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Home > Culture and Society

Why Don't We Offend Islam?: Some answers.

15 January 2005

'The complaints about [Jerry Springer - The Opera] are less to do with the swearing than a grossly offensive portrayal of God and Christ. Since the BBC would never portray Mohammed in such a way, why is it acceptable for the central figures of Christianity to be so denigrated?'

- Rev David Baker, letter to The Guardian


Why indeed is it OK to ridicule Christianity but not Islam? The answer might be a bit less baffling if Christians actually bothered to think about it.

The most painfully obvious reason why writers and comedians (the Springer Opera is co-written by Stuart Lee) don't ridicule Islam is that if you're white and not Muslim, it could easily be construed as racism. In principle, there's no reason why anyone of any race or religious upbringing shouldn't ridicule Islam as much as they like. The Koran is as full of nonsense and made-up stuff as the Bible, and also contains plenty of teachings that don't sit happily with 21st Century liberalism, frequently to do with keeping those pesky women in their place.

But in the current climate of hysteria about asylum seekers and Islamic terrorism, how many entertainers feel the need to lay into Islam, apart from perhaps Jim Davidson? Somehow it's not exactly the right time for Michael Palin and John Cleese to write The Life of Mohammed.

Another reason why Islam isn't being hilariously ridiculed issimply that it is (no pun intended) a minority interest. In the UK, there simply aren't that many writers, comedians, artists, etc. who happen to be disgruntled Muslims or ex-Muslims. Jeanette Winterson didn't write Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which is a genuinely scathing account of religion, as a result of an abstract dislike of Christian sects - she wrote about her own experiences.

Finally, and perhaps this is what offended Christians are hinting at, there's the fact that Muslims are a lot better at sticking up for their religion. If you wrote a comic opera that ridicules Islam, you'd be hopelessly naive to ignore the possibility of organised protests or quite possibly death threats. Admittedly, you might have to put out quite a few press releases pointing out how debased and blasphemous your own play was before you got this sort of publicity.

Christians managed to assemble a small number of people to turn out and protest against the Springer opera, but to really make an effective protest (like the death threats issued against Salman Rushdie or the mini-riot over the Sikh play) you really need outright nutters or, failing that, impressionable youths. The C of E is too pedestrian to appeal to loons, and also has a pathetically small youth wing. You can't exactly blockade the BBC with Zimmer frames.

And this is maybe the difference between UK Christianity and Islam: young Muslims do at least exist. Christianity has had a good run in the UK, but gradually church attendances have fallen, probably less due to science than indifference. And that little problem with the complete lack of proof of God's existence. The result is that most practising Christians are really quite old.

It's entirely likely that Islam will go (and is going) the same way. It's only to be expected - it's increasingly a minority of people in the UK that are happy to submit to the restrictions placed on them by ancient texts. Plenty of people loosely call themselves Christians, Muslims or Jews but fail to observe any religious teaching that conflicts with their own personal convenience, eg. adultery, drinking or not eating bacon sandwiches. This isn't a criticism: certain Muslim and Jewish food restrictions are genuinely arbitrary and have nothing to do with morality, like saying you shouldn't keep lightbulbs in the same drawer as clingfilm. It takes real commitment to believe in this sort of oddness.

Perhaps the feeble nature of contemporary British Christianity is due to the fact that it hasn't been politicised for God knows how long, except perhaps in Northern Ireland. Religion seems to thrive where it connects with other stuff: conservatism in the US, the Arab/Israeli struggle in the Middle East, and, to some extent, racism in the UK. For all sorts of groups, religion is less about literal belief in the big guy in the sky, and more about collective identity. Just look at Northern Ireland, where the two opposing factions have incredibly similar religions.

There's also nothing more helpful to a religion than the perception that it's 'under threat', and the war in Iraq does seem to have created a new sort of internationalism among Muslims.

But left to its own devices, it's easy to Islam in the UK coming to resemble Christianity. In a few years' time we'll probably see Muslim leaders desperately trying to attract Young People to mosques, with the sort of toe-curling measures Christians have tried, eg. crap religious rock bands and rap acts. It's also entirely likely that Islam will suffer the same crises of confidence Christianity has: religious leaders publicly saying they don't believe God literally exists, and schisms over homosexuality and the role of women.

But Muslims will really know the rot has set in when someone produces Islam - The Musical, and instead of mini-riots, there'll just be letters to The Guardian.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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