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My Favourite Planet > Blogs > Edwin Drood's Column > January 2015
back Edwin Drood's Column 27 January 2015
Bearding the prophet at the Mysterious Edwin Drood's Column
Bearding the prophet
In which Edwin considers the ethics of secret agents, faith communities and annoying little satirical magazines as well as the religious significance of snowmen, dolls and world heritage sites.
Some while back, when I wrote a column on the subject of the obligation to repatriate cultural artefacts [1], I expected to be publicly excoriated by Greeks and Egyptians. Since this did not happen, I could only conclude that at the time I had no readership from either of these nations. Since then, things have changed, but my opinion has not. Indeed, it was only reinforced by a snippet of recent news reporting that Tutankhamun’s beard has come unstuck – not from the emperor personally, but from his sarcophagus effigy – having been sloppily restored in Cairo with the aid of some cheap glue. This archaeological anecdote can be viewed as a tiny presentiment of what might occur if the disgusting Islamo-fascist, neck-severing thugs ever get control of ancient sites in Egypt. They will doubtless prove to be quite as responsible as curators of the Pharaohs as their Afghan brethren were of the giant UNESCO-protected Buddhas of Banyan or their north African brethren were for the precious World Heritage of Timbuktu. Where the beard of the prophet is the gage of honour, it is clear that the beard of an extinct god-king will count for very little.
The Non-Men of No Man’s Land
It was Egypt, once again, which prompted my second significant reflection on recent events. I have spent much of the past week in the purest escapism, watching episodes of the sixties series Danger Man on YouTube. It was a delight to indulge in the relative simplicity of duplicity, back when the early chill of the Cold War was nipping at the fresh buds of internationalism. However, I was nonetheless harshly jolted into the here and now by an episode called Judgement Day, in which our hero John Drake (the always excellent Patrick McGoohan) fails to deliver a valuable German scientist, hiding incognito in Egypt, to his superiors in London. Despite Drake’s best efforts, including some cogent arguments before a kangaroo court held in the desert, Israeli vigilantes have their avenging way and execute the German for “crimes against humanity”. Drake himself narrowly escapes being blown up in a light aircraft, whereby it is clear, from comments the hit team make, that they consider him guilty by association. He is no more justified by “only following orders from London”, than the scientist was by claiming to have “only followed orders” from Berlin.

The writers of Danger Man knew what they were doing. Drake frequently has to deal with moral dilemmas, frequently has to admit to the very people he is trying to ensnare, save, prevent or assist, that we live in an imperfect world. Yet he is scrupulous in avoiding violence if it can be avoided and remains consistently courteous in all his dealings, whether with the powerful and officious or with the weak, the marginalized and the deeply compromised. He never, unlike famous Mr Bond, takes advantage of women, nor does he let them vaunt their advantage over him. Behaving cleanly in a dirty business is obviously how Drake maintains his self-respect. But the concept of guilt by association is nagging at him inside. He works in a field where ends are expected to justify means, but he plays that field as though he wants to believe that virtuous means might justify dubious ends. As the series continues, we notice he smokes and drinks more and is increasingly curt in his remarks, so it is clear he is losing the battle internally. The real Cold War, Drake seems to be telling us, is going on within our hearts and minds, a subject Mr McGoohan would later take up in spectacular manner in The Prisoner, the surreal, Kafkaesque and deeply satirical follow-up to Danger Man.
Not quite a proper Charlie
The reason for my desire to escape into a TV series my parents would not let me stay up to watch as a kid can be found in recent events. World fatigue, the “mal” of this particular “siècle” has caught up with me yet again. I’d like to have a T-shirt printed saying: “I’m not completely Charlie, but …” Because why do I need to explain myself? Well, despite a massive demonstration of French republican passion in Paris, and despite all official protestations to the contrary, those pesky “Je ne suis pas Charlie” signs could be seen blossoming all over the francophone Islamic world these past weeks and things have been heating up in the streets despite calls for calm. I feel the need to clarify my position.

