Israel has the sort of freedom where you can hold religion up to ridicule (and a good thing too in that context) but Israel is almost universally condemned for being a betrayer of Human Rights!

Remember when a 'Guardian' cartoonist really offended Jewish sensibilities? Not only was there not a peep but it actually won awards. But Heaven forefend one makes fun of Islam or one’s embassies will be burnt!

You see I would mind less if there were some reciprocity. But throughout the Muslim world the most crude, abusive, pornographic anti-Semitic cartoons and television programmes appear all the time and no one says 'boo.' Mr Annan has not once asked them to stop in the interest of peaceful coexistence!

No one replies to these primitive Muslim protestors that they should clear up their own houses first. Surely sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If you don't like insults then try stopping insulting others first. A free and an open society allows fun to made of the most serious of sacred holy cows. Those societies that allow making fun are the very ones that guarantee more freedom and where most human beings including Muslims want to live in.

Of course, good relations between different peoples and religions requires protection and legal recourse.But there is a fundamental difference between making sure that people are not harmed or discriminated against for their views or their religion and, on the other hand, cottonwooling them to make sure the little diddums are not upset.

Yes, indeed, this is an assault on most cherished Western value of Freedom of Speech. Apologists are saying that it’s not, it’s about community relations. But community relations that require us to give up our cherished cultural freedoms is not relations, it is capitulation.

If we do not now stand up for our cultural rights then I fear we are about to be swamped by the primitive Eastern hoards and the end of our civilization as we know it is at hand.  If we do not refuse to stand up now against placards in London calling for death to non-believers, if we continue to appease, then Western culture is done for.

PS

There is another aspect to all this, closer to home. I have a long experience of religious extremist demonstrations, Jewish ones in Jerusalem, going back to 1956 (in my youth I was always up for fun). First it was against the mixed swimming pool in the German Colony, then autopsies, then traffic on Shabbat, then archaeology, then the Supreme Court and now full-circle back to autopsies and Shabbat desecration. When you have large numbers of idle, unemployed students with nothing better to do, or, indeed, rich trust fund kids without a struggle to keep them focused, then a good demonstration is part of one’s recreational CV. The same goes for protestors against World Trade.

I must add here that the brutality the Border Police showed against old men and children over the years was such that what I saw at Armona did not surprise me at all. I’d seen it too often before, directed against one’s own, let alone one’s enemies. This is one of the few occasions when I long for the British tradition of police crowd control.

Of course, I’m not suggesting there is any comparison in the violence between murdering Muslim thugs and stone throwing Yeshiva Bochurim, but there is a certain sociological commonality. In the Islamic world it is one of the few political safety valves. You are not allowed to demonstrate against your government but a good blood curdling orgy against America, the West, Israel, Zionism and the Jews is rather convenient and most therapeutic. Peaceful demonstrations are one thing and I totally support them however uncomfortable they may be to some. But the moment they turn violent then I completely approve of suppression.

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