Melanie McDonagh

The right to offend is nowhere near as important as the right to speak the truth

The right to offend is nowhere near as important as the right to speak the truth
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Last week I lost count of the number of times we've been told, pace the Charlie Hebdo murders, that we have no right not to be offended, that freedom of speech involves the possibility of criticism and ridicule of any religion; indeed, that it’s the flip side of religious liberty. Salman Rushdie, who has more right to make the point than most, said that 'religion deserves our fearless disrespect' and  people like Suzanne Moore in the Guardian seemed to suggest that we have a positive duty to disrespect religion, though I am still waiting for that paper to reproduce some of Charlie Hebdo’s finest on the subject of the prophet of Islam as opposed to its scabrous stuff about gay cardinals.

Whatever; the prospect of the commentariat gearing itself up for a bit of collective disrespect, however selective, is just a bit dispiriting. We’ve been here before. As I wrote last year, when Gilbert and George wanted to demonstrate their fearless disrespect of Islam in an exhibition called Scapegoating Pictures at the White Cube Gallery, they chose to depict covered-up women along with amusing slogans such as 'molest a mullah' and 'fuck a vicar'. Disrespect! But when they really did want to get at Judaism and Christianity in their retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern they showed themselves baring their bottoms at an extract from the Bible dealing with homosexuality – can’t remember which; probably that acutely embarrassing bit from Leviticus.

So if our fearless artistic community is really setting out to cause gratuitous offence to religious people, can we get one thing straight? For Muslims, the no-go areas are the Koran – even speculative artistic accounts of a genuinely controversial bit of it as in Salman Rushdie’s novel – and the person of Mohammed, who is, for Muslims, the perfect man. Disrespecting Islamic terrorists or veiled Muslim women does not come into the same category. Got that?

I would not, as it happens, welcome Gilbert and George baring their buttocks at a chapter of the Koran; not clever, not funny even if it weren’t also probably fatal. But I would have no objection to those relatively brief passages in the Koran dealing with homosexuality being replicated – and also those hadith concerning Muhammed’s approach to it – without elaboration or comment, in a public space. It would have the merit of being about the subject, not the preposterous egos of the perpetrators. And Muslim scholars could duly pile in with context and explanation, in various outlets including this one.

Similarly, there are cartoons of Mohammed that I probably wouldn’t care for on the grounds of simple taste, though most of the Danish ones struck me as innocuous. The stand I’d want to take is on the basic tenet of Western art, at least since we got shot of the iconoclasm controversy in early Byzantium, viz, the right of the artist to depict humankind and the divine. That wouldn’t just include those Catholic depictions of God the father as an old man with a beard and the holy ghost as a fat dove. It would include, as a matter of course, the depiction of human beings including the prophet of Islam.

I recall one of the Danish cartoons showing a rather nice looking Mohammed on a donkey. It wasn’t mocking or subversive or remotely offensive; its only offence was to depict him at all. If British newspapers want to make the point that they are all Charlie Hebdos now, well, it is that cartoon they should be publishing. There’s nothing there to offend most Muslims, beyond the mere fact of representing Mohammed. And the willingness to stand up for the principle that Western art, being basically incarnational, does allow for the depiction of human beings, is one we should be fighting for, not the right to offend. Though of course, I do accept that people are free to give offence.

I wonder, what would be the equivalent for me, of really offensive art, I mean, given that Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ – a crucifix in urine – pretty well exhausted the Christian potential for outrage in 1987? I suppose if some transgressive exhibit, say in the Saatchi gallery, mocked the Catholic  doctrine of transubstantion by putting a properly consecrated host in a frame with assorted Gilbert and George style ruderies, that would do it for me. It’d be blasphemy, not just disrespect. I’d probably stage the Catholic version of a sit-in, kneeling before it in reverence, and hey, thus becoming part of the installation. But I don’t think it would be a good idea, purely as art.

The desire to offend isn’t what I care about; it’s the right to speak the truth. Thus, although I wouldn’t care to insult Islam gratuitously, I do care about saying truthful things about it. I would, for instance, want to dwell on specific incidents in the life of the Prophet of Islam including that particularly shocking episode called the Battle of the Trench, in which, after a battle between Jews and Muslims at Medina, Mohammed presided over the execution of between 600 and 900 of the Jews; one woman, it seems, was also beheaded. And as part of the spoils of battle, he took for himself one of the Jewish women, Rayhanna.

Muslims would put this in the context of the early struggle for survival of Mohammed and his followers and most liberal commentators wouldn’t see it as relevant to the position of Muslims now; it’s interesting to see what various modern biographers make of it. But whatever spin you put on it, episodes such as this one aren’t much talked about when it comes to contemporary accounts of Islam. But I think we should consider them if we’re to talk about Islam in anything but platitudes. Like I say, it’s not the right to disrespect Islam we should cherish; it’s the right to deal with it in much the same way as we deal with Christianity. But it’s not going to happen, is it?