To judge from many outraged comments, we in the West are all guilty by association unless we openly condemn the condemnable. However, since that which is condemned represents a value as sacred to our culture as its strict demarcation is to another, we find ourselves in an uncomfortable “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. Given the scale of death and destruction that followed the original Danish cartoons, the Theo Van Gogh affair or the killings in Paris, how can I support free speech if it results in massive loss of life, in the stoning of Christians in Malaysia or the bombing of churches in Pakistan? Can I even protest against violent reactions and call for more dialogue, if I am not prepared to budge on the core issue that such a dialogue must address? On the other hand, how can I honourably support limitations on free speech while someone is holding a gun to my nation’s head? The recent cancelling of an exhibition in Brussels highlighting the friendly relationship between the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and Hergé, the father of Tin Tin, planned long before the Paris attacks, shines a harsh light on this last question.

Part of the answer must lie in a wider perspective. Lampooning Hitler did not bring about the fall of Nazi Germany, but it certainly did not delay it. A thuggish ideology – and there are few better informed than the president of Egypt (again), who recently publicly admitted as much in a major policy speech – cannot be allowed to set the agenda for an entire community. Islam, he insisted in front of an audience of Muslim clerics, does itself no favours by consistently choosing the path of reaction rather than interaction, of absolutism rather than harmony. The applause was not exactly deafening. If the exercise of free speech brings forth such reactions, then it is clearly salutary and sanitizing to continue its exercise, regardless of consequences, until those consequences cease. In the words of Toby Ziegler, “They’ll love us when we win!” Yes, it is not always wise to lampoon the powerful, the sinister, the dangerous or those manifestly devoid of humour and self-irony, but neglecting to do so does no favours to anyone. It merely widens the dubious zone in which the powerful, the sinister and the dangerous are able to freely go about their opaque business.
The price of free speech
There are no “victims” of free speech, only victims of lies and slander. Against those we already have perfectly good laws. But a secular state cannot edict laws against blasphemy. Divinities and their prophets must fend for themselves. Of course, if a community feels outraged by what it perceives as blasphemy, it can always seek some form of court injunction in a precise case, such as the re-routing of a demo or the temporary suppression of a film or book. What it cannot do is attempt to engage the law relating to ‘hate speech’, a term which is narrowly defined as ‘language directly inciting violence or prejudicial action’. Blasphemy does not constitute hate speech unless accompanied by some particularly vile form of denigration, threat or incitement to hatred. In most European countries, hate-speech exists only in the public domain. Curiously, it is in France (the presumed home of free speech) that it also extends to include privately exchanged comments and mail.

However, whether there is a law or not, satirists have learnt to their cost that you beard one particular prophet at your peril. Islam has made itself into a special case by firing up its level of anger far beyond the boundaries of civil dialogue and proportional response. Indeed, it is this trait that President El-Sisi has so roundly criticized as damaging to Islam at an international level. In the eyes of the world, Islam seems to have arrogated to itself the right to be so immoderately, so violently angry, that any perceived insult can now be used as a pretext for wilful destruction of property or even life.

In the current circumstances, a number of scholars have sought to calm things down by insisting that the Quranic injunction against images refers a) to our propensity to worship them, and b) to the graven variety only (icons and cartoons may therefore be excepted). However, either deliberately or by omission, they are missing the point. This is less about images than about mockery. In his lifetime, Mohammed took swift revenge on those who mocked him. Poets, the satirists of their time, were the ones most hurt. As far as can be known, eight of them met an untimely end after criticizing the prophet in verse. Although their death in some cases cannot be laid directly at their target’s door, it is widely thought that his opinion, or fatwa, led to their demise. Thus the events in Paris should be understood as occurring in a theological context that is legitimate for many Muslims, however much the historical and social context may have changed. There are many people living today under some form of police protection whose lives have been disrupted by fatwas. Other lives have already been extinguished.
The profane snowman
A big problem with fatwas is that they can be issued by just about anyone. Islam has no central authority. Thus any “scholar”, and he might merely be a village cleric who has attended Quran school, can issue one. A fatwa is not necessarily something deadly. At its root it is simply a binding legal opinion and may concern any aspect of life. A recent fatwa in Saudi Arabia, forbidding the faithful to make snowmen, caused much mirth in the West, distracting us perhaps from the graver issue of how best to flog a blogger. But the fatwa’s intention, the avoidance of idolatry, was as serious as all scholarly intentions in Islam. Did anyone really think that a handful of Bedouin, delighted by the first fall of desert snow in their lifetimes, would be likely to bow down and worship the image they knew would melt in an hour or two? Probably not, but a fatwa such as this one has little to do with reality and everything to do with projecting ecclesiastical power, ensuring that the faithful think about the implications of their faith all the time, not just on Fridays in the mosque. After all, the prophet himself did not prevent Aisha from playing with dolls among her friends, as any little girl would. He clearly did not fear that she would bow down and worship them!

