Category Archives: blasphemy

Fitna

The other day, I watched the film Fitna on YouTube, a film about Islam by Dutch right wing politician Geert Wilders.  I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I had read some interesting reviews by Skepticlawyer at Catallaxy, Pommygranate at Australian Libertarian Society Blog and Saint at Dogfight At Bankstown.

I must say that I felt considerable ambivalence about it. I’ve waited over a week to write on it.

On the one hand, I support freedom of speech. Furthermore, there is no denying the fact that there are extremist Muslims who in the world who advocate terrorism or jihad (as I’ve argued previously). I think this kind of behaviour is unacceptable from anyone of any religion, and should be condemned.

But on the other hand, I wonder what this film will really achieve other than deepening the divide between the West and Islam. Among other things, it extracts news, film and photographs of all the worst instances of Islamist extremism and terrorism, and juxtaposes them against sura from the Qu’ran. It has a scaremongering feel which I do not like at all – it makes broadbrush generalisations and depicts the worst of a particular group. As I have said in a previous post, I find scaremongering propaganda to be problematic, regardless of whether it is on the Left or the Right, or from the West or Islam. It makes people behave in an irrational manner.

As Pommygranate noted in a post at the Australian Libertarian Society Blog, there is a rather odd dichotomy in this film – Wilders preaches Western values of tolerance and free speech, but he is essentially calling for intolerance of a certain religion. Pommy says:

He [Wilders] is essentially a hypocrite as on the one hand he champions Holland’s proud history of tolerance and freedom, yet on the other, seeks to introduce discrimination back into the Constitution (by banning further immigration of Muslims), wishes to ban the Koran as a fascist book comparable to Mein Kampf, and wants a complete ban on the wearing of the headscarf. 

The ironic thing, as with the Danish cartoons, is the way in which various Islamic groups and countries are claiming that the film is offensive and inaccurate for saying their religion is intrinsically violent and intolerant, but radical Muslims are also making death threats against LiveLeaks for posting the video… Don’t those guys who make the death threats have any sense of irony whatsoever? Any violent retaliation against Wilders will prove his point rather nicely.

The film makes me think of a book by Chester Porter called The Gentle Art of Persuasion. He argues that using fear to get your point across is not an intelligent way to put an argument. I concur. The central message I got from the film was “Muslims are terrorists, intolerant people, anti-Semites, bashers of homosexuals, genital mutilators and oppressors of women’s freedom.” But I am still wondering: what was the point? How are people (Muslim, Dutch and others) meant to respond to that message? How does this film fix anything?

If this film’s central message is that Muslims need to rethink the violent and unpleasant aspects of their religion, which is one of the film’s claims, then I don’t think a vehicle such as this would be the way to achieve it. It would immediately make even a moderate Muslim defensive of his or her religion, rather than open to reasonable criticism.

I suspect there were two responses Wilders wanted – to provoke a backlash among Dutch people to Islam (or at least, some extreme practices of some Islamic groups), and to make a point that the response to films or writings which criticise Islam is often violence (although I note that the Dutch Muslim population seems to have sensibly decided that the best response is to be moderate).

I’ve noticed in blog comments threads that a common response to the film is that “Christianity is just as bad” (see for example the comment thread which has developed at Iain Hall’s post). Yes, one could do the same with Christianity and find some nutbag Bible bashers who wanted to stone homosexuals or whatever, and intersperse it with Biblical quotes (particularly chapters like Leviticus). But I think that misses the point of the film. As Skepticlawyer has indicated in her post at Catallaxy, I think one of the particular concerns Wilders is focussing on is the interaction between Muslim immigrants in Holland and the mainstream Dutch culture, which is tolerant of homosexuality, prostitution, drug-use etc. Thus, it’s obviously not relevant for him to make a film on the shortcomings of Christianity, because the Dutch Christian attitude is generally tolerant; or at least, most Dutch Christians turn a blind eye to those things in Dutch culture which they disagree with. If a whole slew of US Southern Baptists emigrated to Holland and started questioning Dutch values, it would obviously be relevant to question Christianity, but that’s not the particular conflict he has in mind.

