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"In this fashionable rush to condemn those who cause offence, we are in danger of overlooking something important. All grievances are not of equal merit. Nor are they deserving of equal sensitivity or accommodation. Whether or not a person is offended may not depend on what is actually said or written, which may be perfectly coherent, measured in tone and serious in intent."

David Thompson's regular critique of society's new-found religious fervour continues.


A recent Guardian poll revealed how 58% of British Muslims feel that those who "insult or criticise Islam" should face criminal prosecution. Rather worryingly, no distinction was made between 'insulting' and 'criticising', and the difficulty in distinguishing between legitimate criticism and opportunist provocation remains mysteriously unaddressed. Yet ours is an age in which religious ideology is deemed to be in need of unilateral protection, regardless of the cost to others. Formerly liberal commentators are currently all too eager to ignore double standards as they strive to exempt religion from the customary obligation to discuss and test ideas. Curiously, those who are gorged on absolute conviction appear to have supernaturally thin skin and seem to bruise remarkably easily.

In the aftermath of Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's drama Behzti and the subsequent theatre siege, Mohan Singh, from the Guru Nanak Gurdwara, an organisation of Sikh temples, said: "Free speech can go so far. Maybe 5,000 people would have seen this play over the run. Are you going to upset 600,000 thousands Sikhs in Britain and maybe 20 million outside the UK for that?" Mr Singh offered no coherent basis for his assertion, but instead appealed to weight of numbers and a tendentious claim of collective grievance. Quite how 20 million people who can have no substantial knowledge of Bhatti's play can be said to be nonetheless "upset" defies this writer's comprehension.

The previous week, Iqbal Sacranie of the Muslim Council of Britain expressed his "outrage" at an article by Charles Moore, whose comments regarding Mohammed's marriage to the nine-year-old Aisha resulted in widespread claims of "fury" and "deliberate provocation." Curiously, the scriptural evidence for this paedophilic union was not disputed. Evidently the contents of Sahih Bukhari (5:58), which devout Muslims are obliged to read, cannot be mentioned by non-Muslims without becoming "provocative." When the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in 1979, one of his first legal reforms was to reduce the marriageable age of girls to nine years old, exactly in line with the example of the Prophet, announcing: "It is a blessing for a family to have a daughter out of the house before her first blood." Yet Mr Sacranie, who speaks on behalf of "all Muslims" whenever it suits him to do so, ignored this fact. Instead, he welcomed the government's abortive Religious Hatred Bill because "any defamation of the character of Mohammed" is deemed to be a "direct insult and abuse of the Muslim community." Can we therefore assume that the Ayatollah was also "offending" Muslims by acknowledging the Prophet's marriage to Aisha? Or is it only non-Muslims who "offend" by acknowledging such things?

Perhaps emboldened by the prospect of the Religious Hatred Bill, or perhaps fearing they were losing the religious arms race, Christian groups protested against the BBC's decision to broadcast Jerry Springer: the Opera. Protestors burned their TV licenses and declared some fictional right not to have their religion "insulted." Reverend John Ross of Inverness spoke with unintended irony of the BBC's "utter intolerance" of his faith. But, whatever the show's aesthetic shortcomings, the BBC wasn't forcing anyone to watch the programme in question, while the reverend was all too happy to try to force the BBC not to broadcast it at all, for anyone.

In this fashionable rush to condemn those who cause offence, we are in danger of overlooking something important. All grievances are not of equal merit. Nor are they deserving of equal sensitivity or accommodation. Whether or not a person is offended may not depend on what is actually said or written, which may be perfectly coherent, measured in tone and serious in intent. The perceived offence may depend on the dishonesty and hypocrisy of the supposedly aggrieved party. Whether or not someone is bruised by language is sometimes due entirely to the person who claims to be offended, rather than what was said by someone else. Very civil and inarguable comments can, for instance, cause "offence" to someone who is determined to be offended for political gain and determined to exploit the pretence of being hurt. Indeed, the pantomime of being conspicuously aggrieved can be a form of passive-aggressivism -- a way to express hostility or dominance while hiding being the role of victim. This tactic is widely employed by the morally incontinent and by bullies of all kinds.

