Saturday 24 January 2015

Blasphemy, jihad and victimhood

BBC World Service presenter Owen Bennett-Jones (much missed from this year's BBC Correspondents Look Ahead) has penned a piece for the BBC news website called Blasphemy, jihad and victimhood

I've seen his piece described elsewhere as "rambling", "a bit all over the place", and "a text book example of drivelling liberalism". (Others were less kind). 

Those comments were made at what Owen Bennett-Jones himself would probably describe as a "right-wing, media-monitoring blog". At this "right-wing, media-monitoring blog" [but note to readers: Sue isn't right-wing], we'll going to take our own ramble through the article right now.

Owen begins by arguing that by attacking a target that stands for freedom of speech, the Kouachi brothers made many Europeans take a stand. They also exposed the fear of physical violence that lay behind the stated reason ('not giving offence') for the West's self-censorship on issues such as blasphemy. They compelled many media editors to find the courage to publish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. 

Well, yes, the attacks certainly have made some people think about their own position on free speech - especially on this side of the Atlantic where, increasingly, words can get you into trouble with the law. Many people's positions are riddled with inconsistency. (I know mine is. I didn't used to be - when I was young and libertarian - but it is now.)

And, yes, the attacks also put a very large cat among the pigeons at the UK's media outlets - and it was surprising (to me) to find the BBC ending up as being one of the most courageous (certainly more so than Sky)....

...however, on reading that BBC staff have now been advised to keep their work badges hidden for fear of a terrorist reprisal, it's a chastening reminder that clamouring for a media organisation to be gung-ho in support of free speech is very, very easy for anyone who isn't a part of that organisation and who won't be on the receiving any of any reprisals. 

Anyhow, back to Owen's article. 

He goes on to argue that the unity marches in France can't disguise the 'them and us' divisions in Europe. 

And, for him, it's Europe's Muslims who are the ones who are hard-done-by: Despite "virtually all Muslims see[ing] violent Jihadism as a perversion of Islam" [what's the hard statistical evidence for that, one wonders?], but "there is increasing tendency in the Western media to suggest that violence might be integral at least to a strand of Islamic thinking".

The implication here, surely, is that if "virtually all Muslims" see such violence as alien to Islamic thinking, the Western media are wrong to suggest it's "integral at least to a strand of Islamic thinking"; in other words, it's not 'real Islam' that the jihadis are practising. [Again, that depends on whether the premise holds - the premise being that "virtually all Muslims" see violent jihad as 'not true Islam. All the polling I've seen suggests it's very much a minority of Muslims who do, though it's not correct to describe that minority as a 'tiny minority' or 'virtually no Muslims'.]

I suspect I know who he has in mind when he then writes:
Right-wing, media-monitoring blogs are celebrating the shift, praising any programmes and articles that hint that Islam is regressive.
Both Is the BBC biased? and Biased BBC have been "celebrating the shift" wherever we see it.

He continues, stressing the unfairness [as he sees it] of the situation faced by Muslims:
Of course, most people still accept that the vast majority of Muslims are just as horrified and upset by militant Islamist violence as anyone else. But Muslims are under increasing pressure.
For years, they have routinely been asked by journalists to condemn violence. Now questions are also being asked about mainstream Muslim opinion on doctrinal issues such as blasphemy.

The problem (as identified by John Ware's Panorama - which, I'm guessing, OBJ wasn't too keen on) is that many of the [possibly self-appointed] Muslims spokesmen and women we see so often on our screens (especially on the BBC) give every impression of not being as horrified and upset by militant Islamist violence as anyone else. They seem all too willing to make excuses, change the subject, denounce the victims, condemn the West and, generally, focus on the faults of anyone but themselves. What would Owen Bennett-Jones do about getting those other voices (the silent majority?) onto our screens instead?

The point Owen is making, on and off, throughout this article is that the situation is worsening for Muslims. Their beliefs are now being challenged, not just their actions. 

After a semi-related digression (which is interesting in itself) on blasphemy in Pakistan and Afghanistan, he advances the 'we in the West have no room to talk' argument: Some Christians protested about Life of Brian; Ireland has blasphemy legislation built into its legal code. 

