Related topics


A brief history of blasphemy (book)

Regardless of all consequences: Abu Ghraib - images of abuse and the abuse of images

You can talk: free speech and puritanism

A brief history of blasphemy (extract)

Liberalism's holy war

Reconsidering the Rushdie affair

The dark mirror of Islam

Our common inhumanity: anti-semitism and history

Life in the death camp

The politics of the body

Israel, Palestine and the tiger of terrorism: islamic anti-semitism and history

Was Hitler a racist?

History and hatred

Policing racism

Imaginary homelands


Danish dossier: Howard Jacobson on truth, transparency and the dangers of righteousness

Howard Jacobson‘WAS THE News of the World editor, Andy Coulson, right to publish pictures of British soldiers abusing Iraqi youths? To most readers of the New Statesman, I imagine, there would be no doubt, and most journalists would agree.’ So begins Peter Wilby’s media column in this week’s New Statesman. Interestingly, however, Wilby goes on to note that contrary views were eventually expressed in the British press:

For example, in the Telegraph’s Sunday sister, Nigel Farndale wrote: ‘Mr Coulson may . . . have signed the death warrant of the next British soldier killed [in Iraq]. I hope he can sleep at night.’ Other dissent came from more surprising quarters. Howard Jacobson argued in the Saturday Independent that it was a wicked thing, at this hour, with feelings running as they have been these last weeks’ to publish such pictures. Nick Cohen pointed out in the Observer that editors will print pictures . . . which may place the lives of British troops in danger, but not Danish cartoons, which may place their own lives in danger.’

The reference to Nick Cohen turned out to be a red herring. But Nigel Farndale’s piece in the Sunday Telegraph was thoughtful and to the point. And Howard Jacobson’s column in the Independent merits, I think, reading and re-reading.

Jacobson’s arguments overlap in a number of respects with the ones which I put forward in ‘Regardless of all consequences’ (see below).

The cartoons and Abu Ghraib

16 February 2006

INDEX ON CENSORSHIP, as its name suggests, has tended in the past to favour libertarian or orthodox views of free speech. It probably still does. But it has also published some thoughtful pieces which probe doctrines of free speech with just the kind of scepticism which is necessary. The most recent issue contains a number of articles about free speech written from different points of view. What might be termed the doctrinaire, or fundamentalist view is put forward at considerable length and with great zeal by Kenan Malik. Like many versions of free speech fundamentalism Malik’s is all but invisibly premised on the assumption that it is impossible (or wrong) to discriminate between criticism and insult, between robust debate and gratuitous offensiveness.

The sceptical and moderate view, meanwhile, is expressed by Ian Jack, once the editor of the Independent on Sunday, now the editor of Granta. Jack suggests that, when deciding whether to publish material which is contentious or inflammatory, journalists and editors should ask themselves first of all whether it will do any good. But they should then consider another, perhaps even more important point:

The second question a publisher or editor should ask himself is the opposite of the first: what harm will it do? Will it endanger life, including the lives of the newspaper’s staff? Will it alienate and anger a sizeable section of the community?

In this case, will it deepen perhaps the world’s greatest and most violent division, between Islam and the West? Will it cause riots and petrol-bombing from Luton to Indonesia? Will it confirm the prejudice and fear of many Muslims that the West is out to get them and that we don’t give a fig for their religious feelings or taboos?

In short, will it make the world a less happy and more dangerous place?

These words, I think, go to the heart of the problem posed by the Danish cartoons affair. In his article Jack is in no doubt about the answer which such questions should receive:

Many things need to be argued with the Muslim populations of Europe, not least the rights of women, but the cartoons were no way to pursue such an argument. It was the equivalent of spitting at your partner.

What did we learn from them that was worth risking so much anger and disaffection? That Mohammed wore a turban. In a volatile situation where enmity and distrust are increasing, their publication was reckless and stupid. By not reproducing them, at least not as I write, the British media did the right, respectful and pragmatic thing.

I couldn’t agree more. However, since Jack wrote these words the problem posed by the publication and re-publication of the Danish cartoons has been overtaken by another dilemma concerning free speech.

This morning, when I came down to my study and revived my hibernating computer I was taken aback to find on my screen the image of a naked human body - of somebody who had evidently been whipped, scarred and humiliated. I thought momentarily that my hard disc had been taken over by a malign trojan which had secretly downloaded the contents of a sadistic pornography site. Then I realised what I was looking at. It was the Guardian website.

Yesterday evening, after listening to the news. I had gone to the site to learn a little more about the new Abu Ghraib pictures which, I gathered, had just been released. The Guardian had provided a gallery of these pictures which I had briefly looked at. The image on my screen was one of these.

Half the world is now looking at these new pictures which, through the agency of an Australian television company, have now been disseminated across the world - including the Muslim world.

I have already written about the underlying issue here, in a piece entitled ‘Regardless of all consequences’. I shall not set out that argument again here. Suffice it to say that, whether or not Ian Jack would agree, I believe the conclusions he reaches with regard to the Danish cartoons ought to be appplied, with even greater emphasis, to the decision which has been taken by many editors to publish both the original Abu Ghraib pictures and their successors.

Note: a reference in the original version of this article to the role of the ACLU in bringing about publication of the new photographs was based on a news report which appears to have been mistaken.