And ultimately, so what if you can do the same with Christianity? It doesn’t make the conduct of Islamists who espouse the same views right. It cannot be denied that there are a proportion of radical Islamists who believe many or all of the things in this movie. A plague on all the houses of those who seek to convert by the sword, kill and persecute those of different religions or oppress and use religion to justify violence towards women and homosexuals.

What is the best thing to do about Islamist terrorism and intolerance? I’m just not sure that this movie is a constructive solution to the problem: it may just make things worse. Yes, it is important to be honest about the problems of Islamist extremism, but it is also important to find ways to solve those problems rather than to inflame them.

Postscript

Incidentally, I heartly agree with Skepticlawyer that many Muslim commentators, politicians and imams need to get over calling anyone who disagrees with Islam’s tenets “Zionist”. A Jordanian media coalition described Wilders as “extremist and Zionist deputy Geert Wilders” in a press release. Wilders is not Jewish, and I don’t know if he supports the establishment and/or expansion of the State of Israel or not. Even if he does, that wasn’t the point of the film anyway. As soon as I hear insane frothing at the mouth about Zionists such as this, I start to doubt the credibility and sanity of the source.

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Filed under blasphemy, christianity, freedom of speech, islam, judaism, politics, racism, society, terrorism, tolerance

From the sublime to the ridiculous

Hmm, maybe that should be just from the ridiculous to the ridiculous…

First ridiculous legal snippet:

An American millionaire has left US$14.8M on trust for her white Maltese terrier, Trouble. But two of her grandchildren get nothing. The other two get $5M each (still less than the dog…) as long as they tend their father’s grave.

This was a great example for class yesterday. We were able to conclude that non-charitable purpose trusts for dogs and tombs are exceptions to the general rule against such trusts, and therefore these trusts are probably valid.

Second ridiculous legal snippet:

A Kenyan religious group, Friends of Jesus, has lodged an application before the Kenyan High Court to declare Jesus’ conviction and crucifixion null and void.  As the article notes, there are a number of different legal questions on this one. First, does the Kenyan High Court have jurisdiction on this question, given that the conviction and sentence did not occur in Kenya? Secondly, is the action time-barred, given that it has been brought some 2000 years after the original conviction?

I would think that the Kenyan High Court would not have jurisdiction over this question. None of the persons involved were in Kenyan nationals or in Kenya at the time, and in fact, Kenya was not then a nation at that time. The question is then what court would? According to the accounts in the Bible, the Sanhedrin convicted Jesus of blasphemy, and the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, famously passed the death sentence on Jesus because the mob demanded it. The Friends of Jesus allege that the relevant sentence in Jewish law at the time should have been stoning to death, but that He was crucified instead, in violation of Jewish law. Unfortunately, the mention of the Sanhedrin led to anti-Semitism by Christians. In fact, it seems to me that there’s a taint of this in the comments of the representative of the Friends of Jesus.

Obviously, there is no Roman empire any more, and there is no modern equivalent of the Sanhedrin. The suggestion by a Kenyan constitutional lawyer in the newspaper article is that perhaps the International Criminal Court has the jurisdiction to hear the case, but Article 11 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court 1997 states that the ICC only has jurisdiction over crimes which occurred after the date of the Statute (being 1 July 2002). Therefore the ICC would not have jurisdiction over this matter either.

In any case, such a legal action would surely be beyond any reasonable limitations period.

I am really not sure what such a legal action would achieve. Surely one of the tenets of Christianity is that Jesus had to die to save our souls, and accordingly, the Sanhedrin and Pilate were only doing what God intended to happen? The Friends of Jesus say that it is necessary to clarify that Jesus was not a criminal, and that He advocated the rule of law. Hmm. Sounds to me like they’d be better off putting their money and their energy into better causes.

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Carrots that eat milk

When my sister and I were little, we came up with the sentence which is the title of this post (during a trip to Jenolan Caves). We found it hilarious because it made no sense. Carrots are incapable of eating, and even if they were capable, they couldn’t “eat” milk anyway. Yeah, we were strange little kids.

