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Once upon a time, there was this thing called 'Multiculturalism'. 
I write about those turkeys who've voted for Christmas.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

The 'Jesus and Mo' strip-tease

The Jesus and Mo cartoon strip, which satirises religion in general, and Christianity and Islam in particular, launched in the wake of the Jyllands-Posten Danish cartoons of 2005.

In Europe, as well the wider non-Muslim world, the Danish cartoons - wherein the Prophet Mohammed SA was caricatured in ways which Muslims across the globe found hurtful - became totemic: a single point upon which the clusterfuck that was ‘Islam vs The West’, could reduce down to. 

Forget Israel/Palestine, colonialism, Bush, Blair, WMD and the War on Terror, the right to veil and even that siren call echoing around the post-Christian world - ‘does God exist?’ This was now the acid test. In a world in which nothing was sacred – in which church, state, politicians and royalty had been stripped bare by a proletariat free to choose their own idols; wherein only the right to say anything – and the right to offend – was sacrosanct, could Muslims accept the same treatment?

Due to the lack of overt offensiveness in the Jesus and Mo strip, the very same points have been distilled – which serves to not only reinforce the challenge laid down, but makes the work of art, per se, pure genius:

So this is now the line in the sand, beyond which no compromise can be reached. If this, too, is an affront, well… at least the endless circus of debate can end. We’d all know where we stand.

Ever since some students were ordered to remove Jesus and Mo t-shirts at a Freshers’ Fair, the media has fizzed and crackled, straining at the leash to light the blue touch paper. How..? By discussing Jesus and Mo at every turn, but crucially, not showing – it is the ultimate strip-tease, to ratchet up the tension. In studio after studio, the same players are wheeled out – the outraged intellectual, the puppet-on-a-string politician and the cartoon Muslim, to repeat ad nauseum that ‘…to draw or otherwise represent the Prophet, Peace Be Upon Him, is not permissible in Islam.’ Which is true. 

What all the stakeholders miss, however, is that the cartoon strip, as emblematic of the fissure between Islam and The West, does not resonate for most (British) Muslims, (or, indeed, for most Westerners) - hence the lack of Pavlovian response. But this still jars, as the strip does indeed capture a fundamental difference in what is considered sacred, across religious and post-religious societies. (Indeed, one can almost sense the frustration in some quarters at the lack of response…) So why no repeat of the Danish shitstorm? The main reason is also prosaic – most Muslims (and non-Muslims) will simply not have given the subject enough attention. For others, the exchange of ideas as they rub alongside non-Muslims – whether online or in their real lives – will have shaped what ‘being Muslim’ means to them. (In other words, from the POV of the unreconstructed, theirs is a watered down, Islam-lite). Many other ‘fundamentalist’ Muslims however, get that the value-system of the non-Muslim is different – and that it’s not for them to impose or force their values, onto others. In other words, ‘to me my values, and to you, yours’. Indeed, the position is theologically sound because to live in a country – any country - under the protection of its flag and benefiting from its resources, and then to be disloyal, is, Islamically, an act of treason.

What this demonstrates is that talking casually about ‘the Muslims’, or even ‘British Muslims’, is a mistake – there is no such body. It does not exist. Rather, it is composed of multiple strands, thoughts, beliefs and political philosophies - just as in wider society. And yet, despite the ever burgeoning corpus that is ‘the media’, only the discordant notes of the lunatic fringe get amplified. One can only conclude that it pays to keep the story simple.   

None of this discounts the validity of questions being asked, re. the compatibility of some Muslim communities outside of their indigenous setting. But therein lies the rub – because none of those concerns apply universally, to everyone on earth who calls themselves ‘Muslim’. Many (most?) understand the hard laws and softer nuances of wherever they live, and that your right to analyse, parody, insult and offend, is not up for barter. In other words, they have organically learnt how to be both Muslim and British, in a way that trivialises neither. And yet the broad-brush approach persists –which foments confusion, then hurt, then anger, then resentment. Which is entirely understandable.

It’s high time that the media reflected the diversity that exists of the ground. Otherwise this in itself will add a new dimension to the ‘Islam Vs The West’ clusterfuck.