Tag Archives: Offence

Je Suis Charlie – All Is Forgiven

13 Jan
Tout est pardonne

All is forgiven

All is forgiven“.


Powerful words.

We don’t feel any hate to them. We know that the struggle is not with them as people, but the struggle is with an ideology.” So said Zineb El Rhazoui today, a surviving columnist at Charlie Hebdo magazine.

And this is a most important distinction here – the criticism of an idea is very different to the criticism of a person. That line must not be blurred in this debate.

Here is a more mundane version of the same issue – it may seem trivial in comparison, but the principles at stake are why Charlie Hebdo continues to satirise islam.

So in another office in my company, a cyclist comes in wearing lycra each morning, switches his computer on, then goes off to have a shower and change into his business clobber.

Now, a few months back a muslim in the office complained because “as a muslim” she found “such dress offensive“.

Management got this guy into a room to ask him to get changed before he came into the office to avoid such offence in the future.

If I found myself in the same situation, I like to think events would have played out like this:

Me: “So Mrs Muslim, where in the Koran does it say you can impose your idea of appropriate dress on a non-muslim? Chapter and verse please.

She splutters “How dare you?! I’m a muslim. It’s offensive to me as a muslim“.

I retort that “this is not an answer. Offence is in the eye of the beholder. I do not give offence. You take offence. The choice to be offended is yours.

At this point the manager, keen to defuse the situation, and fearful of “causing” further offence, appeals to my ego: “as the rationalist in the room, can you not concede, carry your clothes on your bike, and get changed before you come into the office?

I respond “would you say the same to a jew supporting the state of Israel with a small Israeli flag on his desk, when confronted by a Palestinian who finds the flag an insult to him and his countrymen?” (This happened in an office where I used to work.)

The manager, wanting to stick to acceptable norms says “that’s different. Let’s focus on the case at hand. Won’t you, for the sake of peace, adhere to this request?

I then make my stand: “If that’s your position, then this is mine. I find Mrs Muslim’s head scarf offensive. The word islam means submission, and this head scarf represents the submission of women to men. As an egalitarian, this is offensive to my beliefs. It says she should be ashamed of her beauty. Even worse, it promotes the dangerous idea that men do not have control over their urges. I want her to stop wearing this at the office so my beliefs are not offended.

It would be a wonderfully juicy Mexican standoff.

And more to the point, this is what saying Je Suis Charlie really means. Are you willing to stand up to the religious when they try to impose their ideologies on the rest of society? Are you willing to bust a few taboos for the greater good?

The post Rushdie years have seen a steady decline in free speech. It’s time to turn the tide.

And so, coming back to the more serious situation in France, until muslims stop insisting that they have the right to impose their views on others, Charlie Hebdo will continue to publish cartoons of Mohammed.


Islam – Whose Story?

17 Nov

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. That which can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.
– The Hitch

After watching the documentary “Islam – The Untold Story” (here’s my quick overview) I went to a debate about the issues raised by the film, organised by some islamic organisations. The panelists were:
– Tom Holland, the novelist and historian who made the film
– Sajjad Rizvi, a professor of islamic history
– Rokhsana Fiaz, director of the Coexistence Trust
– Kevin Sim, the director of Holland’s documentary.

Holland began by talking about himself, what interests him, and how he got onto the topic of the origins of islam. Usually, he said, it would take 3 years for him to study an area and then produce a book with his findings, but this project took 5 years given its complexities and the lack of historical evidence available. While he seemed to be avoiding the core issues, he did attempt to separate the issue of faith from the historical origins of islam and the Arabic conquest.

Rizvi then spoke, attacking “revisionists”; he insisted he wasn’t directing his comments at Holland although it was very clear that he was. It became rather ad hominem, with attacks on his motives rather than addressing the points in his documentary. He was essentially answering the question posed in the title of the debate ‘Whose Story?’ with: ‘It’s ours. You’re not allowed to question it‘. The best answer to that is given in this clip: “islam claims that it is the total solution to all human problems, and the sooner that it’s imposed on everyone the better. Well, that’s a point of view. But if it’s going to make such claims, it has to drop the demand that it be immune from criticism and especially from satire.

Fiaz tried to downplay the reaction to the film by saying that the level of complaints to Ofcom about the documentary was initially low. However she then went on to say that Ofcom had a responsibility to protect the sensibilities of the religious. Ofcom state that they have a legal duty to ensure that “people who watch television and listen to the radio are protected from harmful or offensive material”. Of course this is a ludicrous proposition given that offence is in the eye of the beholder and, like section 5, this kind of approach gives people the right to censor views they don’t like under the pathetic cover of the offence argument.

Holland made the curious claim that the christian literary tradition has always had a rather harsh questioning approach, particularly because of the need to harmonise the contradictory events described in the four gospels, whereas the islamic tradition is a lot less critical. He said this is why we’ve ripped away the foundations of the christian religion in the west. I can’t disagree that this has happened, but I would question whether this is due to a peculiarly christian mindset. I’ve read a bit of the fun loving Omar Khayyam, the muslim polymath who was openly critical of islamic norms, and on the other side there is the obvious example of the inquisition. He then went on to say something more important: because the koran and islam are being put under increasing scrutiny and criticism, the foundations of believers will be increasingly challenged. He diplomatically suggested that muslims must decide how they are going to react to this trend.

While people were quick to point out that they didn’t sanction death threats or violence of any kind, there were snarky and sometimes angry argumentum ad hominem attacks from far too many of the muslim members of the audience. There were accusations of Holland talking nonsense, of a poor quality or “rather pathetic” documentary, of an attitude of superiority and there was even an accusation of him suggesting that Arabs were backward. It got a bit silly.