Are we to suppose that Islamic theologians cannot understand the difference between idolatry and deference, or between earnest intention and fun? Buddhists no more “worship” stone images of Gautama than Christians do crucifixes. Both are symbols of reverence, neither blasphemous nor idolatrous. And despite the ridiculous degree to which some people will cosset and anthropomorphize their domestic animals, no one is seriously suggesting we should reintroduce the cults of Anubis or Bastet, how much less the worship of Caesar, Tutankhamun or the Golden Calf. As for dolls and snowmen, surely these should fall into the category of “fun”, however hard that concept may be for some Muslims to grasp; they may be profane, but heathen … definitely not. Yet an acquaintance of mine was not permitted by his Salafist son to give his baby granddaughter a teddy bear until he had removed its nose, eyes, ears and mouth! Why not its arms and legs, you might ask? Heaven forbid the child should confide her secrets to a bear instead of her lord!
The sacred gadfly
Far from being idolatrous, the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were made in a spirit of mockery, not of the prophet, but rather of those among his followers who assign themselves the right to interpret his will upon the bodies of others, whether their own brethren, their womenfolk or their unbelieving neighbours. Does this even constitute blasphemy? I think not. For it is the role of honest satirists since time immemorial to speak truth not only to power but also to folly and brute fanaticism. According to Plato, Socrates described himself as “that gadfly, which God has attached to the state” [2], thus rendering homage to the sacrosanct nature of the insect, the nation and its preservation in a single phrase, by tying them all to the intervention of the deity. The satirist with integrity and clarity of vision is thus an essential contributor to the survival of a just state.

Of course, not all satirists are concerned with honesty, integrity or clarity. The first victims of Hitler’s press laws were gadflies of every political colour except brown. These latter were encouraged to flourish in a vile cesspool of vulgar anti-Semitic “humour”, such as is still popular, and permitted, in Arab nations today. Some Islamist apologists in France have tried to pin that particular tail on the donkey of Charlie Hebdo, accusing that bunch of happy slappers of deliberately stirring up Islamophobia. In fact, the Charlies were merely doing what they had always done to popes and presidents, politicians and plutocrats: irreverently stuck them with the pointy end in a dramatic act of deflation. Because, for the most part, satirists and cartoonists take seriously their Socratic duty to puncture the pompous, expose the egregious and defend the defenceless; all noble tasks in the context of maintaining freedom and democracy.

If only those who believe themselves the arbiters of Islamic correctness and the sole judges of good and evil were to also engage in a more noble struggle, the world would be vastly improved. For as Patrick McGoohan said in an interview about his role as the main character, Number Six, in The Prisoner: “If you are going to epitomize evil, what is it? Is it the atom bomb? No, the greatest evil that one has to fight constantly, every minute of the day until one dies, is the worse part of oneself.” Now that sounds like my kind of jihad!

© Edwin Drood, January 2015

1. See Losing their marbles ... , Edwin Drood's Column, 21 June 2011.

2. Plato, Apology (Greek, Ἀπολογία Σωκράτους; Apologia Socratis).

Read the full text at:

Illustration by © David John
Casket containing a part of Mohammed's beard at the Mysterious Edwin Drood's Column

Casket containing a part of Mohammed's beard, in the Mevlana Rumi Mausoleum, Konya, Turkey.

Another part of the beard, known in Turkish as the "Sakal-ı Şerif",
now in the Topkapi Palace Museum, Istanbul, is said to have been
shaved from the prophet after his death by his favourite barber Salman.

Photo: Georges Jansoone, Wikimedia.
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