Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Article excerpt

The best thing would have been for all the British papers to have published all the cartoons of Mohammed that appeared in Jyllands-Posten. As well as collectively asserting the right of freedom of speech, this action would have given readers the chance to see what is actually being discussed. The context, satirised in many of the cartoons themselves, is the very point over which all the rioting has taken place -- the danger of provoking anger by drawing the Prophet. One of the pictures shows the cartoonist hunched over his drawing board, nervously shielding his picture from the eyes of menacing, bearded phantoms. Although the cartoons differ quite strongly from each other, there is a shared tone, one of student jokiness and of tail-tweaking. Even the picture of Mohammed with his turban turned into a bomb is done for comic, not threatening effect -- a joke, one might guess, more at the expense of Islamist extremists who constantly invoke the Prophet in their desire to blow people up than an attack on the man himself.

(Despite several reports to the contrary, none of the Jyllands-Posten cartoons was obscene or depicted the Prophet as a pig; these pictures were helpfully interpolated by angry Muslims in emails designed to make other Muslims angrier still. ) Obviously those who abhor any depiction of the Prophet will abhor these, but from all the pompous denunciations by people like Jack Straw you might think that what appeared was vicious or hate-filled. It was not:

if these drawings had been about any other subject whatever, including Jesus, they would have excited no remark in the West at all. So the question then becomes, 'Must we apply completely different standards to what is said or drawn about Mohammed than to anything else?' Surely it is important to answer, 'No'.

John Casey was right to point out, in the Sunday Telegraph, that people have forgotten how recently it was that depictions of Jesus and the Christian God were strictly controlled in the Western world. There was a row in the 1940s about The Man Born to Be King by Dorothy Sayers, because it involved an actor playing Christ on the radio. In the early 1950s, at Cambridge, the (then) undergraduate magazine Granta published a satirical poem, in tone very like that of the Danish cartoons, about God getting up in the morning. The university authorities were displeased at this supposed blasphemy. They rusticated Mark Boxer, the editor. A large mock funeral for Mark was held in the streets of Cambridge and the eulogy was preached, I believe, by Hugh Thomas, now Lord Thomas of Swynnerton. Who would have thought that in the more tolerant age in which we are told we live leading politicians should seriously argue that such publications are profoundly wrong? And who would have thought that mock funerals would be replaced by real ones?

How long will it be, in fact, before Islamist zealots turn their attention to depictions of Jesus himself? He is, after all, a revered prophet in Islam, though his divinity and, oddly, his crucifixion are denied. The prohibition on drawing extends for many Muslims beyond Mohammed to all depictions of human or animal creation and particularly of all holy subjects, so images of Jesus (especially on the cross from which, Muslims believe, he never hung) must be offensive.

To Michael Wharton's funeral at Bradenham, Buckinghamshire. …

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