Tuesday, February 07, 2006

On anti-Semitism and other profanities

The sacred and the profane

While probably undesirable from a mental health point of view, talking about the Danish cartoon furore is unavoidable since it is salient to the subject of this post. Undesirable because I don't think I can ever recall any public controversy where quite so many people were using arguments that don't make any sense, and quite so many people that could do with calming down a bit, a lot. And undesirable perhaps because one fears merely adding to the insanity - because calm is not how I feel about all this. But it is unavoidable...

In his comments in the Guardian on this issue, Roger Scruton came over as someone who was both calm and his arguments actually made some sense, a rare thing in this debate. Consistently on this kind of issue, Scruton has always argued, despite being an atheist* himself, that the right to profane what others hold to be sacred simply doesn't exist. The disadvantage from my point of view with Roger Scruton is that his position on this, while coherently expressed, reflects his fundamental disposition as a philosopher that believes in neither liberty nor equality. I've argued before that while I think the existence of the sacred in all human societies is a strength of the conservative argument that should be taken more seriously than it is, fundamentally a liberal democracy cannot function without allowing for the possibility that what one considers sacred will be profaned.

Which is not to say that this is a duty. The distinction between a right and an obligation has been well-made but some people appear to have still got the two a bit mixed-up. I defend the right of all the European newspapers that published these cartoons to do so. I would also defend the right of a British newspaper to do so without fear of intimidation or injury. Nevertheless, there was no free-speech obligation to publish them. The prohibition of iconography is something that Islam shares with Judaism and ascetic Protestantism, and has nothing much to do with 'fundamentalism'. While one cannot in a free society limit the possibility that anyone should do this, it would be preferable if there were a good reason for doing so. And given the one at the centre of the controversy used profanity to falsely identify of over thirteen-hundred years of religious tradition with terrorists movements that wear the cloak of antiquity but have always looked suspiciously modern to me, the whole enterprise was scarcely worthwhile, to say the least.

Moreover, before we get too carried away like Voltaire after a couple of lines of coke, we should pause and remember that in insisting that the sacred can't be protected from free speech, we are arguing for something that should be; it cannot be considered a defence of either the past nor the present- not in English law. The right to profane the sacred has never been absolute in this country - we have blasphemy laws, and indecency laws that have been used by local governments to censor material on religious grounds. When the Life of Brian came out, Glasgow City council banned cinemas from showing it within the city limits and I recall my parents having to travel to Bearsden to watch it.

A bit of perspective needed, I think - but that's about all I'm prepared to concede to the outrage at these cartoons. I don't like the weird idea that it is somehow one's civic duty to offend the religious as an end in itself, and one would hope that people would remember their duties as neighbours as well as their rights as citizens. But no society can legally proscribe the profanation of the sacred and call itself completely free. The blasphemy laws are wrong, Glasgow City council was wrong to ban the Life of Brian, this notion of making 'incitement to religious hatred' and 'glorification of terrorism' crimes is a load of illiberal nonsense - as is the unspeakable drivel being talked by some journalists on this issue.

Free speech - giving due deference to context and the duties of civility - and understood properly as the freedom to publish ideas, however disagreeable or even abhorrent, is absolute and indivisible and where it is limited, this represents a loss of freedom. I commend this liberal creed to you, I really do - because some of those postulating various alternatives whilst clinging desperately to their liberal credentials are getting themselves into a bit of a state. For instance, take a look at the dreadful mess Simon Jenkins has made of himself, intellectually that is. He's been to the mountain top, and has come out with this:

"Civilisation is the story of humans sacrificing freedom so as to live together in harmony. We do not need Hobbes to tell us that absolute freedom is for newborn savages. All else is compromise."

He's so profound, isn't he? He who usually likes to recommend De Tocquville rather than Hobbes, but doesn't do so on this occasion for obvious reasons, and criticises anyone supporting any other form of restriction on free speech as 'craven anti-libertarians' who are undermining the ancient British liberty to say what you think is true. Who's craven now? I'd refer you to the bit where he tries to convince us that less liberty really means more but it's like watching a car-crash - you really shouldn't make a spectacle out of someone else's suffering. Why anyone would presume to issue political reading lists in a national newspaper while simultaneously showing no sign of having either read or understood people like Orwell or Isaiah Berlin is beyond me. He was also a strong supporter of the Millennium Dome. Enough said.

I could take the line coming out of the Guardian, as well as the other august defenders of our liberty, a bit more seriously if hitherto they had shown any disposition towards respecting the sacred. But they have not. As Laban Tall rightly points out, on the contrary they have in the past gloried in their right to profane what other religious minorities in this country hold sacred. Wherefore, the only possible justification for printing these cartoons in the British press has evaporated - for publication now can no longer serve to rescue their reputation; they have already proved themselves long ago to be gutless hypocrites and unreliable allies in the cause of liberty.