In March last year, four Australian Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants bowed to protests by Muslim groups and removed all of their bacon products in favour of "Muslim-friendly" alternatives. A number of local councils in Australia also tried to ban ham and pork at council functions, as "a sign of respect to Muslims." Significantly, the alleged "offence" wasn't caused by a lack of Halal products for Muslims, but by the availability of bacon to anyone else. The previous month, similar "offence" had been caused by the layout of a supermarket in Kuala Belait in Brunei, where non-Halal products including tinned pork were "insufficiently distant" from the isles frequented by Muslim shoppers. One disgruntled customer said his seven-year-old daughter had inadvertently picked up a can to ask him about its contents. "I was shocked to see the word 'pork' inscribed on the can," he said.

A hypersensitivity to the word 'pork' might easily be dismissed as ludicrously self-regarding. There is, however, a rather more serious side to this cult of affected grievance. At a time when many scholars of Islam - including the German professor "Christoph Luxenberg" - have been forced to write under pseudonyms for fear of attracting death threats, it is worth bearing in mind the fate of Suliman Bashear, a Palestinian scholar at the University of Nablus. Using painfully moderate and scholarly language, Bashear argued that the Qur'an may have evolved over time, rather than being 'revealed' as a complete 400-page message from beyond. As a result of this "provocation", Bashear was promptly thrown out of a second-story window by his "outraged" Muslim students. The message being sent by Bashear's "punishment" is that even mild-mannered scholars should stay clear of certain topics. However carefully they speak and regardless of their motives, they may still find themselves being defenestrated by those who affect an implausible degree of indignation.

It is, of course, far too easy to claim to have been offended, as if that were both some self-justifying state and the end of the discussion. Likewise, it is far too easy to silence an opinion -- whether by hurling someone from a window or by claiming to speak on behalf of millions of strangers, all of whom are apparently hypersensitive - rather than to challenge that opinion with an argument of one's own. And it would be wise to remember that those who are dishonest tend to be the most sensitive to criticism, and the most prone to overreacting.

Some argue that there must be limits on what can be said - as if the solution to stupidity is to inhibit public discourse. "What about Holocaust deniers", I was asked, indignantly. "Would you let them say the Holocaust didn't happen?" But proscribing idiocy of this kind achieves very little and betrays a lack of confidence. If a person insists that Jews, gypsies and homosexuals were not systematically exterminated on an industrial scale, one can always produce the documents, the testimony, the photographs and the films and demonstrate that it did. And demonstrating what did happen - and can happen -- allows us to revisit our own ideas about the world.

A free society is defined in part by contrasting opinions and the testing of ideas. This is how we learn. Being pious (or pretending to be pious) does not exonerate one from this. If a person is so aggrieved by contrary voices, one has to question what it is that is posing such an existential threat. As John Stuart Mill pointed out in On Liberty: "We are fallible; to deny any opinion is to assume that we are notů Even if an opinion is wrong, it may contain some element of the truth. It is only through the collision of adverse opinions that the truth has any hope of being brought to light." The contrasting views aired in the media and other public spaces are indeed an expression of our fallibility. They are also our greatest hope of addressing that fallibility.

I'm reminded of Ayatollah Khomeini's famously stupid comment: "There are no jokes in Islam. There is no humour in Islam. There is no fun in Islam. There can be no fun and joy in whatever is serious." As bizarre as it sounds, Khomeini's statement is very much at the heart of the problems raised by recent events. Without the freedom to laugh at oneself and one's own ideas, and without the freedom to accept criticism with a self-deprecating smile, what is the alternative? Rage? Indignation? An urgent desire to silence any criticism? And isn't that just egotism and arrogant posturing? Perhaps the endless uptight puritans that bark at any whiff of "offence" should show a little humility and get over themselves.


David Thompson is a freelance writer whose work appears in The Observer, The Times and The Guardian. He is also a regular contributor to Eye: the International Review of Graphic Design. An archive of his work can be found at his website.

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