Dave from Balneus has drawn my attention to this interesting linguistic analysis of the US Supreme Court’s recent decision in Morse v Frederick, also known as the “Bong HiTS 4 Jesus” case. The events took place on 24 January 2002 when the Olympic Torch Relay passed through Juneau in Alaska, en route to Salt Lake City in Utah for the Winter Olympic Games. The Torch Relay passed by Juneau-Douglas High School, and the principal, Deborah Morse, decided to let students watch it. As the torchbearers and camera crew passed by the high school, Frederick and his friends unfurled a 14-foot banner which read “Bong HiTS 4 Jesus”. Morse immediately crossed the street and asked the students to take the banner down. Everyone but Frederick complied. Morse then confiscated the banner and suspended Frederick for 10 days. This was upheld by the school administration. Frederick then brought a legal action alleging that his First Amendment right to freedom of speech had been violated. It went all the way to the Supreme Court.

A majority of the Supreme Court upheld the school’s actions, saying the school was within its rights to cause Frederick to take the banner down. Roberts CJ said:

At least two interpretations of the words on the banner demonstrate that the sign advocated the use of illegal drugs. First, the phrase could be interpreted as an imperative: “”[Take] bong hits –” . . .”—a message equivalent, as Morse explained in her declaration, to “smoke marijuana” or “use an illegal drug.” Alternatively, the phrase could be viewed as celebrating drug use — “—“bong hits [are a good thing],” or “[we take] bong hits” — ”—and we discern no meaningful distinction between celebrating illegal drug use in the midst of fellow students and outright advocacy or promotion.

Accordingly, the school had a right to prohibit banners such as that displayed by Frederick.

The minority found that the school did not have a right to prohibit the banner because it did not advocate drug use. In fact, the minority was of the opinion that the banner said very little of sense whatsoever:

To the extent the Court independently finds that BONG HiTS 4 JESUS” objectively amounts to the advocacy of illegal drug use—in other words, that it can most reasonably be interpreted as such—that conclusion practically refutes itself. This is a nonsense message, not advocacy. The Court’s feeble effort to divine its hidden meaning is strong evidence of that. Ante at 7 (positing that the banner might mean, alternatively, “‘[Take] bong hits,’ ‘bong hits [are a good thing]”,” or “”‘[we take] bong hits’”). Frederick’’s credible and uncontradicted explanation for the message— — he just wanted to get on television— — is also relevant because a speaker who does not intend to persuade his audience can hardly be said to be advocating anything. But most importantly, it takes real imagination to read a “cryptic” message…with a slanting drug reference as an incitement to drug use. Admittedly, some high school students (including those who use drugs) are dumb. Most students, however, do not shed their brains at the schoolhouse gate, and most students know dumb advocacy when they see it. The notion that the message on this banner would actually persuade either the average student or even the dumbest one to change his or her behavior is most implausible. That the Court believes such a silly message can be proscribed as advocacy underscores the novelty of its position, and suggests that the principle it articulates has no stopping point. Even if advocacy could somehow be wedged into Frederick’’s obtuse reference to marijuana, that advocacy was at best subtle and ambiguous. … If this were a close —case, the tie would have to go to Frederick’’s speech, not to the principal’’s strained reading of his quixotic message.

The linguistic analysis of the judgment finds the minority opinion more convincing. Bill Poser says:

That an ill-formed or incomplete utterance might have no semantic interpretation is of course completely uncontroversial. Thus, from a linguistic point of view, it is perfectly possible that the words on the banner might have meant nothing at all. Frederick’s explanation of his motivation for displaying the banner provides a plausible account of his use of words that did not mean anything.

It is a silly message. It is deliberately courting controversy by mingling marijuana use with the name Jesus. Nevertheless, if I were a Christian, I suspect I would find it offensive. As a non-Christian, I simply find it ridiculous and childish. But as far as I can see, “Bong HiTS 4 Jesus” has no clear meaning, and makes no more sense than my sister’s and my phrase “carrots that eat milk”.

I can’t help noticing the irony that Frederick’s message (whatever it means) has gotten far more exposure than it otherwise might have done if the school had just told him off and dismissed it as a attention-seeking prank. It reminds me a little of the tantrums thrown my toddler. The maternal health nurse recommends that I ignore the tantrums, because the object is to get attention, and any attention, even bad attention is better than none. Given that the object of the prank was to seek attention and controversy, Fredericks would have been better off rewarded with no attention whatsoever.

