Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Eye of the Beholder

From the Guardian CiF
April 3 2008

There was a wall I used to pass everyday in Bombay with an image of one of the many religions of that teeming city painted on each concrete panel. It served its purpose as an ecumenical prophylactic against mural micturition. No law was necessary. It was an iconic appeal to mutual respect.

Following the furor about Dutch documentaries and Danish cartoons, Islamic states grandstanding for domestic audiences joined Cuba, China and Russia in passing a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council that subordinates freedom of expression to worries about "racial or religious discrimination".

The western countries on the council only abstained on the vote. That was not so surprising, since the dangerously loose wording was very close to that in the recent British Racial and Religious Hatred Act.

Of course, there are indeed Islamophobes about, and one cannot help wondering if the reaction would have been quite as orotund if Christian churches or Jewish synagogues had requested a similar UN resolution.

The Christian record, even since the abolition of the Inquisition, is not exactly without sin, and there was the Israeli army rabbi who suggested that his armed flock consider divine injunctions on the fate of the Amalekites when dealing with Palestinians.

But let's stick with the enlightened Anglo-Saxon democracies.

This Easter, as customary, I watched the Life of Brian, one of the funniest films ever made, which when it came out provoked a reaction in some quarters like some responses to cartoons of Muhammad. Nuns and rabbis picketed it in New York, while various US states and other countries banned it outright.

It actually risked prosecution. In 1978 the House of Lords had rejected an appeal against the nine-month suspended sentence and £1,000 fine against the editor of the Gay Times for publishing a "blasphemous libel" - a poem about a Roman centurion having the hots for Jesus a little too literally. The prosecutor John Smyth told the court: "It may be said that this is a love poem - it is not, it is a poem about buggery."

The editor's worthy predecessor in crime, a Mr Gott, was actually sentenced to nine-months -unsuspended - in 1921 for publishing a pamphlet that suggested that Christ looked like a clown as he entered Jerusalem.

Currently the British Labour government is holding off on abolishing the laws on blasphemy, despite its opinion that they violate European human rights law, while it consults the Archbishops of the Church of England - who consider such action precipitate.

In case any Americans feel too superior, we should recall that in 1940 Bertrand Russell was fired from City College of New York in a case instigated by the Episcopalian Bishop and judged by a bigoted Roman Catholic.

An established Church and compulsory religious education in Britain has produced a fairly agnostic, faith-unfettered nation, while the separation of church and state in the US has produced a hundred million or so creationists. So much for legislating orthodoxy. No wonder the Archbishops, who now represent one of the smaller sects in Britain, want to hang on to legal powers to mask their lack of spiritual influence.

Of course the problem is that with a few tolerant exceptions, like some Hindus, some (but by no means all) Buddhist sects and people like the Unitarians and Quakers, every true-believer should regard every other religion as blasphemous. Muslims believe in the virginity of mother Mary, but not the divinity of Christ. Jews of course, do not subscribe to either. Transubstantiation smacks of cannibalism even to many Christians, and Rome considers eternal suffering in Hell a fit punishment for doubting the Athanasian Creed.

Equally, any religion worth its salt will want its adherents to proselytise with its own brand of good news, which necessarily means questioning the tenets of the 57 varieties.

There is a problem with inciting hatred of actual people: to suggest that every Jew is a Christ-killer, every Christian a Crusader and every Muslim a terrorist is incitement to hatred. But questioning their beliefs is something else. That is where freedom of expression really comes into its own.

There is no doubt that apart from few dangerously fuzzy ecumenical types who want to defend all irrational beliefs against scepticism, what the movers of the UN resolution really mean is to enforce their religion, their truth, against all comers.

Ironically, the Chinese, who supported the UN resolution, should really be under scrutiny for attacking the "Dalaist" clique, which is discriminatory and blasphemous for any Lama-fearing Buddhist. I look forward to the Muslim reaction when the Scientologists complain to the UN that people mock L Ron Hubbard (and we do! Oh boy we do!), or Jews, Christians and the various Muslim offshoots complain about the sermons delivered by Wahabi sheiks and imams.

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