Do Simon Jenkins and the rest have even a crepuscular idea of what avoiding profanation at all costs would mean for intellectual life in this country and the world, has already meant for intellectual life in this country and the world? It's not just a matter of being civil and avoiding deliberate offence. What is to be avoided on those criteria would be, already is, intolerable. The murderous outrage of the protestors shouldn't be understood as a 'response to racist stereotypes' by a hurt and disadvantaged minority community. It was not this but the blasphemy that is the issue. If you disagree, how do you explain the fact that some protestors chose to express their outrage at having their religion identified with terrorism by threatening to blow people up? And was this not a desecration to those who lost loved ones on the 7th of July?

I regret that these stupid cartoons have become the focus because people should be more aware about what the proscription of the profane has already meant for serious intellectual endeavours. Despite forbidding iconography, the Koran in Islam as an object effectively enjoys the status of a sacrament. This filters into the world of scholarship. Exegesis and systematic theology are permitted but the practice of form criticism as has been applied to the Bible for around a hundred years essentially doesn't exist. Because to question the sources that contributed to the book we can read translated for us today would be to desecrate the sacred. So no-one does it and an entire field of intellectual enquiry is thus closed. It's not happening now, it's already happened.

Anti-semitism, old and new

Recognising the furious offence taken at the profanity of the Danish cartoons in various parts of the Arab world would be easier to sympathise with were it not for the fact that their own media is filled on a regular basis with the most obscene and offensive anti-semitic propaganda. In Syria, for example, where angry protestors felt moved to torch the embassy of a nation that had the audacity to have a free press, images like the ones shown below can be regularly seen in the media.

Depressing to think that there's some people who claim to belong to the left that would fail to recognise this as anti-Semitism, on account of the fact that they seem to share the basic analysis of the artist.


This one's less ambivalent. For the post-religiously literate generation: the snake represents Satan, ok? I think that qualifies as 'demonization'.

The essential element of all conspiracy theories, the idea of a small and malevolent group controlling history to a degree that would require super-normal powers, has as it's prototype the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The document itself, as well as pictorial representations of the ideas contained in it, have a currency that is well-established in the Middle East.



This depicts the idea that Jewish control of history extends even to the extent of how it is recorded in the United States.

These are some of the more mild samples on offer but with most of them, the message is the same. Reducing this to some kind of regrettable but understandable expression of anger at the policies of Israel and America's support for them ignores the fact that in the Middle East, anti-Zionist and explicitly anti-Semitic propaganda routinely espouses the (to me, anyway) very far from 'understandable' belief that Israel has a malevolent control over world events that no reasonable person could consider a country of its size capable of wielding, even with American support.

Yet to even raise this obviously ubiquitous use of anti-Semitic propaganda by this clutch of authoritarian regimes and murderous millenial theocratic movements is to invite an accusation of bad faith from the hard-left, and not only them; the assumption that the only possible reason one could have for drawing attention to this is to act as an apologist for Israel is automatic.

But their attempt to share the rage of the Elect over the profanity of the Danish cartoons has left them undone because they have no appreciation of the sacred. This leaves them making specious arguments professing to believe in free speech but in reality trying to accommodate the politics of the taboo with some spurious utilitarian notion of the harm incurred by having one's religion mocked - this being proportionately more grevious depending on how much money you have, of course. Start from here and things can go very badly wrong. You start hallucinating that the publication of these cartoons represents a frightful spectre haunting Europe - the 'new anti-Semitism' where Muslims are the new Jews that are being maligned with a positively National Socialist ferocity in Europe's media. Apart from the rather distasteful attempt to claim the mantle of a couple of thousand years of anti-Semitism by lazily identifying Islam's adherents as 'Semites', now that they've discovered the hurt that desecration can cause, only ignorance or willful blindness can now allow people to treat anti-Semitism as if it were unimportant.

Anyone who sees this obscenity as an unacceptable yet unalarming 'reaction to Israeli policy', as somehow less serious than a handful of cartoons has completely lost their way, and not just politically. Finding the 'new anti-Semitism' of Europe in Islamophobia is utterly facile. The kind of people who are forever announcing the arrival of something 'new' have frequently to be reminded that the old version of their comparison is still around, and this is no exception; the original is still with us. Suggesting that it may be found within some aspects of the increasingly shrill and hyperbolic condemnation of Israel are usually greeted with angry denials and accusations that the charge is being used to distract attention from the reality in the Occupied Territories. This is no longer good enough for me. The argument that everything Israel is held responsible for, is thought capable of influencing and controlling, can be explained in terms of its treatment of the Palestinians bears all the hallmarks of the old conspiracy theories about Jews controlling world events in a malign and clandestine manner.

The anti-Semitism is here, hiding in the super-abundance, filling up the gap between criticism of the state of Israel that is entirely justified and condemnation that is hysterical. If it isn't, why does it look so much like it?