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Religion, politics and therapeutic cloning

I’ve been invited to join the Blog Against Theocracy blogswarm. I thought I might write about something which happened a month ago, involving the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell.

In early June 2007, the NSW Parliament proposed to amend the Human Cloning and Other Practices Act 2003 to legalise therapeutic cloning.

“Therapeutic cloning” is shorthand for somatic cell nuclear transfer. Essentially, it involves removing the nucleus from an ovum, and replacing it with the nucleus of another somatic cell (ie, a normal non-reproductive cell). The cells form a blastocyst (a ball of cells and a very early stage embryo). The benefits which might derive from this technology include possibly producing organs and cells to replace damaged ones (so that organ transplants and the like are not necessary). The hope is that it may also help people such as diabetics (with damaged pancreatic cells) and quadriplegics (with damaged spinal nerve cells). It seems that there is a lot of controversy surrounding the benefits and detriments of this technology.

Archbishop Pell called upon Catholic Members of Parliament not to vote in favour of the Bill. But the controversy arose when he also said, “It is a serious moral matter and Catholic politicians who vote for this legislation must realise that their voting has consequences for their place in the life of the Church.” The Archbishop was suggesting that perhaps those politicians who voted for the Bill should be denied communion.

As this article by Paul Collins outlines, there was history behind this call. During the 2004 US Presidential elections, a minority of US Archbishops had called for communion to be denied to Catholic Democrats who supported abortion or same-sex marriage.

In the event, Archbishop Pell’s call came to naught. The bill was passed.

It seems to me that Archbishop Pell’s statement was foolish. Of course His Eminence is entitled to express his view on therapeutic cloning, and to suggest what response he thinks the scriptures demand. But, to my mind, he is not entitled to threaten elected Members of Parliament with religious sanctions if they refuse to vote in the way that he recommends. It is bullying.

There is not an easy answer to whether therapeutic cloning is an ethical according to Christian principles. It is impossible to say when life begins and when consciousness begins. Personally, I do not think a bundle of cells can be categorised as “life as we know it”, but I can see that the line is hard to draw. How big does the bundle of cells have to get before I would think that a foetus was living? And what of the fact that a small bundle of cells with no consciousness or pain could potentially alleviate the suffering of some living people with full consciousness, and suffering great pain and discomfort? It’s a difficult question. The important thing is that Members of Parliament be free to vote according to their consciences, not just taking into account religion, but also the interests of their constituents. In the end, Members did just that. Some devout Catholics voted for the Bill, some voted against. And this is how it should be.

Mixing religion and state in the way that Archbishop Pell did brings a risk that those who are not of a particular religion may feel alienated. In this present day and age, we live in societies which are multicultural and diverse. Members of Parliament are supposed to be representative of their constituents, who may be of many faiths and many backgrounds. Religion may be part of what leads a Member to vote in a particular way, but the interest of constituents should also be paramount. That is what democracy is about.

As someone who is not religious, I am comfortable with a person discussing the ethical implications of a particular piece of legislation in the light of his or her faith. I respect that. But I am not comfortable with someone voting in a particular way simply because a leader of his or her faith says that the member might be punished. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I resent such behaviour. Did I vote for the leader of that faith? No. I voted for the Member, and as such, I expect him or her to exercise independent judgment, rather than speak for another organisation with which I have no affiliation. I don’t care what the religion is.

If I were a Catholic, I probably would have voted for the Bill out of sheer bloody-mindedness…maybe there’s a reason why I am not religious…I have difficulty following orders. 😉
In any case, Archbishop Pell’s comments do not seem to be in line with paragraph 28(a) of Pope Benedict XVI’s 2006 Papal Encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (“God Is Love”). His Holiness has stated the following in relation to the separation of Church and State:

The just ordering of society and the State is a central responsibility of politics. As Augustine once said, a State which is not governed according to justice would be just a bunch of thieves: “Remota itaque iustitia quid sunt regna nisi magna latrocinia?”. Fundamental to Christianity is the distinction between what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God (cf. Mt 22:21), in other words, the distinction between Church and State, or, as the Second Vatican Council puts it, the autonomy of the temporal sphere. The State may not impose religion, yet it must guarantee religious freedom and harmony between the followers of different religions. For her part, the Church, as the social expression of Christian faith, has a proper independence and is structured on the basis of her faith as a community which the State must recognize. The two spheres are distinct, yet always interrelated.