16 February 2006; revised 17 February

More free speech


14/15 February 2006

Siné’s 'Massacre'ONE POINT WHICH I had entirely forgotten in relation to the Danish cartoons seems to have been overlooked by most other commentators as well. This is the saga surrounding Jens Jorgen Thorsen’s plans to make a film about Jesus. As I noted in my 1990 book:

‘In 1976, nearly ten years after Allen Lane’s dramatic intervention in the case of Siné’s Massacre [see left and below] , a significant controversy developed in Britain around the Danish film-maker Jens Jorgen Thorsen, who was planning a film about the sex-life of Jesus, The Many Faces of Jesus, involving both homosexual and heterosexual sex acts. His proposal to make the film in Britain met with intense opposition which was eventually successful. This opposition came not only from pressure groups but also from the Queen, the Prime Minister, James Callaghan, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Donald Coggan.’

All that, of course, happened 30 years ago. But, according to a fascinating story which did appear in the Guardian, double standards seem to have been preserved and the same Danish newspaper which printed the cartoons of Muhammad actually rejected a set of cartoons about Jesus.

The problem about our own blasphemy laws, as I suggest in the book, is that we haven’t so much grown out of them as grown into them. For this argument and for a description of the occasion when Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin, burned nearly the entire print-run of Siné’s Massacre, which was held to be offensive to Christians, click here.

Of course Private Eye (17 February 2006) is right to point out that the international Muslim outrage over the publication of the Danish cartoons has been deliberately and (it would seem) unscrupulously whipped up by activists. But that is exactly what happened in the Rushdie affair and we should not even have needed the lessons of that episode to know that, as John le Carré wrote in the Guardian sixteen years ago, ‘anyone who is familiar with Muslims ... knows that, even among the most relaxed, you make light of the Book at your peril.’

The fact of the matter is that making fun of the Prophet is rather like throwing a match into an open barrel of gunpowder. We may not like this fact but it is one which we should take into account before deciding to publish offensive, or potentially offensive caricatures of Muhammad. It’s interesting that Private Eye, while expressing views which imply that the right to throw matches into barrels of gunpowder is a precious one, declines, on this occasion at least, to exercise it.

It’s also interesting that it should suggest that the Danish cartoons ‘are arguably much less offensive than ... any number of portrayals of Jesus Christ in the western media over the last last 50 years’. It’s not quite clear which portrayals the Eye has in mind but it presumably isn’t Jens Jorgen Thorsen’s The Many Faces of Jesus, or Siné’s Massacre or even Garth Ennis’s comic-strip novel, True Faith, which was published in Britain in 1990 about eighteen months after the Rushdie affair had begun. The book made a number of disrespectful references to Christianity, including the statement ‘God is a blockage in the world’s toilet.’ It was attacked by members of the Evangelical Alliance and because of this its publisher (one Robert Maxwell) immediately ordered that all copies of the book should be withdrawn and pulped.

Of course another candidate the Eye might have in mind is the Monty Python film satirising Jesus, The Life of Brian. But we would do well to recall that even this film aroused a great deal of anxiety among some Christians at the time it was made in 1979. As a result it gained a certificate for general release only after some cuts had been made. Perhaps more importantly still, the film was shunned by British television companies, who declined to show it for many years for fear of offending Christians in this country.


For those who are curious, here are two of Siné’s mildly blasphemous or anticlerical cartoons. Click here for the nun and here for the priest. (These come from a copy of the Penguin edition which was eagerly purchased before the conflagration by my late father-in-law.)

Press F11 for full screen. Press F11 again for normal view.

14/15 February 2006

Cartoons, the Prophet and free speech

7 February 2006; revised 15 February

ANYONE WHO TAKES a critical interest in their own society should make a point of being familiar with the history of the sacred doctrines on which that society is founded. Many believing Muslims have very little historical understanding of their own faith, which is one of the reasons why they tend to uphold such doctrines so uncritically and with such rigid zeal. In this respect, however, they are rather similar to many members of secular liberal societies. For we tend to know surprisingly little about the origins of one of our own most sacred doctrines, the doctrine of free speech.

Seventeen years ago, I was running a bookshop in Suffolk at the time The Satanic Verses was published. In response to Muslim protests (and before Khomeini's cruel and tyranical fatwa), the campaign for free speech was already gathering strength. Disturbed to find that I knew next to nothing about the history of a creed I once thought I believed in wholeheartedly, and sensing that there was something rigid and potentially destructive in that creed, I decided to think a little more carefully about free speech than I had done previously. The result was a book which appeared in 1990, just over a year after the fatwa. Partly because the historical argument was not developed in this book very far, I returned to the subject in a (very) long essay which was written some three years later.

Because most people will not want to read tens of thousands of words, I have now posted here a much shorter article which was also written around this time. Published originally in the New Statesman on 14 February 1993, the fourth anniversary of the fatwa, this brief, thousand-word piece, You can talk, led to my being flayed alive in the letters column the next week. But that is what you expect if you oppose the sacred doctrines of the extreme fudamentalists in your own society.

Interestingly, the response in Britain to the latest Muslim protests has been strikingly more nuanced and measured than the response to the original protests about The Satanic Verses. The editorial in Friday’s Guardian, for instance, came close to being a model of moderation and good sense. For the letters which appeared on the same day, click here. There was another extremely interesting piece about the situation in Denmark in Monday’s paper.

You can read the 1993 New Statesman piece, the argument of which applies directly to the current furore, by clicking here.


© Richard Webster, 2006



























































































Richard Webster, 2004