Amongst the similarities between the most strident forms of anti-Zionism and traditional anti-Semitism is that it uses arguments that don't make any sense. Take the notion of "Zionist influence on the media", sometimes presented by the more distempered as Zionist control. The realities of the Israeli occupation are constantly covered-up, minimised and side-lined in the press, we are being continually being told - sometimes by the same people who simultaneously dismiss the rise in anti-Semitic attacks as a response to negative media coverage of Israel's conduct. It doesn't make any sense. Indeed, one could make the opposite case - isn't there something disproportionate in the attention given to Israel-Palestine compared to the paucity of coverage that was given to the genocide in Darfur, for example?

In reality, it's from the supposedly Zionist-friendly media we read much of this stuff about the super-normal malevolence of the Israelis. For instance, therein you can learn about the impressive foreknowledge of the agents of Israel concerning just about any terrorist atrocity committed anywhere in the world. Neil McKay, super-sleuth for the Scottish Sunday Herald, wrote an article raising the possibility that Mossad knew about 9/11 but deliberately sacrificed the twin towers for their own nefarious geo-political schemes:

"But did Israel know in advance that the Twin Towers would be hit and the world plunged into a war without end; a war which would give Israel the power to strike its enemies almost without limit? That's a conspiracy theory too far, perhaps. But the unpleasant feeling that, in this age of spin and secrets, we do not know the full and unadulterated truth won't go away. Maybe we can guess, but it's for the history books to discover and decide."
Translation: there's no evidence for any of this. Personally, I think more people might want to pay a bit more attention to the history books that have already been written. Then maybe the 'unpleasant feeling' would be more of a queasy sense that all this sounds a bit too familiar. The Israelis apparently also knew about 7/7 and the Jordanian atrocity and were able to remove themselves from harm's way. This extraordinary gift of foreknowledge is naturally assumed to be accompanied by a profound malevolence - they save themselves whilst others are killed so to further their own purposes. To date there has been no explanation forthcoming as to how Israel, with such superhuman gifts in military intelligence, could have possibly failed to prevent the couple of thousand or so attacks against them in 2005. Do their powers only work when they're abroad or something?

I'm not talking about criticism of Israel, I'm talking about the way that when De Menezez was shot and killed by British police, so many found the sinister cause behind this in the fact that they had sought the advice and training of their Israeli counterparts. That there was really no-one more suitable to be giving this advice didn't seem to register. It turns out that the police were not, in fact, following the Israeli guidelines, but not quite so many people seemed to notice that.

I'm not even talking about the comparison with South Africa under apartheid. I think the comparison is wrong but I'm not going to argue the case because even if one were to accept the comparison, it wouldn't alter the point - nothing to do with this can explain this pathological fear of Israel having such far-reaching, catastrophic effects on the rest of the world. I doubt very much the view of Israel expressed by Clare Short is unique to her:
"I am supporting the World Premiere of the cantata for Rachel Corrie because there has been the usual campaign to silence even a cantata to commemorate a young woman who gave her life in order to stand for justice. I also believe that US backing for Israeli policies of expansion of the Israeli state and oppression of the Palestinian people is the major cause of bitter division and violence in the world. Best wishes. Clare Short MP"
Not a cause, the cause. Is this how people used to talk about South Africa? No, they did not. Having been blamed for the outbreak of World War I, the defeat of Germany, the Treaty of Versailles, the Weimar Republic (failure of), the Great Depression and the outbreak of World War II, it should go without saying that the Jews could scarcely avoid being blamed for the next, and possibly last, installment of global mayhem.

Here anti-Semitic propaganda in the Arab world and also amongst the far-right in the United States has relied on the familiar recurring theme of the Jewish tail wagging the American dog. The suggestion that talking about 'cabals' directing US foreign policy might run the risk of sounding uncomfortably close to this narrative was rejected by Tam Dalyell on the grounds that no-one who's children have worked on a Kibbutz could possibly be anti-Semitic.

There's a focus here, an attributation of malignant clandestine power that cannot be justified rationally in terms of anger about Israel. If it isn't anti-Semitism, it represents at best an ignorance of and indifference to the manner in which this most enduring of hatreds has functioned historically. The idea that profanity is a less significant injury if you are rich or powerful can only come from someone with no understanding of the meaning of desecration. Were it better understood, I think there would be less of this rather disturbing indifference to modes of political discourse that so clearly owe their origins to the long and ignoble traditions of European anti-Semitism.

Some on the left see in the Danish cartoons a 'new anti-Semitism', something akin to the experience of Europe's Jewry in interwar Europe - but breezily dismiss Holocaust denial and talk of wiping Israel off the map as mere "rhetoric".

I can't make any sense of this - guess I'm just not leftwing enough.

*Correction: Rodger Scruton used to be an atheist but has now returned to Anglicanism. Thanks.

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