Justice is both the aim and the intrinsic criterion of all politics. Politics is more than a mere mechanism for defining the rules of public life: its origin and its goal are found in justice, which by its very nature has to do with ethics. The State must inevitably face the question of how justice can be achieved here and now. But this presupposes an even more radical question: what is justice? The problem is one of practical reason; but if reason is to be exercised properly, it must undergo constant purification, since it can never be completely free of the danger of a certain ethical blindness caused by the dazzling effect of power and special interests.

Here politics and faith meet. Faith by its specific nature is an encounter with the living God—an encounter opening up new horizons extending beyond the sphere of reason. But it is also a purifying force for reason itself. From God’s standpoint, faith liberates reason from its blind spots and therefore helps it to be ever more fully itself. Faith enables reason to do its work more effectively and to see its proper object more clearly. This is where Catholic social doctrine has its place: it has no intention of giving the Church power over the State. Even less is it an attempt to impose on those who do not share the faith ways of thinking and modes of conduct proper to faith. Its aim is simply to help purify reason and to contribute, here and now, to the acknowledgment and attainment of what is just.

The Church’s social teaching argues on the basis of reason and natural law, namely, on the basis of what is in accord with the nature of every human being. It recognizes that it is not the Church’s responsibility to make this teaching prevail in political life. Rather, the Church wishes to help form consciences in political life and to stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice as well as greater readiness to act accordingly, even when this might involve conflict with situations of personal interest. Building a just social and civil order, wherein each person receives what is his or her due, is an essential task which every generation must take up anew. As a political task, this cannot be the Church’s immediate responsibility. Yet, since it is also a most important human responsibility, the Church is duty-bound to offer, through the purification of reason and through ethical formation, her own specific contribution towards understanding the requirements of justice and achieving them politically.

The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper. A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church. Yet the promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good is something which concerns the Church deeply.

It seems to me that this provides a good balance. We should not cut religion out of public life entirely. It has important spiritual and ethical insights which we should consider when weighing up a particular course of action. But unelected religious figures should not try to force elected representatives to follow their direction. It acheives no good for anybody: it makes non-religious people feel alienated, it gives an impression that a particular Church or creed is trying to bully Parliament, and it undermines the very nature of representative democracy.

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Only a Chocolate Jesus can satisfy my soul


I’ve considered questions of blasphemy and the law previously in this blog. I was reminded of my earlier post when reading about the sculpture of “Chocolate Jesus”, which was to be displayed in a Manhattan art gallery. Members of the US Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights have successfully lobbied to have the exhibition to closed down. Ken Parish at Club Troppo has already written an interesting post on the general topic.

Let’s look at the legal side of things first. Would the Australian equivalent of the Catholic League be able to get an injunction to close down an exhibition of the Chocolate Jesus here? I think not. It is very reminiscent of the occasion on which then-Archbishop of Melbourne George Pell sought an injunction against the National Gallery of Victoria. He sought to prevent the Gallery from exhibiting Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ on the basis that the work constituted blasphemous libel. Harper J refused to grant the injunction (see Pell v The Council of Trustees of National Gallery of Victoria [1998] 2 VR 391). In light of this decision, blasphemous libel is unlikely to exist in Victoria. At page 396, of his reasons for judgment, Harper J stated:

The question whether this photograph is indecent or obscene is, given its religious context, and given that the court must have regard to contemporary standards in a multicultural, partly secular and largely tolerant, if not permissive, society, is not easy. The fact that the indecent or obscene quality of the photograph comes not from the image as such, but from its title and the viewer’s knowledge of its background, does not make the task easier.

Given this statement of the law, no group could prevent a similar display in Australia.