What I didn’t hear, at any point of the debate, was someone question either his historical evidence, or the conclusion he tentatively proposed in the film.

This was disappointing as I was hoping for the case to be made for the traditional view. Alas the counter argument I heard can be crudely simplified into two parts: i) attack the messenger; ii) well it just is, why would anyone question it? Being from a religious background I can understand this reaction from people that base their world view not on empiricism, but on faith.

After scouring the web for counter arguments I found a lot more vitriol along similar lines. After all, Channel 4 did cancel a repeat screening due to a death threat. However I did find that the Islamic Education and Research Academy has put forward some more comprehensive opposing arguments. Some of their rebuttal seemed silly, such as their justification of the reliability of the oral evidence. I’ll be honest and say I’m stepping into an area I know little about, however comments such as “the entire science of Hadith” seem to contradict what muslim friends have told me about how they pick and choose which parts of the Hadith they prefer and dismiss the rest as “unreliable“. That said it cites some interesting pieces of evidence from non-muslim sources, as well as opposing views from other historians, and I’d like to hear what Holland has to say about these.

The point I agreed with most during the debate was from a muslim chap on the front row who roughly said: “ideas should be open to criticism. Debate and criticism are important parts of a democratic and pluralistic society. If we truly believe that islam is the truth then we should be happy for it to be questioned as it will only strengthen it.

Feel Free To Insult Me

10 Jul

I’m sure most of you will know that I have a significant dislike of the offence argument being used to stop people putting forward their view, as I have written previously.

As Simon Calvert says, “we no more enjoy a right not to be offended than we enjoy a right to watch England win a penalty shootout.

There have been some pretty egregious uses of the law to silence people. The legislation says “A person is guilty of an offence if he (a) uses towards another person threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or (b) distributes or displays to another person any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting“.

It’s essentially a charter for people to censor views they don’t like.

There is a campaign to change the silly legislation that says “insulting” words are illegal called Feel Free To Insult Me.

Everyone from the National Secular Society (hooray) to the Christian Institute (boo) are behind it.

Both ends of the political spectrum back it, from the Daily Mail to The Guardian.

Here’s a little speech from Rowan Atkinson where he states the case very clearly.

Here’s hoping…

Offence and Censorship

19 Mar

Right. So this whole offence thing has really got me going.

A person chooses to be offended. It is not the person speaking that gives offence; it is the person listening that takes offence. It is the offendee that chooses to be offended.

For example, if someone disses my mum I’ll probably get offended. But I’ll be choosing to get offended. I could choose to just reply with a witty retort instead, and move on.

To compound the issue, people willfully do not distinguish between attacking a person and attacking an idea. Respecting a person doesn’t mean to say one can’t disagree with what they believe. One can have great respect for a person yet not respect a belief they hold. It’s a very important distinction.

That said if a person chooses to define themselves or their life by a viewpoint, then they will find it more difficult to hear ideas that question that. But it is a level of maturity to which we should aspire if we want to grow both individually and as a society.

I point out the quote often misattributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

The mighty Stephen Fry has it right in this clip on offence:

“It’s now very common to hear people say “I’m rather offended by that”, as if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually no more than a whine. “I find that offensive”. It has no meaning, it has no purpose, it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. “I’m offended by that”, well so fucking what.”

Salman Rushdie, who knows a thing or two about this area, said: “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”

Ideas need to be challenged, whether scientific or beliefs or politics. If an idea someone holds cannot stand up to rational and logical criticism then it needs to be reviewed. If it can withstand disagreement then all the better – a true or worthy view will then be strengthened by the process.

In fact free debate is a cornerstone of a pluralistic and democratic society.

Offence and the Religious

To the more specific point: for too long religion has been able to censor debate, free thought, literature and science. From Galileo to Salman Rushdie to Copernicus to Danish cartoonists. Even now it is slowing genuine scientific research that may lead to treatments that stop the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people – such as genetic manipulation or stem cell research – as it goes against their idea of god’s order.

In fact, I have the feeling this is more about power – the power of people to control those around them, to control debate in the public sphere and control how people can say things they don’t like. In the case of established religions, I’ll go as far as to say it’s the cry of a rapidly diminishing power.

On this point I’ll give the last words to Douglas Adams:

“Now, the invention of the scientific method and science is, I’m sure we’ll all agree, the most powerful intellectual idea, the most powerful framework for thinking and investigating and understanding and challenging the world around us that there is, and that it rests on the premise that any idea is there to be attacked and if it withstands the attack then it lives to fight another day and if it doesn’t withstand the attack then down it goes. Religion doesn’t seem to work like that; it has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. That’s an idea we’re so familiar with, whether we subscribe to it or not, that it’s kind of odd to think what it actually means, because really what it means is ‘Here is an idea or a notion that you’re not allowed to say anything bad about; you’re just not. Why not? – because you’re not!’ If somebody votes for a party that you don’t agree with, you’re free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it. If somebody thinks taxes should go up or down you are free to have an argument about it, but on the other hand if somebody says ‘I mustn’t move a light switch on a Saturday’, you say, ‘Fine, I respect that’. The odd thing is, even as I am saying that I am thinking ‘Is there an Orthodox Jew here who is going to be offended by the fact that I just said that?’ but I wouldn’t have thought ‘Maybe there’s somebody from the left wing or somebody from the right wing or somebody who subscribes to this view or the other in economics’ when I was making the other points. I just think ‘Fine, we have different opinions’. But, the moment I say something that has something to do with somebody’s (I’m going to stick my neck out here and say irrational) beliefs, then we all become terribly protective and terribly defensive and say ‘No, we don’t attack that; that’s an irrational belief but no, we respect it’.”

(The full text of the speech is here.)

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