Skeptics in the Pub


Hi all 

Skeptics in the Pub is on again Tomorrow. Our speaker is Matt Morgan, who will be giving us his view in the Flood, and why it’s important in the Creation/Evolution wars.

Skeptics in the Pub meets at the Old King’s Head, which is just off Borough High Street in Borough. The closest Tube station is London Bridge (use the Borough High Street exit).

We meet from about 19:00, which a pub finger food buffet at 19:15 and the talk at 19:30. A £2.00 donation is requested. More information (including directions can be found on the Skeptics in the Pub webpage at .

The biggest thing in the news recently has been the cartoon controversy. I hope you don’t mind if I spend a few paragraphs on this!

As you no doubt already know, a Dane, Kare Bluitgen, who was writing a children’s book on Mohammed in Denmark was looking for some illustrations. He was unable to find anyone willing to draw the central character in the book, with the artists citing both a Muslim prohibition of depictions of living things in general and the Prophet in particular, and the (very real – cf Theo van Gogh) threat of radical Muslim violence if they perceived that their norms had been violated.

Word of this came to the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten which decided that this was a threat to freedom of expression and invited cartoonists to send in cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. It received twelve cartoons, which it published along with an editorial decrying self-censorship in Denmark on 30 September 2005.

At first, there was a local demonstration by Danish Muslims, but no wider outrage. According to the BBC (in an excellent program that can be listened to at ), Danish Imams spent the next three months touring the Middle East with a dossier containing the twelve Jyllands-Posten cartoons and three more that were anonymously obtained, one depicting the Prophet with a pig’s snout, a second of Mohammed as crudely drawn but explicit paedophile and a third Photo shopped image which depicts a Muslim at prayer being raped by a dog. None of these images appeared in the newspaper. It was apparently these three images in particular which have been widely distributed in the Middle East and which may have provoked the Muslim anger which we have seen this month. Once there were demands to apologise and withdraw the images, other European newspapers and magazines published the images in acts of solidarity with Jyllands-Posten, the first being the Norwegian Christian magazine Magazinet. Alas no newspaper in the UK chose to publish the images, with the sole exception of Gair Rhydd, the student newspaper of Cardiff University. This act of bravery was rewarded with the withdrawal and pulping of the newspaper and the suspension of the editor and two other students. I had to ask myself, “Do we live in a free country?”

Regardless of the provocation of the three additional cartoons, a great deal of anger has been directed at the images as well as those involved in their publication. Threats have also been made to otherwise completely innocent citizens of the “offending” countries, and several embassies have been attacked.

As far as I can see, there is a Muslim prohibition on depictions of the Prophet. I could go into a digression about the historical and current Islamic representations of the Prophet, but this would lead me into the fruitless area where co-religionists disagree about what their God has commanded. Since there’s no evidence available to decide which interpretation is correct, so I’ll just take the strict interpretation as read. I am at a complete loss to understand why Muslims think non-Muslims should feel bound by the rules of a religion they don’t practise. To take an example I saw published as a letter to the Editor of the Independent, Hindus hold that cows are sacred, and it must offend and upset devout Hindus to think that cows are being killed and eaten the world over. I wonder how many of the cartoon protestors take their argument about offence and blasphemy by non-believers so seriously that they will stop eating beef. Because Muslims think that it’s wrong to draw pictures of Mohammed, I would defend the right of any Muslim to never draw Mohammed if that’s what he or she wished. I would intervene to stop a Muslim being forced to draw a picture of his or her prophet. But surely these rules don’t apply to non-Muslims.

All the people attacking the cartoons have used this locution: “I support freedom of expression but…”. Normally the “but” is that the freedom of expression needs to be exercised with respect for someone else’s religious sensibilities. Again, I reject this. People’s religious sensibilities are views of the world and they have effects on other people. To use a completely different example, is it really right to treat with respect the view, actually held by many people in London, that some children are witches and the only way to “cure” them is to beat them (or worse)? I’m sure the believers in witchcraft would agree that their beliefs and practices should be protected, but it is surely in the interests of all concerned, not least the children, that these beliefs be exposed to the greatest possible scrutiny (and ridicule).

Why have British (and American, by and large) newspapers refrained from publishing the pictures? They have all said that it is because they respect Muslim sensibilities, however, it seems to me that they all fear the consequences of publishing. They are afraid. The editor of the Spectator says in his editorial about this: “Those editors who have published the cartons have not just put themselves at risk, but also their canteen staff and classified advertising executives”. Here the editor is saying that they are afraid to publish – which is the very point the cartoons were trying to make!

I think this shows that the editors of Jyllands-Posten were right to do what they did – even at the cost of making many millions of Muslims angry. If there is a self-censorship about criticism of Muslim sensibilities, and this self-censorship is based on a profound and well-justified fear of violence. This is not to say that all Muslims are violent jihadis – just that some (perhaps a sizable minority) are. And this is a problem that we in the West need to confront.

So what is the best way to deal with this? I think that it is important that we who believe in the values of the Enlightenment do more to defend them. I am not a relativist about different cultures. In many ways the culture that we have in the West is superior to other cultures: in the way we treat women and children, the way that workers have rights, the right to criticise and change (or abandon) your religion. Indeed you often hear from immigrants, especially from repressive countries that these are some of the reasons why they chose to come to Britain in the first place. I don’t pretend that Western civilisation is perfect, nor that we are at “the end of history”, but I regard cultures as dynamic – that is they are changeable and changing for good and ill all the time – so the best way to go about the task of creating a better culture is to allow all citizens to engage in free debate, and to try out different ideas and ways of life, and let those which are successful prosper.

The fundamentalist believers in a totalitarian religion – Islam – want to use the rights of free speech which they have to take away the rights of non-believers. They are exploiting this right; and I think this is fundamentally what the cartoon row is all about. We need to stand up to those who threaten violence and demand that this is not acceptable. I do not think that taking away the right of someone to speak with whom I disagree is the right course of action. Without freedom of speech, we would have no idea what a homophobic bigot Sir Iqbal Sacranie is, for example. Instead, the right thing to do is to expose the arguments, use the law to prosecute those who use or threaten violence and to stand up for what we believe in.

Furthermore, we need to make common cause with Muslims who reject violence – and who are in favour of freedom of speech. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with Islam; any religion or ideology can be turned into a totalitarian belief system, but the fact of the matter is that here and now it is Islam that is causing trouble. So let us support and help those Muslims who would like a different interpretation of Islam, for surely there are as many of those as there are interpretations of Christianity, Judaism or any other religion. I think that this is the only way to the future.

If you haven’t already, you can see the cartoons: or
See you on Thursday!

Nick Pullar

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