On a spectrum of offensiveness, I think My Sweet Lord is actually less offensive than Piss Christ. To be honest, I’m not precisely sure which aspects are offensive – there are a few possibilities. Is it the fact that Jesus is portrayed as naked? Is it the fact that Jesus has been sculpted out of chocolate? Or is it a combination of both? Was the positioning and timing of the display relevant? Apparently the work was to be displayed at street level for two hours a day during Easter Week. Although the Gallery claimed the timing was coincidental, it seems tactless and provocative to hold the display during Easter Week. I think it is arguable that it is inappropriate to put the display on view in the street, because then members of the public cannot easily choose to avoid looking at the image. By contrast, if the image were simply displayed in the gallery, there would be a choice as to whether or not to go in and look at it.

I can understand why Christians may demand that the image not be publicly displayed on the street. I’m not sure I would want my little daughter seeing a naked man made out of chocolate in a street window, and I’m not a Christian. However, I wonder whether would it be more acceptable if the image were displayed within the privacy of the gallery, with a warning to those who may be offended by it? I should say that my opinion would be different if the image in some way incited hatred for Christianity. The image does seem disrespectful, but it does not suggest Christianity is bad or that Christians are not entitled to hold their beliefs. I think this is why I think Piss Christ was intrinsically more offensive – suspending a crucifix in urine seems to imply an insult to the religion and to Jesus. I would be interested to know if there are any Christians out there who (a) are offended by the image or (b) think the image should be displayed.

Further interesting questions were raised in my mind by Catherine Deveney’s opinion in The Age today. She says:

The US Catholic League’s Keira McCaffery said: “Would this art gallery display a naked chocolate statue of Muhammad with his genitals exposed during Ramadan? I think not.” And she’s right. They probably would be too scared by what happened to Salman Rushdie. But there is an unwritten and moral logic that allows Jews to make fun of Jews, Christians to make fun of Christians and Muslims to make fun of Muslims.

So many questions raised by this one little passage:

  • What if Cavallaro is not a Catholic or a Christian? Does this render the sculpture unacceptable? (Okay, okay, he’s got an Italian name, but he might be an Italian Jew, an Italian atheist or an Italian Scientologist for all I know.)
  • Can a secular artist or an atheist artist use a religious image to comment on the way in which a religion operates within our society?
  • Are we forbidden to comment on or satirize other religions if we disagree with them? When does comment cross the border into religious hatred and discrimination? Inciting religious hatred is a bad thing, but it’s a hard line to draw sometimes.
  • Deveney refers to the fatwa against Rushdie as being instrumental in preventing artists from producing mocking images of Muhammad. What exactly is she saying here? Is Deveney saying that Catholics should start issuing fatwas if they want to stop offensive images being made public? Does she condone the fatwa against Rushdie? If she regards the fatwa against Rushdie as being “private Muslim business” between Muslims, why is it okay for Catholics to mock Catholics, but not okay for Muslims to mock Muslims?

There are no easy answers to some of these questions. It is hard living in a pluralistic society. I’ve previously written two posts on Victoria’s anti-vilification laws, in which I struggle with these ideas. Ultimately, I believe that as a modern secular democratic state, Australians should be able to comment freely on the way in which various religions and groups operate. I should admit that I am not religious, so perhaps I do not quite understand the pain that such images can evoke.

To me, these “controversial” artworks never seem to exhibit particular merit. Nor do they provoke useful or insightful observations about a particular religion. This being said, perhaps I’m just an old fuddy-duddy, and not up with the modern art “vibe”. I’m not much of a fan of sharks pickled in formaldahyde and the like. It just seems to me that such works are not particularly skillful – they are reliant on shock-value and novelty alone. I don’t mind shock-value if there is accompanying skill and vision. A chocolate Jesus just seems plain silly to me, and a waste of good chocolate. I wonder, however, whether the Catholic League has shot itself in the foot by provoking the furore? They could have politely asked the Gallery to put the image indoors and post a warning on the door for anyone who might be offended. But now they have given Cavallaro the best publicity he could have ever hoped for. There is no way I would have known of his work otherwise.

(Image of My Sweet Lord taken from Cosimo Cavallaro’s website)

P.S. Apologies to Tom Waits for stealing a line from his song, Chocolate Jesus.

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More on Freedom of Speech

Should an opera containing a scene featuring the severed head of Muhammed (along with those of Jesus, Buddha and Poseidon) be cancelled? Apparently, Deutsche Oper in Berlin has removed the opera Idomeneo from its autumn schedule following security concerns.

