On censorship from Life Of Brian to fatwa and jihad

by Mitch Diamantopoulos

counterpointOn Jan. 7, religious extremists burst into the Paris offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, gunning down four cartoonists and a contributor for heresy. The world hung breathlessly on the events which followed.

The problem, of course, is that according to conservative interpretations, the Qur’an forbids any portrayal of the prophet Muhammad. The irreverent Charlie Hebdo had not spared the prophet from its wide cast of comic caricatures, so the die had been cast.

From the perspective of the extremists, the French heretics had offended fundamentalist Islam by drawing their prophet, and thus sealed their own fate. Shar’ia law was on the assailants’ side, meaning the slaughter was righteous justice and a lesson to others who might insult Islam. In the gunfights which followed, the killers died as martyrs.

From the perspective of their victims, how could they spare Islamic extremism? The French democratic republic had long fought the church, the monarchy, and later fascism to win the precious freedom to think, write and draw freely. Charlie Hebdo was an icon of this proud Enlightenment tradition of ridiculing the ridiculous and deflating the powerful.

Submitting to censorship would thus surrender satire, one of the great fonts of their freedom. Predictably, they instead followed in the footsteps of Voltaire, who famously declared “the pen is mightier than the sword.” Intimidation did not still their pencils. True to their democratic faith, they died as martyrs.

These theocratic and democratic ideologies finally careened into the fateful bloodbath that dominated the news for more than a week in January. This was a great tragedy of a divided humanity, superficially connected by our wired new world only to talk past each other at the speed of light.

It was also a microcosm of the clash between the secular democratization of global society and the fundamentalist backlash against it. Much weighs in the balance of this contest, including the future of religious satire and free expression.

“You’ll Probably Get Away With Crucifixion”

The case for religious satire is firmly rooted in the French Enlightenment tradition. In the absurdist style of Monty Python, Charlie Hebdo’s lampooning of totalitarian Islam is clear to the Western eye.

Nevertheless, it is a courageous person who locks horns with the forces of religious fervour.

For example, while John Cleese lives to crack wise to this day, Monty Python’s religious satire was also denounced as blasphemous when The Life of Brian was released in 1979. The film tells the tale of mistaken identity that defines the life of Brian, who’s born next door to, and on the same day as, Jesus. Some conclude he’s the messiah.

To say not everyone was amused by this brash premise is an understatement. EMI Films withdrew financing, the BBC and ITV snubbed it, and bans were imposed in Norway, Ireland and the U.K.

A generation of corporate and cultural officialdom thus sent a clear message to those who might follow in the troupe’s silly footsteps: don’t mock Christianity. Of course, the satirists persisted and prevailed, and we now laugh at such preposterous pandering. Few today would suggest the film should be burned in deference to Christian sensitivities and the censors’ so-called better judgement.

The decline of deference to the Church, signalled by the runaway success of The Life of Brian, was not a trivial development.

Popular questioning of religious dogma had been set in motion by the cultural revolution of the ’60s. It reached its apogee in Python’s audacity, further shattering the Church’s aura of infallibility. Among other things, this new attitude helped open the door to serious investigations of child sexual abuse by clergy.

Church dogma on issues like divorce, abortion, sexual orientation, birth control, the ordination of women and same-sex marriage all withered under the scrutiny of an uncowed populace.

Satire had once again played its part in deflating the clergy’s authority, loosening social control and expanding popular freedoms.

By contrast, Charlie Hebdo ventured into far more dangerously uncharted waters — and profoundly more dangerous cultural politics — than any quarrels their cross-Channel cousins at Monty Python might ever have had with the high priests of either the BBC or the Church of England.

“See, Not So Bad Once You’re Up!”

A more apt parallel might therefore be the storm unleashed by Salman Rushdie’s 1989 novel The Satanic Verses. It reflected on his immigrant experience as a Muslim raised in India but relocated to Britain, and his ensuing sense of cultural displacement and alienation.

Oh, and his novel was also partially inspired by the life of the prophet Muhammad, which didn’t exactly impress one particularly spiteful amateur literary critic. Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Rushdie for mocking Islam, triggering a botched assassination attempt that August.

Like the Python crew, Rushdie’s satire was criticized as blasphemy and an abuse of freedom of speech. Like The Life of Brian, his book was banned — from 12 countries with large Muslim populations. Elsewhere, cautious booksellers just quietly withdrew it from their display cases.

Unlike the merely exasperated fate of Python, the fatwa forced Rushdie into years of police protection. Bookstores were fire-bombed, copies of the book were burned at rallies, his Japanese translator was killed and other collaborators in its publication were attacked and seriously injured. The bounty offered for Rushdie’s execution reached over $3 million.

A biting chill on critical writing about Islam now swept the intelligentsia and the world’s publishing houses. A quarter century later, it’s hard to imagine someone daring to write a book like The Satanic Verses.

Consider the case of Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz. He found Rushdie’s book offensive, but nevertheless he signed a petition arguing that “no blasphemy harms Islam and Muslims so much as the call for murdering a writer.”

Mahfouz was later stabbed in the neck by fundamentalists.

We’ll never know how many articles, books, plays, exhibits and films never passed go with nervous writers, artists and executives as a result of Rushdie’s very public and protracted persecution. We only know that this great silence left jihadism intellectually unchecked and politically emboldened to widen their culture war: rolling back education for girls, beheading journalists like James Foley and Steven Sotloff and targeting Danish and French cartoonists, to cite but a few examples.

As jihadist propaganda became more aggressive, the chill of self-censorship further muted and wore down its critics.

In 2010, Al Qaeda’s hit-list of figures who had “insulted Islam” was published. To no one’s surprise, the theologically incorrect novelist was still in the jihadists’ sights, on a list that would soon be expanded to include Charlie Hebdo’s Stéphane “Charb” Charbonnier.

“I Think He Said, ‘Blessed Are The Cheese-Makers”

After the Jan. 7 attacks that took Charb’s life, a battle-weary but brave Rushdie was quick to defend Charlie Hebdo and denounce its assassins.

“Satire has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity,” he told Time.

“Religious totalitarianism,” on the other hand, he diagnosed as “a deadly mutation in the heart of Islam.”

Shockingly, the fundamentalist faithful were unconvinced.

With the release of Charlie Hebdo’s post-attack edition featuring a tearful prophet on its cover, violent demonstrations broke out in Algeria, Pakistan and Jordan. Five were killed and dozens injured at a protest in Niger, a former French colony. Churches were also attacked.

Here’s betting there’ll be more examples between the time you read this column.

And so the cycle begins again, with democratic free expression deeply chilled. The mutually reinforcing fundamentalisms of Islam’s fascist mullahs and jihadis on one hand, and the racist, right-wing residents of Islamophobia on the other, have the megaphones now. They will further intensify the conflict. More blood will surely be spilled by this great twin retreat from pluralist democracy into reactionary tribalism.

For now, the vast majority of humanity is left to cower, writing and drawing in the shadows and whispering in the cross-fire.

Mitch Diamantopoulos is the department head of the Journalism School at the University of Regina, and a co-founder of Prairie Dog and Planet S magazines.