I have been aware of the Jesus and Mo cartoon series for a while, and often think of it when free speech controversies arise in relation to Islam, mainly because they demonstrate that the existence of the controversy through human action and reaction that owes very little to the object it surrounds. The taking of offense usually requires much more than the thing that is offensive itself in order to be felt.
I say this because in light of the major controversial incidents – from the cartoons printed in the Jyllands-Posten newspaper in Denmark to the random anti-Islamic YouTube videos -Jesus and Mo has been quietly publishing on-line and gathering a growing following for years without much notable controversy. So I think: “If this kind of thing matters so much why is no one reacting to this?”. Notably the depiction of Jesus, depicted as he is with abandon in Western media and of course within the Christian faith itself, is not usually a source of publicly expressed offense among Muslims.
However following the LSE t-shirt incident and now Maajid Nawaz posting an example of the cartoon on social media, Jesus and Mo is being claimed as offensive by many, demonstrated by an on line petition against Nawaaz gathering near 18 000 signatures. It is becoming a controversy after what must be 10 years or more of its on-line existence.
Personally I like the Jesus and Mo cartoons; they are intelligent, witty and philosophical and very much self aware in terms of their potential offensiveness. For me the cartoons use depictions and scenarios that may be deemed offensive only as necessary to wider narrative and artistic purposes. In this way they do not set out to offend anyone for the sake of it, and up until now the cartoon has never been put out there to challenge anyone by stripping it down to this base potential. Yet since the LSE incident and now Maajid Nawaz’s posts on social media it feels like they have been stripped down in exactly this way. This reduces the cartoon, unfairly, to provocation and creates the opportunity for a similarly reductionist reaction where people may be offended, subconsciously or otherwise, as much because people are trying to offend them as because of the thing itself.
I really liked one chapter in Gary Younge’s book “Who Are We and Should it Matter in the 21st Century” where he outlines the vital importance of context to free speech controversies. One broad point he makes is that “the right to freedom of speech equates neither to an obligation to offend nor a duty to be insensitive”. In the case of the Danish cartoons and, much more explicitly, the YouTube film “The innocence of Muslims”, it could be claimed they are driven by a kind of obligation to offend. In the case of the later this appears mere provocation, but the former as a means to start a debate on free speech and Islam. But what kind of way is this to begin?
If there is a conversation to be had about free speech and religious sensitivities, and there undoubtedly is, it might be better to acknowledge the way in which we are calmly tolerating both religious mockery and limits on free speech all the time. As it is the sacred emotional attachment to free speech as a universal principle and the defensive and emotional attachment to religious identity seem to act and react into a polarised battle. The idea of a battle then overwhelms the reality of just how divided we really are on the issue.
The reactions and threats that Nawaaz has received, or any violent attempts at censorship, deeply offend my own sacred attachment to free speech as a broad principle. Yet I can’t help feel that we should talk about this stuff more often in times outside controversy, times when it might possible to explore the potatoes of offence before they become hot. A conversation rather than a fight.