I thought it was particularly interesting that the leader of the Islamic Council in Germany, Ali Kizilkaya, said that the scene could be offensive to Muslims, but he reportedly continued:

“Nevertheless, of course, I think it is horrible that one has to be afraid. That is not the right way to open dialogue.”

Thank you, Mr Kizilkaya. Well said. Personally, no matter how offensive an image may be, I don’t think threatening to kill or hurt people is the way to respond to these kind of issues.

  • Could artistic images which are regarded as blasphemous be banned by a Court?
  • A separate question: should we ban the publication of artistic images which are regarded as blasphemous on a policy basis?

It’s interesting to think about this issue in the context of previous incidents which have raised concerns of various religious communities in Australia. The answer to the first question seems to be that there is no law of blasphemy in Australia.

The law of blasphemy and ‘Piss Christ’

In 1997, the National Gallery of Victoria exhibited Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, a photograph of a crucified Jesus suspended in urine. This image was offensive to many Christians. On 8 October 1997, Archbishop George Pell sought an injunction to restrain the exhibition on the basis of blasphemous libel. It seems that blasphemous libel would not cover any religion except Christianity. On 9 October 1997, in Pell v The Council of Trustees of National Gallery of Victoria [1998] 2 VR 391, Harper J refused the injunction. In light of this decision, it seems doubtful that blasphemous libel exists in Victoria. At page 396, Harper J stated:

The question whether this photograph is indecent or obscene is, given its religious context, and given that the court must have regard to contemporary standards in a multicultural, partly secular and largely tolerant, if not permissive, society, is not easy. The fact that the indecent or obscene quality of the photograph comes not from the image as such, but from its title and the viewer’s knowledge of its background, does not make the task easier.

Keep this statement in mind while reading the next section of the blog about anti-Semitic and Islamophobic cartoons.

In the event, the exhibition opened on 11 October 1997, during which a 56 year old man attempted to attack the photograph, but was prevented from doing so. The next day, on 12 October 1997, two young men successfully attacked the photograph with a hammer and the exhibition had to be closed. Here is a link to an article describing the legal issues in greater detail.

Policy considerations – Anti-Semitic and Islamophobic cartoon controversy

In May 2002, Age editor Michael Gawenda refused to run Michael Leunig’s cartoon which paralleled the behaviour of modern day Israel to the behaviour of the Nazis in the Holocaust. In a bizarre twist, earlier this year someone from Chaser submitted this cartoon to a “Holocaust Denial Cartoon Competition” in an Iranian newspaper, Hamshahri. The contest was stated to be in reponse to the Jyllands-Posten cartoons mentioned below. Leunig’s cartoon was gladly accepted, but later withdrawn after it was discovered that he had not intended to submit it.

In September 2005, Danish Newspaper Jyllands-Posten ran cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. This provoked angry reactions by some Islamic countries and some Muslims living in Europe. There were riots and attacks on Danish and Norwegian embassies. There was little reaction by Australian Muslims. The idea behind the publication of these cartoons was to expose the way in which newspapers were happy to publish material offending any religious group except Muslims. The theory was that people were afraid of offending Islam because they did not want to provoke a violent reaction – and a violent reaction was what resulted. I think that Mr Kizilkaya hit the nail on the head in his comments Idomeneo the start of this post. It is horrible to make people afraid. And it is not a good way to start sensible and reasoned discussion.

AIJAC has a summary of editorial responses to both the Holocaust cartoon furore and the Mohammed cartoon furore.

Personally, I don’t think any of the images mentioned above are meritorious from an artistic perspective, nor are they particularly subtle or intelligent commentaries on the religions involved. I should admit that I am a secular woman, so perhaps to an extent I do not quite understand the passion that such images can evoke.

It seems to me that, logically, you should decide whether or not you are not going to tolerate artistic images which are potentially blasphemous towards any or all religions. Whatever policy is adopted, it should not differ from religion to religion.

From a personal perspective, I would tend towards allowing the publication of the images. I believe that as a modern secular democratic state, Australia should have free speech and freedom to comment on the way in which various religions and groups operate. However, I acknowledge that in doing so, this may result in offence to some members of particular religious communities. I welcome comments from readers who feel otherwise – after all, this post is about freedom of speech!

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