Indeed, but Ireland's blasphemy legislation is something of an exception and the UK's old blasphemy law had languished in disuse for many decades prior to its repeal. (The rare attempts to exploit it failed abjectly). Protestors against Life of Brian didn't go on the rampage, or issue death threats, or kill people, or burn down cinemas, etc. No anti-blasphemy Christian or Jewish protestors have engaged in such activities for a very long time. 

He then raises a series of questions and points without really answering them - mirroring some of the discussions he's evidently been hearing. However, as so often, his own (liberal - in the U.S. sense) biases emerge through the contrasting ways he describes the two main positions.

Here's how he outlines the side I don't agree with:
Such discussions almost always develop into a row about power. Political Islamists and Western liberals often argue that Muslim sensitivities about public challenges to their faith and identity are informed by the fact that over time they have been colonised, invaded, tortured and falsely imprisoned by Westerners.
The US and Israel, they argue, are the subject of so much invective and even violence because, for all their talk of human rights, they hypocritically use their own strength to oppress Muslims, whether in Iraq or Gaza. Furthermore, it is argued, Muslims are singled out for abuse.
Thus, while the Charlie Hebdo management sacked a cartoonist for anti-Semitism, it did not hesitate to publish anti-Islamic cartoons.
These arguments about the unequal distribution of power are bolstered by socio-economic surveys within Western countries. Muslims are often at the bottom of rankings measuring people's health, employability and educational levels.
You'll note that he presents their views clearly, cogently and uncritically. He also reinforces their views by writing that their arguments are "bolstered" by evidence.

Contrast that with how he outlines the side I do agree with. There's not 'bolstering' here; instead, watch out for the caveats ("not very convincingly", "it seems to be predicated on the view"):
Critics of political Islamism often respond to these arguments by saying - not very convincingly - that attempts to explain violent jihadism are akin to condoning it.
But they also make more substantial claims - that while Islamists exaggerate and even wallow in their sense of victimisation, they don't get so angry about the persecution of and discrimination against minorities in Muslim-majority countries.
After all, Christians in the so-called Islamic State and Shias in Saudi Arabia are even more marginalised than Muslims in Europe.
Islamism's opponents also ask whether the religion should be granted unique protections just because some of its adherents feel weak and vulnerable. Might affording Islam special protection from criticism and satire even be racist?
After all it seems to be predicated on the view that the Muslim community is incapable of responding to criticism and satire with calm, rational debate.
And to which side does he give the last word?
It all depends how you look at it. How, for example, do you interpret the fact that when the Kouachi brothers fled the Charlie Hebdo offices they yelled: "We have avenged the Prophet?" Some see that as a sign that Islam teaches not peace but violence.
But others reckon the brothers were in fact using the blasphemy issue as a vehicle to express the frustration, anger and powerlessness that come with being the sons of Algerian migrants, alienated and unable to get a fair chance in the society they were born into.
Those closing 11 paragraphs, of course, contain elements of thesis and antithesis. In other words, they are intended to come across as a balanced presentation of two strands of thought. The couching of that presentation and the language used, however, strongly suggests where the author's own sympathies lie - where many of us on "right-wing, media-monitoring blogs" believe the BBC's sympathies lie (institutionally-speaking).

It is a bit of a ramble ('Six Points In Search of a Argument'), this article by Owen Bennett-Jones, but it's an interesting, thought-provoking one nonetheless. (Whether the same can be said about this review is another matter).

1 comment:

  1. Sue certainly doesn’t think of herself as right wing, but the term has evolved and, in the eyes of the left at least, ‘Zionist’ can be labelled as such. Nowadays ‘right-wing’ and ‘Zionist’ are inextricably linked and share the automatically derogatory overtone. I was going to add Islamophobe, but I think that’s in a category of its own.

    “Right-wing media-monitoring blog” is P.C. for hate-site.

    Our monitoring efforts here can be dismissed as mouth frothing /spittle flecked irritating buzzing, to be ignored.


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